Fire- The Measure of Civilization
Learning to build a fire is one of the skills where practice will pay off. I can explain in a few paragraphs how to build a fire using the bow and drill method. I can explain the same in a few pages, with 10 or 20 photographs to supplement the text. But reading and looking at photos is not doing. If you want to learn to make fire with a bow and drill, learn this skill before you need it- practice and become proficient now if you ever plan to use, or even think you might- don’t wait until your life depends on it. There are countless other, simpler techniques you can learn and use to make a fire, but for this post we will stick to the basics. We’ll cover the more advanced fire-making techniques in a future post.
Of course the easiest method for starting a fire is using matches or a lighter. I never go anywhere without a small Bic butane lighter in my pocket, especially into the wilderness. And then I follow the rule of three- carry (at least) three fire-making methods- usually lighter, stormproof matches, and metal match. You should do the same- get into this habit now and if you find yourself needing to build a fire, you will have the lighter, or alternative methods, in your pocket.
One of the simplest “primitive” methods for fire starting is the use of the metal match, also referred to as the ferro rod, firesteel, and sometimes as “flint and steel”. True flint and steel is nothing more than a piece of flint- the rock- and a piece of high carbon steel such as the Esee Fire Steel. But that is a topic for a separate blog.
The metal match is an alloy rod that creates a spark when steel is run along its length. I have one attached to all my survival knife sheaths. The smallest, the Firesteel Mini, is my preferred model. It easily gives a spark and is good for a thousand uses. You may want to opt for a larger ferro rod than this one- Light My Fire makes its Swedish FireSteel in three sizes, the largest of which is good for 12,000 sparks and is a couple of inches long by about 3/8 inch in diameter. It is efficient, very simple to use and requires less practice than other methods. But you must practice this method as well. Do not expect it to work for you on your first try, and do not make your first try a time when you really need it.
Tinder, Kindling and Fuel
Any of these fire-starting methods require a tinder bundle for your spark, kindling, and fuel for your fire. Spending the time to create the perfect tinder bundle, to collect the perfect pile of kindling and a sufficient pile of fuel for your fire will mean the difference between using one match or wasting matches
In southern Utah where we spend our time, the best material for fire building is available in nearly every canyon or mesa-top- bark from the Juniper is the best tinder available. It is easy to find and remove from any Juniper you come across. My second choice is the hairlike, inner material from dry cottonwood bark. Chunks of dry cottonwood bark are usually found at the base of larger cottonwood trees; look for those that have large, dead branches. Either material should be twisted in the hands, or pounded between a couple of rocks to break it up and create the fine powder that is so easy to ignite. Other plants to use include sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and some grasses if they are fine and very dry. Every region has its own best material for fire-building. Learn what is in your area and what works best for you.
Remember, there are countless other materials that can be used for, or in place of, a tinder bundle. There are many products that you can buy and carry with you- I like the UST Wetfire packets. Or you can prepare your version- cotton balls with petroleum jelly is my personal favorite. A spark from your metal match with instantly ignite either of these into flame.
In the bush, the idea is to find something that can be reduced to fibers, and pounded nearly into powder. After making your tinder bundle, simply direct the spark from your “flint” into the bundle by holding your knife stationary and pulling the flint away (or by holding the flint stationary and pushing the knife blade down the length of the flint rod), transfer the spark that you have created from your bow and drill into the bundle, or flick your Bic as they used to say.
Fire Making Tip– If you find yourself in a survival situation, or you have put yourself to a primitive living test, collect up enough Juniper bark (or your favorite local tinder) for at least a few fires. Keep it tucked away in a plastic bag, or in a jacket pocket where it will stay dry. This is especially important if you are threatened with rain. Juniper bark is much easier to light if it is very dry, especially if you are starting your fire with a metal match and steel. Just a bit of dampness makes it quite a bit harder to light. Keep this in mind when you get set up to start your fire. Make sure that all your materials are laid out on a very dry surface. The spark from a bow and drill is much more forgiving of damp tinder. Your Bic will dry out the dampness, to a degree.
In the photo to the below a spark made with a bow and drill has been carefully placed in the center of the tinder bundle and is being blown into a flame. If you are not yet skilled with the bow and drill, or the firesteel or other primitive method, you holding a lighter or match underneath works just as well. After your tinder bundle has burst into flame, carefully place your smallest kindling on it, equally distributing it all the way around the fire. Here in the west, some of the best tinder can be found at the base of sagebrush- collect a handful or two of the small, dry, dead branches. The best method for building up the fire is to form a teepee with the sticks to allow oxygen to flow through. Continue placing larger diameter and longer pieces on the fire as the pieces catch fire, until finally laying on the larger pieces of fuel.
It all sounds easy enough. But PRACTICE is the key to making as easy as it sounds. Remember that a survival situation is not the time to learn survival skills! If you have never built a fire- and I am sure there are people out there who have not- then you must practice this most basic skill. Do not worry about the bow and drill, or even using a metal match and steel before you can build a simple fire. And as you practice, try your skills under more adverse conditions. Test yourself by building a fire on a windy day, after a rain when you are forced to find dry materials, or- one of my favorites for testing skills- by giving yourself one paper match (try tearing it in half for even more of a challenge). Look for our upcoming blog on Making Fire for more details on primitive fire-making methods.