After watching a friend syphon off a little petrol to get a fire started, I knew it wouldn't end well. The whoosh as the fire sparked into life was more than enough to send us all running, and burn the leg hair off of my unfortunate friend. Needless to say, I've been a little more careful when it comes to using accelerants in fire making, but I still do.
Some may call it cheating, but I believe there's no such thing when it comes to survival. If you need a fire, or are in a bad situation, you need to get a fire started as fast as possible. That's all there is to it.
But this hinges on a key principle. You need to know how to get a fire started in the first place. There's far too many people today who have never spent any time outdoors, and they lack key skills, like how to actually get the fire going. I can't believe this. If you ever hope to survive in the wild, you need to understand fundamentals like this.
The trappings of modern society are great, but it's important you know how to make a fire.
The basics of a campfire
To get a fire going you need three things. A source of fuel. Enough oxygen to feed the flames. And of course, a source of ignition. The first two are rather easy to come by, but the ignition source can be tricky.
Of course, a cheap lighter will do the trick, and you could also try:
- A bow drill
- A bamboo saw
- A magnifying glass
- A battery and steel wool
- A book of matches
What you're trying to do is create a flame, or an ember that allows your tinder to ignite into a flame. Personally, I never go anywhere in the wild without my flint steel. It's on a lanyard I wear around my neck. Because I know that whatever happens, I'll be able to create a spark and get a fire going. It won't matter if it gets wet, and it'll not run out of gas.
I've also got a nifty pair of laces in my boots that have ferrocerium tips, and a steel striker plate. So I've always got a backup firestarter, no matter what.
The real trick is to understand what it takes to get a fire started. You need to build a base of tinder, that contains enough fast-burning material to get the larger sticks and kindling above burning, before the tinder burns out. I usually aim for around two thirds tinder to one thirds kindling, with a nearby stack I can add to any areas that are burning particularly well.
Now, how well you've built the fire can be tested with a simple exercise. Take a single match, and light the fire. If it takes off, you've got it right. If not, adjust and try again.
You may also need to revisit the building blocks of a fire.
It's pretty simple. The tinder on the bottom, which consists of thinly shaved bark, dry leaves and grasses, and other quick burning materials. Above this, is a bed of tiny sticks thinner than your smallest finger, and of course some larger material for once the fire gets going. The looser you can stack these the better, as it'll allow more oxygen to feed the flames and get your tinder to the point of combustion. Pack it too tight and the fire will struggle to get started.
Where to find natural tinder
Now there's going to be times you struggle to get a fire started. Mostly because it's wet. In the rain, and areas where it's cold and wet, having a fire is rather important in keeping you alive. But it can be a bugger to get started in the first place. Because wet tinder won't hold a spark, and this presents a problem. I always carry my homemade fire-starters with me, which is simply an altoids tin that contains cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly.
But there's also ways to find fire-starters in the wild.
Birch Bark. It contains a high concentration of oils, and I've found that it'll sometimes even hold a spark when it's wet. Just scrape the bark into a coin-sized pile of thin shavings, and send your sparks into the middle. It'll hold it and give you a flame.
Tinder fungus. You'll also find this under the branches on a birch tree, you want to look under the charred, shell-like birch bark for this corky, brown fungus. You can send sparks straight into it and they will hold until you blow into a flame with your tinder.
Old Man's Beard. On a damp day, it's going to absorb the moisture in the air, so pick it and put it under your shirt so it'll dry. Just make sure you don't squish it, and it stays in its natural, fluffy state. You'll find it growing in spruce thickets.
Conifer resin. Basically, any resinous pine tree is going to have a hard, sticky sap that burns well. You just need to find a spot on a tree where a branch has broken or the tree has been injured. Take the hard sap and wrap it in your tinder bundle. It takes a bit to light it, but once it catches it will burn for a long time.
There's no "trick" when it comes to starting a fire in the wild. All it requires is a good understanding of the fundamentals of fire building, and using the materials around you to ensure you've got the materials you need to get the flames roaring. In the wet, always look for natural accelerants like pine resin or birch bark, if you want to stand a chance to get your fire going.