Fire can be critical to survival. It will boil water to disinfect it for drinking so you don’t get dehydrated. It can keep you warm and dry you out if you get wet, reducing the risk of hypothermia. There is a psychological component at work with firemaking, too.
There is something primal, almost magical, when it comes to being able to make fire. We sometimes take it for granted that all we need to do is flick our lighter and we’re on our way to roasting marshmallows. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time, not all that long ago, that making fire took a fair amount of effort, though a far greater percentage of people were experienced with it as compared to today.
In a true survival situation, you may feel as though everything is spiraling out of hand. Being able to build a crackling fire can give you a sense of control and help calm you down. Let’s face it, sitting in front of a campfire can be tremendously relaxing.
Over countless centuries, mankind has developed several of what we might call primitive methods for making fire, including things like a bow drill or a fire plough. As a general rule, these rely upon friction to generate a small coal or ember. This is added to some type of tinder and gently coaxed into flame.
These techniques are definitely worth learning, no question about it. However, there are other ways to skin the proverbial cat. Assembling and carrying a small fire kit can make your life infinitely easier in the field.THE FIRE TRIANGLE
Think of fire as a living thing. It requires three things to survive: heat, fuel and oxygen. Without any one of those things, it will die. If the fire doesn’t get enough air, it will be smothered. No heat from a spark or other type of fire starter, it’ll never flare up. No fuel and there’s nothing to burn.
Keep the Fire Triangle in mind as you build your fire kit so as to ensure you have what you’ll need should making a fire be absolutely crucial to survival.OXYGEN
No, nobody is suggesting you keep a small canister of oxygen in your kit. Not only would this be bulky and awkward but it might prove to be dangerous. But, making sure your fire is able to breathe, so to speak, is important.
Many people, when trying to get a fire to build up, will fan the flames with their hands or maybe a hat. The idea is to increase air flow. However, this might not work because the air needs to get to the coals of the fire, where the fuel is actually burning, not the flames up top. In fact, if you’re not careful, you could end up blowing the fire out by fanning it too vigorously.
A better solution is to carry a tube that will allow you to direct air exactly where it is needed most. Survival Resources sells a Fire Blowing-Tube that consists of an extendable hollow rod with a rubber tube attached. You extend the rod and point it where the air needs to go, then blow through the tube. This keeps your face away from the flames. This is basically the same concept as using an old, broken radio antenna, but with the addition of the rubber tubing.
Keep in mind, too, that when building your fire you need to allow for adequate air flow. One of the most common mistakes people make is smothering their fire by adding too much fuel too quickly. You need to let it breathe.FIRE STARTERS
This is where the heat comes into play. There are several forms this can take and various tools from which to choose. Perhaps the most common, and certainly the most recommended, is the simple disposable lighter. This is instant flame at your fingertips. It has drawbacks, of course.
If the lighter’s sparkwheel or flint get wet, it won’t spark. Its fuel reserve isn’t infinite and will run out at some point. It is also sensitive to cold and may not light. This last problem can largely be mitigated by keeping the lighter in a pocket close to your body, such as a pants pocket.
Alternatively, if you hold the lighter in a bare fist for several seconds, it may warm up enough to light.
Refillable lighters can be just as reliable as the disposable models, though they do suffer some of the same shortcomings. That said, models such as the titanLIGHT from Exotac can be lit and left standing, serving as something akin to a candle, which is difficult if not impossible to do with disposable lighters. That particular lighter also doesn’t leak, unlike many of its counterparts.
A relatively new type of product on the market is a plasma lighter. These are rechargeable through a micro-USB port. When activated, a small arc of electricity is emitted, which can be used to light tinder.
However, be aware that this arc is generally very small, perhaps 0.375 inch long. This doesn’t allow for much room to light tinder. Of course, the lighter is also subject to running out of power.
There are various spark-based lighters available as well. Most of them are either based on or inspired by the original One-Handed Spark-Lite Fire Starter invented and developed by Oak Duke Norton, Jr. in the early 1980s. These work very similarly to a disposable lighter in that there is a small thumb wheel that generates sparks from a piece of flint.
However, there is no gas source, so no flame. The idea is to just use the sparks to light your tinder. These products have an advantage in that they aren’t affected by temperature, though dampness may still cause failure.
Strike-anywhere matches are another option for the fire kit. There are several varieties available. Even if they are rated as waterproof, it is recommended to store them in a sealed container, just in case. The nice thing about storm matches and the like is that they generally light easily. However, matches are a very finite resource as each one can be lit only once. And most people aren’t skilled enough to guarantee just one match per fire.
Next on the list is the ferrocerium rod. This is a favorite among many survivalists and preppers. The concept is simple. A metal rod, often with some sort of handle attached, is scraped with another piece of metal. This causes small shavings to come off and be ignited by the friction of the scraper. The result is a shower of sparks that rains down on the tinder. Ferro rods are not affected by temperature in the least.
There is a small learning curve involved with using a ferro rod effectively. Hold the tip of the ferro rod just above your tinder. Grip your scraper and hold it tight against the rod at the end closest to you. Quickly pull the rod toward you while keeping pressure on the scraper. Sparks should fly from the rod downward toward your tinder.
The alternate method is to reverse the motion and hold the rod steady while pushing the scraper down. However, the scraper may hit the tinder and scatter it before it can be ignited by the sparks.
One more option for generating the heat necessary to ignite the tinder is a Fresnel lens. When we were kids, many of us used magnifying glasses to burn holes in leaves and such. This is the exact same concept. However, a Fresnel lens is flexible plastic rather than rigid glass. Keeping a small one in your wallet or kit is not a bad idea. The downside is that this tool isn’t going to work very well in the late hours of the night.FUEL
While there are many natural sources of tinder, it is always a good idea to bring some along in your kit, just in case. If the conditions are wet or otherwise foul, it might be difficult to source dry, easy-to-light tinder in the wild.
One of the best types of tinder is virtually free and works amazingly well. Toss a handful of cotton balls or dryer lint into a small plastic bag, then add a dollop of petroleum jelly. Close the bag and massage the contents together, working the jelly into the cotton fibers. To use, take out a cotton ball or small pinch of lint and light it up with flame or spark.
Another homemade option is to melt wax, such as old crayons or candles, and dip cotton makeup remover pads into it. Lay them out on aluminum foil or wax paper to cool.
Crack one in half to expose the cotton and light it with your favorite method. The wax serves to not only waterproof the cotton but extend the burn time once lit.
There are several options for store-bought products as well. Solkoa Fastfire consists of a white cube that can be lit with any sort of flame or spark. It burns at a sustained 1,300 degrees (F) and is very wind-resistant. One cube will burn for approximately 10 minutes. They come individually wrapped in foil and will light even when wet.
Insta-Fire is a granular substance that lights very easily and burns hot. It comes in a pouch, and you can pour out as little or as much as you need. Depending on circumstances, one pouch can light up to four separate fires. It will light when wet, which can be handy.
While there is only one official Tinder-Quick Fire Tab, invented by the same Oak Duke Norton, Jr. who came up with the Spark-Lite, there are other products that are similar in style and use.
Truth be told, though, the original does work the best. They all consist of a small cotton bundle that is impregnated with chemicals to make it waterproof. They need to be pulled apart and fluffed up before being lit in order to burn well. They are small enough to fit just about anywhere in the kit, too.ASSEMBLING THE KIT
Any time you venture into the field, you should carry some fire making gear with you, just in case. If you’re just going on a short jaunt, one where you might not even take a pack, you should still keep a disposable lighter and a few Fire Tabs in your pocket.
Many survivalists keep a ferro rod right on their keychain, so they have one with them every time they leave the house.
“THINK OF FIRE AS A LIVING THING. IT REQUIRES THREE THINGS TO SURVIVE: HEAT, FUEL AND OXYGEN. WITHOUT ANY ONE OF THOSE THINGS, IT WILL DIE.”
For a more robust load-out, one where you might be gone for a while, consider putting together an actual fire kit. There are any number of waterproof containers that can be purchased, depending on how large a kit you want to carry.
As with bug-out bags and other such assemblages of gear, what I recommend is putting together the equipment you want to carry first, then find a container that will carry it. Choosing the container first almost always leads to selecting one that is larger than necessary.
What I recommend is picking up a few different types of fire starters as well as tinder and experimenting with them in the backyard. See what combinations seem to work best for you. When we have fires in our yard, such as when we’re burning brush or we just want to roast some marshmallows and hot dogs, a ferro rod is almost always the fire starter of choice.
The kids love to see those sparks come shooting off. That said, a titanLIGHT is always in my pocket when I hit the trail, along with a ferro rod and some tinder. A Fresnel lens rides in the wallet, too, as a backup.
We sometimes think of survival needs in tiers or levels. Shelter or protection from the elements is a top-tier need, food and water come in at close seconds. Fire is a tool that fits into both levels.
When the weather is harsh, fire is a welcome addition to camp as it will warm you up, helping to forestall hypothermia. It can also boil water that is sourced in the wild, such as a stream or pond, making it safe to drink. On top of all of that, it can provide the mental boost you need to make it through.CONSERVING RESOURCES
When you’re out in the field, make it a habit to scavenge some natural tinder when you see it, such as birch bark or plant fluff. Keep a zip-closure plastic bag in your kit for this express purpose. When it comes time to build a fire, use these scrounged materials first and reserve your packed tinder for when you’re not able to find anything else to use.
The idea here is to conserve your resources so you still have at least some of your necessities with you, should the need arise and you can’t find a natural source. Plus, this is a great way to remind you to pay attention to your environment and increase your overall situational awareness.
Solkoa Survival Systems
(719) 634-1687 x 2
Stanford Outdoor Supply
Raeth. Co. Supply (Zombie Tinder)
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.