Monday, March 19, 2012

To Light A Fire

More than 100 years ago, Jack London wrote what I consider to be an epic short story about cold-weather survival called To Build A Fire. The venue is Yukon territory, and it's the dead of winter when the sun doesn't show itself over the southern horizon even at mid-day. And it's cold — 75 degrees below zero, cold enough that spit will freeze in mid-air before it even hits the snow. Cold enough to kill a man in a matter of a few hours, if he is not careful.

In this story, the man is not careful enough. I won't say any more, because I don't want to spoil your reading of this tale of the far north. But suffice it to say that the ability to build a fire and keep it going is a primary theme.

You need three things in order to get a fire going.
  • Dry tinder
  • Dry kindling
  • A reliable method to create a spark or flame
To keep the fire going for any length of time, you also need a supply of dry fuel. Assuming you're in the backcountry somewhere, the fuel will likely be wood, but you might also find other fuel sources such as aged and dry animal dung, garbage from civilization (cardboard, fabric, plastic, rubber, oil, etc.).

Before you get started, you might need to create a dry platform on which to build the fire, especially if the ground is damp or otherwise won't support a fire (snow). A firebase can be constructed of stone, green logs (these won't burn very much because most of the heat rises away from them), or even a bed of dry soil laid over a wooden platform. That last technique works well if you must elevate the firebase for one reason or another (above the snow, a swamp, on a floating raft, etc.).

Let's go back and examine the basics. First tinder. Natural tinder materials should be dust-dry, hair-fine, and birdnest-tight so it can catch and hold a spark, turning it into a lively flame that will live long enough to ignite the kindling. I've used dry grasses, shredded bark, and dry moss for tinder with great success. I've also used abandoned bird nests and have raided the bedding materials from squirrel nests. Be creative when searching for tinder, especially in wet weather when you can't just walk out in the woods and find dry stuff waiting for you to collect it. Look underneath and inside of protected places. A bit of pocket lint, a cotton ball, a shred of tissue paper can be used as tinder, but it's best if you have a great wad of tinder to make sure it  can hold the fire long enough to ignite the kindling.

Kindling must be bone dry and the diameter of pencil leads on up to the size of the whole pencil. In other words, you're looking for tiny twigs that snap crisply when bent. Look up the trunk a ways for these. Even in a rain storm, the canopy might protect them enough to keep them dry. But they must be old, dead twigs, not live branches. In a forest, you don't want to pick up anything off the ground, because it will be damp from absorbing ground moisture. Deserts are dry enough that you can work with combustible materials right off the ground. If you can split the the kindling lengthwise, so much the better. Splits create more flame-catching surface, and tiny slivers are especially productive. If you can't split the wood with a knife or axe, try shattering it with a hammer stone about the size of a softball.

Collect enough fuel to keep the fire going for a couple hours to begin with. If it looks like you'll be stuck in one place overnight, spend some time gathering twice as much wood as you think you'll need for the night. Lay it close enough to the fire that the warmth can dry the fuel, but not so close that it will ignite.

If rain or snow is in the forecast, either move the fire under cover or create some kind of canopy overhead to protect the fire. Make sure the firebase is high enough above surrounding ground that rainwater won't drain into it and kill the flames.

The difference between life and death is sometimes measured by your ability to start a fire. Pay attention to the basics, and practice building a fire under simulated survival conditions as often as possible. That way, when the real thing comes along, you'll be prepared.


  1. More than 100 years ago,

    Has nothing to do with today, if you don't pack a lighter and something that will burn in almost any condition it's because you are an idiot and should be removed from the gene pool anyway.

    It's called evolution.

    At least put a steel wool pad in your rig, with a battery and some wire you can excite it to burn to get a fire going.

    But I'm getting old, I'll just pull out the propane torch from the gear box in my truck.

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