True story from our early days of knocking around the wild places.
Early one evening, our vehicle broke down in the wilds of the vast western desert. When the engine died, it took the headlights with it. There we were, Becky and me and two tiny children, stranded in the desert, miles and miles from civilization. The sun was quickly going down, and there was no way to notify anyone of our plight.
I knew I wasn't going to be able to fix the vehicle until morning, when I would be able to see what I was doing. Right now I had to take care of the immediate needs — making it comfortably and safely through the night.
A short recon of the area led to a suitable stone overhang that would make a good natural shelter. Why not just stay in the car? you ask. We could have stayed in the dark, cold car, but I decided that an outdoor shelter would provide the advantage of being able to get a fire going so we could hunker down next to its friendly glow.
The fire served a couple of purposes — to allow us to see what we were doing, and to help calm any growing anxiety about being stranded in a strange and wild place. To make the most of the soft light, I positioned the small blaze near the stone wall of the overhang. The illumination reflected off the wall and the overhanging ceiling, spreading light over a much wider area than a fire sitting alone in the middle of an open space could have done.
In an emergency, the light from the fire could have been arranged to signal for help. If you attract the attention of someone who can rescue you, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in a survival situation. Signal fires are useful both day and night. By day, you want the fire to produce lots of smoke (add bits of green or damp foliage to produce white smoke, burn oil or rubber to make black smoke). A column of smoke is visible for miles, and stands a good chance of attracting the attention of someone in the vicinity.
By night, smoke is less visible, but the smell of smoke might still arouse the attention of someone. Of course, the best use of a fire as a signal at night is a bright blaze that puts a lot of light into the sky.
For safety, a signal fire should be built in a clearing where there is no danger of setting the whole landscape on fire. Actually, rather than one big fire, a trio of smaller, more manageable fires is even better. Three fires arranged in a triangle make an internationally recognized distress signal. Besides that, you can position yourself between the fires to stay warm all the way around— which brings us to the next topic.
It didn't take long after the sun went down before our night in the desert became dramatically colder. We hadn’t planned on the car breaking down and having to camp in this remote spot (no one ever thinks an emergency is going to happen, right?), so we didn’t have camping gear with us — no sleeping bags, tent, or warm coats.
As the darkness deepened, the cold became a concern. The way things were going, this was shaping up to be a long and miserable night. So, in addition to providing light, the fire suddenly became very important as a source of warmth. But that little campfire wasn’t going to be much of a heat source — unless we modified it.
A campfire is famous for toasting one side of you while allowing the “dark side of the moon” to freeze, so we needed to come up with a solution.
One way to solve the problem is to position the fire a moderate distance away from a reflective surface (like the rock wall at the back of our overhanging ledge, for example), allowing enough room for us to get between the blaze and the wall. That way, the wall reflected some of the heat onto the side of us that was not facing the fire. To improve the situation even more, I erected a stone wall on the far side of the blaze, to turn even more heat back toward us.
There we spent the night. Becky and I fed wood into the blaze continually to keep us surrounded by the glow and the warmth of the fire. When morning brought the light of a new day, I was able to fix the vehicle and get us on our way again, this time with a small adventure to add to our life experiences.