Friday, November 8, 2013

Fire and Ice

The most difficult time to build a fire is when the ground is wet or covered with snow. Of course, that's also the time when you probably need a fire the most.

To build a fire under those conditions, the first thing you need is a suitable firebase — a place for the fire to live. Trying to build the fire on wet or snowy ground is a recipe for disaster. You need to build up a suitable base or the fire will self-extinguish.

The problem with wet or snowy ground is that, as the fire heats up, the air around the fire rises. This pulls the moisture up out of the ground beneath the firebase, and causes the fire to struggle for life.

To create a firebase when no dry ground can be found, create a platform of stones or green logs laid close together. In the case of logs, you can keep the fire from burning down into the base by covering the logs with a layer of soil that you have dug up from the driest spot you can find.

The best place for your fire is where it will be protected from excessive wind and precipitation. Before building the base, look up to make sure the fire won't be extinguished by snow falling from the limbs of overhanging trees.

These are the kind of conditions when you must use the driest tinder and well-prepared kindling in order to give your fire the best chance. Then you need an abundant supply of dry fuel wood to keep the fire going through the night.

When you think of tinder, think of a bird nest. In fact, if you can find one, a dry bird nest will make excellent tinder. Otherwise, use dry grasses that you might be able to locate beneath the shelter of a downed log or an overhanging tree. Form the grasses into a tight bundle. If you're on the move, create several tinder bundles whenever you find the right kind of materials, and tuck them away in your pack or pockets for use when you need to build your next fire.

Kindling is the next step up from tinder, and should be the diameter of a matchstick on up to the size of a pencil. It can be made from the small dry twigs you find tucked among tree branches, or from shattered bits of the trunk of a downed tree that has been broken by a storm. If you're working with large kindling, use a sharp knife to shave "fuzz sticks" that will enable to wood to catch fire more easily. Prepare a lot of kindling, because you will need to feed this into the birthing blaze continually until you build up enough heat and coals to ignite the fuel wood, which is the next stage.

Now for the fuel wood. This should range from the diameter of your finger on up to the thickness of your wrist. Larger fuel wood should be split or shattered, if possible. A long piece of fuel wood can be gradually fed into the fire as the end of it is consumed. Collect double the fuel wood that you expect to use during the night. If the wood is damp, position it close enough to the fire that it can dry out, but not so close that it will combust.

Begin by laying the tinder bundle on the fire platform. Then stack kindling loosely over the tinder, leaving plenty of open space for air to move through the blaze.

Kneel by the firebase and pull your jacket down around yourself as you huddle over the tinder and kindling, forming a windbreak of your body and coat. Before striking the match, feel what's happening around you to make sure you have formed a wind-proof environment.

When you're ready, strike the match (if that's what you're using to ignite the fire) and hold it at a diagonal angle with the flame at the bottom. This will allow the flame to stabilize and begin to gain strength as it burns up the length of the matchstick. When the flame is strong, move it to the tinder bundle. Then arrange kindling over the tinder to take advantage of the growing blaze.

If you do everything right, you'll have a good fire that can help you survive the night, dry your clothes, purify drinking water, cook your food, and signal for rescuers.

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