The ability to produce and maintain fire at will can be a
lifesaver. An easy task when matches, lighter and dry kindling are available
fire-lighting can be one of the most frustrating tasks facing the outdoorsman
without. The only sure-fire way to be able to start a blaze every time is to
practise the techniques listed here.
Fire has many
uses, it can be used to provide warmth and comfort, to cook food, as a
sterilising agent and to send signals, it can also be dangerous in the extreme,
fire can destroy all living things and vast areas of flora.
GUARD AGAINST ALL RISK OF FIRE
The Fire Triangle:-
To create fire you need 3 things, Heat, Fuel and Air - the "Fire
Triangle". In order to keep a fire burning for any useful length of time you
must have these three elements in the correct ratios. The only way to learn
these ratios is through experience.
Selecting a site & fire type:-
Before you build your fire certain factors will have to be
- What is your location ? Climate and terrain affect the
kind of fire you will have to build.
- What materials are available ?
- Time, how quickly do you need a fire ?
Look for a "fireplace" that is dry and
protected from wind, it should be close to any shelter or bivvi that you are
using but not so close as to present a hazard. Try to arrange the fire so that
it projects heat in the direction you require, if this is not possible you may
need to build a 'reflector'. Ensure adequate fuel is available in the immediate
area. Clear the immediate area around your fire of any vegetation, out to about
one meter, this reduces the risk of the fire spreading. If time and materials
allow construct a "wall" around your fire using rocks, these can be arranged to
reflect the heat in the direction you require, as cooking instruments and as a
secondary source of heat. BEWARE damp porous rock can explode when heated. In
certain situations it may be necessary to build a covert fire, one that cannot
be seen. One of the best examples of this is the
Dakota Fire Hole,
it's a complex fire and will require much practise to get right.
- Dig a hole, for your fire.
- Upwind of this hole, dig another for ventilation.
- Refer to illustration for details.
DAKOTA FIRE HOLE
In snowy or flooded conditions it may be necessary to raise the fire above
ground level, this can be accomplished by using large loosely spaced rocks or
You require three separate
kinds of material to build a fire tinder, kindling and fuel.
Tinder :- Ideally tinder will burn with the addition of just
a spark, in practise it can be a little more difficult. Good tinder will always
be dry, in rainy conditions it can be almost impossible to find any, so it pays
to prepare some in advance if you are planning a backwood journey. If you do
find yourself looking for suitable tinder in a downpour there are a few possible
sources, look on the underside of dead wood, you may find 'punk', wood
decomposed almost to a powder, this makes fair tinder. Another source not to be
over looked is your navel, really, ever wonder where that fluff comes from ?
Don't....... use it to light your fire !
Assuming damp tinder is all you can
find there are several expedient drying methods you can attempt. Use your body
heat, place damp tinder in a pocket while on the move, the heat you generate may
dry it, alternatively try rubbing it hard against absorbent clothing friction
will dry it out. With soft wood tinder or fungi try gently stripping off an
outer layer the centre may still be dry.
If you have time to search for or
prepare tinder here are some suggestions :- Dead Bracken; Excellent !
Dries easily and is widely available. Bracken is amongst the best tinder for
friction firelighting. Birch & Cherry Bark; Burns hot, not the
easiest to actually get going but provides a long lasting flame once lit.
Clematis; Fluffy seed down provides an instant flame from sparks, the
'bark' can be buffed to produce a superior tinder. Honeysuckle; It's bark
is naturally shedding and very thin, collect and dry. Ignites by friction.
Various Fungi; Many fungi, particularly those which grow on trees can be
dried to produce excellent tinder. Cedar Bark; When peeled and buffed is
excellent. Char cloth; Cotton or silk scorched black, is superb and was
once in common use.
Kindling :- Is material, which
while not as readily ignited as tinder will burn easily with the application of
a flame (your ignited tinder), dry twigs from the thickness of matchsticks up to
about the diameter of a pencil are useful kindling. Starting with the finest,
gradually add thicker twigs as the fire becomes hotter, once the pencil
thickness type are burning readily you can start to add your main fuel.
Fuel :- Is less combustible than both tinder and kindling,
it requires the steady application of considerable heat to ignite but once
burning will do so slowly, releasing a lot of heat and light.
You may need instant warmth, if you clothing
has become wet in very cold conditions for instance, in this situation it is
essential to get a good fire going quickly. Use the most expedient method
available to you as you have no time for refinement. Once your situation has
stabilised you can think about better positioning, fire design etc.
Types Of Fire
- Tepee - The traditional "camp-fire" arrange in a cone
shape and light at centre. Easy. Works well with damp wood.
- Lean-To - Place a green stick into the ground at approx.
30 degrees, pointing into wind. Place your tinder far back under this stick
and add fine kindling lean-to fashion along the sides. Ignite your tinder and
as the kindling catches add more, thicker kindling.
- Cross-Ditch - Scrape a cross about 30cm across and 7cm
deep into the ground, place your tinder in the centre and build a pyramid of
kindling over the top. The cross provides a good draft regardless of wind
- Pyramid - A long burning fire requiring little attention
to keep alight, useful through the night. Lay to logs parallel on the ground,
bridge these with smaller logs, follow up with another layer, smaller and at
right angles to the last. Build up several layers until you have a flat
surface of wood a bit thicker than your thumb. Either light a starter fire on
this or carry burning fuel from your cooking fire. This fire will burn
TYPES OF FIRE
There are many methods, some easy some not so...
Matches & Cigarette Lighters:
Easiest of all, carrying
several disposable butane lighters is always a good idea, as they will light
even when wet, don't throw away empty ones as the flint invariably last longer
than the gas providing a ready source of sparks. The 'Zippo' style petrol
lighters are popular as they have a degree of wind proofing and can, with care
be made to run on a variety of different expedient fuels. You can never have
enough matches, ideally you should have the weatherproof, strike anywhere
"Lifeboat Matches" in a waterproof container. Less satisfactory, although better
than nothing are standard 'strike anywhere' matches with the head and at least
half of the stick sealed in melted candle wax. Carry in a 35mm film container.
Convex 'burning' Lens:
Useful on bright, sunny days, a
convex lens from spectacles, binoculars, camera, weapon sights etc. can be used
to concentrate the suns rays onto dry tinder. Hold the lens over the same spot
until the tinder smoulders, then fan by blowing gently. Magnesium
Starter, Metal Match;
Place the metal match on your tinder and strike
smartly with either the striker provided or a knife blade. Once the sparks start
tinder smouldering, fan. The magnesium starter is the same but with the added
benefit of easy-lighting hot burning magnesium chips to get things going!
If you have batteries you can create sparks by
attaching a wire to each terminal and touching the bare ends together close to
your tinder. Ammunition:
Remove the bullet head or, with a
shotgun cartridge pry open the end and remove the load, add powder to kindling
it will ignite with a spark. Alternatively add only half the powder to the
tinder, stuff a small piece of cloth cut from clothing into the cartridge,
chamber the round and fire at your tinder, the cloth will ignite the mix.
Exercise extreme caution with both methods. Chemicals:
Certain chemicals can be used to cause spontaneous combustion. Be very careful
about use of these methods.
Potassium Chlorate & Sugar 3:1 by volume - Fierce
burning, can be ignited by a few drops of sulphuric acid. Potassium Chlorate
is found in some throat tablets, Sulphuric Acid is present in car batteries.
Potassium Permanganate & Sugar 9:1 by volume -
Less sensitive than the above it's safer to use ! Ignites with a few drops of
glycerine. Potassium Permanganate is a very useful chemical often supplied in
pre-packed survival kits, as well as firestarting it is a disinfectant,
anti-fungal agent, can be used in small quantities to purify water and even
makes a good snow marker. Get some for your kit ! Glycerine is present in
Sodium Chlorate & Sugar 9:1 by volume - VERY
SENSITIVE, ignites by percussion. Sodium Chlorate is present in many
Flint & Steel : Commercial versions with
a processed flint and carbon steel striker are available, in the field use a
sharp edged piece of flint or other hard rock strike with a knife, (carbon
steel blades produce the best spark, stainless is poor). Once again direct the
spark onto your tinder and fan once it begins to smoulder. This is a tricky
method to master.
Fire - Plough: A primitive but
effective system, utilising a hardwood 'rod' and a base of softer wood. Cut a
straight groove along the base, it may help to carve a small notch at one end.
Plough the blunt tip of the rod back and forth along this groove, as friction
builds up small wood fibres will become detached from the groove, steadily
apply greater pressure, as the friction builds higher the detached fibres will
start smouldering and form a "coal" use this to ignite your tinder.
Bow & Drill: The most well known
"primitive" firelighter, it is tricky to use and requires much effort and
practise for it to be effective.
You'll need - A Socket,
a piece of hardwood or rock with a depression in it, either natural or carved
to hold the drill and apply downward pressure.
seasoned hardwood, straight and about 20cm long, the top should be rounded to
reduce friction, the bottom blunted to maximise it.
Hearth, preferably of the same wood as the drill, about 30cm long,
40mm wide and 20mm thick. Carve a shallow depression about 2cm from the edge
of the hearth, drill it manually until the depression is black, rounded and
fits the drill piece. Carve a wedge shaped notch from the edge of the board to
the centre of the depression.
A Bow, light and strong, of
ant resilient wood, cordage can be of any kind although nylon is excellent if
available. adjust tension by twisting.
In Use: Kneel
with your foot on the hearth, ensure your knee does not foul the bow, brace
the hand you hold the socket in against your shin. Bow on the outside of the
drill. Drill smoothly, maintaining even pressure until smoke rises from the
hearth, as smoke begins, increase pressure and speed. Smoke should increase,
the notch will begin to fill with fine, dark powder. Once the notch is almost
full of powder, stop drilling. Carefully transfer this powder to a thick leaf
or piece of bark, fan gently with your hand until it begins to glow, transfer
this "coal" to your tinder, continue to fan, but harder, blow onto the tinder
pile. With luck it will catch!!
The woods I suggest for drill & hearth
: Lime, Sycamore, Willow, Birch, Alder or Hazel. The woods for the Bow and
Socket are less important but should be hard and green to minimise friction.
This method is tricky and tiring, but once you have mastered it you can
light fire almost anywhere and in any conditions. It's worth the practise.
Carry as many strike anywhere
matches/cigarette lighters as you can
Select and dry tinder in advance where
possible, collect as you travel.
Keep firewood dry.
Dry damp wood near the fire.
Bank up fires to keep them in at
Ensure fire is totally dead before leaving
Guard against risk of fire
Practise primitive techniques BEFORE you