Starting a Fire
The next entry in our Survival Series will cover the various methods of starting a fire while on the move. Some methods such as cigarette lighters are pretty obvious, but others are a little more exotic and require some preparation and practice.
A fire in a survival situation is one of the most important things one could have. Fires cook your food, sanitize your water, and provide comfort and light in what could otherwise be a fear or panic inducing situation.
The ability to start a fire has saved many who were trapped out in the wilds and allowed them to survive long enough to be rescued or signal those searching for them so that they could be rescued.
Like the methods of making water potable, I will only share methods that I personally have attempted and been successful with; and like the methods of making potable water, these skills are most useful if you’ve practiced them and if you possess a first-hand understanding of how they work. Knowledge is most useful with practical application, so read, understand, and go try these methods out for yourself.
Methods of Fire Starting
Butane Lighters – Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Carry a lighter with you at all times and you never need to worry about having fire when you need it.
The best over-the-counter butane lighter I would recommend is the tried and true BIC lighter. They work in almost all temperatures and climates found on Earth and will light even after being completely immersed in water (after it dries). Not only do these reliably produce a flame but in the larger models of BIC lighters, the butane will last for about 3000 2-3 second lights.
In addition to the flame it produces, the flint will usually outlast the butane giving you a light weight and easy to operate flint sparker. When the lighter runs out of butane remove the metal wind shield and place tinder next to the flint wheel. One or two spins and the tinder will usually catch flame allowing you start your fire.
Zippo Lighters - The venerable Zippo lighter has been used on every continent in every major military conflict since WWII. While it may be stylish and durable, the Zippo requires fluid at regular intervals and contains certain proprietary expendable parts such as the wick and flint.
Many will tell you that the Zippo is not a good survival lighter but I disagree. The flints are small and easy to pack with the lighter; and while the fluid does evaporate quickly the cotton batting inside of the lighter can be used as tinder to start fires. While it’s not the simplest or longest lasting solution to creating fire, the Zippo can be an effective tool in your survival kit.
Also, the lighter may also be used (if it’s one of the polished finish models,) as an emergency signal mirror.
Ferrocerium Rods or “Flint Sticks” – The most popular way to create sparks to start fires lately has been through the use of a Ferrocerium Rod or “flint stick.” These are essentially giant versions of flints found in common lighters.
These products require nothing more than a striker (made of any material harder than the rod itself) to produce a shower of sparks. The sparks created by firesteel rods are extremely hot and depending on the size of shaving can persist for 1-2 seconds. I find these are extremely versatile for survival situations as they can be used right after being submerged and weigh next to nothing.
There are many varieties of ferrocerium rods out there and some include a small block of magnesium to aid in the production of fire even when tinder is wet or unavailable. I personally don’t like to use the magnesium block types as they weigh more, take up more space, and it can be a major pain creating a sufficient pile of magnesium to light. Keeping good tinder dry and on your person is the better solution, in my opinion.
Ferrocerium rods can be found in almost every sporting goods store, on eBay and other online retailers, as well as hardware stores for a very reasonable price. I personally recommend keeping a few around and in your kit.
Fire Piston – The fire piston is a handy little piece of kit that ignites tinder through the use of air pressure similar to the theory of a diesel motor’s use of pressure to ignite fuel. Fire pistons can be made out of anything such as wood, metal, or plastics. They usually incorporate a small o-ring to ensure the pressure in the chamber does not leak out of the sides.
To use the fire piston you place a small piece of tinder into the end of the rod and place that into the cylinder. You then quickly compress the rod into the cylinder causing the pressure to generate heat and light the tinder. You can then transfer the ember onto more tinder then onto kindling to start your fire.
This tool is very advantageous as it does not require any expendable materials (other than periodic replacement of the o-ring) to start fires. It is usually light and easily packable, and will work even after being submerged.
The best tinder to use in fire pistons are small pieces of char cloth or amadou (the soft felt-like inner layer of many bracket fungi such as horse’s hoof.) Fire pistons are sold online by survivalist supply retailers and on auction sites.
The Sun - One of the simplest ways to start a fire is to use the Sun. There are several methods of using the sun to start a fire: everything from magnifying lenses to plastic bottles of water to even ice! The basic concept is to focus sunlight onto one spot on your tinder to create enough heat to light it.
The easiest way I’ve found to use sunlight to start fires is to carry a small plastic magnifying lens in your kit. These don’t break as easily as their glass or crystal counterparts and are extremely light and packable. To light fires with this technique place your magnifying lens over your tinder and position the lens until the light passing through focuses into a small point. Eventually you will notice a small amount of smoke rising from your tinder. Keep holding the lens while you gently blow onto your tinder. With any luck the tinder will catch light and you can then transfer it onto your kindling. Simple, easy, cheap, and most importantly it works.
Friction Fire Lighting Methods
Firebow – This method takes practice, stamina, and most importantly PATIENCE. The first few times I attempted to start fire this way, I will admit that I cursed like a sailor with cancelled shore leave.
The fire bow or Indian Fiddle is the most common way to start fire with friction and is in my opinion the easiest method. To create fire with a fire bow you must first select two pieces of wood that are soft and non-resinous. My favorite types of wood to use are Yucca and Sotol stalks after they’ve dried. You can also use woods such as cedar and aspen.
The first piece of wood should be shaped into the fireboard. This is where your drill will spin to create the hot dust that will create your ember. I recommend using the base of your Sotol stalk for this as it is the widest section; you want the fireboard to be large enough to hold down with your foot or knee and still have sufficient room to drill into.
The first thing I do to prepare the fire starting is cut a small notch about a half inch away from the edge of the fireboard. I then prepare the drill portion by smoothing out an approximately 5 inch section of the same wood and cutting a very slight, dull point into one end. Then make the bow out of a 1-2 inch diameter, 2-3 foot, slightly curved piece of wood that is rigid. Cut notches on both ends to hold my string (550 cord, shoelace, or piece of rawhide) and tie the string on with only SLIGHT tension. You do not want this to be tight as it still needs to wrap around your drill. Once the bow is made I like to search around until I find a nice roundish stone or make the bearing block (the item used to provide downward pressure onto the drill as you reciprocate the bow) out of a piece of harder wood by cutting a deep round notch into it.
Once the materials are made I wrap the drill portion once around with the cordage on the bow. I then place the drill section into the small notch I created in the fireboard and hold it down firmly with the bearing block. With one foot I hold down the fireboard and position myself so that I have sufficient room to push and draw with the bow.
To use the bow I lubricate the notch cut into my bearing block with a few leaves if it is wood, this reduces the friction on the bearing block as to not rob the fireboard of the speed and friction needed. I then start slowly at first and push and pull allowing the string to settle and confirm that the drill is secure. At this point the drill may slip out of the bow but you just got to reset and try again. Once the drill is secure and moves consistently in the bow I begin to drill slowly gaining speed after every push and pull cycle.
After about a minute of this the small notch on the fire block becomes slightly charred and the small notch becomes about the same diameter as your drill section. Once this is achieved I then cut a notch out of the fireboard to open the drilling area to the side of the fireboard. You should have what appears to be a small charred Pac-Man on your fireboard. This notch opening up to the outside of the board is where your hot dust will collect and create your ember. Once the notch is set I like to place a flat sliver of wood under the “mouth” of the “Pac-Man” as a “tray” to catch the hot dust I will create.
Now reset the drill and bow setup and begin to drill into the fireboard again. You need to provide ample pressure and drill until the fireboard starts to smoke and sufficient hot dust is collected onto your tray. When you think you’re good to go, keep drilling for about 30 more seconds. You don’t want to have to start all over because you were impatient and didn’t collect enough hot dust to start an ember.
Once enough dust has been collected and your ember starts to glow, carefully set your drill, bow, and bearing block aside and flip the ember from your tray onto your tinder pile. Lightly compress your tinder bundle around the ember and blow into it. Once the tinder has caught flame transfer it into your kindling and your fire is born!
This method is very challenging for the first timer and requires extreme patience and persistence. If you can’t seem to get it right, remember, the struggling you have to acquire this skill in the learning setting is preferable to having to try to learn this skill when you really need it. You may not have enough energy or may be injured when you really need this skill and having the technique down beforehand may save your life.
Hand-Drill – This method is similar in concept to the fire bow method but it requires less materials but more patience and persistence. The fireboard construction is the same but you do not need to build or find the bearing block or the bow. The drill section should be longer (about 9-10 inches) to provide you enough area for your hands to drill.
When the fireboard is made the initial drilling notch is made by drilling into the board with your hands. This technique takes lots of practice as a simple hand-over-hand prayer-type grip is not the best hold for the drill. The method I use is the “itsy-bitsy spider” method. I spin the drill with my hands rotating so that my pinkie finger one hand almost meets the thumb on the other hand and vice-versa. This method allows you to spin the drill with more revolutionary distance than a standard hold, which in turn provides more constant friction on the board.
Start at the top of the drill and spin it in the notch until it becomes charred and the notch completely houses the end of the drill. You then cut your “Pac-Man” notch and reset the drill onto the board. Place your “tray” item under the fireboard to catch your ember and begin to drill again.
Provide constant downward pressure onto the drill as you spin it. When your hands get close to the bottom of the drill quickly reposition your hands onto the top of the drill and continue drilling. After sufficient time you will collect the hot dust that will become your ember. Like the bow drill method, when you think you have enough dust collected, go for another 30 seconds to a minute. You don’t want to have to start over because you were impatient.
Once the ember is created transfer it to your tinder, bundle it and provide it with air. This method is difficult and requires stamina. Unless you have thick-skinned mechanic or oil field hands you will most likely get blisters; but like the fire drill, you want to get the struggle and blisters out of the way when you practice. Don’t give up and remember many have been successful at this method of fire starting. It just takes practice and patience.
So there you have it. These are my preferred and tried methods of creating fire while out in the bush. There are many more devices and methods out there for starting fire, these are just the ones I have personally tried.
If the information about making fire by friction seems confusing, there are multitudes of YouTube videos and documentation on the Internet that provide examples and clarity on the subject. These skills, like the procurement of water, are not only useful and fun to know, but they can very well be your saving grace in the future. Like any skill, practice makes perfect and patience is paramount when it comes to skills such as these. Don’t let frustration get the better of you when trying to learn new techniques of survival. And remember, many people have successfully used these techniques before. In the next article in this series I will go over types of tinder, kindling, and fires that can aid you to be successful in survival. ‘Til next time, stay warm, stay motivated, and keep moving.