A friend of mine once found himself turned around – thoroughly confused, you might say, about where he was, and where his four-wheeler was. Now, this couldn’t be classified as a true survival situation, as the September weather was chilly but dry, and my hapless buddy’s life was not really in danger. It was, however, a good example of what can happen to those of us who spend a lot of time in the woods. Had the weather been really cold, or wet and windy, the situation could have rapidly become life threatening.
You see, my bud left his daypack on his ATV (cardinal mistake number one) while making a quick reconnoiter to a nearby vantage point. Bugling bulls and clashing antlers drew him onward, until when he tried to retrace his steps in the dim light of dusk he couldn’t tell which ridge was which. He was thoroughly prepared for such an eventuality, of course, with emergency supplies, fire starting kit, and compass and GPS. Problem was, the gear was at the four-wheeler, and he was not.
So my lost and lonely friend wisely picked a tree to spend the night under, strategized on finding his way to safety with the dawn, and tried to start a fire. Cardinal mistake number two was that he didn’t have a lighter in his pocket. He had all the ingredients for a bow-drill fire, though, so he robbed his hiking boot of its lace, gathered materials, and set to work. A couple hours before dawn he gave up - ceased his efforts, and shivered under his tree till daylight arrived. Had he known in practice what he understood in theory he could have triumphed in his quest to start a friction fire, and alternately fed and snuggled his warm companion through the long September night.
Don’t be that guy. Friction fires are fun and challenging to make, and having the skill conquered and in your back pocket when you head into the woods is a great survival precaution. So practice ahead of time – when the chips are down you’ll get a fire roaring in no time.
I can (assuming I’m in a place where materials are readily gathered) get a bow-drill fire started from scratch in about 30 minutes. That’s starting with just a knife and a string in hand, and gathering/fashioning the rest of the tools on the spot. Here’s what you’ll need:
Knife or sharp flint flake to carve with.
Four to five feet of string. Paracord or a good bootlace is ideal.
A bow. Simply a green stick about three feet long.
Fireboard. About 1 ½ inches wide, 5/8” thick, 8 inches long.
Spindle. About the diameter of your finger and 8” – 12” inches long.
Socket. A small piece of rock or bone, that fits comfortably in your hand and has a small divot (for the top of the spindle).
Tinder nest made of dry juniper bark or similar material.
STEP 1. Gather your materials. The ideal wood for your fireboard and spindle is sagebrush (use live plants, the inner wood is dry). Cottonwood root is also good, and yucca stalks make great spindles. Cedar wood works okay, as do many other species. They just require more and harder bowing. Hibiscus (if you find yourself in a semi-tropical environment) works well. Just make sure that whatever wood you use for your spindle and fireboard is thoroughly dry.
A slightly bent green willow or tree branch works well for a bow. Dry outer bark from a juniper (cedar) tree makes an ideal tinder nest. (Alternatives are the fibrous inner bark from a dead cottonwood, or the dry outer bark from sagebrush.) A good socket may be your toughest find – ideally a smooth rock that fits nicely in your hand and has a small deep divot in it. The astragalus bone from an elk’s hind leg makes a super cool socket.
STEP 2. Now that you have your materials collected you’ll need to shape them into tools (photo 1-previous pages). Start with the fireboard. Carve it into a little flat board about 5/8 inch thick, 1 ½ inches wide, and eight or more inches long. With the tip of your knife carve a little divot near one end and set aside. Next whittle your spindle into shape, straight, round and smooth. Carve the bottom end into a blunt point, the top end into a long taper. Set aside.
Your bow should be strung just barely taut. Tie your string to both ends with a clove hitch or series of half hitches, and make sure you can (just barely) turn your spindle into the string as shown in photo 4. Set the bow aside. Now work on your socket, deepening the divot if necessary by scraping or pecking with a sharp corner of flint. Once it’s deep enough to accept and hold the top of your spindle, set it aside. (Photo 2-previous page.)
Lastly, make your tinder bundle by grinding bark between your hands into fine fibers. (Photo 3.) Shape it into a nest, lining the center with super-fine fibers. Don’t rush this, your nest needs to be just right – it takes a lot of work to get a coal, and it’s a real bummer to have it die due to a poor nest.
STEP 3. Now that your tools are ready, it’s time to “burn in” the hole in your fireboard. This preps your set for fire making, and it’ll give you a chance to learn how to bow. Set your fireboard on the ground and hold it in place with a bare foot. Turn the spindle into your bowstring as shown (Photo 4), set the bottom into the divot in your fireboard, and the top in the divot in your socket. Wrap your left arm around your left leg as shown (photo 5), left hand pressing down on the socket. This form is critical to success. Using your right hand begin smoothly bowing back and forth with long strokes. Your spindle will jump out at every opportunity – don’t get frustrated, just keep after it till you get the hang of bowing. Still using long strokes bow faster, adding more downward pressure on the socket and spindle till smoke pours from the fireboard. Stop and give yourself a much-deserved rest.
Next, cut a pie-shaped notch in the side of your fireboard, just reaching center of your burned-in hole (photo 6). Okay, you’re ready to make fire.
STEP 4. With tinder bundle ready to hand, place your fireboard on a large leaf, piece of bark, or leather. (This is to catch the coal that builds in your notch.) Now assemble your bowdrill set and begin bowing. Work steadily but gently for a while, till smoke starts to show around your spindle. (This is called warming up the hole.) Then start building speed and adding pressure on the spindle gradually until you are heaving for breath and smoke is pouring from your fireboard. Stop and rest for a moment, holding the spindle in place. If after 15 seconds or so smoke continues to rise from your notch, you have a coal. If not, go back to bowing until smoke again billows from your set. If you don’t have a coal this time you may need to carve your notch a bit deeper or wider so that charred dust can accumulate and ignite in it. Now try again until you have a nice coal, smoking gently within the notch on your fireboard.
STEP 5. Lift your fireboard very gently, tapping it a bit to disengage the coal. Set it aside, leaving the coal on your leaf or bark. You don’t need to rush; the coal will grow stronger with time. Carefully lift your leaf or bark and drop the coal into your tinder bundle. Blow gently on the coal till the fine tinder around it begins to glow, then increase the length and strength of your blowing (photo 7). If a breeze is present put your back to it, and when not blowing hold the bundle aloft. The breeze will fan your spark, and carry the smoke away from you instead of into your lungs. (It’s hard to start a fire when you are coughing and spluttering all over it.) After a few good breaths your tinder will burst into flame. Set it down and feed it small dry twigs and kindling until you have a roaring blaze. Sit back and enjoy the awesomest fire you’ve ever started.
1) If your spindle slides inside your string, tighten your string. If it starts slipping in the final stages of bowing you can use your thumb and fingers to put torque on the string - tightening it just enough to get you through.
2) Use a little chapstick or oil from the side of your nose to lubricate the top of your spindle.
3) Kneel on your right knee, and make sure you brace your left forearm firmly against your left shin as shown in the photos. It’s the only way to hold the whole assembly together when you start bowing.
4) Your hole should be good for 3 – 6 fires. You may need to reshape the end of your spindle between times. Once the hole burns nearly through the bottom of your fireboard you’ll need to start another hole.