Survival by Fire

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In many outdoor survival situations a fire can mean the difference between life and death. In fact, it’s one of the top four most-important elements to staying alive. Hypothermia (decrease of core body temperature) is perhaps the most dangerous killer in the outdoors, and fire is a good weapon to fight it with. If you have hungry bears in the neighborhood or a lion that thinks you look like a snack, build a big fire and keep it between you and the threat. If you’re lost, a column of smoke by day and a bright fire by night make an effective signal. Fire can also be used to purify water, cook food, dry wet clothing, and so on.

Start A Fire In Tough Conditions

Getting a blaze going can be easy (think arid desert southwest)…or incredibly challenging, as in a rainforest or at very high elevations. I recently spent a week hunting elk at almost 11,000 feet and it rained or snowed most of the day, every day. Starting a fire was difficult—matches gasped for oxygen and died without ever bursting into flame. My weatherproof lighter couldn’t muster enough strength to ignite pine pitch. A disposable lighter performed better, but finding dry tinder and kindling was tough. Savvy fire-starting skills prevailed, but it was never easy.

Before ever striking your match, lighter, or Ferro-rod, you need to gather some completely dry tinder, kindling, and firewood. The best place to find dry fuel in a wet environment is underneath something—a downed log, or a thick canopy of evergreens. (This is ideal, as the trees usually have tiny dead twigs and branches on their lower trunks that have escaped the wet weather and will burn readily.) Gather a double handful of super tiny twigs, another double handful of twigs the diameter of a pencil, and a small armful of wood ranging from half-inch to inch-and-a-half in diameter. Choose material that has shed its bark—it’ll burn much better.

In some cases the only dry wood you will find is in the center of a long-dead standing tree. It’s a chore to get to, but you can cut down the tree and split the dry wood from its center. It’ll burn readily when nothing else will. Whittle a double handful of shavings from the dry wood or carve feather-sticks (leave the shavings attached to your stick). Split a bunch of pencil-sized kindling, and some bigger pieces as well.

Now that you’re prepared with tinder, kindling, and firewood at hand, strike a flame with your match, lighter, or Ferro-rod. Ignite your tinder from below (fire burns upward), then carefully add kindling to your tiny blaze. Blow gently to give it additional oxygen, especially if you are at high altitude. Nurse your fire to life, adding ever-larger fuel as it gains strength.

Tip: Carry something in your fire kit that will ignite aggressively and burn for a few minutes—such as pine pitch, Vaseline-impregnated lint/cotton ball, or a tiny commercial fire-starting brick. Light it first, then use it to start your tinder.