Fire when you need it

Firemaking is a skill like any other.

Mystique to the contrary. You’ll only really need it when conditions are most difficult, and when circumstances conspire so you forget what good technique you know. Ergo, the first second and third rules of firemaking are as mundane as they are essential: practice.

I was an indifferent firemaker until 2003-4, when I worked for a wilderness therapy program that ran year-round in northeast Utah. Making and using a bowdrill was a central aspect of the wilderness-as-metaphor around which the program was based, and I got lots of practice. Just as significant was being out in the high desert in the dead of winter, with several field weeks where nightime temps were always well below zero. There are few better ways to learn the importance of fire.

Without all that practice, I would not have been able to make the fire in the video above, and would have been in for a truly miserable, possibly quite dangerous evening. So practice, a lot, especially when you don’t want to. Because that’s when you’ll need it.

Cooking/warming fire at -20 F, in a low-snow spot under a large pine. Fuel was gathered from similar, low snow spots and dried around the fire before burning. Only primo fuel was used to get things rolling.

Sufficient practice will teach you everything else I’ll say, but it is worth writing anyway for the sake of dialogue, refinement, and giving folks a head start.

The fourth rule of firemaking is to cheat. You should practice without chemical/artificial tinder and kindling, but when shit goes down you’ll want both. Not one or the other, both. If you’re not intimate with the functional distinctions between the two go back to rules 1-3. Tinder, both natural and artificial, is something which will ignite easily with one spark/match/flick, and burn for a short amount of time. Tinder ignites kindling. Kindling of either persuasion should burn for a few minutes at least, long enough to get fuel wood started and you well on your way to a sustainable fire.

Chemical tinder is easy, with the many varieties coming largely down to personal preference. I use a small nalgene bottle stuffed with dryer lint and then filled with denatured alcohol. It system holds a lot of tinder is a small package, is quick enough to ignite but by the standards of tinder somewhat slow burning, and the alcohol serves double duty for gear repair prep. Chemical kindling should be held to higher standards, because when you only have damp fuel to work with it will need to produce enough heat to dry the fuel enough to catch. My favorite is esbit. Not the hottest, but long burning and once fully ignited all but weatherproof.

Carry lots of both if you suspect you’ll need it. Always, always carry at least a little of each (see video above, I used all I had to get it done). Of course, the ultimate expedient is to go Alaska-style and hold an upright canister stove under a pile of thumb sized sticks like a blowtorch. I burned up most of my gas canister in the Classic last year starting fires in this manner.

Video from learntenkara.com.

Rule five is to not take shortcuts. Even if using chemical assists, gather plenty of good, dry-as-you-can-find kindling and tinder. More than you think you’ll need. See Ryan in the video above. Tinder and kindling are not separated solely by size, but also by combustibility. Dry pine twigs and needles go fast, and ignite larger twigs and in turn small fuel sticks. Finding dry-as-available tinder and kindling is a part of this.

Rule six, to know your terrain and fuel, is driven by rule five. Certain woods will burn better than others, and it’s very helpful to know where they’re most likely to be found. On a cold day of pissing rain, alter route and timetable to camp at a place which will make firemaking as easy as possible. This weekend, for example, I knew I’d want a warming fire at night, and with snow banks still covering most of the gravel bars and floodplains down at river level finding dry fuel and bare ground would be tough. I knew from a prior trip that a certain stretch had better southern exposure than others, and was thus more likely to be melted out. Once I got to that stretch of river, I looked for a gravel bar with lots of tall, thick pines. These served the threefold function of providing good fuel in the form of dead sticks on the ground, shelter from precip, and bare patches of ground (bigger trees act as bigger thermal sinks and melt out first). Because of all this I was able to drag my boat right to a large bare patch, gather enough wood for two hours of fire within a 30 foot circle, build a big, messy pile, pour on a little alcohol, and have a warm fire within 3 minutes of stepping out of my boat.

If it’s been raining/snowing for a while, you’ll have to work harder. Gather dry fuel under the base of thick trees, under logs and bushes. In my world breaking LNT and snapping dead twigs and sticks from the skirts of trees is fair game under these circumstances, a subject about which every one will need to make up their own mind. Practice and experience is the only way to learn the tricks that will work in your particular locale.

At this camp, during the Classic, we picked out a profusion of large, healthy spruce from a distance, thinking they’d shelter both use and fuel wood from the rain. They did, and firemaking was as a result easy (P. Brady photo)

Survivalist types like to rhapsodize about the endless intricacies of firemaking, but the above are all I’ve ever needed. I’ve never used a knife to make fuzz sticks or the like, preferring to be creative with what is available on site. Practice trumps theory here.

The truly worst-case scenario involves limited cover, limited fuel, abundant precip, and a thick snowpack. If you know you might see such conditions it could be best to just bring extra clothes and a good shelter, eschewing fire as more trouble than it is worth. The above tricks will likely work, with a lot of effort, and a platform of green sticks to keep the fire off the snow. They’ll eventually burn through and melt down, but you can buy a lot of time this way. Executing it effectively may again require some more impactful wood gathering.  If the snow isn’t too deep, digging a pit with a shovel or shovel-substitute (snowshoe, etc) can get the job done.

Lastly, it is fortunate that the areas in which fire are most likely to be needed tend to be the place where making one is ethical, as well as more challenging. I rarely needed a warming fire in Utah or Arizona, though the few occasions when I did made me very glad I had practice in my pocket. Here in Montana the wet weather and rivers make them a good idea almost every trip, and the opportunity to practice comes together nicely with the abundance of fuel and regulations which reflect that. Be realistic about firemaking: practice it before you’ll need it, but don’t be a menace in the process.

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11 thoughts on “Fire when you need it

  1. For you northern guys and gals don’t forget the invaluable benefit of birch bark, burns like gasoline no matter how wet.

  2. Good post. You’re smack on about the need to practice. Understanding the best fuel types in your area is the single best knowledge to have. My method for wet condition fire building involves esbit and a Soto pocket torch. That lighter puts out serious heat, and the Esbit provides some time to get the fire going.

  3. Great post!

    For heavy snow pack in extreme cold (e.g., Arrowhead Ultra at -25F), live spruce and pine trees make a great fire if you don’t mind leaving a trace. Hence, the saw on my BMWO gear list.

  4. Thanks for posting this Dave. There have been plenty of times when I ‘could’ have taken the time and effort to try and light a fire (which would have made camp more comfortable) and as you point out this would stand me in good stead for when I ‘need’ to light a fire. The basic approach outlined here will help me be more confident and pro-active in future.

  5. “Survivalist types like to rhapsodize about the endless intricacies of firemaking, but the above are all I’ve ever needed. I’ve never used a knife to make fuzz sticks or the like, preferring to be creative with what is available on site. Practice trumps theory here.”

    Yes!

    I suppose doing it for practice may be “fun”, but it’s always made me wonder to see someone engage in a 20 minute ordeal of collecting tinder, shaving wood and playing with knives when they could just as easily torch everything with their stove, light an esbit, or dump on some alcohol…
    Don’t know about the rest of them, but I generrally avoid stranding myself in the mountains with nothing but a fixed blade and a firesteel.

  6. Great advice – I agree that practicing without a firestarter really gives you insight into what the fire wants, and it makes things that much easier when you do find yourself in that rough situation using everything you have to get a fire going. By the way, that first picture is a very nice shot!

  7. Can not agree more, it is all about practice and preperation. For fire starting I really like the cotton balls soaked with vaseline, fire steel, and a knife. For a backup I do always carry a couple of wetfire tinders but they are only for a real emergency. There is a good chance any lighter will fail in trying conditions so I dont plan to rely on them. I question the compulsion to “throw everything at it” unless you know it is one of those life and death moments, especially if you loose that fire shortly after getting it started. In winter the thing most likely to snuff out a fledging fire is a lack of heat. Dave I agree with your advise to build your fire on top of some substantial wood like a couple layers of logs. That will insulate it from the cold wet ground preventing the fire from loosing too much heat and going out. It also provides future fuel for that fully developed fire.
    I don’t understand people who would substitute a capable knife in their Kit for some sort of razor blade or ultra light pen knife, no more than a guy who chooses AAA over a capable tool kit and a little practice changing tires.
    The logic behind fuzz sticks and sparkers is that they will work when you have nothing else, just like a proper tool kit will change your tire when you can’t get cell coverage.

  8. Good article. Having had a few lighters fail me I now carry a firesteel. Knowing your local conditions is so important. Its hard to find small dry sticks in the hardwood forests of Virginia for example. My solution is usually to carve shavings off a thicker stick and use those. When I went out to Colorado with its abundance of dry twigs and thick ponderosa pine nettles I thought I’d gone to firemaking heaven.

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