Seems to me that one of the more difficult skills that should be easy that I have seen botched in my time spent out of doors in the past years is the simple task of starting a fire. I’ve camped before next to city slickers that would pile what seemed like a quarter cord of wood on top of the fireplace in the next campsite. Then they would proceed to pour a can of charcoal lighter fluid over the tower of Babylon and throw a match, or two onto the waiting pyre.
Then they’d scream and holler at the resulting catastrophe, overshadowed by the resulting mushroom cloud, and still not have a fire. Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but it seemed like it, and aside from the potential disaster they could have caused by burning the forest surrounding the campground down, it was a tad humorous. Nothing funnier than watching a well dressed, and well outfitted camper making a fool of himself. Makes for good chatter around the campground as well.
But every person that wants to, or may have the need to venture out of doors should be able to start a fire with minimal effort. There are times when your life may well depend upon your having a fire going in a few short minutes. Today, we’ll look at some simple tips and hints on how to be prepared to start that fire with minimal effort, and the things you should have at your side for that purpose.
For starters, you should have some sort of starter at hand. The most dependable will probably be the old strike anywhere match in a waterproof tube/container. As long as those matches are kept dry, they will start. If they get wet, forget it. So here’s my tip on the match scenario-paraffin. At home, melt some paraffin in a double boiler, an when it is all liquid, hold a match on the non-striking end with a pair of tweezers or pliers and submerge the match for a couple of seconds. Pull it out and let the paraffin harden before placing on a damp paper towel to cool. If you let the matches touch before cooling the paraffin may stick and you’ll end up with a glob of matches.
Fill one of those metal containers with these matches and you’ll be all set as far as the starter end goes. Provided you haven’t forgotten them at home that is. But I would suggest doing that to an entire box of matches, just so you’ll have plenty on hand and ready to go. But that’s just one starter, and there are many, many more. Those disposable butane lighters are great for starting a blaze going. Just remember that they run off of the gas from the liquid in the lighter. That said, if you are in an extremely cold environment, your lighter may not work well, if at all. On the obverse of that coin, if your lighter gets too hot, the little devil just may explode into flames in your hand. Make sure you have the matches on hand, just in case.
There are also some gadgets out there that can also help you out of a jam at times as well. The most popular is the magnesium block and striker tool. Thos one normally has a key chain and/or hole so you can loop a chain around it and carry it on your neck. Not a bad idea, but it chafes the bare skin a bit. This one works simply. You take your knife, and scrape some of the magnesium off the block into a little pile. Then you take the back of your knife and strike the little embedded rod located on one side of the block. This will cause sparks to ignite the magnesium, and voila, your campfire is going, sort of.
There is another type of striker that has come upon the market that is simply a striking rod and a metal tool to make sparks with as you strike the rod. Being a man that prefers the lessons of experience, I plan on sticking with the magnesium block. If you prefer to be more primitive, there is also the flint and steel method, the fire drill method, and if it is sunny, you can always use a magnifying glass to concentrate the sun’s rays. And if you are clever, you can even use a battery to cause a spark and light your fire.
Once you have settled upon a starter source, you’ll need some tinder at the base of your fire pyramid. Pyramid? What, are we going to worship some sun god? Not at all. The best way to build a fire is to establish a small pyramid of different sizes of material, with you tinder in the middle of the base of that future fire. Around the tinder you’ll place some small sticks and other material to get a good hot flame going. That good hot flame is what will ignite the larger main fuel pieces around the outside of the pyramid.
There are many good choices for tinder in the forest, provided they are dry. Pine cones are great, as they are usually filled with pitch. Dried leaves catch quickly and are helpful, but remember that they burn quickly. You can also pull some long grasses from the ground and tie the grass into a tight ball. If you have birch trees nearby, a piece of birch bark will work well. Try to scrounge it from a dead tree first though, as we wouldn’t want to cause unnecessary harm to any tree if we don’t need to. And in some places, it may be illegal to take birch bark from a live tree anyways. You can also use the dried inner bark of a fallen tree as well. All of these are good tinder, but can be a problem in a pouring rain storm.
So what about alternatives? Glad you asked! One of my favorites is made up at the same time you are making your waterproof strike anywhere matches. Get some sawdust, and stir it into the paraffin that you melted in the double boiler. Stir it in till you make a thick, almost cookie dough like consistency. Spoon this out into a cardboard egg carton and let it all cool down. Then you can tear the carton apart and store the homemade tinder in a zip lock bag. Just put a couple at the base of your fire pyramid and light with your match. Works really good.
Another type of tinder is to take some cotton balls and soak them in a jar of petrolatum. Most people call this Vaseline. Afterwards, keep them in a zip lock bag. Simply place two or three at the base of your fire and light. You’ll be surprised to see just how flammable the stuff we rub on babies skin can be. There are many other tools you can prepare as well, most of them being candle like in nature. Another tool you can make on the spot is what we call a fuzz stick.
To make the fuzz stick, simply shave a dry stick, but instead of removing the shaving from the stick, stop short of the point where the shaving wants to pop off. You’ll end up with a stick that resembles a pine tree. Light this with a match or other fire source.
Around your starter and tinder, you should have some kindling. These are smaller pieces of fuel that will catch fire more readily than your main fuel source. they won’t last long, so make sure you have plenty enough to generate the heat needed to ignite the bigger sized fuel. I would suggest some sticks about one to two inches thick at first, surrounded by some pieces maybe three to four inches and finally some five to six inch pieces. Your main fuel can be placed over this pyramid, and the heat from the smaller pieces will dry out and ignite the bigger ones.
Try to make sure you build your fire out of the wind. It is not only safer, it is easier and faster. If you do have to build a fire in windy conditions, I would suggest making it between two large logs placed in a V shape, with the V pointing into the wind. Also, be certain you remove all flammable ground cover from the area of your fire. Underground fires have been known to smolder for days, only to erupt into a blazing inferno days after the campers have moved on for different camping grounds.
Fires needn’t be a tough chore to master. Use your mind and think the steps through carefully. Learn to do it now, and you won’t have to in an emergency.