Next to water, fire is one of the most essential needs for survival. No doubt you have six different ways to start a fire you call favorites and another twenty more you could use in a pinch. Here’s a twist on an old tried but true method.
I first learned this method from Boy’s Life many, many decades ago. I wasn’t even a Boy Scout. (They didn’t want me, but that’s another story.) Anyway, I’ve always liked this method for it’s simple elegance. However,, I thought of one tweak to make it an awesome choice.
Making the traditional fire starter is easy as pie. You’ll need an old newspaper, some paraffin or beeswax, and some string. You’ll also need two pans and a source of heat to melt the wax. I recommend using something disposable for the wax. Even a steel can should work. Make sure you have some tongs or some other way to handle the can.
Note, many prefer beeswax to paraffin. While one can list good arguments for both, why not experiment on your own? What stops some is a good, inepensive source of beeswax. The fact is, there is an excellent source right under your nose! Go to your nearest hardware store or building or plumbing supply and pick up a beeswax toilet ring. It won’t set you back more than a couple of bucks and will work just fine.
Wax is best melted “double burner” style. Put some water in the pan and heat it. Once the water is near boiling, put your can with the wax in the water to melt it. Your wax will melt, and you need not worry about burning it.
While the water is heating, cut some newspaper strips about two inches wide. Roll each strip tightly and secure with the string. You don’t need a super tight roll; leaving it a bit loose may actually help your fire starter work better. Leave enough of a “tail” so you can use it to dip the roll in the wax. Let it sit long enough to soak the newspaper well. Pull it out and leave it on a piece of paper to dry.
These fire starters are light and easy to pack or stuff almost anywhere. They burn well enough to get most any fire started with little effort. For better results, push the center of one out a bit before lighting it to make a cone. And now for the twist…
Roll a self-striking match into the center of the fire starter. I prefer the larger ones. Make sure the head of the match sits about an eighth of an inch from the end so it is well protected. If you want further protection, lay a small strip of paper over the head end of the matchstick. The goal is to keep it from rubbing against anything and lighting up when you don’t want it to.
Don’t worry about the other end breaking off. It can and does happen. Even so, you’ll have enough matchstick to push the match head through the end. You can strike the head on a rock or even a rough piece of bark to start your fire.
Now you not only have a waterproof fire starter, you have a built in lighter. It’s easy, inexpensive, and effective. What more could you ask for? How about adding some fuel to the fire?
Before you set your fire starter ablaze, you’ll want to make sure you put it to the best possible use. You’ll need some fine, dry stuff– tinder– to catch fire, some kindling and, of course some larger pieces of firewood. If you are trying to make it in the woods, I suggest you head for a stand of pines. Larger stands are often best, but you don’t want to get too picky if your life is on the line. A pine stand by itself can provide decent shelter, but more importantly it can provide enough fuel to burn a fire for several hours or even days.
For tinder you want the lightest, driest stuff you can find. However with this fire starter, great tinder is not crucial, as it will burn long enough to get some smaller kindling started. Even so, if you can find some dry fluffy stuff or an old bird’s nest, all the better. Otherwise, look for some dry pine needles at the base of the pine trees. If you are in a good stand, chances are you can find a tree with a sheltered portion to provide the dry spot you are looking for. Certain types of fungus fit the bill too, so don’t be afraid to check out what you find growing on the side of the trees.
For dry kindling, look in the trees. Pine trees often have dead branches that have not yet fallen to the ground yet. They are easy to break off and often dry as a bone. Some may even have some dead needles still attached. You may also find an entire tree that died and forgot to fall down. This could provide enough fuel to keep you going for a while.
Back in my youth, we would spend days camping and fishing by a small river. A campfire was often the center of activity. Wood was never a problem, as there was always plenty of dead branches and tress around. (My personal favorite was what we called “ironwood”. The trees were small scrub trees, possibly a variety of locust. They are sinewy and tough. The branches tended to burn well and last fairly long because the wood itself was pretty dense.)
While wood was plentiful, extended rain or a spring snow could make it hard to find anything dry. We quickly learned to find places to stash hunks of wood so it would stay out of the weather. Covering a pile with pine boughs helped a lot. While we were never in a survival situation, no campfire could easily send us packing for home. All we needed was enough to get a fire going. From there we could “dry out” the rest. Keep in mind that while wet wood is terrible for starting fires, it is not so bad for keeping a fire going, especially with a soft wood like pine that tends to burn fast. Soggy wood needs to burn off the water. This slows down the burning process somewhat, and that may not be such a bad thing after all.
My point is once you have a fire established, it would be a good idea to prepare for the unexpected downpour or any other situation that could drench your wood. As mentioned above, damp, soggy, or even wet wood is not much of a problem if you have a good fire going already. If you need to start or restart your fire, it pays to have some “fixin’s” stashed to help things along. The first place to keep your stash is at the bottom of your woodpile. You may want to keep this stuff off the ground a bit, as a heavy downpour could seep under and soak all your good work. In any case cover it up with a good hunk of wood to keep the rain off the top too.
How big should your fire be? It seems like most folks love a big blaze. I think this is a huge mistake. Big fires waste fuel, and that means you’ll spend more time hunting for something to burn instead of hunting for food or saving your energy. Your fire should be big enough to keep you warm and not much bigger. You don’t need much to cook or boil water. While a big fire may be a comfort for some and may even help to discourage predators, I see too many downfalls to justify going large.
Depending on your situation, you may or may not want your fire to disclose your location. If you require stealth, then the last thing you need is a raging blaze with lots of smoke. It’s best to keep it tiny and use the driest wood you can find. Again, building your fire under the cover of a pine stand can help as the heat and smoke can dissipate somewhat if it first drifts up through some pine boughs.
However, if you are looking for a rescue or need to otherwise signal your location, you can use some green boughs or pieces to keep your fire smokey. In this case, you’ll want your fire in a more open area or on the edge of the pines. You shouldn’t need much, as anyone looking for you should notice even a slim thread of smoke and move to investigate. The same goes for aerial searches. However, in that case I think the situation justifies a larger presence. I would want to be sure I could be seen from the air.
While my “easy fire starter” is compact and reasonably foolproof, I do not recommend relying on just one method to start a fire. You should have a good but inexpensive magnesium fire starter. It’s something you can keep with you at all times. Another great idea is to keep a 9-volt battery with a handful of #0000 steel wool. Jamming the terminals into the steel wool will start a small blaze that burns very hot. You can keep the terminals covered with a bit of electrical tape. Even better, cut down an envelope to fit the battery in and secure it with tape. You can then put the battery and the steel wool in a Ziploc bag. The steel wool will compact down fairly well so the whole unit will fit most anywhere.
With any of these methods, be sure to have your kindling and some burnable wood ready. No matter what method you deploy, you can use the ideas in this article to keep you warm dry and alive.