Obviously, being able to make a fire in a SHTF scenario is of utmost importance. In addition to providing warmth and cooking capabilities, fire also provides a psychological boost.
As an avid outdoorsman, who is originally from Canada, I’ve got a lot of experience and training, but I’m by no means claiming to be an expert. I just want to share some of my findings that may prove useful to others. I have several stories about the importance of fire-making. Here’s an example:
I was in the Boreal Forest in Canada and noticed a large billboard containing the writing “Nature Trail” and a map of the trail, which went in a 1-mile circle. I thought I’d love to learn more about plants so decided to take the trail.
I had two bags of groceries in my truck, along with my camping gear. It was only a mile, so I figured I’d be only gone 30 minutes. Well, the end never came. It started getting dark, so I started jogging in hope to reach the end quicker. As darkness fell, I soon realized that I was lost.
The temperature was getting cold, but that didn’t stop the mosquitoes; there were ungodly swarms of them eating me alive. All I had to make a fire was a dead Bic lighter. Thank God someone once showed me a trick with a Bic! If it’s dead and you hold down the valve and then make the spark, a very tiny flame will result. With that I was barely able to start a fire, which helped keep the mosquitoes away and warm me up. I heated up a bunch of large rocks, put my jacket over my face and arms to keep the mosquitoes away, and covered my body with the rocks to keep warm. They were still warm to the touch when I woke up in the morning.
When I finally found my way out, I asked the locals about that nature trail. They said, “Oh sorry; that isn’t finished yet. You were on trapper trails that go for a hundred miles north!”
Anyhow, that’s one example of the importance of knowing how to start a fire. Fire-making is almost an art. It’s a near impossible art when the wood is wet. Even when you think that you’ll be able to start a fire because you stacked good wood correctly, it’s not guaranteed, depending on wind, oxygen availability, the wood, and other variables.
This is what happened to me the other day. I put a large pile of tinder down and then stacked some thicker pieces on top; I figured this will be easy. It wasn’t, and is the reason I’m writing this article. I landed up using a poor man’s fire starter. Previously, in the winter (for my wood stove), I went to the dollar store and bought a bunch of those pre-formed paper coin wrappers, some cotton balls, and petroleum jelly. You dip a cotton ball in the jelly, and stuff it in the paper tube, until it’s filled. These beauties work awesome. The one I used in the aforementioned fire burnt for fifteen minutes! With that fire, I had to stoke it with tinder several times before I was able to get some logs to burn; it had rained a day prior and the wood was waterlogged, even though it appeared dry.
When I go camping though, I prefer the small plastic pouches that have a fire starter chemical in them, because the cotton ball starters are a little messy.
The absolute best wood to use in starting a fire is dried out pine needles, you know, the brown ones. The first internal combustion engine was powered by turpentine and ethanol alcohol, which is made from pine. It’s no wonder; it burns like gasoline! I had a fire recently that was easy to get started, because I had a few pine boughs that had been drying for months. It ignited like gasoline, and putting larger branches on top, it was a no brainer. I believe we could get off of our reliance on oil by harvesting the oil in pine leaves instead.
Another ideal fuel starter is birch bark. However, you need to be careful not to kill the tree by taking the bark off. Only take the bark that is already peeling off. It naturally repels water. If hiking and you spot some, put some in your pocket in case you need a fire starter.
Dry grass is the easiest to light (pine needles take more heat to get started).
If your kindling is wet, use a pocket knife to cut off the outside layer and make shavings on the stick. (Don’t cut the shaving all the way; but leave the shaving hanging on the branch.) According to this article, if you find wood oozing with sap, you can use that too, although I’ve never had the occasion to try that. My recent experience with starting a fire with wet wood resulted in the fire initially raging successfully but then dying out later.
Softwoods (i.e. fir, apple, and witch hazel) burn quickly and give off good heat and lighting. They make sparks when they burn. They are ideal for starting a fire and cooking rapidly. The wood is quickly burned up, leaving only ashes.
Hardwoods (i.e. birch, hickory, ash, maple, and oak) burn slowly and evenly, giving off heat and also result in coals that can be used to cook over.
The trick to fire-building is to build the fire beginning with tinder and steadily adding twigs, sticks, and branches, but really, fire-making is an art form, even with years of experience. I still have trouble occasionally. Not enough space or too much space between the sticks or logs can put the fire out. With too much smoke, the same thing happens. Too much moisture, well, causes it too. The environmental conditions make a huge difference. I’ve tried tepee style fires, log home type stacking, and just plain randomness. Basing my decision on the conditions is what I’ve settled with. Every time I start a fire I usually have a unique configuration. However, proper construction beforehand has proven reliable too. Strategic blowing of air onto the fire to help fuel it is mandatory in wet conditions. Also, in a wet environment, once the fire is burning robustly, keeping it fueled in a robust burning condition will ensure that your fire is not extinguished, unless you’re under a torrential down pour, in which case you should give your fire shelter.
I was in Boy Scouts (even did winter camping in Canada), and they teach you for winter conditions to build a “Reflector” out of logs to reflect the heat from your fire into your shelter. Well, I tried that when winter camping for nine days in -30+ degrees Fahrenheit in Canada. We made a lean-to with a fire in front and a reflector (wall of logs) behind the fire. It didn’t work; we froze. What saved us was my partner had a great idea to instead build a teepee out of a canvas tarp. Tepees are awesome! You build a fire on the floor in the center, and the little hole at the top of the tee-pee sucks out the smoke. Though better off, we were still cold, which was resolved when we made a stove out of metal pails that we found at a garbage dump. After we built that, it was toasty warm in the tepee. However, it required constant firewood chopping all day to stay warm. It was a full-time job to chop enough wood. I’ve heard that to have enough wood, multiply by five the amount you think you need. Respecting nature, I always try to find dead fall wood, which there usually is in abundance, except sometimes you may need to travel a distance.
Just for fun, I’ll share another experience where fire was my best friend. I was in the Canadian forest in minus 30 degree temperatures once again. My truck wouldn’t start, and there was no one around for 100 miles. The battery was so cold that it couldn’t crank the engine. So what did I do? I built a fire under the truck by the battery. I managed the size of the flames so that it wouldn’t start the truck on fire! I didn’t think it would work, because I had no tarps to keep out the wind, but it did, thank God! That time I had a fully-functioning BIC lighter!
Although the subject is not about tools to start a fire, here’s a good video exactly on that subject.
As far as tools go, there’s nothing like the good old reliable Zippo Lighter! My friend from Iowa taught me a great trick regarding Zippo’s. There is nothing worse than needing a lighter; it’s fully fueled, but the flint runs out! His trick, which is amazingly simple, is to put a spare flint or two beneath the felt cover flap, sitting on top of the cotton. It’s awesome. You’ll always have a spare flint that way.