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Think fast: in a truly bad survival situation -- like sudden war outbreak, being totally lost in the backcountry, or a major disease epidemic -- the ability to start a fire might be the most important in order to stay alive. However, when faced with the task of starting a fire from scratch, most people couldn’t do it even if you paid them. Here’s 3 tips to keep in mind so that you can always feel confident about your ability to summon fire when you need it most.
This isn’t the Stone Age, and rubbing two sticks together isn’t going to cut it when your life, and the lives of those you care about, are hanging in the balance. We’ve become used to our comfortable everyday lives, which has fooled us into the feeling that a butane lighter or matches will always be available if we need them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We could argue all day about which tools are most critical to have access to in the wilderness or in a stark survival scenario, but there’s no question that a flint and steel fire-starting set would be in the top 3. Ferrocerium rods like this one will last an absurdly long time without needing to be replaced, which means tossing one in your car, on your keychain, or in your backpack can provide you with tremendous flexibility later on.
Flick lighters can run out of fuel, leak, or fail in wet and cold weather. Good old fashioned flint and steel will reliably produce a shower of sparks to start a fire… no matter what.
First, you’ll want to create a “fire ring” -- usually a circle of stones that designates your burn pit. This keeps things safe and encourages the fire to stay contained to a small area instead of just tumbling over and burning out.
Now that you’ve adequately prepared yourself with the proper tools to start your fire, you need to find fuel (wood) and structure it properly so that you can build a fire. It’s shocking how many people have no idea that you can’t just hold a flame to a large piece of wood and wait for it to erupt in flames. It doesn’t work that way!
For starters, you’ll want to collect fine wood shavings, or something like it, to create the base of your fire. This will be the material that catches fire easily and quickly, which means it can get hot enough to ignite the rest of your fuel.
For this type of tinder, the classic trick is to find a large log somewhere, and split it open so that you can get to the core. Here, you can use a knife or something similar to scrape away at the softer, thread-like material found deep inside under the bark. Eventually, a pile of this will look like a bird’s nest, which is ideal for fire-starting. If you can’t find fine wood shavings like this, newspaper or other thin materials that will easily ignite will do in a pinch.
Next, you’ll want to start placing medium pieces of wood in a pyramid shape over your tinder nest. These should catch fairly quickly if your tinder was placed well. The inner “chamber” of your fire structure should allow for air to get through, but not be so spacious that the flames never have a chance to get really hot.
Finally, you can stack larger pieces of wood in a larger pyramid shape or draped over the top of these inner structures. By the time these pieces ignite, you can feel confident that your fire won’t suddenly go out on you.
The initial 15 minutes or so of your fire are the most important, because it’s when the fire can go out if you’re not continuing to monitor the situation. If it seems like the flames are starting to die down, fan or blow gently on the tinder while cupping your hands around your mouth. By introducing oxygen into the core of the structure, you’re encouraging the fire to take root again.
By using your breath as a bellows like this, you can provide a “boost” to the fire whenever it starts to get low; literally fanning the flames!
Meanwhile, if the fire was created correctly, it will eventually burn through even your large pieces of wood and fuel. You should be continuing to add big pieces on as necessary without letting the fire get too small, or else you risk it going out. Once your fire has been going for a while, the base of embers is your best friend: it’s an extremely hot and sustainable bed of warmth that will help you restart even fires that have gotten extremely low.
By that same measure, though, be careful -- when putting your fire out, you’ll want to pour a ton of water on these still-hot embers, and bury them in several layers of dirt. Never underestimate the ability for embers to stay extremely hot for a long time, even underground. Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll be ready to cook, stay warm, and sanitize things even in the most rugged situations from now on.