Monday, 29 July 2013

A week in the wilds part 2: Living from the land

Previously on ‘A Week in the Wilds’…..(to be said in a silly deep voice..)

So far I had set off into an unfamiliar woodland, equipped with only a small knife, folding pocket saw, stainless steel cooking pot, a three metre length of parachute cord, a cloth bag for filtering water, several brass wire snares, some personal safety equipment (first aid kit, torch, method of communication in an emergency due to the solo nature of the challenge) a modest quantity of wild meat and the clothes I stood up in (all natural fibres, some home-made).

Day one had seen me find a suitable campsite, source water, create fire by friction, build my shelter and bed from scratch, filter and sterilize the stream water, stock up on prime fire wood, butcher my muntjac deer, eat some muntjac deer and preserve the remainder by smoking. My first night without any sleeping gear was bearable with periods of peaceful slumber interrupted by waking due to the cold. The fire would be built up high again (thanks to a fair amount of fuel wood preparation during the day) and peaceful slumber would descend upon me once more. Day one had been a challenging and tiring day with the end result being only to have provided myself with the absolute bare essentials for survival outdoors. A roof over our heads, warmth, water, food, protection – these are all things we take for granted yet it had taken me all my effort, a whole day of hard work and several years of training to accomplish this seemingly simple set of requirements. My strategy had gone pretty much exactly to plan. Any minor failure at this early stage would’ve set a disastrous domino effect in motion.
Home sweet home in the deep dark woods
Of course, I put any success mainly down to the years of training and a positive and confident approach to the situation but there’s no denying that a certain amount of luck played a part too. A couple of hours of heavy rain in the morning might’ve painted a very different picture…

 Day two:

Although in survival terms, food comes right down at the bottom of the priority list, I knew that my hard graft to get ahead of the game on day one would all go to waste if I ignored my daily calorie intake at this stage. Rather than just purely survival, the object of this week in the wilds was to see how truly self-sufficient we could be relying mainly on natural resources. I knew that any easily converted energy stores within my body would’ve been used on day one for building shelter, lighting the fire, getting through the first night. It would be a while before my body started tapping into alternative stored energy (fat and muscle glycogen) and in the meantime, just keeping the fire going and staying hydrated (can’t access aforementioned alternative stored energy sources without adequate hydration) would be a slow and sluggish slog. To continue improving my situation rather than just lie in my shelter waiting for endex, I would need to invest my time and remaining energy in obtaining some quality carbohydrates. It has been said that fat burns in a carbohydrate flame meaning that even a relatively small amount of carbohydrate daily would help tap into my more than adequate energy reserves. The ultra-lean venison I had slowly spinning in the smoke from my fire could be only be considered as prime quality protein for helping to re-build tired muscles, an essential part of a balanced diet and daily calorific intake and several useful by-products (raw hide, sinew, bone) but not really an energy boost.

Nonetheless, with a breakfast of skewered venison and a few handfuls of sugar rich blackberries, fully hydrated on murky but boiled stream water, the fire banked up with slow burning oak, I set off with an empty daysack to discover what natures supermarket had to offer.  From my initial recce I knew that the tiny stream bordering the woods linked in with a couple of ponds out in the open fields, a potential habitat for Greater Reedmace. Greater Reedmace or Cattails (Typha latifolia L) is a supreme survival food. Stacked full of starchy carbohydrates, easy to recognise, relatively easy to harvest, found all over the place and pretty much throughout the year it was number one on my shopping list. I made my way there slowly through the woods, ever vigilant for an opportunity along the way. A prolific patch of wood sorrel provided a tangy treat and although I had a good amount of dry tinder squirreled away back at the shelter, it made sense to grab a few handfuls of clematis bark when spotted and stash them away in my pockets.

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

As the open fields came into view, I slowed right down, hanging back in the shadows to see what wildlife might be going about it’s business. I’d already found deer tracks along with squirrel, badger and fox sign but nothing seemed to be out and about in that particular field. Didn’t matter though, the Reedmace could be clearly seen filling the boggy hollow between this field and the next. After a good check to see if there were any other toxic lookalikes or potential pollutants upstream, I set to filling my daysack with food.
Greater Reedmace (Typha latifolia L)
The most energy rich part of Reedmace is the rhizome, an underwater root system which twists and winds it’s way through the murky pond mud linking up and inter-twining with it’s surrounding counterparts. It’s important to trace this rhizome from tip to source and pull the whole thing up. For starters you’ll want the whole plant to make a positive ID but also, there are other parts which are of use to the forager. The long, wide, flat leaves are good for weaving food preparation mats, cordage and woven containers, the dried stems can be used as a delicate hand drill for friction fires and the brown, sausage like heads broken open and used as tinder or clothing insulation (old dead ones are best).
Nutritious pollen from the forming reedmace head

If you have a reedmace stand nearby to where you live, keep a close eye on them in early summer. While the heads are still green and just emerging from the leaves (so not all that obvious to the untrained eye) a bright yellow pollen spike can be found proudly sitting on the top. With a tap and a shake over a collection device (plastic bag) this yellow pollen can be gathered in quantity. Mix it up to a paste with clean water, cook it on a hot rock or in a pan and you have an extremely tasty and nutritious yellow biscuit. I’d missed that particular boat with this crop but didn’t hold back gathering the rhizomes. Although the novelty of delving around in the cold, stinking mud for slimy roots began to wear off almost immediately and I was constantly aware of needing to get back before the fire went out, I gathered as many as I could carry knowing that repeated trips back and forth would be a waste of valuable energy.

Foraged fare: blackberries, plantain, dandelion, hairy bitter cress, burdock root and reedmace


On the return trip, looking like a human cattail stand, I grabbed a good quantity of blackberries, some wood hedgehog fungi, a couple of common puffballs, plenty of dandelion, mint, thistle, ribwort plantain and nettle leaves and a couple of burdock roots. The burdock roots were a calculated risk as despite also being packed with starchy carbohydrates they’re much harder to harvest than the reedmace but these looked like big ‘uns and the ground was soft and easy to dig. I also took a good quantity of the huge leaves (less than 50% of the leaves off each plant to lessen any impact) to help patch up any dodgy areas on my shelter roof and also use as toilet paper should the need arise! One big burdock leaf became a makeshift blackberry basket with some on the spot origami and a sharpened twig. The dandelion leaves are normally quite bitter if eaten raw but these were growing under a tall crop of red clover which had done a good job of shading them from the sun, accidentally ‘blanching’ them nicely. Eating fungi as a survival food is another risky and quite pointless strategy. Nutritionally and calorifically they are pretty poor and the chances of gathering a toxic lookalike are high, however puffballs and wood hedgehogs are both easy to recognise if you know what to look for and difficult to confuse with anything dangerous (puffballs must be completely white inside with no yellowing or signs of an immature mushroom forming). The taste and texture would be a welcome addition to my survival stew!


Common Puffball (lycoperdon perlatum)
Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

The humble blackberry but what a fantastic, sugary 'pick me up'

Wood Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum)
Weighed down with foraged goodies I re-entered camp and re-kindled my dying fire using the clematis bark. After working so hard to make fire and relying on it to fulfil so many roles during the week, the thought of walking away and leaving it to die down is terrifying but knowing how to correctly manage a fire is almost as much of an important skill as knowing how to light it in the first place. Seasoned oak as a fuel wood along with a well-protected fire place meant that the heart of the fire would stay hot for a long time, certainly hot enough to ignite the finely shredded clematis bark. Building the fire up big on one side of the fireplace allowed me to pull embers and hot ash across to the other side for cooking. I suspended my billycan above the flames to boil water for a mint tea while more skewered venison roasted slowly above the embers. A slack handful of reedmace rhizomes were placed straight in the embers and hot ash at the edge of the fire to steam the starch rich fibres in their own skins, like a long stringy baked potato…sort of.

Reedmace rhizomes cooking in their skins, straight on the embers

Once cooked (normally until the outer skin is charred) the stringy fibres are sucked and sucked and sucked…to remove the starch. It’s a weird way of eating something, almost like the reverse of chewing gum. You’re getting the goodness but without the pleasure and satisfaction of actually chewing something! Even so, I had re-booted my system with much needed energy and filled my belly with a hot meal and felt ready for anything.
Reedmace rhizomes cooked. Check out the starch packed fibres!
Although this ‘survival situation’ was self-imposed, putting that energy to good use was still very much a matter of prioritising. Before getting too excited, I took everything right back to basics and concentrated first and foremost on the essentials… shelter, protection and warmth during the coming night. My lean to roof had a few more armfuls of leaf mulch placed carefully to plug the gaps, the sides of my open fronted shelter were closed in using burdock leaves and bracken. My log wall heat reflector was extended to fully enclose the heat of the fire within my shelter walls and I cut, gathered and stacked the best fuel wood I could find so as to be within easy reach of my bed during the night. My mattress benefitted from another thick layer of leaves too. All the while my billycan simmered away over the fire. As soon as the water came to a rolling boil it was taken off the heat, mint leaves added, cooled as rapidly as possible and drunk whether I felt like I needed to or not. Then more stream water was gathered in the millbank filter bag, allowed to slowly drain through into the billy and placed back over the fire to boil while I worked - survival multi-tasking!
Feeding long lengths of fuel wood into the fire, saves a lot of sawing!
One big part of this whole experiment for me was to go beyond the survival stage and start thinking about self-reliance for an extended period. Essentially, identifying problems and finding solutions for them. This water routine threw up a glaring issue; with only one metal pot acting as water boiling device, drinking cup and liquid storage vessel my plans for using precious energy as efficiently as possible were hugely limited. In addition to the 'one pot' clean drinking water issue, having a metal pot to boil up a survival stew was probably my best cooking strategy. Boiling helped release starches from carbohydrate rich foods, the tougher cuts of venison could be made more digestible, infusing wild food stuffs with the more delicate wild flavourings would be easier and any greens included in the stew would be less bitter with loss of nutritional goodness minimised due to being able to guzzle down the liquid they were cooked in. Conclusion…not only was a metal cooking pot proving to be absolutely essential (perhaps second only to a good knife, or even level pegging) but what options did I have without it? Also, even with a metal cooking pot, how could I increase my own efficiency by improvising other supplementary equipment to drink and eat from and store water in once sterilized?

One possible solution to the above problem; a birch bark bucket and super heated rocks acting as a heating element to boil the water without a metal pot

As I pondered, I got to work on the venison meat smoking over my fire. The smoke had kept insects at bay and had sealed the outside of the meat to a degree but if I wanted it to last longer then it would need to be ‘jerked’. Making jerky involves slicing meat as thinly as possible then drying it as speedily as possible without cooking the meat. Your aim is to reduce the moisture content considerably to prevent spoiling. Drying in the sun will do this but drying in the smoke of a fire has the added advantage of keeping flies at bay and flavouring the meat at the same time. In the shade of the woods, this would be my best option. Above my fire was a handy, smoky spot where a couple of long sticks were suspended. These became my drying/smoking rack and anything that needed to be dried or smoked was laid across them, jerky, elder berries, buckskin moccasins, reedmace leaves (better to weave with if they’re dried first then dampened before weaving). The jerky only took a couple of days until it was good to go and if I was hungry during the time it took to dry fully, I took off a couple of the thicker pieces and boiled them up in a stew. 
Venison jerky and elderberries slowly drying in the smoke of the campfire
My survival stews were pretty good actually; peeled and sliced burdock root, sliced and diced reedmace rhizomes, dandelion, thistle, nettle, plantain leaves, hedgehog mushrooms, the oak smoked venison jerky and some lovely hairy bitter cress to pepper it up a bit. One particularly good breakfast involved slow cooking the venison shanks by suspending them on a withy to one side of the fire from about five in the morning. By breakfast time this normally tough cut of meat was juicy and tender like spare ribs…it’s making me hungry just thinking about it!
I have undertaken types of similar survival training in the past, most of which have involved an element of living from the land but what made this experience different? For me, prior extensive training helped greatly. A combination of taking time to gain more of an understanding of what my body needs to function combined with an increased knowledge of wild foods…not just which plants are edible but their food values, available nutrition, energy expended during harvesting; this information is important to help you target certain species over others, therefore minimizing time wasting and energy expenditure by bumbling around the woods grabbing randomly at the local flora. An increased skill level in ALL areas, including wild food foraging made the whole process seem easier, more within my comfort zone (as you would hope..) thereby giving me the headspace needed to make sensible decisions. Stocking up during my initial foraging foray was definitely a good move too. Repeated trips back and forth would have had a negative impact on my energy expenditure versus calorie intake equation. So; regular practice, experimentation, testing oneself, just getting out there and getting stuck in – they do all make a huge difference. Even if you don’t ever expect to need to feed yourself from the land, but you have an interest in natural history and bushcraft then taking your experimentation to the next level like this helps complete a bit more of the jigsaw.  This is the stuff you can’t learn from books!
My fellow Hunter Gatherers, doing their own thing in another corner of the wood. This is Dave 'the android' Slate
Seasonality obviously played a part (autumn is one of the better foraging seasons) but many of the plants I targeted would still have been around during the winter months with the exception of blackberries. Burdock root might’ve been more of a mission although the area I gathered from had first and second year growth hopefully allowing me to identify a source of potential roots from the dead second year flowering stalks during the winter. Admittedly the colder weather would’ve placed a lot more emphasis on gathering a higher number of calories daily. Feeding oneself adequately would be a fulltime occupation and an abundant area would be depleted pretty quick too. Therefore, in this case anyway, location potentially played a bigger part than seasonality. 
Scotty had a cosy set up and turned out to be an expert squirrel catcher
I wasn’t able to count my daily calorie intake accurately but it was definitely lower than normal (not a bad thing to be honest..), despite my best efforts to gather as much high calorie food as possible. During the week I lost half a stone in bodyweight! However, rather than feeling low on energy and sluggish, I felt fitter, more energetic, a real spring in my step! I’m no dietician but I put this down to a couple of potential reasons. Firstly, what carbohydrate I was eating was unprocessed, top quality, pure energy. Mostly slow release carbs providing a more steady, regulated type of energy. Some natural fruit sugars were included daily but nowhere near the Billy Bunter quantities of chocolate I consume daily back in the real world. Also, these sugars were needed and used immediately rather than being mainly excess to requirements, accompanied by all manner of dodgy chemicals and giving me mega sugar highs and lows.
Guy's little corner of the wood. A well constructed fire screen if ever I saw one!
My second theory is based on the wonders of including dandelion leaves in your diet. As a well-known diuretic along with being a healthy green leaf (something I don’t eat enough of) I just feel that my system had a super de-tox, fortified by the fantastic unprocessed, healthy calories coming straight back in. Of course, none of this can be proven (not by me anyway) but my feeling is that had I continued with the experiment a bit longer, my weight loss might’ve reached an optimum level as well as my calorific requirements being slightly lower (already had fire, shelter and plentiful supplies of water and fire wood close by coupled with a more streamlined physique to feed). I’d like to think that in the right location, with no hunting and trapping restrictions (more on this in the next post) then living from the land successfully could certainly be achievable, if not indefinitely then maybe for an extended period. This may well be fanciful pie in the sky on my part but I certainly felt extremely positive after my own experiences.
In the next post I’ll detail how all this excess time and energy was invested to improve my situation by crafting effective hunting weapons, trying my hand at a bit of primitive pottery and other Robinson Crusoe style shenanigans. 
For Part 3, click here



Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Fire lighting part 2 – using the bow and drill method:

So, imagine you really need a fire. You’ve found some relatively dry and sheltered spot, protection from the elements but, your one and only set of clothing is wet and therefore conducting the creeping cold through to your already shivering body at a much faster rate than it otherwise would. You have plenty of water for a brew (it’s been raining cats and dogs for an eternity) and a few soggy hot chocolate sachets but you know that drinking the freezing rain water, chocolaty or not would potentially lower your core temperature putting you at further risk from hypothermia. You also know that any surrounding vegetation which could otherwise provide some insulation from the cold earth, will be sodden and with night fast approaching and temperatures due to plummet your only real chance of making it through to see another morning is in getting that campfire going. You’ve collected plenty of dry standing dead wood from the surrounding woodlands and have even got a small but sturdy knife blade on your emergency multi tool to shave away the damp outer bark and split the larger sections exposing the dry material inside. An empty critters nest of shredded honey suckle bark and thistle down, hidden away inside the hollow buttress of an old tree was a lucky find, very slightly damp but nonetheless perfect tinder. Only problem is you’ve got no matches. Well, you have got matches but every single one is damp enough for the heads to disintegrate every time you attempt to produce that much needed flame. In the current situation you have two choices…curl up into a shivering miserable ball and count the chilly hours away until morning (if you make it that is) or alternatively start rubbing some of those dry sticks together!

Crazy though it sounds to those of us who live in a modern age of disposable lighters and self-igniting gas stoves, rubbing sticks together does actually work. You just need to know which sticks, how to prepare them, exactly how to rub them and for how long. The bow and drill method has been used in many environments for tens of thousands of years. As with other methods of lighting fire by friction (the hand drill, fire plough and fire saw) the basic principle involves one dry, seasoned wooden component rotating fast or in some other way being worked equally as speedily into another dry, seasoned wooden component. The two surfaces wear each other away creating very hot, blackened wood dust which is purposefully caught in a notch or groove carved into a wooden hearth board. The continual movement of one component working against the other at speed also serves to keep these tiny, hot, wood dust particles at a very high temperature. So much so that eventually they smoulder and begin to ignite. Individually these particles would burn out in the blink of an eye but working together in a cluster, their heat spreads and grows stronger, feeding and fusing the little heap of black powder into a single, glowing coal or ‘ember’. This small glowing ember is placed carefully inside a bundle of dry, fine tinder material (previously mentioned honeysuckle bark critters nest) and gently fed with oxygen by wafting or blowing until the diminutive heat source spreads to the fine tinder surrounding it, creating flame. The flaming tinder is introduced to your previously prepared kindling and bingo! No more hypothermia or cold brews. 

So although all methods of fire by friction are based on the above principles, the bow and drill method reigns supreme as the most reliable due to the mechanical advantage the bow offers. Preparation time is increased slightly by having to make the bow and bearing block but in doing so you’ll achieve far greater energy output, can get away with slightly less than perfect materials and can easily include other team members to double, or even treble up on the bowing and drilling making success more likely, even in the hands of a less skilled friction fire lighter. You should only need a small sharp blade of some sort to manufacture the individual components. Even a flint flake would do:
1.       Bow – This can be made from green wood about 2.5cm and as long as the distance between your armpit and your wrist. Straight wood can be used, but a slight bend is preferable. Carve a notch in each end to stop the cord slipping.
2.       Cord – You will need about 1m of strong cord. In an emergency, your bootlaces and jacket drawcords are all fair game. Twisted animal hide is a good substitute.
3.       Bearing block – Green wood preferably but could also be a stone with a natural hollow, a bone, shell or even a little jam jar. Needs to be a comfortable size to grip with one hand and if made from wood, should have a little socket carved into its underside. Stuff a waxy green leaf, such as holly, into this socket to create a shiny, friction-reduced surface where it connects with the top of the drill.
4.       Ember pan – Sliver of wood or a section of bark. Must be slim enough to slide under the hearth board and catch your charred wood dust.
5.       Tinder bundle – All buffed up and perfectly prepared, ready to accept a glowing ember.
Wild Clematis and birch bark mix - the rocket fuel of natural tinders
6.       Drill – Both drill and hearth board must be made from dry, well-seasoned, standing dead wood, which should be still firm and good to carve, not yet powdery. The softer hardwoods are best, such as lime, sycamore, alder, willow and poplar. Hazel makes an excellent drill in conjunction with these hearth-board woods. Carve the drill into a round cross section with a diameter about as thick as your thumb. It must be about 25cm long with a point on each end. The top should be sharply pointed to create a tiny surface area where it is held by the bearing block, minimizing friction. The bottom of the drill must have a blunt point to ensure that a wide surface area is in contact with the hearth, making as much friction as possible.

Standing dead wood. Although shown next to an axe, this was snapped into the lengths shown
7.       Hearth board – Your hearth board should be about 25cm long, 5cm wide and about as thick as your thumb. Carve a little pinpoint depression into one face of the hearth board, roughly central on its width and about a third in from one edge. This is for guiding the blunt point of the drill as you begin to bow. Once made, keep your hearth board, drill and tinder bundle somewhere dry until you need to use them.
Spindle carved correctly and hearth board split down to size on one end. Bow, ember pan and seasoned ash bearing block also shown
Using the bow and drill:
First, attach the cord to your bow with a knot that can easily be undone for adjustment. The cord should be slightly loose rather than taut like an archery bow string. You should only just be able to twist the cord one turn around your drill. The easiest way to do this is to lay the drill alongside the cord, rotate it slightly to overlay the cord and then twist it round to bring it vertical to the still-horizontal bow string. This wraps the cord tightly around the drill. Ensure the blunt point faces downwards. If the drill twists in too easily, you may have to re-tie your cord a little tighter.
Kneel down on your right knee only, using your left foot to clamp the hearth board (pinpoint depression uppermost) steady on the ground just to the right side of your foot. Locate the blunt point of the drill into this depression, and, holding the bearing block in your left hand, locate the sharper drill point into the socket on the underside of the bearing block, thus clamping the drill in a vertical position. Your bearing-block hand should be held tightly against your left shin to keep everything locked in place, otherwise you’ll expend a lot of energy just trying to keep the whole apparatus steady (this is a difficult position to get into and even harder to explain but luckily there’s an accompanying image below).
The drill must already be twisted into the bow string, and with a back-and-forth sawing action while bearing down slightly on the block, the drill should spin freely as you bow. This repetitive movement will spin the drill into the hearth board, creating heat through friction. As long as you’re bowing fast and hard enough, the point where drill and hearth meet will start to smoke as both wooden surfaces begin to char and consume one another. But don’t get too excited yet! When the drill has burnt a little charred socket in the hearth board of the same diameter as itself, stop and have a rest.
You will find that all around the blackened socket burnt wood dust, or ‘char’, has collected. This is the magic dust that eventually becomes an ember, and in order to catch it and keep it hot, a notch must be cut into the hearth board. Using a sharp blade or small saw, cut a triangular section from one side of the hearth board, the apex of which extends into the centre of your burnt socket (indicated by the dotted line on the 'parts of a bow drill' illustration and the image below).
Once sufficiently rested, get yourself back into the same awkward position, replace the waxy green leaf in the bearing block (the previous leaf will probably have disintegrated), tighten the bow string (which will probably have stretched a little) and slip the ember pan between hearth and ground right under the notch. Then take a few deep breaths and begin to spin the drill in its socket again by moving the bow back and forth. Pace yourself at this point, conserving your energy. Concentrate on keeping a regular, smooth action with just the right amount of downward pressure: too much and the drill will bind, or stick, in the hearth, causing the cord to slip; too little and your char dust will only be brown in colour and nowhere near hot enough. Keep the bow cord running centrally between top and bottom of the rotating drill, and apply more tension to it, if needed, by pinching the cord tighter against the bow with the fingers of your bowing hand. Use the full length of the bow to give a maximum number of revolutions for your energy output. You should see smoke and black char very soon. (If not, you may need to apply more pressure to the bearing block or pick up the bowing pace.)
Spindle rotating, heat building, both wood surfaces consuming one another becoming charred particles gathering in the notch

Notch filling with char, plenty of smoke, char starting to spill out around the spindle/socket

Most of the hot, black char should now be collecting on your ember pan inside your notch cut. As the smoke increases and thickens, your notch should completely fill with char. In damp conditions this could take a while, but in good conditions with a perfect technique you should be at this stage after about 30 seconds of quality bowing. Remember that there are 101 reasons why this technique might not have worked. If your ember attempt isn’t immediately successful, work out what needs tweaking and keep at it. You may need to reduce the friction where the drill sits inside the bearing block by sharpening the point and adding another waxy leaf, or the cord may be slipping and need to be re-tightened. However, if thick, acrid smoke is being produced and your ember notch is spilling over with jet-black wood dust, dig in and increase the pace considerably for a sprint finish. Thirty good fast strokes should ensure that your little mound of hot powder grows hot enough to burn all by itself.

Top tips...
If you REALLY need this technique to work and there's more than just you in your group then it makes perfect sense to halve the work by 'buddying up' on the bow drill set. Two people or even more can work in unison to produce quicker results. Remember, there’s no ‘I’ in team but there’s plenty in ‘I haven’t got my fire to light’. Don’t try and be a hero, many hands make light work!
'To you' three die hards power away to create an ember
Once your notch is full of hot, smoking char, stop bowing and carefully roll the hearth board away to leave your miniature volcano intact. It should continue to smoke if it’s hot enough inside. You may even see a soft red glow from within.
Use a small twig to hold the fledgling ember in place as you roll away the hearth
While protecting the fragile ember from any gusts of wind (and try not to sneeze or cough), gently increase the flow of oxygen by slightly fanning with your hand, and you will see it glow red as it gradually solidifies into a hot little coal.
Once it’s strong enough, tip it into the middle of your tinder bundle and blow it into glorious flame as previously described.

Now sit back and enjoy the moment. Life will never be the same again!
A good ember is introduced to a tinder bundle of honeysuckle bark
Surround the ember with fuel and blow to increase oxygen flow through the heart of the tinder bundle
Thick smoke is a sure sign that ignition is only seconds away

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Fire lighting - effective techniques for all weathers

Your basic survival kit should be able to provide all the essentials for survival, but what if you don’t have your survival kit with you? The ability to improvise using whatever resources are close to hand is a vital skill that should be practiced and honed whenever you get the chance. In most cases shelter from the elements will be your primary consideration and it makes a lot of sense to initially search for some form of existing or natural shelter in the near vicinity. However, if natural cover isn't available, having a good understanding of the most fundamental shelter building principles , a working knowledge of natural materials and a simple but effective shelter option up your sleeve could save the day. So, even without our basic survival kit, effective protection from the elements can still be achieved and the immediate threat to life dealt with. In many cases, certainly in colder climates our next consideration must be to provide warmth and without specialised gear such as a sleeping bag or cold weather clothing, a warming camp fire may be the only option.

In survival terms a camp fire is so much more than just a provider of warmth. It’s flames and smoke provide an age old signalling device to alert rescuers, water can be made safe to drink by boiling, nuisance animals and insects can be kept at bay, wet clothing can be dried, the toxins in certain plant foods can be destroyed by heat making them safe to eat and food stuffs can be dried and smoked to preserve them. Wooden tools and weapons can be made more durable by baking them hard in the embers, in fact fire itself has even been used as a tool in days gone by, both for hunting by attracting fish to a flaming torch or driving animals from their hiding places and as a method of felling trees, sectioning the trunk and hollowing out the wood to make containers or even dug-out canoes. It’s pretty much wholly responsible for taking us out of the stone-age and onwards towards the manufacture of metal tools, shiny trinkets and the X box. In short, it really is such an essential element of our existence that, quite frankly if you feel that you don’t possess the skills to produce fire with or without modern equipment then you should probably question your current position as a serving member of the human race!

Don’t panic though, help is at hand. In this post I’ll cover the basics of preparing and lighting a fire, stripping the skill right back to basics assuming minimal access to modern gear. With this in mind, a keyword to remember above all else is ‘preparation’. If your only available method of ignition is an improvised one (think Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’) then all attempts to produce flames could end in tears if you haven’t adequately prepared the materials necessary to turn smoke into fire. Throw some less than perfect weather conditions, a sprinkling of thirst and hunger plus a good dollop of tiredness into the mix and despite being supreme ruler of the barbeque at home, failure could well be waiting to pull the rug right out from under you.
Without your survival kit to fall back on, your first consideration must always be tinder. The definition of tinder is a material, so fine, dry and combustible that it will ignite from the smallest flame or coolest spark. Chances are, such a material will also be incredibly absorbent to moisture so if relying on locally foraged tinder then unless it’s a bright sunny day it’ll probably be anything from slightly damp to sodden. Collecting tinder early gives you the chance to dry it out by putting a little bit in all of your inside pockets and letting body-heat warm it through. Remember that to be a successful survivor you must be an opportunist and gathering tinder materials when you see them to squirrel away somewhere dry should be pretty high on the priority list. You’ll ideally want a bundle of tinder around the size of a grapefruit. In a typical European temperate environment look out for dead bracken, wild clematis or honeysuckle bark, dead grass, dead pine needles, thistle down and the lord of all tinders, birch bark. Birch trees naturally shed their outer bark in wispy, papery peelings perfect for catching a spark but best of all, this bark contains a natural tar substance that burns with a strong, bright flame.

Wild Clematis vine bark peelings
 'Cramp Ball' or 'King Alfred's Cakes' a fungus which grows on dead ash
Wild honeysuckle bark. Only remove the dead peelings
Thistle down. Perfect for catching a spark and turning it into flame but it must be surrounded by a more substantial, coarse tinder

Prepare the fire place:
Next, prepare your fireplace. For all it’s many good points, a fire lit in the wrong place can have disastrous consequences so regardless of your situation always be wary of the risk of your fire spreading and becoming out of control. Choose an area well away from combustible materials and clear all plant matter away for at least a metre all around the fireplace, paying close attention to any overhanging foliage. If possible, clear it right back to bare earth but even then be alert to the terrifying possibility that certain soil types will burn and smoulder (peaty soil or soil with shallow, interlocking root systems). Look for a sheltered place out of the wind or create a barrier with local materials. Avoid surrounding the fire with rocks if you can as the moisture inside will expand as they heat up, causing them to crack open with a loud bang at best. At worst, they’ll explode sending red hot shards of rock flying through the air! I’ve experienced this inside a natural shelter and it made me squeal! Good job nobody else was there to witness such a shameful spectacle. Instead, dig a shallow pit about the circumference and depth of an upturned dustbin lid in which to start your fire off. This will provide some shelter from the wind and keep it where you want it as it grows. Line the base of the pit with dry sticks to provide a dry platform for your tinder and allow plenty of air flow underneath. A wind barrier can be made using piles of firewood with the added bonus of allowing the wood a chance to dry out.
A well prepared fire site, instructor ready to attempt ignition
Taking no chances! This fireplace in coniferous woodland has been excavated and filled with a clay base to prevent accidental ignition of underground root systems 
A fire needs three elements to exist and grow – oxygen, heat and fuel. Oxygen is obviously all around us but can be restricted if your fire isn’t constructed so as to allow air flow easily through the fuel wood. It can also be increased if needs be by blowing or fanning when the fire’s struggling to get going. Heat relates to your chosen method of ignition and fuel, in most instances will be wood (but might also be blubber, bones, dung or peat depending on where in the world you happen to be). Fuel wood must be added to the tinder starting with the thinnest, driest stuff first to allow it to grow steadily. This important next stage in your fire’s development goes by the name of ‘kindling’ and can be anything from match stick up to finger in thickness. It should also be bone dry, gathered from dead tree trunks and suspended fallen branches rather than from the damp forest floor. In wet weather, strip the soggy bark away or better still, split down larger sections of dead, dry wood into thin splints. This is a highly underrated fire lighting technique that is well worth the investment in time and energy. In fact, in cold wet climates you’ll struggle to achieve a fire without doing this. Even when all the tinder and kindling in the wood is soaking wet, splitting open larger section dead wood will provide both. By using a lump of heavy wood as a batten with a knife, axe or even a piece of flint as a splitting wedge, even quite sizeable logs can be halved, quartered and so on with relative ease. By carefully carving the dry wood inside into paper thin shavings you have all the makings of a successful fire even in wet weather. With practice, these ‘feather sticks’ can be carved fine enough to light from a spark!
'Feathering' split dry standing deadwood to provide dry tinder in wet conditions

Building a jenga stack of split seasoned oak - maximum oxygen, fuel and heat for a hot ember bed
Fuel wood:
Fuel wood should only be added as the fire becomes established and able to support itself. Start with the thinnest pieces first and increase in size as the fire grows. Flinging a yule log on too early could smother the fire and put you right back to square one. Fuel wood must also be dead and well-seasoned, ranging from finger thick upwards depending on how much of an inferno you’re hoping to achieve. Not all woods burn the same and different species have different qualities. Oak and ash burn well providing excellent cooking embers, hawthorn and beech burn bright and hot, pine will provide plenty of light to work by after dark, fruit woods smell nice and sweet chestnut spits sparks out onto your sleeping bag all night long. Gather a sizeable stack while you still have daylight remaining, more than you think you’ll need. There’s nothing more depressing than trudging round a cold dark forest at 3am looking for firewood in your boots and underpants.
Sawing fuel wood to length and splitting it with an axe will help a fire in it's early stages or cold, damp conditions
Play it safe when splitting smaller pieces. The technique of bringing a small axe and small section of wood together onto a solid stump minimizes risk of a poorly placed chop 

Once the fire is established, feed long lengths into the centre. Unnecessary processing wastes energy. Note the log wall fire reflector - this throws radiated heat back at the shelter occupant and shields the fire from the wind, conserving fuel 
Light it up!
There are many ways to arrange your kindling and fuel wood around your tinder before introducing a method of ignition. A tepee arrangement starting with the thinnest kindling first will catch the flames from your tinder bundle and easily spread upwards and outwards to the thicker fuel wood, helped along by it’s chimney like structure encouraging good ‘draw’. It’s a classic for bad weather and damp materials. Around this build a kind of ‘log cabin’ alternating stack of ever increasingly thicker fuel wood providing plenty of air flow, combined with plenty of fuel and you’ll be guaranteed of a morale boosting blaze extremely quick. Kindling can also be propped up over the tinder using a thicker log, or even held above it using a little mini goalpost made from the largest kindling sticks.
Providing a blast of oxygen right into the heart of the tinder bundle

Showing the bare minimum amount of ultra dry, match stick thin kindling you should gather

Propping up the kindling to allow the fire to grow upwards without smothering the flame
Adding the thinnest fuel wood in an alternating matrix to create a hot 'heart' to the fire. Increasingly thicker fuel wood is added in the same way. Now put the kettle on and never let it go out...
Whichever arrangement you use remember that fire needs fuel and oxygen as well as heat to grow and it naturally wants to spread upwards. If something isn’t working as you’d hoped then come back to these basic principles and re-arrange your materials accordingly. After sourcing suitable materials, success is really just a matter of trouble shooting.  If you’ve ever had to rely on fire as a tool for survival through necessity or choice then I’m sure you’ll agree that once those flames are dancing, suddenly everything else becomes possible.
But hang on. Before you reach for the marshmallows we need to discuss a method of ignition. Again, assuming no survival kit we’ll take it right back to basics and in the next post I’ll take a detailed look at the bow and drill method of friction fire lighting.