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.



  1. Joe,

    just read both your articles, excellent. I have always "played" with fire, utmost respect but still its fun, I get the impression you agree. Cheers for spending the time writing this and saving me from work for a few minutes! Julian

  2. Thanks Julian! Glad you enjoyed it and found it useful

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