Friday, 23 March 2018

Bad weather? Perfect opportunity to practice!

Earlier this week we were hit with an unexpected second dumping of snow. Snow rarely lasts very long in the UK, especially so late in the year so in addition to the standard seeking out of a suitably snowy incline to slide down on our backsides, I seized the opportunity to practice one of the more fundamental bushcraft techniques, lighting fire in inclement conditions. When I first started teaching bushcraft sixteen years ago, I found that having to perform a certain survival skill in front of a group of paying customers was a great way to hone that particular skill under significantly increased pressure! If these techniques are to be of any real use in an emergency then they should be practiced under stressful but controlled conditions. Even then, after time it’s all too easy to become complacent. You know where to find exactly the right resources, you’ve had time to prepare and squirrel away the best bits; even though the materials used are natural and taken from nature, psychologically  you’re as prepared as you would be using carried perfect man made kit. Every now and again you should stray further outside your comfort zone; a kind of sado-masochistic form of refresher training.
Having the ability to light a fire using only what can be found in the woods is a great skill to have. Knowing you can make the necessary tweaks to light that same fire in bad weather conditions develops that particular nugget of bushcraft into a life-saving skill. One main-stay of day to day bushcraft is the trick of splitting and then ‘feathering’ standing dead wood into kindling and even tinder,  to be sure of a roaring blaze when all other natural tinders and kindling are sodden.
In short, you must first find some dead seasoned wood, ideally still standing (not necessarily upright but away from the damp ground). The outer bark may well be wet but the inside should generally be dry if the wood is of the right condition – firm and carve able. Too far gone and it’ll be powdery, porous and therefore damp like a sponge but too green (freshly cut) and it’ll still be wet from sap within the wood. The inner bark is a good first indicator of suitability. Scrape the outer bark away and assess whether the inner bark is brown, brittle and papery (dead and seasoned – perfect) or green and flexible (not seasoned enough). Weight is also a good indicator. Seasoned wood is nice and light whereas green or wet wood is weighty.

Cut or snap a section around 30cm long and around 5cm in diameter. This section should be knot and blemish free for easy splitting and feathering. Wood types do play a part. Straight grained timber that splits straight and true is perfect (Sweet Chestnut, hazel, sliver birch) and even better if the wood is known to be resinous (pine, fir, spruce) which will produce brighter, stronger flames during the early stages of the fire.
Using your knife as a splitting wedge and another log as an improvised wood mallet, split the straight grained, knot free section down the middle. Make sure you use a wooden platform to split onto and consider the follow through of the cutting edge if you slip or split the wood more easily than expected! Keep all fleshy body parts well out of the way. Turn one half of the split timber through 90 degrees and split it in half again, then split each of those halves. The wood inside should be nice and dry and will burn really well as a fuel wood, however it needs further processing to serve as kindling and tinder too!

Take one of the straightest, split lengths and holding it firmly at the top, bear down onto a hard, wooden surface. Working on the sharp edge of the inner most part of the split wood, shave a thin curl from top to bottom leaving the fine shaving attached to the wood. Having shaved off the sharp ridge to make the curl, you will have created two new edges either side of it. Work on these now, shaving down the length of the wood to create two more thin shavings. The trick here is firstly to always work on the new edges or ridges you create as you carve a curly wood shaving but also to slightly dig the cutting edge deeper into the wood as you near the base of the feather stick. This should ensure that your curl is kept on the stick and not just sliced off. Keep shaving away the wood until you’ve amassed a veritable ‘fuzz’ of thin, dry wood shavings attached to a now quite skinny section of wood. Dry tinder and kindling in one neat package!  Of course, there’s a whole lot of finer detail that’s difficult to explain, but that’s the kind of information you’ll gain by getting out there and doing it. Several of these feather sticks arranged on top of one another should form a fail-safe foundation to your fire. Any remaining split wood can be split into thinner splints to make additional kindling. The extra preparation is well worth it and the additional benefits to practicing this technique are most definitely improved carving ability and knife control.


So, back to the snowy morning earlier this week. We’d had a good dumping of snow overnight and come morning, the snowflakes were still coming down, made even more blustery by the icy wind. Perfectly challenging conditions to practice this rough weather fire lighting technique in real conditions! Here are my findings which will hopefully be of use and put more meat on the bones of your own fire lighting training and kit preparation.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that I was fully equipped with warm and weatherproof gear, never putting myself in any real risk and had left full details of my route, location and my expected return time with someone responsible and reliable back home.


It doesn’t make much sense to light a fire out in the open in a blizzard when you have a more sheltered area nearby in the form of dense woodland which also provides all your fuel wood. However, the snow was heavy on every branch and twig and although I gave the trees directly overhead a good shake before getting started, I was still experiencing the odd dumping of snow, blown from the higher branches, right onto my fire place and dry, prepared materials. This could easily have been enough to put the fire completely out. Putting up some kind of temporary shelter before getting my fire going was the obvious answer to this problem. I usually carry an Alpkit rig 3.5 super lightweight tarp which would’ve been ideal in this situation.


I cleared away the snow back down to bare ground and then prepared a platform of dead sticks ready for a second platform of split wood above that. My chosen feather stick wood was dead pine and my chosen ignition method would be a Swedish fire steel creating strong sparks but no flame meaning that my feather stick curls would have to be super thin and good quality. The surrounding depth of snow helped by acting as a wind break to the fire in it’s early stages.

Insulation and protection:

I decided to try and achieve fire as fast as I could so ‘toughed’ it out when it came to working directly on the snow. Very quickly, my knees became frozen to the point of being extremely painful, distracting me from the task in hand and slowing me down. Eventually I took the foam padding out from my rucksack to kneel on. Problem immediately solved – I’ll do this straight away next time!
I also tried to work in only the layers I was wearing for the 30 minute trek in; a thermal top, fleece gilet and thin runners Goretex jacket plus windproof fleece gloves and hat. This was fine whilst on the move but as soon as I stopped and began to prepare my fire lighting materials, my core temperature dropped very fast, exacerbated by the fact that I’d been walking fast or running through the snow and was sweaty, especially my back where I’d been carrying my rucksack. Again, this affected my state of mind significantly. I knew that as soon as I started to shiver, this would be my bodies involuntary attempt to re-warm itself, (the start of a slippery slope to hypothermia) and shivering I was, within just ten minutes of being stationary! Having a good insulating and windproof layer in your winter walking kit is essential, even better if it’s designed to be hastily donned over all your other layers when extra warmth is needed fast. I learnt this years ago during a winter mountaineering course in Scotland and it’s proved to be sound advice. In the colder months I carry a synthetic fill, hooded Rab belay jacket, one size larger than I’d usually wear, already ¼ zipped to prevent fumbling about with cold or gloved hands. Once it was on and zipped up, I could focus completely on getting the fire going without worrying about becoming dangerously cold.

Kit set up:

To make good feather stick curls, you need a sharp blade…and mine definitely wasn’t! To make up for my dull blade, I had to invest more energy and more concentration to get the quality of feather stick curls needed to light from sparks alone. I did have a slip stone in my kit, but pushed on regardless. This oversight most likely added to the overall time taken to achieve fire.

I set off in the morning with no breakfast and after a 30 minute run/yomp through the snow to get there had depleted my energy levels significantly. My grip and my forearms definitely felt weaker due to the combined effects of the cold, physical exercise and an empty fuel tank. I do carry a couple of energy bars in my kit but chose to push on without breaking them out. My lack of easy to access energy in the tank most likely contributed to my rapid cooling and subsequent shivering too. If I’m ever in the same situation again, I’ll be chewing on one while I prepare my materials!

It became immediately obvious that working under pressure in fairly deep snow has the potential for valuable items of emergency kit to become wet or even completely lost if you’re not 100% disciplined about keeping a track of where they are at all times. Wind catches stray gloves or maps and whisks them away in a flash and snow can chill or soak fire lighting kit. Put stuff away in a pocket when it’s not in use, close the lid of your rucksack, hang knives and fire steels on lanyards, keep everything out of the weather and away from the damp.


I’ve made reference to the fact that I chose to light the feather sticks with sparks rather than matches or a lighter. This was mostly to ramp up the difficulty and ensure that despite the inclement conditions, my materials and preparation was on point. The last few curls of your feather stick must be super fine and fuzzy to catch those sparks and create a flame. However, by the time I’d finished preparing all my materials with damp gloves, the snow and wind chill had reduced my dexterity significantly. One good thing about the Swedish fire steel is that it’s large and robust enough to operate with a gloved, clenched fist of a grip which is pretty much all I was able to produce by the point of ignition. Fiddling about with matches would’ve been far trickier! My only option then would’ve been to spend time re-warming my fingers and hands using body heat (most likely shoving those icy digits down my trousers!) to the point where they’d regained enough dexterity to hold a match or operate a lighter.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that one of the key lessons to take away from all of this is to be prepared when venturing out into wild places. Stopping, gathering and preparing enough materials to create fire takes time and energy. In a real situation in such extreme conditions, having good kit on hand would save your bacon. Carrying the right clothing including back up options for extreme conditions, plus emergency shelter, a stove and/or fuel blocks, dry tinder such as waxed tinder card or cotton wool with a reliable lighter, wind proof matches AND a fire steel would mean that you could get warmer a hell of a lot quicker or potentially save yourself if your situation was worse than my self-imposed one. Develop a good system with your kit. Keep it well maintained and know how to use it!

However, despite all my mishaps and poor decisions above, fire was still achieved with a fire steel in the snow. The biggest obstacle to overcome in situations like these is a lack of confidence in your own abilities. Having practiced this skill previously, I knew from personal experience that if I persevered and tweaked my approach to the problem, I’d get there.  Weirdly, trying and failing can be just as valuable a lesson as succeeding first time. All those failures serve as an excellent trouble shooting manual when things aren’t going to plan and ultimately give a lot more depth to your understanding of the technique.
I hope this information is of some help to you in your training. Get out there and try it!


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