Fire is often a critical part of survival. It is a source of heat, which can compensate somewhat for cold and/or wetness. You can cook with
it, to improve the taste and safety of what you eat, as well as boil water to kill biological contamination. It can frighten away dangerous animals and act as a source of light. In a medical emergency, it can sterilize surgical instruments and in the worst cases, cauterize wounds. Day (smoke) or night, it can provide a means of signalling. As a crude tool, it can be used to cut or form wood (as in hollowing out a canoe), as well as toughen pointed or sharpened items made from wood. The smoke can help you harvest honey or preserve meat.
And if nothing else, it can provide a sense of comfort in a nerve-wracking situation.
Thus, you should always have as many ways of making fire as is practical. Here are the common classes of fire starting technology:
– Gathering existing fire – this is not reliable enough to consider, although you should learn how to ‘transport’ fire.
– Friction – this requires a lot of skill and work; it is worthwhile to learn how to do this, but only as a backup.
– Pressure – the so-called ‘fire piston’; it has promise, but as a precision instrument, might be ‘too easily rendered inoperable’.
– Heat – heat something past its ignition point and it catches fire; the best source of heat in the wild is the sun; a magnifying glass allows you to harness this heat.
– Chemical – There are chemical reactions which produce fire, but these tend to be dangerous to carry and/or use, or easily/quickly deteriorate enough to be ineffective. A subset of this is using ammunition for fire starting, which has its own dangers.
– Electrical – Shove a 9v battery into a wad of dry 000 steel wool and you have fire, but it is kind of a one shot deal.
– Sparks – Flint and Steel was one of the first really effective means of making fire, and modern versions are even better.
– Matches and Lighters – These don’t make fire, they ‘are’ fire.
When selecting fire making items, consider the space and weight and even legal restrictions you have, as well as any expiration date problems. Furthermore, assume that a survival situation will be cold, wet and windy, and you may even have one hand out of commission.
If practical, a reliable lighter is very good to have. Fire, with one hand and no need for any additional starting elements or special skills. There are a wide variety of choices. First of all is spark type – piezo crystal or flint. Avoid the piezo crystal lighters for survival use; they might be great for everyday use, but are not reliable enough for survival use. A good old-fashioned flint and wheel lighter is not only less likely to break down, but can be used to make usable sparks even if it will no longer light. Next is fuel type, liquid or pressurized butane. The butane lighters are nice and I prefer them, but not as my only fire source since the fuel can evaporate out while stored. The liquid lighters (like the classic ‘Zippo’) can also evaporate, but at least they can be easily refilled with fuel AND flint, and possibly can use something other than lighter fluid if needed. Also, they are available in smaller sizes (‘peanut’ lighters). With either type of fuel, I strongly recommend getting a sealed version of your preferred type of lighter. Usually these are tubular, with a screw on cap with ‘o’ ring to seal it.
The next choice is standard or windproof. Lighting a lighter in a windy environment can be tricky, and one which is truly windproof would be a boon. All the windproof ones I’ve come across have been pressurized butane, and work by mixing air with the flame, making it stable (and hotter) like a blowtorch. You can tell these because the flame is blueish and conical, rather than yellow and ‘flame shaped’, plus there is usually a faint ‘whooshing’ sound. I’ve heard of some windproof lighters which don’t produce a flame at all, but heat an element to glowing, like a car cigarette lighter, but have no experience with how useful this type would be.
Note that any lighter in storage should be checked every so often to ensure it still works. I came across several Bic lighters which I had in a trunk of gear for twenty years, and not a single one of them worked. In some, the flint had crumbled, clogging the action, and all were empty of fuel.
Matches have a long and trusted history as a source of fire. They have some problems in survival usage though. First of all, if you have ten matches, you have exactly ten chances to start a fire. Second, they tend to deteriorate in poor environments, particularly wet ones. Lastly, they are easily susceptible to wind, and don’t burn very long which can be a problem if your kindling is hard to start (wet perhaps). Still, having some of the best type, properly packaged, is a good backup choice. What type is that? Well, not paper matches, that is for sure. These are practically useless in a survival situation. You should never carry paper matches unless you need something the size and shape of a matchbook to wrap something else around, or fill a space, AND the matchbook is packaged to be completely waterproof. Stick safety matches are not much better; if the striking surface is lost or wet, they are useless. It would be acceptable to have some safety matches AND the striker in a waterproof container, but there is better. The old ‘strike anywhere’ or ‘kitchen’ matches don’t have the problem of needing a particular striking surface, but they still need to be carried in a waterproof box, and there is some danger they can ignite on impact. All the of the above will work in ‘ideal’ circumstances, but all suffer from wet and/or wind. The best match is the so called ‘lifeboat’ match, which has a very long burning head to minimize wind sensitivity and maximize time available to start the fire, and is ‘waterproofed’. Although you don’t need to keep these in a waterproof container, it is wise to, and like with the safety matches, it is critical that the striker(s) are kept in a waterproof container.
If your source of fire does not actually produce fire, then you need something to convert whatever it does produce into fire. This is called ‘tinder’. It can be any dry, fluffy, flammable stuff, which may be in short supply in a survival situation. Thus it is a good idea to carry some with you. Jute cord is pretty good, just tease a short piece apart into a ball of fluff. Better is one which works even when wet. I’ve got some waxed Jute which I’ll try out to see how water resistant it is. Tinder-Quik is my long-time favorite for a dry, waterproof tinder, but you do need to tease it into fluff. There are some new options I have on order to try, Wet-Fire and Fast-Fire. These may be usable as is. Another tinder option is magnesium shavings. Tissue paper may work somewhat, but I’ve never had very good luck with that.
One way to light your tinder if the sun is shining, is with a magnifying glass. The best choice is usually a ‘Fresnel’ lens, which appears to be a thin, flat piece of plastic, most often the size of a credit card. Somehow this manages to magnify (which is handy for reading small print), but can also concentrate the sun’s rays to ignite tinder. Any magnifier should work though, even a pair of eyeglasses. It is claimed you can even start a fire with a drop of water as a lens, but I would not count on that.
The last type of fire starter to consider is one which produces sparks, which your tinder then can convert to flame. The most common is a two-handed ‘ferrocerium’ rod. These make sparks when you scrape them quickly with a knife or other metal striker, and some can even be shaven to provide some highly flammable, hot burning, shavings. Another common choice is a bar of magnesium to create shavings, attached to a rod to produce sparks. Recently, one handed versions of this technology, the BlastMatch and the Sparkie, have become available. These are one piece units, with the rod spring loaded and a built-in striker. The Sparkie is much more compact if space is a problem.
The other spark option is the Spark-Lite, which is essentially a lighter without any fuel. This is a good, compact, reasonably priced way to produce sparks with one hand. The Spark-Lite is hard to beat if you have room for it; if it just will not fit, there is a slightly smaller version of this spark methodology available from www countycomm.com.
A good fire starting hierarchy is tinder to start kindling burning, and kindling to start logs burning. Carrying ‘logs’ is impractical, as is carrying much, if any, kindling. A couple of possible options for a kindling substitute is sticks of ‘fat wood’ or Hammaro ‘Lighting Paper’. Another long term fire option is a candle. These can be used to provide portable light (preferably in a ‘lantern’ to prevent it from blowing out) and heat in an enclosed area like a snow cave. You want candles which burn slowly and cleanly, and won’t melt due to being stored in a hot location. I’d like to try those ‘trick’ birthday candles which ‘cannot be blown out’. They will only last for a few minutes due to their small size; it might be fun to make full size candles like these, using high temperature wax and magnesium dust in the wick for an ultimate survival candle.