Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to Make a Fire: A Beginner's Guide

In this post I want to go over some basics of making a fire. I know that most readers here have much more experience, and none of this will be new information, but if you are new to the skill, I hope this proves useful. I will attempt to show a very easy way to build a fire, even under bad conditions. If you can do this, you shouldn’t have much of a problem repeating the process on a regular camping trip. No special skills are required. I will only use a small knife and a folding saw, as these are the wood cutting tools an average backpacker might have.

Here I will be making a fire in the snow. Some of the same challenges are presented when making a fire in very wet conditions. The main problem of course is the unavailability of dry materials. During a hot summer day, it is easy to gather a bunch of grass and twigs from the ground, and toss a match on them, giving you an instant bonfire. When the ground is covered with snow however, such materials are very hard to find. You have probably heard that you should collect dead standing wood, and while true, in most cases a dead standing tree would have lost any smaller branches a long time ago, leaving just a bunch of thick logs, impossible to brake by hand.

The best thing to do when you find yourself in such a situation is to split some wood, using your knife and saw. Even if directly it the rain or snow, wood will be relatively dry in the middle. If you can split it and get to the dry area, you will have the makings of a fire under virtually any conditions.

Look for dead branches that are about three inches in width-think about wrist thick. Use your folding saw to cut several section, about eight inches in length.

Here I have selected three pieces of oak. You should know that different types of wood burn differently. Soft woods, or woods rich in resins or oils like pine and birch burn very fast, and make large flames. Hard woods like oak and hickory on the other hand, burn slowly very much like coal. A fire does not need to have large flames to be effective.

Select a piece of ground that has been cleared from the snow. Take one of the cut logs, and place one and on the ground. Position your knife in the center on the other end.

Take a piece of wood that has some weight to it, and hit the knife squarely on the spine of the blade. When the blade is in the wood, continue to hit the tip of the knife while applying pressure on the handle with your hand. The knife will continue to go down into the wood.

Eventually, the log will split.

Take one of the split pieces, and repeat the process.

Keep doing the same until you end up with pieces of wood that are about the thickness of a pencil. You will need at least a handful of those.

Now take some of the smaller pieces you have split off from the inner core of the wood and make some fine shavings from them. The shavings do not have to be anything fancy.

From the rest of the wood, split some larger pieces of varying thickness. In the picture you see below, I’ve quartered one of the logs we previously cut, and the rest of the pieces have been made from the second log. The third log was used as a baton to split the wood. If I was going to do more than just boil water, I would have split it into quarters as well. With practice, you will figure out how much of a specific wood you need for a particular task.

Now comes a very important part which people often ignore. You need a way to light the fire, and some form of tinder which will take the flame and keep it going until the wood catches. A good tinder should be able to catch the flame from your source (matchet, lighter, etc) and keep it burning for a good period of time. An experienced bushman can find good tinder under virtually any conditions. For the rest of us however, being prepared will save us a lot of misery.

In the above picture you see a small ziplock bag with waterproof and wind proof matches along with a striker. I lighter will work fine as well. You also see an Altoids Smalls tin with tinder. This is a home made tinder comprised of just cotton and Vaseline. It will catch the flame very easily because of the cotton, and will burn like a candle for a long time because of the Vaseline.

There are natural tinders that will also do fine. Dry grass (if you can find it), or even very fine shavings from the inner core of the split wood (about the thickness of grass) will catch the flame. The problem with them is that they burn up very quickly. If that is what you are using, have at least two handfuls. The wetter your wood, the more tinder you will need. Some natural materials such as pine resin and spruce sap will work like candle wax to extend the burn time of your tinder. Birch bark is one of the best natural tinders if available, because it will burn for a long time due to its high oil content. With time you will become more able to find high quality natural tinders, but you should always be prepared with some ready tinder because you never know under what conditions you will find yourself.

So, moving on, take some of the split wood and create a platform on which you will build the fire. For me this is a very important step. Doing this will keep your fire away from the wet ground, and will create a good bed of coals once the fire starts. Place your tinder on the platform, and the fine shavings on top of that. Don’t use all of your shavings because you may need some later.

Then build a pyramid with your pencil thick pieces of wood. The reason to build the pyramid shape is to allow air to freely circulate, and to also create a kiln effect for the flame, raising the heat in the core of the fire. This will significantly improve the fire’s ability to sustain itself.

Finally, finish off the pyramid with some thicker pieces of wood, and light the tinder.

This is always the crucial part of the fire building process. Assuming you are working with less than perfect materials, there is always a danger that your fire will go out at the point where your tinder burns up. Keep an eye on it. You may need to blow some air into the it, or add some more fine shavings.

Once the fire reaches the stage you see in the picture below, it should be on the safe side. You can now start adding more wood to it.

When you see a good bed of coals forming, place some even larger pieces of wood. From this point forward, large pieces of wood are all you will need to keep the fire going. You have now managed to build a small, sustainable fire, which will not require a lot of wood. If you want a larger fire, gradually add more wood and larger wood until you reach the desired size. In better conditions many of the above steps can be replaced by materials that you find on the ground, such as small dry sticks. The steps will however be the same.

So why make a fire? Well, one of the reasons is cooking. Many people are afraid to cook on an open fire, but there is nothing to it. Take your pot, put water in it, and place it directly on the coals. That’s all there is to it. If you need to cook for a longer period of time, and the wood on the fire starts to burn out, lift the pot, place some mode wood (half an inch to an inch in diameter for our example) on the fire and put the pot back on. You don’t need to hang the pot over the fire, or do anything else other than place it on the coals. The pot you see in the picture is titanium. There is no issue with putting titanium or aluminum directly on the fire.

Two cups of a water should come to a boil in a few minutes.

So, here it is; nice and easy. Under better conditions, many of the materials used here can be replaced with easier to find alternatives. You can save yourself some splitting if you have small, dry twigs around you, and if you can find natural tinders, you can save the one you brought. These steps however will produce good results each time.