Look at the world of survival gadgets and you'll find an unending assortment of fire starters, tinders, and fire related paraphernalia.
When survival skills come up in conversation, it always seems to lead towards primitive fire, sourcing natural tinders, and methods of locating and processing the fuel.
Why are we so focused on fire?
Are we all just a bunch of pyromaniacs?
Or is it something deeper than that?
Let's start by looking at survival as a whole:
The bottom line is staying alive!
To accomplish that goal, there are certain necessities for life that must be maintained. The easiest way to remember them is "The Rule of 3's"
THE RULE OF 3's
As a general rule of thumb, an average person can only survive:
3 Weeks Without Food
3 Days Without Water
3 Hours Without Shelter
3 Minutes Without Air
3 Seconds Without Positive Mental Attitude
These are the necessities to maintain life, and they act as a guideline for what you would need to accomplish to survive those given timeframes.
Did you notice that fire is nowhere on that list?
If it's not a necessity, then
why are we all so focused on it?
Fire is not a necessity, it's a lifeline!
Fire can play a major role in 4 out of the 5 survival necessities!
Fire allows you to consume protein that you may not otherwise be able to eat. After all, if you eat spoiled protein or some sort of bad bacteria in the food you'll likely end up sick and vomiting. Once that happens, you just lost what food and hydration you started with meaning that your estimated 3's just got shortened! As if that's not enough, cooking your food also breaks down the cells to a level that your body can more easily absorb the nutrients from the food.
If you're lucky enough to be high up in the pristine mountains or to happen upon a natural seep or spring, then you've got nothing to worry about. For the rest of us stuck with a pile of snow or a muddy swamp, we're going to want fire to help with the water situation. Considering that snow volume to water volume ratio can range anywhere from 5:1 to 30:1 you may be stuck melting 30 liters of snow to be able to drink 1 liter of water. That's going to be a LOT quicker if you have a fire. For any exposed running or stagnant water, we will want to boil it. The only way you're going to accomplish that is with a fire.
Shelter in this instance can refer to anything from a waterproof shell and insulating clothing to an improvised natural shelter. Whatever you have to protect you from the elements. To build a properly insulated shelter in a cold environment can be a huge caloric expenditure and a good means of starting fire may go a long way in helping you survive a cold night. Get sweaty from building your shelter, or fall in the stream and get wet and once again fire may be your saving grace to help you get dried off and warmed up again; remember you lose heat 26 times faster when you're wet.
POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE
This one is pretty self explanatory. After all, who doesn't enjoy sitting by a nice crackling fire. Not only will it keep you warm, help process your water, and cook your food, but it also keeps away the boogieman! This extra sense of security an warmth is not only going to improve your mental state, but it's also going to keep you more relaxed and help you sleep better at night.
Now that we have addressed the importance of fire,
how do we make it reliably?
Making fire is a very personal thing. Everyone will have their own techniques and methods, but it all boils down to the same basics and it's all based on surface area. The more surface area you have exposed, the easier it is for something to catch fire, and the quicker it burns.
Very Large Surface Area - Very Short Burn Time
The goal of tinder is to take a small amount of heat from a spark or ember and ignite into a flame. The more surface area you have to expose to those heat sources, the quicker it will take to flame. You're looking for thin fibrous materials such as a cotton ball, dryer lint, cedar bark, or cattail fluff. Cedar bark will take more processing than the other materials; you may have to scrape it with a blade or rock to expose the fibers you're looking for, rip it, shred, it, and continue plucking it until it gets nice and fluffy like the others would be. These will all result in lightweight 'poofy' materials. This means there is a lot of space for oxygen and a lot of exposed surface area to catch your spark. Once you hit them with a spark, they will flash into a flame and extinguish relatively quickly.
Increases Tinder Burn Time
Additives that will extend the burn time of your tinder, generally waxy or oily fuels. The oils will absorb into the tinder and burn off similar to a candle. Ever wonder how a small piece of candle wick burns so long? It is wicking (hence the name wick) the melted wax up into itself and it's actually the melted wax that is burning off, not the wick. If you wanted to use this on cotton you can add a petroleum product like Vasaline or even smear some Chapstick on it. Our FAT Packets are soaked in a petroleum based triple antibiotic and although they are quite tiny by themselves, they sustain a burn time of at least 30 seconds. A natural version of this is the well known Birch bark. It contains flammable oils that allow it to catch easily but burn significantly longer and hotter than most other barks would. Obviously the longer you can make something burn, the easier it will be to catch your other fuels.
Medium Surface Area - Medium Burn Time
Kindling will take the quick burst of heat from your tinder and convert it to slightly smaller, more sustainable flames. The size of kindling can vary from the size of pencil lead tiny twigs and pine needles up to sticks the diameter of your finger. You always want to start with the smallest size and slowly increase diameter as your fire grows. Make sure each stage is catching before you add the next because if you add too much weight on top all at once you may smother the fire and put it out. Keep your tinder twigs all messy and jumbled instead of parallel and organized. The chaotic stacking of sticks leaves more pockets for air flow and once again exposes more surface area to the heat for better fire starting results. Another less common example of first stage tinder is our Ranger Bands. Thin rubber will ignite from short exposure to a flame and burns quite a long time. Our small ranger bands can burn for about 2 minutes each to help you get fire even in windy or wet conditions.
Low Surface Area - Long Burn Time
As your larger kindling burns it will begin to create embers. This is the longterm heat needed to ignite your larger fuel branches and logs. Again slowly increase size to ensure that you will not suffocate the fire with a large log right off the bat. Dense hardwoods will create the longest lasting fires and heat producing embers while softer wood with pitch like pine will burn up more quickly. Dry rotten wood or "punky wood" makes a good smoldering fuel that will smoke and burn up very slowly. This is good to use at night to keep mosquitos at bay. Use surface area to your advantage to control your fire. A log cabin stack exposes a lot of surface area and will create large hot flames that burn quickly. Stacking logs parallel side-by-side on the bed of embers will create a low, sustained burn to conserve your fuel and make a better base for cooking.