Survival-Pax Blog: Basic Firemaking - So You Want to Know How to Start a Fire?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Basic Firemaking - So You Want to Know How to Start a Fire?

In case you haven't already seen it, I made a video on Basic Firemaking. For a detailed written instruction, continue reading below.

Firemaking is one of the most basic survival skills, making it also one of the most important. A fire can keep you warm, it can help dry you off, it can help with food preparation and with water purification. Those are some basic uses, but I'm sure you can think of even more. A fire is critical and in an emergency situation, it can easily mean the difference between life and death.

Due to its importance, firemaking is a very high priority skill to learn. Luckily, it's not very difficult, if you have a good understanding of what a fire is and how a fire works.

Now, I must say that firemaking can be an art to some people. There are many many ways of starting a fire, some more difficult than others. Some people prefer to light fires using only primitive means. While I don't disagree that starting a fire with a piece of flint, steel and charcloth or starting a fire using a bow drill is really cool, these methods do require many many hours of practice to perfect. I would rather teach you the basics, which are fairly straightforward, easy to learn and just as helpful as long as you have a suitable source of initial heat. After you have mastered the basics, then you can always move on to the more advanced firemaking methods.

What is a fire?

The usefulness of a fire makes firemaking
an essential survival skill.
A fire is a chemical reaction between fuel and oxygen. If the fuel is heated up and if oxygen is present, the reaction will begin. This reaction is self-sustaining because it creates heat, which in turn keeps the reaction going. The gases heated up by the fire are so hot that they emit light, which gives you a visible flame, allowing fire to serve as a light source, as well as a source of heat. As long as the there is fuel, oxygen and heat, the reaction will continue and the fire will stay lit.

If you take away the fuel from the fire, either by letting it burn out or by physically removing it; if you take away the oxygen by smothering the fire; or if you take away the heat by putting a large amount of water on it, the fire will go out and the reaction will stop.

Types of Heat

A fire transfers heat in two main ways. This is especially useful when cooking over a fire. Heat is transfered through direct contact with the flame (hot gases). It is also transferred radiantly. Let me explain...

Hot objects emit infrared radiation. I'm sure you guys have seen red heat lamps at buffet restaurants. The main source of infrared radiation in a fire is the hot bed of coals that builds up after you have kept your fire lit for while. This infrared radiation emitted by the coals transfers heat to whatever is around it, be it food or even to you to keep you warm.

When it comes to cooking, it is usually better to cook food over a fire by using radiant heat, since this tends to cook the food evenly. Do not keep your food in the flames since the flames singe the food, scorching the outside of what you are trying to cook, while the inside remains uncooked.

Since radiant heating happens due to invisible infrared light, this light can also be blocked, in the same way that you can block the beam of a flashlight. To get a better "feel" for radiant heat, stand next to a fire so that it is warming your face. Then, put your hands about a foot in front of your face, blocking the radiant heat. Your face will quickly cool down, since the infrared light is now blocked by your hands. This works best with large campfires and it will help you to know what I'm talking about.

Building a Fire

When building a fire, you have to start small, then work your way up as the fire grows in size and in intensity. The reason that you have to start small is that small pieces of fuel are easier to heat up than large pieces.

A fire is started with tinder, which refers to a material that lights easily with a flame or with a shower of sparks. This is your initial fuel source. Tinder generally has a large surface area and can consist of materials such as cotton, cloth, fibrous plant material, grass, twine, even a paper napkin would function as tinder.

After your tinder is lit, you have to escalate the fire by putting in materials that would stay lit for a longer length of time. Materials such as larger bundles of dry grass would work, along with twigs or small pieces of wood.

As your fire grows, you can put in larger and larger pieces of wood, being careful as to not add too much. Adding too much wood to your fire can cool the fire down and even smother it, which is not a good thing.

It is imperative to have all of your fuel sorted and ready to go before you light the fire. If you don't do this, you risk not having enough wood to keep your fire going. The more you prepare beforehand, the easier it will be to tend to your fire.

When adding wood to the fire, add it as you would form a teepee. You want there to be an adequate flow of oxygen into the fire. Having the wood angled and above the ground allows airflow on all sides of the wood. Later, when the fire is large and you want to keep it lit for a while, you can put larger logs directly on the coals for a longer-lasting fuel source, but initially you should try and keep space for oxygen flow until you get a sustainable bed of coals.

Methods For Starting a Fire

There are many, many methods for starting a fire. Since we're talking about the Basics of Firemaking, I will use the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. We're not here to show off our skills, we're here to stay warm after all.

This Keychain Oil Lighter is small and
waterproof. Great for emergency firemaking.
The simplest way to start a fire would be with a lighter. A standard Bic lighter works great if it can stay dry. There are waterproof butane lighters out there, but they can get pricey. Keeping a Bic lighter in a zip-loc bag is a safe bet for getting a fire started.

Another way to start a fire is with good, old fashioned matches. I recommend choosing waterproof matches rather than your standard kitchen matches for emergency use, since they'll survive getting dunked. Keeping your matches in a waterproof container is also a good idea.

A slightly more exotic method to starting fire is by using a fire steel (ferro rod, ferrocerium). This is a rod made of iron, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium, and magnesium, not that you really needed to know all that to use it. What's great about fire steel is that it gives you a shower of hot sparks when scraped. This is actually the same stuff that is used to make sparks in butane lighters, in case you were wondering. Fire steel is great because it's simple, it's waterproof and you get a lot of use out of each rod.
Fire Steel is a great way to start a fire but it takes some
practice to learn how to use it well.

Lighting a fire using fire steel is a bit trickier than using a match or a lighter. Your choice of tinder is critical. If you choose to use this method to start a fire, I recommend having a backup tinder source. Cotton balls soaked in vaseline work amazingly well.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Firemaking, like with all skills, gets easier to do with practice. You don't want to be in an emergency situation where you absolutely need to start a fire without having practiced starting one beforehand. If you have a fire pit at home, I recommend practicing. It can be a little frustrating at first, but it's also very rewarding when you finally get it lit. Even if you're proficient, it's also good to brush up on your skills every once in a while. Like I said before, firemaking is a basic skill that everyone should have some level of proficiency in.

I hope that you learned something. To a lot of you, this might have been too basic, but it was intended to bring everyone to at least a basic level of proficiency so that everyone that has read this and has practiced for a little while will have the skills and knowledge necessary to start a fire.

Remember, if you're stuck in an emergency situation, but you have fire, you have one of the key ingredients to survival.

Take care guys!

Simon - Survival-Pax Team Member

Sources used:
-Wikipedia. Ferrocerium.

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