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Fire for Survival Part One: Materials and Ignition

This article is the first in a three-part series detailing fire in a survival situation. Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt to teach you the tedious and tiresome fire bow and drill method. A simple Google search will probably net you 25 million results on learning how to start a fire from two pieces of wood.

While the technique is interesting and can prove useful, the theory behind it and the execution of it are the two most important parts of that technique.  If you understand what fire is, how it works, and how to be resourceful while in a survival situation, then that information alone will be enough to help you find ways to start fires. If you put more emphasis on planning, preparation, and understanding, you won’t have to waste 15 to 20 minutes trying to start a fire with a fireball and drill, not to mention the time it takes to fashion those articles from the wilderness around you.

It’s much more efficient to simply tuck a one dollar Bic lighter into your pocket or your survival kit. If you were to ask the most hardened survivalists the items that they would never be found without, likely you would receive the answers a Bic lighter and a good knife 95+ percent of the time. There’s a good reason for that: these two items offer more versatility than any other single item in a survival situation.

It’s not necessary to have a lighter to survive, but that one dollar investment and the mentality that comes along with remembering to pack it everywhere you go can be an essential part to the survival scenario.

Because of the goal of this article (to comprehensively cover the idea of fire starting in a survival situation), the various techniques will be covered pretty much across the board, including some fringe, “cute,” and utterly ridiculous methods.

The point is to give you options and knowledge and to help you understand the reasons why something can start a fire, so you can be able to determine the best method if you find yourself in a survival situation, regardless of the resources.

Some parts of this article will seem like fire starting 101. However, there is a lot to be learned from the basics. And perhaps not a high-ranking Boy Scout or successful participant from their program exists, that doesn’t understand quite a bit about utility, resourcefulness, and survival.

There are three parts to a successful fire:

  • Materials
  • Engineering
  • Monitoring

Materials are your fuel source and your ignition source: what will burn and how.

Engineering is the design work involved in making inefficient and stable fire.

Monitoring are the safety considerations put in place to avoid additional concerns.

When you use all three of these segments in the process, you can almost ensure a successful fire (yes, this sentence is stating the obvious, but there’s more to fire than just lighting some fuel).

Materials for fire starting in the wilderness usually include a fire source, some tinder, some kindling, and then some larger fuel sources. Tinder and kindling will need to be as dry and combustible as possible, or contain a fuel source which is unaffected by moisture or other fire deterrents (like high winds, etc.).

Some excellent fire starters:

  • char cloth (especially when used in conjunction with the fire piston)

Notes: it takes some time to make char cloth correctly, though it will help with your understanding of how fire works, to actually go through the process.

  • cotton balls covered in Vaseline

Notes: either completely saturate the cotton ball with Vaseline or cover with a shell of wax before you put it into your carrying case.

  • dry shredded wood

Notes: sappy, termite-eaten, rotted, or otherwise “used” wood would make the best tinder. You’ll want to look for stringy or easily broken pieces.

  • completely dry leaves or pine needles

Notes: opt for firm and “crackly” pieces.

  • “deconstructed” cattail

Notes: a large quantity of this material can also prove valuable as insulation between a shirt and a jacket as another “layer of loft”.

  • alcohol, oil, or other accelerants

Note: if using to help along a fire, try to give it a couple seconds to begin to dissipate, but not too long so as to lose all the volatility of the accelerant.

  • dryer lint

Notes: usually there are some detergents and synthetic fabrics in the mix, which can complicate things, and keep you from getting a reliable ignition.

  • pine sap

Notes: combine with dry natural fibers/wood strands, etc. to create a better starter.

  • Magnesium

Notes: can pop and crackle a lot, and you should definitely get to know the characteristics before you try anything too “survival-y” with it.

  • crushed up corn chips, especially the greasier brands like Fritos.

It’s pretty rare that you will find yourself in a position to use this item, but it does work, and that old bag of chips in your vehicle may help you start a fire for warmth if you crash into a snow bank (though if you do it right, the vehicle can also be kept warm).  Don’t be afraid to use other vehicle items as makeshift fire starters as well (like your battery or gasoline, or fibers from various upholstery areas).

  • steel wool

Notes: Probably the least likely item to find in your bag outside of corn chips (in this list at least), so from a practicality standpoint, it doesn’t make sense.  Suffice it to say: it works for a variety of fire starting methods.

  • Wetfire; Tinderquik; FirePaste; Fire Gel (and other branded or commercial product sold as volatile fire starters/survival fuel

Buy them because they are nearly guaranteed to work, and they aren’t overly expensive, stash them in places you will need them, including your vehicle. In the case of non liquids, put them in your pack/pocket/survival kit.

Remember, the goal of using tinder is to easily start (with good reliability)the items you are using as kindling.

Ignition sources:

  • The trusty Bic lighter (or other continuous flame lighters)

Pros: an hour’s worth of flame; a quick and easy start to fire; low-cost and widespread availability.

Cons: harder to light at higher altitudes; potentially a false security blanket.

  • Fire piston:

Pros: guaranteed fire with char cloth; simple and relatively easy to use once you learn the technique; waterproof.

Cons: can be bulky; hard to use unless you understand the technique; relatively large investment compared to other fire starters.

  • Swedish fire steel:

Pros: extreme simplicity; high-volume of sparks, waterproof.

Cons: somewhat bulky.

  • flint and steel:

Pros: low cost; simple to use; long tradition; waterproof.

Cons: can be difficult to start fires without extensive practice and excellent tinder.

  • matches:

Pros: easy to use, instant flame; attached fuel source.

Cons: generally not waterproof; flame produced is not very long-term; has a shelf life.

  • the sun:

Pros: cheap; more readily available than most other options (except at night and during bad weather).

Cons: requires other items; requires steady hands; not usable at evening/night or during adverse weather.

  • batteries:

Pros: long life; widespread availability.

Cons: requires other items (like steel wool), bulky, not waterproof.

  • chemical reactions:

Pros: guaranteed results

Cons: can be dangerous; requires good technical knowledge and skill; difficult to obtain/transport/use at times.

Three things are necessary for a fire to be sustainable: fuel, ignition, and oxygen. You’ll want to increase the amount of airspace within the tinder and the airflow to the base of the fire area.

Ideally you want the tinder to be as volatile and dry as possible, without going overboard (i.e. you don’t want to put a bottle full of gasoline in direct contact with a flame and be anywhere near it; but a few drops of isopropyl alcohol on a cotton ball that is dry should provide an excellent source of fuel for your ignition spark.)

Redundancy is always important when it comes to emergency/survival fire starting; you always want to have multiple layers of protection so you can guarantee the ability to start a fire. An excellent backup companion might be a fire steel or a fire piston, as these are relatively hearty, lightweight, easy to use and substantially more waterproof than chemical, or even traditional modern fire starting methods.

Additional unconventional methods of fire starting:

  • signal mirror
  • shaped, clear ice
  • magnifying glass/glasses
  • a clear heavy-duty bag filled with water
  • highly polished metal with a parabolic shape (the bottom of the Coke can)
  • ammunition
  • steel wool with your cell phone battery

Signal mirror: can be used to focus solar energy into a batch of tinder.

Shaped, clear ice; magnifying glass/glasses; a clear heavy-duty bag filled with water: can be used like a signal mirror to magnify solar rays into a very focused point which eventually can cause enough heat to start properly prepared tinder on fire.

A highly polished parabolic curve on a piece of metal will also focus solar energy into a fire starting beam, given enough time.

A cartridge with the projectile removed can have its primer punctured to create an ignition capable of starting most tinder on fire. Exercise extreme caution and use as a last resort if necessary.

Steel wool contacting both the positive and negative ends of a battery will create a short, causing heat and eventually igniting the steel’s protective oil and then the steel itself.

These methods do in fact work, but they are cumbersome at best, especially if you can use one of the other above mentioned methods.  If you find yourself in the backcountry and find a tin can and some sand you might be able to polish the can well enough to start a fire, but it could take you hours, and you will need strong sunlight.

The cartridge will be a last resort, and unlikely to ever work for you, as the bullet will be seated so tightly that it will be nearly impossible to remove the cartridge safely without tools, so again, exercise extreme caution and use a heavy dose of reality when determining your strategies.

The water and ice tricks work, but they are clumsy and you need a lot of patience.

About the only “foolproof” method listed in these ancillary methods is the signal mirror, and despite being relatively foolproof, it takes patience and muscle control, or luck in finding something to position the mirror correctly without having to hold it.  It also requires sunlight.

Don’t worry—the cell phone battery + steel wool method wasn’t forgotten, but again exercise some reality. If you’re in a survival situation with a cell phone, why wouldn’t you attempt to make a phone call to help get you out or move to an area which will get a cell signal so you can do the same? Furthermore, isn’t it a lot easier just to carry some matches, a lighter or another easier, more hearty method of fire starting? In the end however: the cell phone battery trick does work.

Some additional tips:

  • While a candle may not be an easy fuel source to start with a sparking tool, it may be easier to start than some other tinder. To use the candle as a more stable and longer lasting flame source, a tea light candle or a birthday cake relighting candle may be a good companion.
  • After adding the Vaseline to the cotton balls, dip them in candle wax to make them completely waterproof (within reason), slice them in half when needed. This isn’t necessary if you completely coat the cotton ball in Vaseline.
  • Make some char cloth by heating thick natural fiber cloth (muslin, jersey knit cotton, rope, kerosene lamp wick, etc.) until it catches on fire and burns thoroughly, but not completely, you want it to resemble charcoal, but in cloth form.  Extinguish the flame a second or so after the entire cloth is black and burnt, but not before it begins to disintegrate. These cloths take well to sparks, and can start other natural tinder on fire easily.
  • Try some dynamite/cannon fuse (remarkably easy to find, considering) or a trick birthday candle as a longer term fire starting source, but they are harder to light than some others.
  • Practice makes perfect: if you aren’t practicing these techniques you can’t reasonably be assured to be able to carry them out in the field.

Hopefully this was a comprehensive look at fire starting fuels and ignition options. The next two articles will highlight fire building architecture and engineering, and fire safety and usage for survival situations.

It’s important to understand your limits as an individual, especially when in stressful situations. Planning, preparation, and practice will always go a long way to ensuring success in the “field.”

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