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The Fire-Starting Char That’s More Reliable Than Cotton

The Fire-Starting Char That's More Reliable Than Cotton

Fire constructed on the prairie using this method. Yes, cow dung will burn.

There is no doubt we are seeing a sort of renaissance in the art of survival and bushcraft. Not only are big names like Ray Mears, Bear Grylls, Dave Canterbury and Cody Lundin getting a lot of attention, but there are so many popular YouTube channels on the subject it would be impossible to name them all.

For one reason or another, folks in America want to know more about skills of the wild. Perhaps it’s because our modern lives are leading us further and further away from our natural homes. Maybe it’s something people have always found interesting and the Internet has allowed us more access to it. It could also be that people see an impending crisis and want to prepare for it.

Personally, my biggest interest in bushcraft stems from my love of history and the natural world. One thing that constantly stands out to me as I study time periods like the Stone Age, Pre-Columbus America, and the American frontier, is how much applicable knowledge those people had about the world. Most folks think Stone Age hunters were dumb. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, they couldn’t read or write, but they had an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. Nature was their education.

One time-tested and proven fire-starting method is the flint-and-steel method. The basic concept was used even by the Romans some 2,000 years ago. Since then, it was adopted by the Vikings and was the common fire-starting technique during Medieval Europe. As Europeans reached the New World, they brought their steel and their method of starting fire with them. Eventually this technology would spread West with pioneers such as Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, Lewis and Clark, and Jim Bridger. They used it because it was a reliable fire-starting method that needed just a few simple natural materials to ignite.

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The Fire-Starting Char That's More Reliable Than Cotton

Ferro rod, char, uncharred punk wood, and Altoid tin for charring.

Starting a fire with flint and steel requires only a little education, a handful of plentiful natural materials, and one special ingredient. The basic concept is to take a piece of flint and strike it against a piece of steel. When you strike the two together, sparks are generated as tiny bits of steel are removed. When the steel is removed and hits the oxygen it instantly goes through a process of oxidation and catches fire. This is why we get sparks. These sparks are what you use to start your fire. Obviously, sparks themselves are not ideal for starting fires, so the spark must be captured and sustained. This is achieved by using a charred material. Char can be made of many natural materials, but its enduring quality is it can catch a low heat spark and create an ember for up to several minutes. When the ember is added to a properly constructed tinder bundle, you get fire. As mentioned, it was this simple fire-starting technique that American frontiersmen took with them to the wilderness.

Although it is most popular to use 100 percent cotton for char today, some historians don’t believe char cloth was most widely used in the past. They speculate that for men living in the wilderness, cotton cloth simply wasn’t something they carried for fire. The supply was too limited. Rather, they learned to use natural materials such as punk wood, cattail, or a number of other naturally found materials. One trouble with these materials is they often do not catch a spark as easily as char cloth does. Even with properly charred wood, it can still take multiple attempts to get your spark to land just right. Recently, this got me thinking about how could I keep the simplicity, reliability, endurance and compact nature of the flint-and-steel method while improving it.

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What I decided to do was to blend a bit of historical skills with some new technology. Many folks already know that using a ferro rod is one reliable fire-starting method that is popular to use. In case you’re unfamiliar with ferro rods, they are composed of multiple materials that oxidize easily. Like a flint and steel, you simply run a striker over the surface and it creates sparks. One major difference, though, is that a ferro rod will throw far more sparks than a flint and steel. Sparks from most ferro rods will also burn much hotter than flint and steel sparks. Most folks I’ve seen using a ferro rod are casting their sparks into fine tinder in order to make fire. Material like shredded birch bark seems to be ideal. This works great if you have the right tinder, but processing tinder that fine takes not only time, but the right material. One way you can get the best of both worlds is to combine methods to get a very reliable fire-starting method.

Combining the 21st century technology with the first century technique is easy. You’ll need to have punk wood char already made from a previous fire to start. As mentioned, wood and other natural materials were likely used by mountain men, longhunters, and other explorers too far removed to be using cloth. You’ll also need a well-made tinder bundle, as usual. When you’re ready you can simply cast a few sparks from your ferro rod into your char. You should get an ember glowing in no time. After that, the process is exactly the same as any flint and steel, or other primitive fire.

The advantages of this technique are numerous in my opinion. For starters, it is a very reliable fire-starting technique as long as you have a small bit of knowledge of what to look for in your materials. Two, the materials are widely available in nearly every habitat. Three, the ferro rod is a very light and compact unit that works whether it is cold, wet or both. Four, a ferro rod will last for thousands of strikes depending on what you buy. My cheap one is advertised to last for 12,000 strikes. That can start a lot of fires. Finally, this fire-starting method builds off a time-tested process that carried people through all kinds of situations. All the ferro rod does is make casting sparks a little easier.

The ferro rod is a nice addition to any survival pack. It can create sparks and heat with just a few simple strokes of your striker. Combine this technology with some proven charred material, and you have a very reliable fire-starting method. By blending the old and the new, you can get the best of both worlds in order to get your next campfire burning.

What is your favorite primate fire-starting method? Share your tips in the section below:

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