Four wheelers know it’s critical to be prepared when they go off road. One area that sometimes gets taken for granted is the ability to start fires. We just assume that a book of matches or lighter will be handy when needed.
That’s usually the case while in camp or in the vehicle. But what happens when you’re alone in the wild? Could you start a fire if you had to? Hikers, campers and just plain vacationers occasionally get lost and find themselves in a dangerous situation. It may never happen to you, but it’s always good to be prepared.
I suggest you always carry three forms of fire-starting methods on you along with some tinder, and practice with them throughout the year. Why three methods? Redundancy, as NASA will tell you, is good. In fact, it could save your life. By carrying three forms of fire-starting material, you essentially eliminate the possibility of not being able to at least create a spark. (You still need tinder and a supply of fuel.)
The importance of fire-building capability can’t be understated. Fire can be used to:
- provide heat
- cook and preserve food
- purify water & sterilize wound dressings
- act as a signaling device
As important as the uses of fire listed above are perhaps the most important use is for comfort and companionship. Humans have been staring into a fire forever during long nights. A fire helps maintain a positive mental attitude and chase away boredom, loneliness and fear.
A fire could literally save your life. Granted, only a tiny number of people get caught in survival situations each year. But those incidents can occur in many areas and in any climate.
There are several methods to start a fire that we all can master without resorting to primitive methods like a bow drill. They include:
- Butane lighter
- Matches (kept in a waterproof case)
- Magnesium bar with built in flint and your knife. I like Doan Magnesium Starters because of the quality. There are other metal bars out there; look for pure magnesium. The magnesium burns quickly, so make sure the magnesium powder is on top of your tinder. Add a short piece of a hacksaw blade on the chain on the bar so you always have a scraper/striker even if you lose your knife.
- Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel. This is a manufactured magnesium fire stick that produces an incredible spark. It includes the stainless striker tools you need to create a spark. There are several sizes. I like the smallest one, because I can carry it in my pocket. (The size determines the ultimate number of strikes – from 1,500 to 12,000.) The manufacturer claims it creates sparks in any weather and at any altitude.
It’s also a good idea to carry tinder. Then you don’t need to go scrounging for tinder, which naturally will be damp during wet weather. There are numerous commercially available products. Many are well engineered to catch a spark and fire up quickly. A small package of 5 or 6 is only a few dollars. If they are compressed, pull one end apart or use a rock to break up the fibers. You might even be able to reuse one if you can transfer the fire to your kindling and extinguish it before it is all gone.
My favorite homemade tinder is cotton balls smeared with a dab of Vaseline. These catch a spark in most conditions, and the Vaseline provides a sustained burn which is needed to start larger tinder. Don’t overdo the Vaseline. Some cotton fibers are needed to catch the spark.
Make up about a half dozen cotton balls and pack them in a little container. 35 mm film canisters are perfect, if you can find any. You can also use pill or aspirin bottles; many outdoor stores sells small plastic bottles that work as well.
Other ways to start a fire include:
– Steel wool and a battery. Fine grade (00) steel wool and a D cell work nicely. If you don’t have a D cell, try two AA batteries. You’ll drain the battery rather quickly. Assume one shot with a AA battery and maybe a couple tries on a D cell.
– Magnifying glass – Easy to slip into a pocket. You need sun, however.
Whatever methods you choose, make sure you practice them several times a year and under various conditions. Don’t wait until disaster hits. Between your emotional state and the weather conditions, you’ll have a heck of a time making it work.
Carry your three fire starters and tinder in your pocket. While you may have extras in your vehicle, backpack and tent, you need to keep these tools on your person. You could be separated from your vehicle, backpack and even fanny pack. Tuck your materials in a pants or shirt pocket each time you step outdoors.
Remember to replenish any supplies you use. Also, add a category on your preparation checklist for “pocket fire starter.” That will remind you to add this important outdoor gear each time.
Going forward, you will always be prepared to start a fire if need be.