Fire can be useful for:
- Boiling/Sterilizing Water
- Cooking and Preserving Food
- Sterilization of Utensils and Medical Instruments
- Providing Warmth
(which will have the added bonus of slowing the rate at which
your body burns calories, saving food supplies)
- Repelling Flying Insects
- Warding off Wild Animals
- Signaling for Help
- Drying Wet Clothes
- Seeing in the Dark
- Comfort and Morale
- Creating Tools and Weapons
The ability to make fire can also be paramount to the survivors state of mind as it can make the most inhospitable of environments feel livable by introducing some of the creature comforts we have come to expect from life at home. It is also a huge morale booster as it reaffirms the survivors ability to conquer the elements.
Lighting a fire is not always as easy as you think. It is one thing to be able to light a fire and another thing to be able to light a fire anywhere, in any condition with little or no kit. It is important that you know how to though, so practice using different techniques as much as you can while under controlled conditions and your life is not depending on it. It is not enough just to know the steps on theory.
Essential Elements of Fire
Fire consists of three (3) key elements: Air, Heat & Fuel. Once the fire has ignited, each of these three (3) elements work off each other in a chain reaction. If any of these elements are missing, fire cannot exist.
Make sure that you have good ventilation as fire breathes oxygen. A consistently maintained heat will ensure that the oxygen and fuel keep reacting to keep the fire going. The more oxygen that your fire has access to, the more intensely it will burn. When initially getting the fire to ignite it often pays to force oxygen onto embers by blowing or fanning them to increase their intensity until they ignite.
NOTE: the more air which is introduced to the fire, the faster it will consume fuel. So if fuel is scarce, reduce the ventilation whenever intensity is not required.
There are three (3) main fuels required for lighting and maintaining most fires and they are called Tinder, Kindling and Larger Fuel. The idea is to start small and build the fire by applying larger fuels as the intensity of the fire builds until you can apply larger, longer burning fuels.
In the initial stages of fire lighting, the heat source is usually only small like a spark, ember or match and does not produce much heat so you will require an ignition fuel which is fine enough to react with the the low intensity heat and ignite. This kind of fine fuel is called Tinder.
Tinder can be any substance which will easily take a spark. All solid forms of tinder must be fine and dry and should be laid in a loose pile with plenty of oxygen in between the tinder fibers. A loose pile of tinder is often referred to as a tinder bundle. It is important that you have prepared a ready supply of Kindling and Larger Fuel as the tinder bundle will burn very quickly once it ignites and you will need to start applying the Kindling fairly quickly to keep the fire going.
Substances Commonly used as Tinder:
- Dried animal droppings
- Old mans beard (Usnea Lichen) resembling Grey or Greenish hair this lichen hangs from trees
like small beards
- Dried bird or bat droppings
- Cotton wool or clothes dryer Lint from your survival tin. Tampons ignite very well.
- Sedge or Arctic cotton grass
- Dried, powdered or decaying wood (often found by peeling back bark of a fallen dead tree)
- Fine wood shavings
- Honeysuckle bark
- Pulverized outer bark from oily softwood trees such as Birch, Cypress or Cedar
- Birch Bark Scales (Loose, papery, Bark on the outside of the birch trunk)
- Cotton Down from Cats Tail reed (aka Bull Rush)
- Termites nest
- Dried Fungi (powdered)
- Fabric (charred works well)
- Lint from your pocket or scraped into a loose pile from a piece of fabric
- Roughed coconut husk
- Roughed, dried grass
- Shredded paper (especially waxed)
- Birds nests
- Bird Down
- Smashed needles and cones from conifer trees such as pine or fir trees
- Gun powder from ammunition
- Hemp Rope Fiber
- Oily Corn Chips
A flammable liquid, such as Oil, Insect repellent, petrol or anti freeze can also be used to get the fire going but you’ve got to be careful that there is none on your clothes or skin or else you may become the fire.
Oil, Petrol and Insect repellent work well when mixed together with sand.
It always pays to keep an eye out for good tinder materials as you travel and collect them as you see them. Just make sure that you keep them dry.
Kindling is fuel which gets added to the burning tinder and gives your fire something of substance to take a hold of. Your kindling should consist of fuels ranging in size, starting from smaller twigs and sticks to slightly larger sticks, about the width of your ring finger, building up progressively larger to sticks about the size of your wrist. These should be sorted into piles based on their size and applied to the fire from smallest to largest, allowing the fire to take hold of each fuel before adding the next. The kindling will take the fire from the initial ignition of the tinder, to a fire which is burning hot enough to take small logs. Making Fire Sticks from your kindling will help the fire take hold a lot quicker and is very effective if your kindling is wet on the outside.
Take a stick and your knife and starting at one end, cut into the stick at about 25deg as though you are going to shave a piece off but don’t go all the way through. This piece will feather out and form a curl. Continue this all the way around and up the stick. If the stick is wet on the outside, make sure that you cut deep enough to expose the dry wood in the middle.
All kindling should be dead & dry. Softwoods are best as they will catch-on faster than hardwood but they will produce more sparks and as they burn faster, you will need more of them. Resinous timbers (often softwoods such as fir, pine, cedar & birch) are also a bonus as the resin will act as an accelerant. When gathering kindling it is best to take it from dead trees rather than straight off the ground as it is more likely to be damp if it is on the ground.
In the Wilderness, larger fuel will usually be logs which can be added once the fire is well established. When first applying the larger fuel, you should start with dry logs from dead trees but as the fire is well established, you can use damp or green logs because the fire will be hot enough to dry the timber out before it burns. You can make a long lasting fire by adding a mixture of both green and dry fuels. This will help your fire burn all through the night. Green timber will give off more smoke though so if you are being pursued, it is best to use dry wood and don’t add larger pieces before your fire is ready for them as this will cause incomplete combustion of the larger logs which in-turn will cause excess smoke.
When choosing larger fuel, there are some additional considerations around the density of the fuel which need to be factored in. Hardwood is more dense and will burn slower and hotter. Hardwood is excellent for creating embers for cooking or carrying to make fire at another location. Hardwood fires also require less fuel and therefore less energy to gather.
Some hard, dense wood varieties:
- Gum Trees
- Australian Cypress
A simple indication as to whether your fuel is hard and dense, or soft, is how heavy it is. Hardwood, dense wood will be heavier.
Softer woods are less dense and therefore burn faster. They are also often oily and more combustible. Softwood will also give off lots of sparks and is ideal for when you want to be seen and is therefore good for signal fires.
Some softer wood varieties:
When collecting your fuel, the basic rule of thumb in to collect about twice as much as you think you will need. If the timber is softwood, collect even more. Once you have collected your fuels, you should grade and stack them according to size. If it is raining, ensure that the fuel is covered to keep it dry. In a longer term camp, it may pay to build a small wood shed. Ensure that it is stacked up off the ground and have a place (shelf) for drying wood and a place for the dried wood.
It is important that when adding fuel to your fire that you do not add too much too quickly as this will starve the fire of oxygen and the fire is likely to die out. Adding larger fuels before the fire is burning hot enough to take it will cause incomplete combustion of the larger fuel and produce smoke.
Non Timber Fuels
In some places you may find that there are no readily available sources of wood to use as fuel. In this situation, you will need to look for alternative fuel sources.
Dried Animal Droppings
Make an excellent fuel source when dry. I remember hearing a story once about how families lived for generations farming cattle on an island which had no trees, and they would use the dried cow pats as their primary source of fuel for cooking and heating.
Animal Fat and Blubber
Animal fat can be used where fuel is scarce. Often in polar regions, animal fat is the only fuel available. Beware though, if food is also scarce as animal fat is a great source of calories, which you will need a lot of in cold climates. Seal blubber does not store well and makes an excellent fuel so is often ideal to use as fuel. Animal Fat or blubber can be augmented with other fuels such as sticks or bones when used as a fire. It can also be used to make a candle in a container, using a piece of fabric, cord or shoelace wick.
Man Made Fuels
Sometimes in survival situations you may have a Wreckage to scavenge or be lucky enough to come across Abandoned Vehicles, Mines, Logging Camps or Dwellings which may provide you with the opportunity to scavenge for items which people have left behind. Often in these situations, you are are likely to find one or more of the following:
- Motor Oil (in cold areas this may freeze so it should be drained from the engine as soon as possible)
- Hydraulic or Break Fluid
- Insect Repellent
- Cooking Oil
- Liquid Hydrocarbons (found in most aerosol sprays)
- Rubber from Tyres or door seals (excellent for Signal Fires)
- Materials from Vehicle Seats or Furniture
Peat, or turf, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter or histosol. Peat forms in wetland bogs, moors, muskegs, pocosins, mires, and peat swamp forests.
Often growing on the edge of rocky outcrops, peat is soft under foot, dark in color and easy to cut. You will need to ensure that your Peat fire gets lots of oxygen.
Peat is harvested as an important source of fuel in certain parts of the world and as it dries very quickly when cut into blocks and loosely stacked, it makes an excellent survival fuel.
Peat deposits are found in many places around the world:
- Northern Germany
- The Netherlands
- North America (Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, the Florida Everglades, and California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta).
- New Zealand
- Southern Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands
Approximately 60% of the world’s wetlands are peat.
Coal is a readily combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock. It begins as layers of plant matter accumulate at the bottom of a body of water protected from biodegradation and oxidization, usually by mud or acidic water, which causes its metamorphosis over time.
Coal can sometimes be found on open ground on the northern tundra and has been used as a fuel for centuries.
An organic-rich fine-grained sedimentary rock, contains significant amounts of kerogen (a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds) from which liquid hydrocarbons can be extracted. Shales are an excellent fuel source. Deposits of oil shale occur around the world, including major deposits in the United States of America, Australia, Sweden, Estonia, Jordan, France, Germany, Brazil, China, southern Mongolia and Russia.
Preparing your Fire Place
It is important to choose the right location of your fire. In making the decision on a suitable location, you will need to factor in the weather conditions and purpose of your fire. If it is windy you should dig a trench to light it in, use stones, a natural feature or build a wind break (from logs) to shield the fire. If it is wet or you are in the snow, you will need to build your fire up on a platform. If your fire is predominantly for warmth or protection from animals or insects, you will probably build it close to your shelter but make sure that where you place it won’t cause your shelter to fill with smoke. In any case you should always prepare the fire place by removing any sticks, exposed roots, leaves or dry grass in about a 2 meter (6ft) diameter and don’t build the fire beside a log or tree stump. This will reduce the risk of the fire getting out of hand. Tree roots which have been exposed to fire have been known to smolder underground for several months before reaching and igniting the tree and causing devastating forest fires.
Simple platforms can be made from laying a bed of stones or green logs and then placing a thick layer of moss or earth on top, then lighting the fire on top of that. Sometimes, especially in deeper snow and swampland, you will need to construct a raised frame on which to put your log or stone platform so that it is up and clear of the snow , mud or water.