Let’s talk about fire in your git kit today. I’ll admit I feel kinda funny writing about a skill that’s about as basic to me as wiping my ass, but there are folks out there that have never needed to know how to build a fire. I don’t mind sharing what I know.
Fire to most folks today is more of a comfort today than a necessity. A nice fire is a beautiful thing to behold, and along with the crackling and smells you’ve got the makings for a nice relaxing evening whether you’re up in the high mountains or at home in your living room with your wife at your side, dog at your feet and a glass of warmed cognac in your hand.
We cook and heat our water with electricity or piped in gas, we heat our houses (most of us) with gas or electricity and we use electricity for lighting. With the exception of those that heat their houses solely with wood, most of us really don’t deal with wood fires very often. We don’t need to.
The days of banking a fire before turning in are long gone. Think about it: When was the last time you yourself banked a fire? How many of you are asking yourself “What the hell is banking a fire?” right now? When was the last time you built a fire? Was it a comfort fire or a cooking fire?
By the way, banking a fire is nothing more than covering hot coals with a thick layer of ash so it’ll last through the night. In the morning you blow it off, throw some kindling on your coals and restart your fire.
Three sources of fire in your pack, that’s what everyone says. Matches, Bic lighters and a steel/magnesium striker is what most folks pack. That’ll work under most circumstances. Let’s take them one at a time but first let’s start with basic fire building just in case you’re not familiar with it.
You need tinder, kindling and fuel. Your tinder is a easily burned material like fine wood shavings, dryer lint, paper, charred cloth smeared in vaseline, something like that.
Light that shit off and start feeding it slivers of wood, increasing in size as your flame grows. Pine works great for this because of the amount of pitch in it. Right now you should be protecting that little fire from the wind like your life depends on it because it just fucking might. Gently blow on it, encourage it to grow. Patience is your friend right now, don’t try to feed bigger sticks into it until it can consume them. Keep feeding it larger and larger sticks until you can safely put wrist sized pieces on there and they’re lighting. You now have a fire. That’s if you found sufficient dry wood, your hands weren’t numb to the point you couldn’t hold a match or lighter and the fucking wind didn’t blow your shit out.
Okay, ignition sources. Looking at matches for your git kit, the ones I use are plain old wooden strike anywhere fireplace matches. They’re broken off to fit a good sized prescription bottle, wax is smeared on the wood below the head and that goes into one of my outside pack pockets.
If conditions are right, I can build a one match fire. You can too, it ain’t hard.
Lighters, if you buy disposable ones, buy them and keep them in the rigid 3 pack. Bic lighters will leak over time, especially when loose in your pack. Swap ’em out at least once a year.
And last but not least in the 3 basic firestarters that everybody else recommends, the trusty magnesium and steel strikers.
A variation of the flint and steel used by grizzled trappers way back when, the mag striker is a shit hot tool that throws a hot spark to ignite your tinder. If you have practiced with it (and that’s a big if) and if (another big if) conditions are good, they say it’s almost as easy as using a match. Not quite, but close. That big ol’ fat magnesium spark burns hot as hell, but not nearly as long as a 3 inch fireplace match. You have to land that spark right on your ball of vaseline coated dryer lint to get it to catch and that’s pretty much a strike like hell and hope one lands proposition. I’ve done it before to see if I can, but it’s not a method I would willingly choose. That shit about wore me out between working that striker and huffing and puffing.
I’ve also tried to build a fire using flint and steel. I was unsuccessful. I later found out that the folks back in the old days poured a little gunpowder on their tinder to help it along. Duh…
The key to a fire is like everything else: practice. We’ve lost fire building as an everyday skill and it’s something that is essential to our survival. Luckily we have tools that we can use so we’re not dependent on keeping last night’s fire alive or using flint and steel.
I’ve been cold before, cold enough to where I honestly thought I was going to die if I didn’t get warm. Anybody that’s spend a decent amount of time up in the woods and mountains has been in that position. Some folks rectify that by avoiding that kind of situation again and others figure out how to deal with it. Ninety five percent of the time I keep a cold camp, but when I need a fire, I need a fucking fire.
Let me tell you about some of my tools and tricks.
I carry a pill bottle jammed with dryer lint with a little vaseline drizzled over it. I know it’s dry and I know it will catch, and with the vaseline it’ll burn a little hotter and longer.
Matches are my first choice if I can find dry twigs and sticks. I mentioned earlier that I use large kitchen matches broken off to fit inside a pill bottle. I wipe a little wax along the wood below the heads to help them burn. I don’t waterproof the heads because they’re kept inside a pill bottle.
I don’t carry Bic lighters. I carry a beat up old Zippo. I carry it dry along with a small can of lighter fluid in a pocket on the other side of where my strike anywhere matches are. The reason I carry a Zippo is because they’re windproof and you can hold them a hell of a lot longer than you can a Bic if your kindling is damp although they have to cool down to relight if you keep them lit too long. That’s pretty much a moot point though – if the wood is that fucking damp it’s going to get a squirt of lighter fluid first. That’ll dry that shit out real quick. Fuck that Boy Scout shit.
And then there’s a piece of fire starting ignition that nobody ever mentions. It works great when the wood is damp, it’s reliable, it burns for a long-ass time and damned near everybody owns at least one. Not only that but it also doubles as a fine I’M LOST AND SCARED AND HERE I AM signalling device. What is it?
A motherfucking road flare, man. Pop the cap, strike the end and stuff it into a pile of wood and you got yourself a fire. It’ll be kinda smoky and stinky and bright red for a while but hey! it’s a fire.
If you don’t want to go to those extremes, do yourself a favor and go to amazon and buy yourself a box of Esbit cubes. They light with a match, and each one burns at 1800 degrees for about 12 minutes. One of those little fuckers will boil a quart of water at sea level in 8 minutes and it damned sure will make your firestarting a lot easier.
None of what I just wrote is worth a shit if you don’t learn how to do it. Do that by building a fire in your fireplace instead of using gas to light it, or your charcoal griller or your backyard – just don’t burn the fucking fence down in the process.