Modern man stands in direct opposition against the wild. We are creatures of order, and habit, and similitude. The wilderness is chaos, a force guided by only two principles; dominance and growth. And man, having long ago relinquished the natural survival tools of a good predator in favor of a bigger, better brain, not only has to pick his battles wisely but must also leverage new tools in his favor to affect survival.
Unequivocally, the most important of these tools are a solid knife and a reliable fire-starter. With these two pieces of gear a myriad of possibilities make themselves available to any who would choose to be prepared, and preparedness, in all aspects, is the name of the game.
Knives are easy. Any folder or fixed blade with at least a 3” long blade from a reputable manufacturer will work. Read customer reviews and look for a product warranty. It stands to reason that any manufacturer who places a lifetime warranty on their product will make quality gear. Provided you do a little research and select a knife that feels comfortable in your hand you should have a sufficient cutting tool. As for starting fire, my preferred method is by firesteel.
Matches are worthless when wet. Butane lighters wont light in extreme cold or if they run out of fluid. However, a firesteel will work regardless of weather conditions, provided you know what type of tinder to utilize, which will be the primary focus of this article.
When looking for tinder materials, think dry and noisy. When running the materials through your hands they should crunch and crackle, just like dry leaves. You should be able to mash the material up and have it crack and flake. Dried grasses and certain types of bark, especially the bark of the paper birch tree, make the best natural tinder.
As with wild edibles, the best place to look for tinder grasses is along the treeline, where wooded areas give way to open ground. These areas offer full sun to growing plants but also contain the biodiversity of the forest, forming a sort of terrestrial estuary in which flora can thrive. That means you get big, tall grasses whose leaves, as they die off, will stay in handy little clumps suspended off the damp ground. Look for these tall clumps of dried grass that have been bleached by the sun to the color of pale straw or bone and grab at least a big handful to make your tinder nest and ensure you can get your fire started.
To make the tinder nest, simply grab each end of your dried grass stalks and then roll them around one another to form a circle, tucking the ends tightly back into itself as if you were making a wreath or a continuous loop. You want the tinder nest to be solid with no gaps or open spaces. It’s called a nest because, of course, it has such an uncanny resemblance to a bird’s nest. Instead of cradling eggs though, ours will cradle a spark. Keep that in mind when forming the nest, that its overall shape should be that of a shallow bowl as it must catch and hold a spark long enough for flame to take hold.
As the tinder only serves to nurse spark into flame, kindling will also be needed to make a proper fire. In fire making, there is the rule of doubles. This means that while you need one big handful of tinder you will need two big handfuls of dried leaves and then four big handfuls of sticks for kindling. When gathering these leaves and sticks just remember they need to be dry and noisy, the leaves should crackle and almost shatter when you you crush them in your hand and the sticks should snap with an audible crack and not bend. Quiet leaves and sticks that bend denote high moisture content which will absolutely prevent flame. The sticks should also range in size from as thin as a coffee stirrer to as thick as a finger and should be about as long an outstretched hand, though bigger or smaller is fine.
If dried leaves are in short supply, as they very well may be given the time of year or environment, then pine needles, dry bark (especially birch and cedar), and thicker grasses can be used to equal effect. The best place to look for sticks is simply at the base of trees. Gather whatever has fallen or the wind has blown over and simply snap them to size using your hands. This is not only quicker than having to cut or chop wood but also requires no extra tools and saves calories. Swinging an axe is laborious and even using a saw will soon enough cause you to work up a sweat, but snapping sticks in your hands requires barely any energy, saving precious calories when they may be needed elsewhere.
Now on to brass tacks; turning tools and materials into fire. The single most important things to remember when using a firesteel is to hold the edge of your knife at a forty-five degree angle when striking sparks, ensuring that you rake the blade across the firesteel and don’t cut gouges into the material. You are, after all, trying to throw a shower of sparks into your tinder nest so a smooth strike is necessary for reliable combustion.
Lay all your materials out, sorted by size, so that once your tinder nest catches you aren’t left scrambling for kindling. Using a firm, smooth stroke cast a shower of sparks off the firesteel and into your tinder nest. It will likely take several attempts so don’t become discouraged. The sparks may need to burn off residual moisture in the tinder, causing delayed ignition. Keep working at it. The tinder will smoke and then finally roar into flame.
Once burning, let the tinder nest become fully involved and then turn it over with a stick so it can burn through the underside. When flames again roar up, drop a handful of leaves and a small handful of your thinnest sticks on top. Gently blowing into the nest or fanning it with your hand can help a sluggish flame along. Once they catch, put on another handful of leaves and another handful of your next thinnest sticks. Now just add the larger sticks one or two at a time, dropped right on top, until you have a small campfire happily burning.
Fire, they say, is a fickle friend and a cruel master. By practicing this skill, a level of confidence can be achieved allowing the bearer of this knowledge to walk into any wilderness and provide themselves with fire, granted they’ve done a bit of thinking ahead and prepared the right set of tools and skills to not just survive but to thrive.