Practice Makes Perfect- Making Fire

22 December 2017

My son and I are always testing ourselves, no matter what we do. We make everything we can into a learning experience, do our best to find better ways to do things, and to get better at what we do. It could be a physical test, by turning a 5 mile canyon walk into a 15 mile walk for example. Or a skills test- I might let Nicolai do the packing for a trip, have him navigate and route-find as we hike, or have him get our stove set up or fire made for the night’s dinner.  Making fire is a classic test for us, something we can never practice enough. We use many different methods- a single match, a lighter, a metal match (a rod composed of a metal alloy known as ferrocerium) and tinder, a metal match and magnesium shavings, or a bow and drill. We make it a point to practice all these techniques in varying temperatures, different levels of wind, with different moisture levels, and types of tinder and fuel, essentially training for any possible conditions that we can. This is the way we get better, and master our skills.

Much can be said about fire making techniques and tools- everyone has their favorite methods, and opinions of different methods, not to mention opinions of countless other variables- how many methods you should carry with you, whether or not to carry natural tinder or a commercial variety, a small lighter or a large one, a book of matches or strike anywhere stick matches.  These are all questions that each person has to work out for themselves. No matter how many books you read, how many blogs you visit, or how many Youtube videos you watch,  it all boils down to your skill and comfort levels.  If you can make fire in a few seconds with your eyes closed by rubbing two sticks together, you probably don’t need to carry 3 or 4 different methods with you.  If you have trouble lighting a fire with matches, you should probably have a large, well-stocked fire kit with plenty of redundancy.

fire making methods- bow and drill, metal match, magnesium block. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Three fire making methods- bow and drill, metal match, and magnesium block with imbedded ferro rod. No matter what your favorite method, it is important to become proficient. Being skilled in many fire making methods just adds insurance.

Start With the Basics
Fire making, like any skill, begins with practice. Depending on the method or methods you choose, it could be lots of practice. The key is to learn the skill before you need it- practice and become proficient with with the basics first- starting with matches or a lighter, then moving on to the metal match, the fire steel, bow and drill, hand drill, or fire plow. Did I mention you need to practice fire making? And if you decide to carry and use one of the “primitive” methods at the end of the preceding list, you need to practice even more- don’t wait until your life depends on it and assume you can work out how to use a fire steel, flint and charcloth. It may be too late.

Start with considering the placement of your fire- think about where you want to build it. Ask yourself if this is the right place for it now, overnight, and tomorrow. Think about wind and weather, what is overhead (remember the lessons of Jack London!), and if this is where you want to sleep if it is for the night. Consider reflectors, natural and those you put in place. Are there rocks or a rock face to direct the warmth towards you? Finally consider safety, dry grasses and branches for example and Leave No Trace principles.  Try not to build a raging, night-long fire where its existence will be visible for years.

No matter which method you use to get that all-important spark, all fire-starting methods require a tinder bundle for your spark, kindling to build it up, and fuel to feed the fire. Spending the time to create the perfect tinder bundle will insure success. Collecting and preparing kindling and a sufficient pile of fuel for your fire may mean the difference between being warm, and starting over.

Birds nest of juniper bark, photo by Gerald Trainor

The perfect birds nest with glowing spark from a bow and drill.

Where we operate in the Four Corners region bark from the Juniper is the best tinder available. It is easy to find and remove from any Juniper we  come across. Our second choice is the hairlike, inner material from dry cottonwood bark. Chunks of dry cottonwood bark are usually found at the base of larger cottonwood trees; look for those that have large, dead branches. Either material should be twisted in the hands, or pounded between a couple of rocks to break it up and create the fine powder that is so easy to ignite. Of course there are countless other materials that can be used for a tinder bundle. The idea is to find something that can be reduced to fibers, and pounded nearly into powder. Other desert plants to look at include sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and some grasses if they are fine and very dry. After making your tinder bundle, simply hold your match or lighter underneath, place the spark from your bow and drill or charcloth into the bundle, or direct the sparks from your metal match into the bundle. Once you’ve reached this point the rest is fairly easy- slowly and carefully feed the fire with tinder, kindling and then larger fuel until it reaches sufficient size for your needs.

For more on fire making in general, see our Learning the Basic of Fire page.  Also see our page on the Metal Match and Magnesium Fire Starter. Visit the Desert Explorer website to peruse other skills topics as well as the highlights of some of our adventures.


More on Making Fire, Last Days to Comment on Sodium Cyanide, Desert Explorer Gear

2 March 2008

Even a Child Can Do It

Yesterday was a beautiful 70 degree day in Lafayette, Colorado. My son and I took advantage of the entire day, and towards the day’s end we built a fire in our usual manner- with the bow and drill. And as usual my three year old sat closely and watched as I set up my tools for creating fire. Once I got the spark on the flake of wood I keep in my kit, we transferred it into the awaiting Juniper bark birdsnest. Nico then helped me blow the Juniper bark into flame. After our fire was going, Nico decided that he wanted to give his fireset a try. He asked to borrow my “special rock”, a piece of sandstone rounded in a streambed with the perfect hole in the center for the drill. He explained the ends of the drill, and where they go, he got his gear together and got set up. I helped him wrap the bowstring around the drill and to my surprise he was able to situate himself perfectly, his foot firmly against the fireboard , his body directly over the drill, with his bow moving back and forth consistently. Although he is a little lacking in weight and stamina, I can see that it is just a matter of time before he creates his first fire. I look forward to the day. For more on primitive fire skills, visit the Desert Explorer website. For more on introducing children to the wilderness and teaching them primitive skills, visit the Wilderness Kids page.

Last Days for Comments on Sodium Cyanide and M-44’s

The comment period will end on 05 March regarding the proposed ban on sodium cyanide, Compound 1080 and the M-44 predator control device. If you have not yet commented, please do. To learn more about the proposed ban and what it means, visit the Sinapu blog. Visit the EPA website to make comments- click here for the comment page. (If the page does not load, go to, and type “hq-opp-2007-0944” in the search field.)

These devices pose a serious threat to all animals and humans alike. In recent years there have been a number of instances of humans being poisoned by these devices, both civilians and federal agents responsible for device placement. These devices are placed primarily on public lands and private lands when requested. They have also been placed on private land without owner consent. There are problems with their oversight and the responsible agency, Wilderness Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, has failed numerous audits. Regardless of which side of the predator control issues one falls, the fact is that these poisons are lethal, dangerous, and pose a serious threat to the public. For more information and links see our 06 February, 2008 blog post.

Desert Explorer Updates

This week on Desert Explorer I added a Gear Shop page and a page on Homemade Gear. The Gear Shop page lists some of the equipment that I have come to rely on in recent years. I will continue to add to it as I find pieces of equipment that deserve to be there. The Homemade Gear page is barely underway. I have only posted the homemade alcohol stove, and a link to the instructions. Unfortunately the link seems to be broken at present. I will leave it up and check on it in the next few days. The alcohol stove made from two Red Bull cans is one of the most useful and efficient stoves I have ever had. I will add plans soon for a homemade silcloth daypack , a mosquito net, and a simmer plate for stoves without the simmer option. I have made all of these and have had great results in their use. Check back for those updates.

I also began a wildlife page on the Coyote this week. The 06 February blog post mentioned above is also available there.

Summer will be here soon and we will be in the canyons and on the river before we know it- start getting prepared!