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.

 

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Back From the Bush, Planning the Next Trip

31 March 2010

It is the time of year when I wish I could just stay over in Utah.  The winter is nearing its end and we are ready to get out. And two weeks is just never enough time, no matter the time of year. Nicolai and I had a great trip though, as always.  The weather cooperated for the most part.  There were a few cold nights, a few cold mornings, and of course the usual strong winds.  Precipitation was very limited- we had a couple of snow flurries that lasted all of an hour at the most, and a couple of light rains that passed in a few hours.

We started our trip as we usually do at our “secret” camp site overlooking the train tracks near Westwater.  From there we made a counter-clockwise loop to Moab, Green River, through the Green River Desert (along the edge of the Green River) to Horseshoe Canyon, Hanksville, down towards Hite, Cedar Mesa, and Mexican Hat, then up through Blanding and Moab back to I-70.

Horseshoe Canyon
We visited some new locations, including Horseshoe Canyon to look at rock art. The panels down there are just amazing, truly some of the best you will ever see.  And the preservation, for the most part, is great.  Nicolai was a bit confused about why there was a chain keeping us back from the rock art at the Great Gallery.  He understands that some people deface the rock art with their graffiti; he is quick to pick it out on nearly any panel.  When I explained that the idea is to protect the panels so that he can come back to see them in 50 years, he kind of felt okay about it.  We sat at the Great Gallery for a couple of hours, taking in the paintings, the clear sky, the trickle of water flowing down Barrier Creek.  We will undoubtedly return there.

The "Holy Ghost" panel, Great Gallery

"Shepherds dancing", great Gallery. Note the animated figures with staffs in the lower left.

Mexican Hat
On many of our journeys to southeast Utah we stop in at the San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat for breakfast. We have  a campsite at the southern end of Cedar Mesa that we frequently stay at, and that puts us only about 1/2 hour away from breakfast at the Olde Bridge Grille.  One of the people working in the dining room is Navajo artist Joey Allen.  We saw some of his prints last year and had hoped to buy one from him this time. Unfortunately he didn’t have any along, but they can be purchased from his website.

Hunting and Primitive Skills
Anyone who has read our blog or visited the Desert Explorer website knows that we focus a lot of our time on primitive skills.  On this trip we experimented with using rice grass for making the birdsnest for starting fires. We used it on many nights with the metal match, and gave it a try a couple of times with the spark from our bow and drill.  It required a bit more striking with the metal match to warm the material up than does Juniper bark for example.  I am sure this is because the material is more coarse.  The grass burst into flames with a couple of blows after dropping the spark from the bow and drill into the birdsnest.

Our fire kit with ricegrass birdsnest flaming.

In our last post we included a photo of a not-so-perfect obsidian knife we had made.  The inspiration for that knife is at the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.  There are four beautiful knives on display there from a cache in nearby Westwater Canyon. They are normally displayed in the “visible storage” area upstairs.  But now they are downstairs in a plexiglass cube as part of a new exhibit, allowing me to get a decent photo of them.

Three of the four hafted knives on display at the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.

Nicolai loves the knives and  we had to go back for a second visit to look at them, and take a few more photos for him, before we could leave Blanding.

We had originally planned to shoot a rabbit or two on this trip.  Nicolai had plans for the meat, as well as the pelts and other parts. But we did not have the best luck hunting during the time we had our license.  We did find tracks and scat, nothing fresh, but no rabbits made themselves visible to us. We did have some fun firing our Ruger 10/22 though.  It was Nicolai’s first time firing it and he loved it.  It seems it will be a permanent part of the packing list for Utah from now on. And we’ll try our luck at finding some rabbits next trip.

He's a pretty good shot, with a little help.

SPOT GPS Messenger
Finally, we did try out our new SPOT.  We sent at least one “okay” message from our camp each night. We sent out our custom message whenever we found rock art or ruins.  I made note of where and when each message was sent. Every message made it through, without fail.  You can click on the links that are sent out and view “road” maps, toppgraphic maps, or satellite maps. From our end on the ground, it took only seconds for the “message sent” light to start blinking.  I was a little skeptical about that, so took notes on each “send”.  I am more of a believer now.  It is a great way to keep in touch and let friends and family know you are on track and okay.  And should you need it, it might save your life. You can read more about the SPOT and how it compares to PLB’s in some of our past blog posts or at the Desert Explorer website.

Our SPOT GPS Messenger connecting with GPS satellites for location information before sending our custom "found rock art" message.

This  post has provided a quick summary of some of our trip. We will post more in-depth soon about the rock art we saw and other locations we visited that might be of interest  to everyone.


Fire Making, Desert Explorer Updates

18 February 2008

Fire Making

This weekend I continued my experimentation using Cottonwood bark for a fireboard. I have had great luck with dry bark that I have found at the base of larger, older trees. It also provides the hairy inner bark which can be used to create a “birdsnest” for fire making. The “birdsnest” is the carefully constructed bundle of bark which receives the spark created by friction on the fireboard. I had never read of anyone using Cottonwood bark for a fireboard, but I am sure it has been done. Typically the board is created from a piece of Cottonwood branch. So far I have made at least the last 10 or 12 fires using it.

Cottonwood bark is rather soft, compared to a fireboard made from a Cottonwood branch. A 1/2 inch thick fireboard from bark is good for 2, maybe 3 fires per hole. Using the inner bark for a birdsnest to receive the spark is not as efficient as using Juniper bark. My birdsnest was a handful of bark with the pieces being about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. About a third of the bundle, in the center where I placed the spark and began blowing, was crumbled to dust. All in all it requires more work. In the case of my latest experiment, this amounted to about 5 minutes of blowing and coaxing the bundle of bark into flame. The same can be achieved with Juniper bark in less than a minute. For more information on building fires and primitive fire methods visit theDesert Explorer website.

cottonwood bark fireboard with cottonwood branch drill for bow and drill firemaking kit

The above image shows a fireboard made from a piece of Fremont Cottonwood bark. The drill is from a branch of the same tree. The hole in the fireboard was used to make three fires.

bundles of inner bark from Fremont Cottonwood and Utah Juniper

This image shows bundles of inner bark from Fremont Cottonwood on the left, and Utah Juniper bark on the right. Both are suitable for use as a “birdsnest” for receiving the spark from a bow and drill fireset. The image shows both types of bark without having been prepared for use. The Juniper bark is the easier of the two to ignite.

Desert Explorer Updates

This week I added a Nevada Page to the trip guides. There is very little to it yet, but it has been started. So far I have a listing of places to visit in and around the town of Fallon, in the Lahontan Valley. Fallon is located on Highway 50, south of Highway 80. Some of the listings include directions and particulars on the sites to see. These include the local museum, rock art and archaeological sites, an historic fort and the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge which offers amazing birding. I will continue working on this page with all the rest.

I have been working on the Backpacking Foods pages. They are coming along, with about 10 recipes so far. These pages seem to be popular, so I will continue adding to them in the near future as well.

I added some explanations and gear links to the Desert Gear pages and the River Gear page.


Backpacking Foods, White Rim Ride, Metal Matches

18 January 2008

This week I added a “Backpack Foods” page to my website, just a few paragraphs so far, but enough to solidify my ideas for myself and give others an idea of how I do it. To summarise the page, as an ultralight, or minimalist backpacker, I try to carry the least amount of everything- including packaging. And I make sure to have plenty of food with me on my long treks in the bush. I make my own backpacking meals from dehydrated foods; I purchase some of the ingredients at natural food stores, some I grow and dehydrate myself. This allows me to cater my meals to my taste, and make them as large or small as I desire, for light lunches and big dinners. Visit www.DesertExplorer.us and read some more about the process. I will be posting more on the topic, and some photos in the near future.

I made a call this week to Canyonlands National Park and talked with a ranger about the White Rim ride. I had hopes of doing the ride in May, but the entire month is filled, even for a single rider. The size of the group, in my case being solo, really has nothing to do with it. There are a limited number of campsites available each night. As the campsites fill, plans need to be amended to fit the available sites. In my case at the end of May, I would have had a 17 mile ride the first day, then a 40 mile ride the next. Since there are sites along the route that will allow for 20 miles or so of riding each day, which is what I will do, I am opting to reserve the exact campsites I want later in the summer- meaning in August. It will be nice and warm then and I should have a pretty quiet and isolated trip across the White Rim.

I recently found a site online that sells survival items, some at very reasonable prices- www.countycomm.com . They are a supplier for government contracts- for the military and the like. The thing that caught my eye was the cost of the FS104 Metal Match, also known as the Light My Fire Scout Model. This company has them on sale for 6 dollars each- a great deal. Act quickly though as there is no indication of when the sale will end. Of course there is a shipping and handling charge, 10 dollars I think, so buy 3 or 4 of them to make it cost effective. They have some very interesting items for sale, and some great prices- the LED flashlights for one dollar each for example. For more information on desert survival and survival items visit the Desert Explorer survival pages.