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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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.