Everyone knows how to make fire. You just take out a lighter and flick a switch – or strike a match. But what if you don’t have those things? What if you’re stuck in the wilderness with just what you’re wearing between you and the elements? Clue: your new name is “Wolf Food”.
Maybe not. The ability to make fire is what separates us from animals. Chimpanzees can use tools and communicate with sign language, but the minute they learn how to build a bonfire this’ll be Planet of the Apes.
Fire civilises. It brings light and warmth to the most inhospitable places. It dries us when we’re wet and lets us cook our food. It scares away creatures that mean us harm and stops us from perishing from hypothermia in the desert night. It keeps us alive.
So, if there’s one thing you should learn to do – one thing you have a duty to learn as a human being – it’s how to make fire.
As Bruce Springsteen will tell you, you can’t start a fire without a spark. Well, you can – but using a spark is a classic method. It’s how your lighter works, after all.
Sparks are, literally, small, hot particles produced when two hard substances are struck together. The traditional combo is a piece of flint struck against steel; the back of a knife, for example. You can try combinations of hard rock if you don’t have flint to hand.
You won’t be able to directly light a bonfire with a spark. The best approach is to cut a strip of dry birch bark from a tree, then shave some off some of the outer skin to create tinder. Place the tinder on the birch strip then strike towards the tinder to make sparks.
Once the birch shavings are smoking, transfer this “coal” to a larger bunch of tinder; some dry grass, fungus, coconut matting, paper or bark shavings will do.
Modern bushmen carry around a tool called a “fire stick”. Using the same principle as flint and blade, you can easily create sparks by scraping a specially crafted steel key along a ferrocerium rod. It’s good enough for Ray Mears, so it’s good enough for us. Once you have your fire on the go, you can make a more combustible “char cloth” by drying out bark strips in a sealed tin on hot coals. The next time you make a fire with a spark, you can use this as your starting tinder.
The sun is chucking out 15 million degrees centigrade of heat. Of course, by the time that heat reaches us it’s dissipated a bit… And in dear old Blighty, we don’t get to see it all that often. But, given the right conditions, concentrating light and heat from Sol remains the easiest way to start a fire.
You’ll need two things to harness the heat of the sun; some tinder and something to focus the sun’s light and heat. You can use a magnifying glass, the lens from a pair of spectacles, the bottom of a glass bottle or even the curved edge of a (full) water bottle. Concentrate the light into the tinder until it begins to catch light, then build your fire around it.
You know how boy scouts are supposed to know how to start fires by rubbing two sticks together? The first thing you need to know is that there is absolutely nothing rude about rubbing two sticks together, so you can stop sniggering at the back.
In the traditional “boy scout” method, you create a “hand drill”. Firstly, you prepare a board by cutting a good sized “V” shaped nick in one edge. Lay the board on the ground. Underneath the nick, place a piece of dried bark, fungus or cloth then pile in some tinder; dried grass or bark shavings.
This is where you second “stick” comes in. Sharpen a dry stick to a blunt point then, holding the stick upright with both hands, place the point next to the nick in the board. Now you rub your hands together to rotate the stick, pushing down at the same time to apply pressure to the board. The friction heats up the wood and the “coal” that’s created should begin to light your small amount of tinder. Once alight, you can apply that to a bigger bundle of tinder and begin to build your fire.
There are several variations of this method. Another, relatively easy one is the “fire plough”. Again you need two pieces of wood; a board or thick, dry branch and a stick. Both must be stripped of bark. In this version, you use a knife to carve a groove about 10 inches long in the board. Next, you place some tinder (bark shavings, cotton wool) at the end of the groove. To get the fire going, you slide the sharpened stick with fast, even strokes along the groove until friction heats up the fire board and the tinder begins to smoke.
Building your fire
In each of the cases above, you end up with some smoking, burning tinder. To turn the tinder into a roaring campfire you’ll need to prepare in advance:
- Clear the area where the fire will be set
- Make sure it’s away from dry trees and grass
- Dig a shallow pit to build the fire in (this will protect the heart of the fire from the elements)
- Collect kindling – small twigs and branches to help get the fire going
- Collect firewood to fuel the fire
When your bundle of tinder begins to smoke, waft it in the wind or blow on it to get it burning faster and to develop flames. Put the tinder in your prepared fire pit and quickly add more tinder and kindling to get the fire going. When you have a decent fire going with kindling, you can begin to add larger pieces of wood.
To maximise the heat output from your fire and to protect it, places stones around the perimeter. These will soon warm up and continue to throw out heat even when your fire is burning down. They also help to prevent the fire from spreading.
Congratulations! You know how to make fire and have increased the probability that you will survive in the wilderness from 2% to 77%. Now you just have to avoid getting eaten by bears and everything will be fine.