Building Survival Skills 4: Fire Making

For the fourth installment of the Building Survival Skills series of blog posts, I'm covering the basics of fire making.

For the fourth installment of the Building Survival Skills series, I going to briefly cover fire making as it feels like a natural progression from the last installment which dealt with shelter building. That is because it goes hand in hand with fighting off exposure to cold weather and can help with drying off which are common uses for shelters.

For reference, the survival rules of three, which this skill series of posts is attempting to address, indicate a person can only survive for:

  • three minutes without air (or in icy waters),
  • three hours without shelter,
  • three days without water,
  • three weeks without food.

While the environment and terrain can offer natural structures that can be used as shelter, finding a fire to warm one’s self with is not a typical occurrence. I’m not saying fires don’t happen naturally. I’m just saying that when one comes across a fire they didn’t personally start, the fire is either someone else’s camp fire or a fire that one should run away from.

Fire making skills can be organized into three categories: fire starting, managing a fire, and putting out a fire. I’ll briefly talk about each of these categories.

I should probably start with how to put out a fire just in case somebody gets the bright idea to only read through how to start a fire and go practice that before learning how to manage and put out a fire. While it’s definitely a less exciting skill to talk about, it’s probably the one anyone who is about to start fire should also think about before actually making a fire. So that’s where I’ll start. I’m also going to suggest folks purchase a couple of 5 lbs fire extinguishers before and have them on standby when learning and practicing fire making skills. Frankly, it’s not a bad idea to have these handy just in case a fire gets out of hand during a recreational outdoor activity.

While preparedness minded folks are likely to keep fire extinguishers at home and in vehicles, it’s unlikely that these will be carried in a pack during more intense and remote outdoor activities. This means that fire extinguishers will be even less likely in a survival situation. Which brings us back to talking about skills to put out a well managed fire. Generally speaking in a survival situation, we will be left with either letting the fire burn out or having to extinguish a fire.

Since we don’t know if an external stimulus (which could be a threat) will force our hand at extinguishing a fire, we need to have a plan to put out whatever fire we build. We can use water, dirt, sand, and even our feet (assuming the current footwear provides adequate protection) to smother a fire out. That means we should have the skills on hand to use any of these materials and corresponding methods to put out a fire. In terms of planning the fire, we have to decide ahead of time what method and materials will be used before building the fire as this will inform how large (or hot a fire) we can safely build and manage.

Think about it for a second. If the environment and the terrain (and tools available) don’t lend themselves well to quickly dumping bucket loads of water on a fire, then we probably don’t want to build a massive bonfire. Bottom line, learn how to put them out and don’t build a fire larger than can be quickly put out.

Now we come to managing fires. Like putting out fires, a large part of managing fires comes down to planning based on the environment and the terrain. That means looking up, looking down, and all around. The first thing to look for is things that will burn. Those things will be fuel to keep the fire going (and to start it), and also things we don’t want the fire to accidentally (or negligently) ignite. So it’s more than managing the fire itself, it’s managing the area around it. Like all the other skills I’ve talked about so far, this will require practice to build enough experience to know how fast to add to the fire to keep it going but not let it get too big.

Speaking of adding the right size fuel at the right time, leads me to a couple of related skills (also shared with shelter building skills): chopping and splitting wood. While I suggest preparing the wood that will be used to build the fire before actually starting it, nature may put us in a position where we have to get a fire going quickly and process wood to fuel the fire after it’s been started. Either way, it is very likely wood will need to be chopped and split into appropriate sizes to keep the fire going and maintain it at a manageable size. This is significantly more likely going to be required in wet environments. Chopping and splitting can be accomplished with just about any large enough bladed cutting tool. However, the skills needed to chop and split wood with a knife are quite different than those required to chop and split wood with an axe. I suggest learning how to chop and split wood with both types of tools and regularly practicing with the tool (or one very similar to it) one is likely to have available in a survival situation.

Starting a fire is arguably the most talked about and exciting skill when it comes to fire marking. If the boy scout in us has planned how the fire will be extinguished and managed properly, we should know exactly where and how large of a fire to build. Actually starting the fire comes down to having enough appropriately sized fuel prepared included, but not limited to, tinder (or feather sticks), small (pinky finger thickness) wood pieces, medium (index finger thickness) wood pieces, larger (thumb thickness) wood pieces, and so on. Then we are finally ready to ignite the starting tinder or feather sticks. Randall’s adventure has a really good video with some techniques and skills to build a fire up from ignited tinder on YouTube (which I’ve embedded below).

There are different methods for igniting tinder. I recommend getting familiar and practicing as many different methods as possible just in case they ever become necessary. I’ll list out the methods I know (and suggest as a starting point) in ordered by my opinion of effort (calorie expenditure) required to ignite a fire from least effort to most:

  • Using a lighter (which is a must have in all survival packs in my opinion)
  • Using matches (doesn’t hurt to include a box or two in a survival pack either)
  • Striking sparks with a fire steel or ferro rod
  • Using a magnifying glass (requires direct sunlight)
  • Using a bow drill (worst case scenario)

Honestly, fire making is a very important survival skill. Should go without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway, building a fire in less than optimal conditions (i.e., in bad weather, while fighting off exhaustion, or with an injury) can be a very arduous chore and can, in some cases, mean the difference between life and death. Not only does a fire provide a heat source which can help combat the threat of exposure, it also provides another means of purifying water and cooking food. As such, I encourage folks to develop and practice this skill. So go do the things.

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