Keep in mind that when it comes time to use the fire kit in the field, it might be under less-than-ideal conditions.
Of all the different components that go into a properly packed bug-out bag, get-home bag or just an extensive survival kit, the fire gear is, to many, the most fun. We survival types do love making fire, don’t we?
Being able to get a fire going, even in less-than-ideal conditions, is an important survival skill. Fire will keep us warm and dry us out. It will cook our food and boil our water to make it safe to drink. It will light up the night, shoo away critters and can be used to signal for help.
Just as important is the psychological component at work with creating fire. Being able to make and maintain a fire gives us some control over the situation. This, alone, can boost the spirit.
For many of us, sitting by a campfire is relaxing and comforting. In a true survival situation, this can calm us down and clear our head, allowing us to make an intelligent plan for what to do next.
Fire requires three ingredients. The first, oxygen, isn’t something you are likely to be carrying with you in your fire kit. Truly, what we mean when we say fire needs air to breathe is just to make sure you’re not smothering it. A smothered fire might smolder, but you’re not going to get much water boiling that way. Always make sure you have good airflow to your fire.
The other two pieces of the puzzle are heat and fuel. For the purposes of creating our fire kit, we’re looking at fire starters and tinder to fill those roles.
A fire starter is a tool that provides the initial heat needed to ignite the tinder. This is the first step toward building a sustainable fire. There are several types of fire starters, of course, from the simple to the complex. The key is to play around with a few different kinds and choose the ones that seem to work the best for you.
Cigarette lighter: All other things being equal, nothing will get tinder ignited quicker than a simple cigarette lighter. Most survival instructors, no matter how hardcore their classes, will carry at least one lighter in their pockets or kits. Avoid the cheap ones sold three for a buck at gas stations and convenience stores. They have a tendency to break or leak. Spend the extra few pennies on a brand name, such as BIC.
IN A TRUE SURVIVAL SITUATION, [FIRE] CAN CALM US DOWN AND CLEAR OUR HEAD, ALLOWING US TO MAKE AN INTELLIGENT PLAN FOR WHAT TO DO NEXT.
Disposable lighters don’t like cold weather. This can sometimes be mitigated by keeping the lighter in a pocket close to your skin, or by holding it in your closed bare fist for a couple of minutes. However, nothing will help if it gets wet—other than the time it takes to dry out.
The lighter you select need not be disposable, of course. A Zippo or a stormproof lighter is a great addition to the kit. Just bear in mind that it will need to be filled with fuel in order to work. The Exotac titanLIGHT is a great option in that it has two O-ring seals to prevent any fuel leakage or evaporation.
Matches: These are the next best things to lighters. It should go without saying that paper matches aren’t the best option for a fire kit. Instead, opt for good-quality, strike-anywhere stick matches. You’re not going to find the awesome blue-tip matches that grandpa used, however. As with so many things today, they just don’t make them like they used to. However, the UCO brand strike-anywhere matches are quite good.
When shopping for matches, pay very close attention to the packaging. I know more than one person who bought the strike-on-box variety because the package was almost identical to the strike-anywhere variety.
Storm matches, which are matches specially formulated to light and burn in windy or rainy conditions, aren’t a bad addition to the kit. However, they are more expensive than the standard strike-anywhere kind, and they must be lit using a special strike strip.
If you plan to add matches to your fire kit, consider storing them in a crush-resistant and waterproof container. If you can find one, an old, plastic 35mm film canister works great. However, you’ll have to cut down the matches a bit for them to fit. Otherwise, the Exotac MATCHCAP is worth considering.
Next on the list are fire starters that utilize sparks to light the tinder.
Flint and Steel: The traditional tools are flint and steel. A sharp edge of the flint is struck against the steel. This carves off little splinters of steel that are ignited by the friction, and we see them as sparks falling down into the tinder. There is a bit of a learning curve to using this fire starter, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
BEING ABLE TO GET A FIRE GOING, EVEN IN LESS-THAN-IDEAL CONDITIONS, IS AN IMPORTANT SURVIVAL SKILL.
Ferrocerium Rods: Flint and steel are good, but a ferrocerium rod might be better for some folks. Often called “ferro” rods, these come in a variety of sizes—from small enough to fit on a necklace or keychain to big enough to be used as a self-defense weapon. To create a spark, hold the ferro rod in one hand and the scraper in the other. Point the ferro rod at your tinder and keep the rod just above it. Hold the scraper tight against the rod as you pull the rod back. This should send a shower of sparks raining down to light the tinder.
Neither flint and steel nor ferro rods are affected by rain or cold.
Spark-Lite, et al.: Another type of fire starter in this category is the Spark-Lite and others with similar designs. These operate similarly to a disposable lighter, just without the fuel and with larger sparks. The original Spark-Lite was invented by Oak Duke Norton, Jr. in 1979 and required two hands to operate. About five years later, he came up with the one-handed design we see today. The Spark-Lite is available in aluminum, plastic and brass. Exotac recently came out with a similarly designed fire starter that incorporates a small storage area for tinder.
Magnifying glass: Many of us played with magnifying glasses and sunshine when we were kids, burning holes in leaves and such. That same principle can be used in our fire kits. A small magnifying lens can be carefully packed in a bandanna or some other fabric for cushioning.
Fresnel lens: Another option is a Fresnel lens. While these lenses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, the ones that are about the size of a business card or credit card work great for fire kits.
Naturally, these only work when the sun is shining. Hold the lens above the tinder and move it around a bit until you see a bright spot on the tinder. By moving the lens up and down, you can adjust the size of that spot where the sun’s rays are being concentrated. The smaller and brighter the dot, the quicker you’ll get the tinder to ignite.
The final element needed for making fire is tinder. Natural types of tinder include things such as dry grass, pine needles and dead leaves … basically, anything that is dead, dry and light. You should have at least a few different types of tinder in your fire kit for those times you are unable to source it from the wild.
THE BEST APPROACH IS TO PLAY AROUND WITH THE DIFFERENT COMPONENTS AND SEE WHICH ONES SEEM TO BE THE EASIEST TO USE.
Petroleum Jelly and Cotton Balls: One of the most common homemade types of tinder is to add petroleum jelly to cotton balls. These work very well and light easily. A great way to package them is in an inexpensive waterproof match case. Tie a piece of cordage to one cotton ball and stuff it down into the case; then, hold the end of the cordage outside the case as you fill it with the rest of the cotton balls. Screw on the cap as normal. To use, open the case and tug on the cordage. The bottom cotton ball will push the rest upward, and you can just pluck the top one off.
Dryer Lint: Provided your clothes are mostly cotton or other natural fibers, dryer lint works well as tinder. Depending on how many dogs or cats you have, there might be a fair amount of fur in the lint as well—which can lend a less-than-pleasant odor when it burns. However, this dissipates rather quickly. Keep the lint dry by storing it in a plastic bag or other container.
WetFire Cube: This is a white petroleum-based product that ignites very easily and burns hot. You don’t have to use an entire cube, either. Just shave some off into a small pile and light it. The cubes are small and lightweight, so it is easy to toss several into a fire kit.
InstaFire: Another store-bought tinder, InstaFire works incredibly well. It is a mixture of volcanic rock, wood fibers and paraffin wax. InstaFire will light from a flame or spark and burns quite awhile. Pour the amount you want to use into a small pile and store the rest for later. What’s nice is that InstaFire will light and burn, even when it is wet. In fact, it will burn while floating on water.
Tinder-Quik Fire Tab: Another excellent product to consider is Tinder-Quik Fire Tab. It is sold under a few different brand names, although the original was invented by our friend Oak Duke Norton, Jr., who gave us the Spark-Lite. The Fire Tab consists of a small bundle of cotton that has been treated with chemicals to allow it to light fast and burn long. To use it, simply pull the fibers apart to fluff them up and then light them.
Assembling the Kit
As with many areas of preparedness, what works best for one person might not be the ideal solution for someone else. The best approach is to play around with the different components and see which ones seem to be the easiest to use.
Keep in mind that when it comes time to use the fire kit in the field, it might be under less-than-ideal conditions. It might be cold, windy or wet. You might be shivering, soaked to the bone and exhausted. Practice using your kit components until you can’t get it wrong.
Strive for at least three fire starters and enough tinder for several fires. Consider mixing up the tinder types so you have a little of each. At a minimum, include at least a couple of different types so you have options in the field.
As for kit containers, these are as varied as kit components. Some folks (including me) prefer a waterproof box of some sort. While it does add a few extra ounces to the overall pack, it protects the contents from breakage, as well as water.
A comprehensive fire kit will keep you warm, dry and safe … and, admittedly, it is fun to put a kit together and use it.
A ferrocerium rod is made of a mixture of iron oxide, magnesium oxide and what is called “mischmetal”—an alloy of rare-earth elements such as cerium and lanthanum. The original type of ferro rod is very hard. When it is scraped with a sharp steel edge, the sparks that fly from it, while abundant, die quickly.
In recent years, a new sort of ferro rod was developed. It has a lower iron content and more magnesium. The end result is larger, hotter sparks that tend to continue to burn after they land. The downside, though, is that this type of rod is softer and will get eaten up far quicker than the older type.
Play around with one of each to determine which you prefer.
Scrounge for Tinder
Whenever possible, use natural forms of tinder that can be found in the field. Conserve the tinder in your fire kit for the times when you absolutely need it. You might even want to carry a couple of small plastic bags in your pack or kit. When you come across a great source for natural tinder, grab a handful or two and save it for later.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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