Editor’s Note: This is one of three sections about Fire we published on our Spring/Summer 2021 Prepper Manual. The other two sections are It Starts With A Spark and Light it Up!.
The point of survival preparations is to do what you can to stack the deck in your favor, come what may. You stock up on food and water in case your normal sources become unavailable. You learn first aid and other medical skills in case someone in your family or group gets sick or injured and you can’t rush them to a clinic or hospital.
Firecraft is similar. You should learn how to build a fire and practice doing so on a regular basis, in all weather conditions, so that if the chips are down and you truly need one to keep warm and stay alive, you can get the job done.
1.0 EDC FIRE KIT
Put together a small collection of items that’ll enable to you to reliably start a fire every time. Keep it small and concise so that it’s easy to carry with you everywhere. It doesn’t have to be in a single container, although that can be helpful in keeping you organized.
Your kit should have a small supply of ready-to-light tinder. This could be a few cotton balls wrapped in plastic or something store-bought. The point is that you can’t count on being able to find something in the field. Always bring tinder with you.
Always have with you at least two ways to light a fire. A disposable lighter is inexpensive and easy to carry, but have something else in case It’s wet or too cold for the gas to vaporize.
1.3 Carry Method
Most people have enough room in a pants pocket for a lighter and a couple of cotton balls in a plastic bag. However, it isn’t the worst idea to invest in a small, waterproof container to protect these vital resources.
2.0 NATURAL RESOURCES
Seeking out sources of tinder while you’re in the field will allow you to conserve your own supply for when you truly need it.
Fatwood is coniferous wood that’s soaked with resin, such as you’ll find at the base of a dead pine tree. The sap collects in the heartwood and solidifies. This wood can sometimes be so saturated that you can smell it. Light a bit of it with a flame, or scrape shavings and dust into a pile and light that with a spark.
2.2 Birch Bark
Paper-like birch bark works great for getting a fire going. There are a few different birch trees, including yellow and white, that are perfect for tinder. Shred the bark and light it up.
Cedar is another tree to watch for. Its bark easily strips off in shreds. Rub it with your hands to fluff it up, and it will light readily.
2.4 Bird Nests
Nests work great, provided they aren’t occupied. They’re usually made of dried grass, twigs and bark. Break them up a bit to make them airier before lighting.
3.0 LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
When it comes time to build your fire, you need to choose the placement carefully. The right place will assist in success; the wrong place will doom you to failure.
3.1 Keep it Dry
Building a fire on wet ground might not work well. If you can’t find a dry spot, make one. Try to find a slab of bark attached to a downed tree. The underside will often be perfect to use. A large, flat rock might also be workable, but avoid rocks that are in or near bodies of water, because they might have moisture inside that’ll turn to steam under high heat—and could explode.
3.2 Keep Fuel Nearby
If possible, build your fire near your fuel supply. This helps preserve your energy. If that’s not possible, be sure to collect a lot of fuel before you light the fire so you won’t be scrambling to find more while the fire dies.
3.3 Clear the Area
The last thing you want is for your little campfire to turn into a raging inferno. Keep the area adjacent to the fire cleared of leaves, twigs, pine needles and other flammable material.
4.0 TYPES OF FIRE LAYS
Not all fires are equally useful for all things. A fire built primarily for cooking or for boiling water isn’t built the same as one intended to keep you warm.
4.1 Keyhole Fire
This fire lay is great for heating containers of food or water. As the name suggests, it looks like a keyhole. The large, round part is where the fire burns. Then, hot coals are scraped into a rectangular area that extends out from one side of the fire. Lined with rocks or logs on either side, this is where you place your pot for heating.
4.2 Dakota Hole Fire
This is another cook fire, but it’s one that’s a little more inconspicuous. Dig two holes that are connected at the bottom by a tunnel. They should be about 8 inches apart. One hole should be about a foot across, and the other should be about half that size. The tunnel should be 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Build the fire in the larger hole, and the smaller one will draft the smoke out. Stretch green sticks across the top of the large hole for your cook pot.
4.3 Star Fire
Once you have the basic fire burning well, you can position thicker logs so that one end is burning and the other end stretches out from the fire. Set up three or four logs like this in a star shape. Then, all you need to do is push the logs closer as they burn down.
4.4 Reflector Fire
Build a reflector to increase the fire’s warming capability. This is simply a stack of logs or other thick material that sits on the opposite side of the fire from you. As the name implies, it reflects the fire’s heat back toward you instead of letting it just radiate away.
Fire is one of our “best friends” in a true survival situation. However, if we’re not careful with it, it can also turn on us and cause great injury or death.
5.1 Don’t Rush
Anytime you’re working with or near fire, take your time and make deliberate movements. Making quick motions could put you off balance, causing you to fall into the flames. And, before grabbing anything near the fire, take a second look to make sure it isn’t going to burn you.
5.2 Put it Out—Cold
When you’re done with the fire and are moving on, make darned sure it’s completely out! Drench it with water and stir the ashes around to get them all wet. Then, bury it all with a good layer of dirt. When the ground is cold, that’s when it’s safe to move out.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Prepper Spring/Summer, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.”
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