Written by Kevin Estela:
It is impossible to train in fire starting too much, and, in fact, training should be varied to address the many possibilities one can face while in the bush. One should learn to identify which ingredient in fire making (heat, air and fuel) is missing and causing failure. It sounds simple, but as skill improves the challenges and tests increase in difficulty. You may want to react to the challenge with emotional responses rather than pragmatic, logical solutions. Eliciting these responses in training is good as real-world scenarios are high stress with great stakes on the line.
There are always methods to challenge even the most advanced in their fire-making skills, but no matter what the training modifier or scenario is, the basic ingredients of making a fire should never be overlooked.
Cold, Wet Hands
Accidental immersion is a constant threat in the Northeast. Whether capsizing in a canoe or kayak or slipping through the ice in the spring, cold water immersion can rapidly take heat away from your body. A great training modifier is the ice chest test. In a controlled setting (don’t do this in the field unless you have a “warming station” ready) submerge your hands in a running creek or in an ice bucket. Count to a predetermined number with your hands underwater. You can elect to wear gloves or not. For an added challenge, take your fire starter and hold it underwater with your hands. This should challenge the water resistance of your kit. Try making a fire when your hands are borderline numb. Always remove excess moisture from your hands prior to manipulating fire-starting tools.
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Split Match Head
A standard book of matches contains 20. Matches aren’t the best fire starter, but they are abundant and there is no excuse not to take a spare book when you are at the cash register. A good challenge is to see how many fires you can make with a single book. A single match head can be split down the middle with careful peeling. Can you make 40 fires? Sometimes, the match heads don’t split evenly and 40 is a difficult number to hit. Always support the head of the match with the pad of a finger before lighting.
A great test of one’s fire-starting skills is the one-stick fire with an axe. Years ago, the Maine Professional Guides Association required candidates to make a fire with a single match, a round of wood and a full-size felling axe. The candidate would split the wood with the axe into smaller quarters and then continue splitting some wood into fuel—some would become tinder and some be shaved into fuzz sticks. The single match would be used on the fuzz sticks, and given how long the fire lasted the candidate would pass or fail. This classic test can be modified with a single branch or a small round of wood and a knife. It can be done with a hatchet, machete, belt knife or any other blade. Stipulations (duration of burn, how the fire is lit, and the height of the fire, etc.) can be made prior to starting the test. This set of skills is very important if any winter travel is expected. Dry wood is often found inside frozen logs.
Accidents happen. The common reaction to falling is bracing your fall with your hand. In a car accident, it is common to see broken hands and wrists as people tend to brace off the steering wheel. Someone in an emergency may have to rely on the use of a single hand to light a fire. Lighters are easy to manipulate but are prone to breaking or leaking fuel. Wooden matches can be lit by gently stepping on the box and striking with one hand. The metal match usually requires two hands but can be operated with just one. As long as you consider how the metal match works (either the scraper or the rod is held stationary and the other is moved), it can be used with one hand and one foot. Either scraper or rod is stepped on and the remaining hand is used.
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A knife can be driven tip first into a log with a wooden baton and the scraper can be used on the back of the spine. With the knife in this position, fuzz sticks can be made as well. Just remember to retrieve your knife at the end. If you’re the one teaching and your student forgets where their blade is, hold onto it for them when they aren’t looking to impress the importance of having your blade either in your hand or your sheath at all times.
A perfect scenario is a clean, dry and ready-to-use fire pit with a healthy supply of wood nearby. Since backcountry fire preparation conditions are rarely perfect, it is a good idea to train making fires atop varying bases. Challenge yourself to make fire atop snow and mud that requires a base, and atop water, which requires building an elevated platform. This teaches you how to build a platform that won’t burn by adding a layer of isolative sand or dirt. Through this test, you’ll learn to focus not on the end result, but on the process. After all, fire making is not just making a fire—it is preparing it, maintaining it and extinguishing it when you’re done.
In the American classic short story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, the protagonist’s efforts to build a fire are snuffed out by a load of snow falling from an overhead evergreen bough. This scenario is extremely discouraging and should be used with discretion, and with a gentle delivery. When students are set up and their fire is lit but hasn’t settled yet, empty the contents of a canteen or throw a pile of snow over it. Depending on the construction, some fire setups will shed water and shield the flame/coals, while others will be completely saturated. Students are asked to relight the fire as quickly as possible, and this generally imparts the lesson of “two is one.” In other words, don’t use all your fire-starting materials in a single effort in case you need to relight your fire.
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On a completely dark night with little moonlight, build a fire without the aid of a flashlight. When using a ferrocerium rod, you’ll learn how the blinding white sparks disrupt your natural night vision. You will learn to set up fires based on feel, rather than sight, and also to use your eyelids like the exposure on a camera—squinting to prevent too much light from entering. Use your peripheral vision to see, rather than looking directly at your tools and materials. Also, you can avoid disrupting the fire setup by scraping away with the ferro rod, rather than down into it. Darkness is a real challenge and a scenario that happens nightly.
Cord Burning Challenge
All of the above-mentioned training modifiers work well when training solo, but group training can be more fun if challenges are introduced. Attach a length of jute cord between two trees or posts. Compete to build a fire hot and high enough to burn through the cord. Any modifier works to make this challenge difficult, but the ultimate is positive peer pressure and time. Mistakes are made and a good after-action discussion will help expose them. Depending on the dynamics of the group you’re with, rules can be established to allow more competitiveness or varying difficulty for each participant.
Never become too comfortable in your training. If you are always succeeding in what you do, you aren’t working hard enough. Train like your life depends on it because one day it might. Scenarios where your hands are wet, where your hands are broken, where you lose your light, where you may have only one match and the others described in this article are real possibilities. Considering how fire creates light, boils water, warms the body and so much more, implementing training modifiers to your study to improve your odds of making fire makes sense. Never forget how the basics influence your success, though. Frustration isn’t the answer to any of the fire-starting problems you will face. It all comes down to the right combination of air, fuel and heat.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE TM Fall 2014 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.