We started out on a late summer morning, packing enough gear to stay a few nights in a remote wilderness area in the Medicine Bow range in southern Wyoming. A rugged, rocky and washed-out four-wheel-drive path took us down a steep side canyon, which opened onto the bank of the North Platte River. It was lush and quiet at the bottom, forested with lodgepole pine, cottonwood and aspen. We had found what we were looking for— solitude and seclusion, far far away from any other campers or civilization.
On this trip, I learned that I should always double check the contents of my camp box before I leave home. It usually contains an extra knife, a roll of toilet paper, extra cord, a first-aid kit, a shovel and a lighter. All was there, but the lighter didn’t work. We didn’t have any extras in the pickup or anywhere in our gear. We were hours from any town. No fire? No heat. No cooked food. No s’mores. This was not acceptable, so we got to work making a fire bow.
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The rope that we brought for the tarp was too stretchy to work in a bow, so we had to make cordage as well. It wasn’t a survival situation, but we would have spent a few cold nights outdoors, and not enjoyed eating our food cold and raw.
It was time to put our skills to the test. It took a few hours to find the right materials and put it all together. Our arms ached from the effort of working the bow drill. But in the late afternoon, as the sun started to sink, it was a deeply gratifying feeling as we watched the embers turn to flames in the fuel bundle. It rained that night, but we had covered the firewood and had a propane heater and kerosene lamp for warmth and light (with lots of ventilation). We were able to keep a flame all weekend from the one fire we started the first day we got there.
Make these tools ahead of time and practice with them at home so that if you do find yourself in a situation needing a fire, you’ll be familiar with them. Even in ideal conditions it’s difficult, so make sure you’re practiced and prepared in any situation. It isn’t as easy at is looks.
✔ A sharp knife or hatchet (a multi-tool with a saw is ideal)
✔ A piece of non-stretching cordage
✔ Cottonwood, paloverde or other similar wood. Experiment with different types of wood in your area for both the hearth and the spindle, but remember that the wood must be dead and dry. Even between hard woods and soft woods, different species work better than others. Some will make great, fluffy embers, and others just don’t seem to catch no matter how hard you try.
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Build Your Hearth
1. Use a flat piece of wood approximately 1 by 4 by 12 inches. If you can’t find a flat piece, make it with a hatchet or whittle the shape with a knife.
2. Make a few shallow holes with the knife (1/4-inch deep). The holes should be the same size as the circumference of the wood that you will use as the drill (try to make it about 3⁄4 of an inch).
3. The drill should fit snugly into the hole. Cut a V-shaped notch into each one from the side like a slice of pie, all the way through to the bottom. This is where the embers will eventually fall through.
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Bow & Spindle 101
For a bow, it’s easier if you find a small branch that’s already slightly curved. The wood needs to be a little flexible. If it’s been dead for too long, it’ll be brittle and will break. It should be about 3 to 4 feet long. Take 4 to 5 inches of cord and tie it firmly on one end of the stick. Bend the bow so it is taut and tie the other end. The easiest way to do this is to cut a notch in either end to lay the cord through, and then wrap and tie it. The cord should be made of a material that won’t stretch.
Your spindle should be 6 to 7 inches long and straight, and about 3⁄4 of an inch in diameter (to fit the hole in the hearth). It should be beveled at the end that goes into the hole. You will need a rock or other hard object with a groove in it to hold on top of the spindle as it rotates, otherwise it will burn your hand. Carve the top of the spindle to fit into the groove in this object.
From Spark To Flame
You need something to catch the embers with when they fall out of the pie-shaped notch in the bottom of the hearth, such as a flat rock, a piece of paper or a large dry leaf.
1. Start by twisting the spindle around the cord once, so that it is vertical to the bow. Place the beveled end of the spindle in one of the holes in the hearth. Put something underneath the hearth to catch the embers.
2. Place your foot on one end of the hearth to stabilize it, and the spindle against the side of your foot to stabilize it. Place the rock or object on the top of the spindle and push down hard.
3. Holding the bow, start sawing back and forth fast. The speed is what creates friction, which makes heat. The spindle should twist back and forth quickly while you push down hard. If you are doing it right, your arm will start to ache (unless you’re in amazing shape). After a short while, smoke should start to appear. The friction from the bottom of the spindle should be producing enough heat to burn a hole through the wood of the hearth.
4. The fine, powdered embers that this produces should fall down through the notch. When it really starts smoking and you see a pile of little black embers, pull the hearth off and see if you have some orange embers glowing in the pile.
5. You need a nice bunch of very dry, leafy grass to put the embers in. Make a nest out of it about the size of a cantaloupe, compressing the grass into a ball. Then pull it apart a bit and make a hollow inside where you will drop the burning embers. Make sure you have other dry tinder and larger wood on hand to build the fire up with.
6. Once you have produced a smoldering pile with orange embers, quickly pick it up and gently dump it into your ball of grass.
7. Blow gently on it until it catches and smoke appears, then add slightly larger tinder, feeding it with larger and larger tinder until you have a good, constant flame.
Make Your Own Cordage
If you run short of paracord in the field to use on your bow drill, try this easy-to-follow guide to construct your own cordage.
1. There are many fibrous plants that work well for making cordage. Our favorites are yucca and hemp. Experiment with plants that grow wild in your area.
2. Shred the leaves or stalks of the plant to make
long threads of fiber. You may need to pound the leaves or stalks of the plant first to loosen the fibers. Take the shredded fibers and make two bundles, with the fibers lined up with each other. Tie the bundles together at one end.
3. Pick up one end of a bundle and begin twisting tightly to the right. Twist this for a few inches, and begin to lay more fibers onto it. Continue to twist and add fibers until you have about 6 inches of cord. Repeat with the other bundle, twisting to the right.
4. Begin twisting the two cords together in the opposite direction, to the left. Twist them around so that they are both coiling around one another. This should make a neat, tight twist.
5. Continue to add more fiber and twist each cord until you get to the desired length of cordage. Tie off with a knot.
It may sound easy, but it is hard to move the bow fast enough to get the friction you need. If you don’t saw fast enough, don’t have the right kind of wood or if it isn’t completely dry, your arm is going to get tired long before you make enough friction to produce glowing embers. Practice until you get it right. You never know, someday it may save you from a cold weekend eating uncooked food, or someday your life may depend on it.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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