If you find yourself in the wilderness, the ability to make fire is a critical factor in your ability to survive.
The human body is ill-equipped to withstand normally-occurring highs and lows in temperature without proper clothing and tools. Extreme heat or cold can prove to be fatal. In the wilderness, fire is key to keeping your body temperature stable.
If you’re relying on hunting and gathering your food in the wild, any animal you harvest will require careful preparation in order to prevent sickness or a painful death. Additionally, any water you find, even though it may look clean, may not be fit to drink without being purified first. Fire is a necessary tool when it comes to preparing your food and water in the wild.
Building a fire in the wilderness takes some learning and practice but it’s an essential skill whether you spend a lot of time outdoors or not. When the unthinkable happens, fire quickly becomes promoted beyond a mere outdoor luxury and will be what makes or breaks your survival chances.
When you set out into the wilderness, you should have in your pack at least three ways to start a fire. Fire-starting redundancy is important and, in this case, you should not pack less than three in order to save weight.
We recommend the following three fire-starting tools, listed in order of effectiveness:
A lighter should be the first tool you reach for if you want to start a fire quickly. Be sure to check the fuel level before you head out! In the event you lose your lighter or it breaks, high quality waterproof matches can create the necessary flame you need to build a fire. When using matches, be aware of the wind and have your tinder and kindling ready to go. If you’ve exhausted all your matches - or you are strategically saving them and have the time and energy to spend on building a fire with a spark - the ferro rod and striker is a highly effective combination for starting a fire.
If you haven’t used a ferro rod and striker before, it may seem difficult at first but with a little practice you will get highly proficient with it. When struck with a sharp object, like a steel striker, the shavings that come off the ferrocerium rod ignite and can reach temperatures over 5,000 degrees fahrenheit.
Ferro rods typically come with a black coating on them. You’ll want to scrape a section of this black coating off. You don’t have to scrape it all off, just where you’re going to start striking the ferro rod. Once you have an exposed area on the ferro rod, position your striker perpendicular to the ferro rod, near the top. To generate a large spark, take your striker that has a sharp, 90 degree edge on it and either strike down with striker or up with the ferro rod. You’ll want to exert pressure throughout your strike to generate a good spark.
Striking down with the striker will feel more natural due to its “cutting” motion, but also try holding the striker steady and pulling the ferro rod up. The advantage to pulling the ferro rod up is you don’t risk your hand knocking into your pile of tinder and possibly scattering it.
Before you light your tinder, have your kindling and larger pieces of wood ready. While there are many ways to structure a fire, the “lean-to” structure is a good option in a variety of weather conditions. The backbone of a lean-to fire structure is a large piece of wood roughly four inches in diameter. Next to this log, you’ll place your kindling and tinder. Once those are situated, you start building the lean-to by leaning small sticks onto the large piece of wood and over your kindling and tinder. You’ll want to put a good amount of sticks but don’t pack them too closely together. Air needs to be able to flow from your tinder up through the sticks for the fire to build. Also be aware of the distance from your tinder to your small sticks. You need the flame from the burning tinder to reach these small sticks. Either adjust the angle of your lean-to structure or build up the size of your tinder pile.
Before you start your fire, be sure to have larger pieces of wood ready. These pieces should be 1-3 inches in diameter. The small sticks you used to create the lean-to structure will burn relatively quickly and often faster than you think. You’ll need the pieces that are 1-3 inches in diameter ready to go to build the fire so that it will burn for an extended period of time.
When you have all your wood ready and your lean-to structure built, light your tinder. The tinder will burn quickly and ignite the small sticks of your lean-to structure. When flames start coming through the top of your lean-to structure, place a couple of pieces of your 1-3 inch diameter wood on top of the structure. In a survival situation, only burn what you need to stay warm or to cook. Conserve your firewood so that you don’t have to unnecessarily gather more. The more you burn, the more you’ll have to gather and the farther you’ll have to hike to find wood as you consume the wood in your immediate surroundings.
Practice building a fire with the tools you’ll have with you in the field in a controlled, safe environment first. Your fire building knowledge and experience may save your life. And, of course, responsibly extinguish all fires completely when they are no longer needed.
Recommended Fire Starting Tools:
Learn to make fire and you’ll be able to use this knowledge to counter the following:
Generally speaking, being cold for prolonged periods of time is a serious threat. Anytime an environment causes the body to shed heat faster than it can produce it, discomfort will rapidly lead to degraded performance, perception, and bodily function.
This is called hypothermia and the effects will begin once body temperature drops even a few degrees from homeostasis. While starvation can take weeks and critical dehydration a few days to kill you, dying from the cold can occur in a matter of hours. Hypothermia can begin at around 50 degrees fahrenheit, which is well within range of a typical night outdoors, but factors like precipitation and wind can kick it off even sooner. The warmth of a fire can keep your body temperature regulated while also providing comfort and encouragement in a dire situation.
Predators and Biting Insects
Fire does a good job of keeping wild animals and biting bugs away. Even on the best of days, mosquitoes and biting flies are among the most annoying afflictions on the planet. Insect bites can heighten stress and irritability, which can really start to work against you when you’re trying to survive. Depending on the region, these bites can even carry serious illnesses which is the last thing you need in that situation.
Fire creates smoke, which is an effective insect repellent. Not only smoke from the fire itself but carefully getting smoke onto your body can help make you a less attractive target to bugs in the area.
Generally speaking, the human body can survive without water for three days at best. Water can be found in nature but if you do not prepare it carefully, bacteria and impurities in the environment can do more harm than good.
The most efficient way to make water safe to drink is by boiling it. This will effectively kill any microbes or pathogens contaminating your water and ensure what you drink keeps you hydrated safely. Without fire you will be hard pressed to reach the 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) necessary to achieve this life saving boiling point.
Just like water found in the wild, meat you are fortunate enough to come across may be rife with bacteria and parasites that will kill you just as readily as any predator or disease. Being a fan of sushi doesn’t even make fish a safe bet because if you are not completely familiar with the habitat, you can open yourself up to tapeworm or toxins from sources miles and miles upriver.
As a rule in the wild, if you need to eat it then you better cook it beforehand. Food and water are fundamental to survival and fire is really the only thing that makes it work.
Being Lost/Not Found
Last but certainly not least, fire can help you get found if you’re lost. For most people, the objective of a survival situation will be to attract attention in order to summon aid and assistance. Flames can be seen at night, smoke can be seen during the day. Even the smell of a fire can help lead searchers to your location. Master the art of building fire, and your chances of victory rise considerably.