How to build a fire

Posted on March 14 2016, by Scott Gilmore

This is often the very first wilderness skill we learn, from our grandfather, or a scout master, or in my case a fishing guide on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. 

He was a local Dene and amazed when we pulled out boat of a choppy lake, to have lunch in the lee of a windblown island. He turned the boat towards the island, cut the engine, and as it coasted up to the shoreline, he clambered over us and over the aluminium bow, and heaved us up on the rocks. Then, in what seemed like one swift motion, he reached down for some moss, lit a match in his cupped hands, took two strides forward while collecting a few more twigs, and set down in a cleft of the rocks a small bundle that was already smoking with fire. Two minutes later we were warming around a great fire, the tea pot bubbling.

The next day I worked up the courage to ask him how he did that. He gave me three pieces of advice:

    1. Always have some dry tinder on you, be it moss or birch bark, or cedar chips. Whenever you see some, pick it up, you'll need it later. And keep it different pockets, even in the crown of your hat. (You never know when you might fall in.)
    2. Carry lots of lighters, matches, and flints on you all the time. They don't take up much space, so put some in your hat, in your jeans, in your jacket pocket. Consider these your most important piece of kit. You can live 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, but you won't last 3 hours if you're wet and hypothermic without a fire. 
    3. Don't rush it. Too often, as soon as the tinder lights, the fuel is piled on and it quickly smothers the tentative flame. Take your time. Add fuel gradually. A few tiny twigs, then a few more and larger, then maybe a stick, a few more, and finally, when you can hear it crackling, a split log or two. 

This illustration from the bushcraft classic Wildwood Wisdom, has some great tips. 

 

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