by David Cronenwett
If all else fails – your equipment, the weather, your sense of direction – it is still possible to emerge unscathed from a wilderness emergency if you master basic fire craft.
My teaching experience has shown me that most backcountry travelers are not competent fire makers. Fire building, like all other skills, must be practiced frequently and in varying environments and conditions.
Here's a test I give my students: Take one strike-anywhere match, a sharp knife, and – using the fuel in a forest – establish a fire that is knee high. I give them about five minutes in dry conditions, 10 in moist. If conditions are even remotely challenging, close to 95 percent of my students fail. This test only begins to create the stress of a true emergency, or even the frustration of cold, shivering fingers. It is an eye-opener for a lot of people. Give it a try some time.
One should always carry at least two means of fire making into the woods. For me, that means matches in a waterproof container and either flint-and-steel or a "spark rod." Many folks carry a lighter, but these can be finicky – or fail entirely – when cold or wet. Likewise, sodden matches do no good and even "waterproof" matches can simply disintegrate after being carried around for months. So check your equipment regularly. A candle is handy to nurse along that ignition.
After the spark, one needs kindling. I recommend carrying a reliable kindling, like a bagful of pitch-wood shavings. If you live in a region where paper birch (Betula papyrifera) grows, its bark is one of the most formidable fire-starters in Nature and will burn even when wet. Pitchy wood from coniferous trees, strips of car tire, tar paper, or, in a real pinch, scraps of your boot soles or synthetic clothes will ignite easily and burn for some time.
In addition to kindling, you will need to gather a large quantity of the finest, driest available small-diameter fuel, such as dead branches from the base of a conifer. Splitting standing dead wood exposes the dry interior of material that was otherwise exposed to snow and rain.
Find a sheltered area out of wind, rain and snow. Some build a "teepee" or "log cabin" of dry, pencil-sized sticks around a core of kindling. Light it up. Feed increasingly larger branches and pieces of wood, as the fire becomes well established, but not so much to smother it.
Forget the old saw about small, "Indian-fires" being preferred. If a fire is for survival, not cooking, let it rip. Stop at nothing to create a large enough blaze for heating and signaling. If you plan on lying down, build a fire the entire length of your body.
A space blanket or a boulder will reflect some radiant heat back toward your body. Or, consider building one fire on each side of you, to avoid that sensation of being roasted on one side, frozen on the other. Another way to stay warm is to heat rocks in your fire. Once the rocks are reasonably hot, use sticks to carefully remove them from the fire and hug them close to your body. The rocks will radiate heat for hours.
Getting through a bitterly cold night with nothing but an open fire and a lean-to shelter will consume a tremendous quantity of wood. Care must be taken with axe and knife, particularly when you're tired, your hands are cold and it's dark. But gathering wood serves other purposes, such as keeping your mind occupied and your body warm and busy.
Should you find yourself counting on a warm fire in a bad moment, you will greatly appreciate quality tools and practiced technique. Both for your physical and mental comfort, a robust fire is a friend indeed.
David Cronenwett is Beaverhead Field Organizer for the Montana Wilderness Association and an outdoor educator and survival instructor based in Dillon, MT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.