Saturday, December 1, 2012

Survival - Fire


(Warning: Unreasonably long story ahead . . . .)

I’ve spent more than a few years “in the woods” – in the military, family camping, scouting - mentoring in wilderness survival. One of the skills I work on, preach about and have expectations about is that of fire building. My standard question of a scout – or anyone else who spends time in the wilderness is: “So, do you have three ways to start a fire . . . . in your pocket??”

That’s my test. 99.9% of your days – won’t matter, who cares. The other 0.1%??? Could mean the difference between seeing family again or the inside of a Ziploc.

A couple stories . . . .

“And the wind blew . . . . .”

It’s the very beginning of June – we are headed south of Atikokan, Ontario headed to our put-in at French Lake. It’ll be my first canoe trip with the troop, my son has joined within the past year and already met the requirements – a swimmer and a First Class Scout. We’re taking two patrols – each with a pair of adult leaders. It’s going to be a great trip!

We are entering the northern edge of the Canadian portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area – true, honest to goodness wilderness. Paddle in for a day – guaranteed you’ll see no one – at all – ever – until you paddle out. A few requirements for this trip? Wilderness navigation skills (GPSs are fine – remember they die when you actually need them!!), solid compass work, map reading skills and a solid grasp of camping/wilderness survival skills. Ralph and I cake a crew of three canoes, Mark and Lyle the other. We carry everything – clothing, gear,  food – the whole ball of wax for a 7-day paddle.

We have a great 6 days – stunning weather, great camp sites, a “found store” of fresh potatoes and onions left by a fellow camper, good fishing – a truly amazing sites. The boy and I are sharing a tent for the trip, it’s been a good trip. Good conversation – with my 12 year old, just beginning to stretch his body. We’ve built lots of fires – for sitting around, cooking – no survival stuff, just comfort. As we lay there the night before we “punch out” (it’s going to be a long paddle tomorrow - 16+ miles), the wind began to blow . . . . and blow . . . . and blow . . . .

I started my negotiations with God early, looking for calm waters, clear skies – we are only one long-day paddle from being out . . . . Please??

Obviously, there were lessons to be learned here – and both crews were about to learn them because the good Lord saw fit to crank up the wind a notch through the night . . . .

Time to brake camp comes early – 6-ish. A breakfast of water filled instant oatmeal packets, breakfast bars, hot chocolate, coffee – two older scouts have been hooked on “Spark” this trip – all insures we are on the water in record time. We are in the south west corner of Pickerel Lake – 16 miles long, 2 miles wide and 300+ feet deep, it is one big puppy! The wind is peaking over 30mph, straight out of the Northeast. Cold, steady, strong. The lake is reacting accordingly – a writhing surface with broad, deep waves many crested with whitecaps. We are in a 17’ Old Town royalex canoe. Three of us with gear – Brian forward, me in the rear and the boy riding the gear. Honestly, he’s too young to contribute to the paddling but is great with portaging gear. He has an uncomfortable habit of falling asleep while we are on the water. Today I smack him with the paddle periodically reminding him that if we roll, being awake would be a good thing.

In heavy water, you quarter the waves – hit them at a 45 degree angle. Yes, that means you “tack” down the lake, but that is much better than rolling and dealing with a capsized canoe, wet gear, 300ft water that is about 50 degrees. Yep, remaining upright and in the canoe is the only way to go.

So we batter down the lake, rest behind islands, batter down the lake, rest behind islands . . . . . it’s a very long – edgy day seeing us pulling out at our last campsite in the early evening. We’re wet. Not clothing or gear, all has been quite well secured. We’re just wet from day long heavy winds, driving rain mixed with blinding squalls. Yep,a long day indeed.

Our campsite is well within a wooded peninsula. There is enough shelter to get out of the wind. A fire will feel good tonight. Ever start a fire after a day-long, wind driven rain day?? There are “secrets” to learn here, we’ll cover them after the “rest of the story”.

We hit the water early next morning – to an even heavier rain and wind storm. We round the peninsula – and just get hammered. With both front and rear paddlers “putting their backs into it” – in all three canoes – we simply are at a standstill . . . . no movement . . . . none.

We lift paddles, let the wind reverse our course and return to the shore. We are simply not going anywhere. And, we are, indeed, in need of a fire. Wood is gathered – small kindling and smaller sized fuel. Tinder?? Not so much. Heavy rain – two days – tinder is NOT happening. Of course . . . . in my backpack . . . . I just happen to have a tube of “jellied gas” and soaked fire-starter sticks. Even in heavy rain, gas burns. With a little coaxing we have a nice blaze going even though the rain is still heavy. The boy even melted the toes of his jungle boots trying to get close enough to the fire to get warm – it’s a long morning.

And then it started to rain – I mean RAIN!!!! In fact, it began to rain so hard that it “broke” the strength of the wind. We hit the water (yep, nuts, I know) and finally paddle across the last small lake and out the French River into French Lake – and our take-out point. A little late, wet but safe and sound, with great “war stories” to tell ( still telling this story 12 years later). One little problem . . . . no one else is there. We wait . . . . . . . Our other patrol fails to show . . . . Finally, as darkness falls – we pack up and look for a place to stay.

We’re at the entry point at daybreak . . . . waiting . . . . . Finally, it seems clear we will have to tac up and find them. After the last two days, we are not anxious to do this. But, in Canada – self rescue is your only option. In dire circumstances they will send in a patrol boat – but that is usually after someone is missing multiple days – and then they are usually recovery trips, not rescue trips.

As we get ready to head to the vehicles and our gear, a canoe peaks around the mouth of the river. Two of the four finally show. Not good. They experienced the same rain/wind/crap that we had, but were farther out on the lake and got separated. Two found each other this morning. Two . . . . did not. As we were continuing our efforts to tac up and head out to find the two missing canoes . . . . a Canadian patrol boat pulls up with our two missing canoes. They were out on what was, indeed, a recovery mission of a solo-canoeist that did not end well – and found our scouts. They brought them in . . . . a happy ending for us, at least. The family of the solo-canoeist, not so much.

They shower, calm down one of the crew members that was pretty rattled by the last two days, load up and head for food. While we eat there is a gentle debrief – what happened, how did they get separated, how was their night, how did they hook up this morning . . . . lots of lessons learned and the realization that these young men did a great job. Got off the water, secured their canoes, set up their tents and waited out the storm.

The one thing they didn’t do – build a fire to get warm/stay warm. Why?? Nothing to build a fire with . . . . There’s an abundance of mini lessons here, and we have wrung them out over the years. Navigation, communications, signaling, carrying a few survival food items in your pocket – ALWAYS . . . . . and many, many more. It was probably the most “successful” and best training trip I have taken with a scout troop. It was grist for school essays for years and years as the guys went through various comp classes.

From it came new standards for guys entering the wilderness – always have a compass and whistle around your neck (leave it there until we climb in the car going home). Throw some survival food in a Ziploc and put it in your pocket (leave it there, eat it as a snack on the way home). And, always have three ways to start a fire in your pocket – each and every day when you leave your home (or go into the wilderness).

I’ll return to this story on and off for a survival scenario for other posts I’m working on. But, for this post, let’s talk about fire . . . . probably one of the most important elements (other than air and water) to your survival when things go south.

Primary ingredients . . . . Air, Heat, Fuel . . . .

These are the three ingredients that are required for a fire to begin and continue. Air to provide a source of oxygen for combustion to happen. Heat to raise the temperature of the fuel so it transforms to a gas and can burn and finally fuel – the actual element of the entire process that converts either slowly (or quickly) to a gas so combustion occurs.

When starting a fire, the fuel is typically divided into three different types – tinder, kindling and fuel.

A couple photos of The Boy and starting a fire with a striker and flint. It shows a good example of the three types of fuel . . .

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Tinder: Tinder is a fuel that ignites very easily. In this case it is simply dried grasses. There are many sources of this – last year’s grass or old bird’s nests to name just a few. In this case, the heat from sparks generated by a striker are enough to heat the tinder, convert it to gas and then ignite the gas. Note that under the grass is a bed of kindling.

Kindling: This is a bit “beefier” fuel” . The tinder provides enough heat to convert the kindling to gas and then ignite the gas. It is usually made up of shavings of dry wood or pencil-thick dry wood. It provides a hot, longer lasting fire that has enough energy to ignite the third type of wood, the fuel.

Fuel: Fuel is dry wood that is typically wrist-width is size. This may be either be cut from “dead and down” dried wood or from larger wood that has been “split” into smaller pieces. Yet, the process is the same – the Kindling provides enough heat to convert the Fuel to gas, ignite the fuel and, as they say . . . .

Voilà . . . . it’s a camp fire!

The key to starting the camp fire is being able to start the tinder. If you have gathered tinder, kindling and fuel – once you have set the tinder on fire, you campfire is well on its way!

OK, ok . . . . finally . . . . what are the three ways that you can carry in your pocket to start a fire??? For me, they are – a lighter (with two birthday candles taped to it’s side), a striker and flint and a Fresnel lens that is carried in my wallet.

Lighter: I use a simple, small sized Bic lighter and then I tape two birthday candles to it’s side with shipping tape. In the event that there is simply no dry tinder to be found, a single candle can take it’s place and provide enough heat to ignite your kindling.

I also change out the lighter and candles a couple times a year. Cheap insurance. There are other super-duper, never go out lighters as well – I have one from Gander Mountain that I like very much. Still, for limited space in my pocket – it’s hard to beat a $.99 Bic Lighter.

Striker: A striker usually consists knife-hard steel. This is struck against some type of hard stone – flint, chert or jasper. When these two thing are struck together, they cause flecks of steel to fly off in the form of very hot “sparks”. These are hot enough to light the tinder, the first step if starting your fire.


Fresnel Lens: These are small, plastic lenses, about the size of a credit card. The methodology is simple, focus the energy of the sun on your tinder by adjusting the distance the lens is away from the tinder. You focus the sun’s light into a small, high energy dot that is hot enough to set your tinder on fire. These are cheap and take up no space in your wallet or purse.


Three simple elements to carry with you at all times. A lighter, a striker and a Fresnel lens – any one of which can be used to start a fire when you need it most.


  1. Good story, and good re-enforcement of the basic point! :-)

  2. EXCELLENT story! Had a few of those "experience-building" campouts in my scouting days, nothing at that level, though. Our troop went to the local camp, that's about it. Oh, and as a fire source, if you wear glasses, you can usually use them to start a fire, same way you use the Fresnel lens. Contacts, not so well.

  3. NFO - thank you. Guaranteed the guys on that trip can build a fire anywhere/any time.

    Rapid - Thanks for the kind complement. It was "quite a trip" - but some really good lessons and memories.

  4. Replies
    1. It's a "fun" story to tell. So . . . . ya got 3 ways to start a fire in your pocket Ms. A?? :)

  5. Hey can I get you to email me I don't see how I can contact you separately on your blog here. I have my email posted on my blog. I check that on regularly. I have an interesting email I wanted to get your take on.

    1. Apologies - had my email in my profile but didn't check the box to show it. Heavy Sigh . . . My email is My phone is also listed on the website if you just want to chat.