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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

To Build a Fire

One Match Is All You Need,
But It Doesn't Hurt to Have a Lighter

By Tamia Nelson

September 28, 2004

The title is a masterpiece of understatement: "To Build a Fire." But no one who's read this short story by Jack London will fail to get the point. There are times when building a fire is a matter of life and death. And that's true outside the pages of fiction, as well. Remember R. M. Patterson's Dangerous River? Patterson's partner, Gordon Matthews, was canoeing out to a trading post when he capsized in one of the South Nahanni's celebrated canyons. Sheer walls enclosed the river. It was late December, and while the Nahanni was still running free, the water was bitterly cold. Despite this, Matthews got himself, his canoe, and most of his gear ashore, though by then he was more dead than alive. Every second in his sodden clothes sapped a little more of his diminishing strength. He knew he had only minutes to light a fire. But his luck held. A tangle of driftwood left behind by the spring floods provided the fuel. Matthews provided the match. Skills forged by years of wilderness living did the rest. Before the cold could claim his life, Matthews was warming himself beside a roaring blaze.

Many old hands have found themselves in a similar situation at least once, though few of us have been fortunate enough to have a chronicler like R. M. Patterson. The moral of the story never changes, though. A fire can save your life. Of course, fires can be useful at other times, too. When it's safe to light up — and fall rains often reduce the danger to the vanishing point — few things contribute more cheer to a chilly camp than a fire. Stoves are more efficient, to be sure, but efficiency isn't everything. And even when a stove is the workhorse of your kitchen, it makes sense to stretch your fuel supply with the occasional campfire any time it can be done safely (and legally).

Which brings me to the subject of this article: building a fire as if your life depended on it. Let's start with the basics.

Size Matters

But bigger isn't always better. Yes, Gordon Matthews built big. He needed a lot of heat in a hurry, and there wasn't much danger that his fire would spread. Most campfires can be much smaller, however. And most should be, if only to conserve fuel. After all, even "dead and down" wood is part of the scenery that you came to see, and you can cook a meal on a fire that's not much bigger than your hat. If there's any doubt in your mind, then, think small. You can always make a small fire bigger, but there's no easy way to shrink an out-of-control blaze.

Location is Everything

Make your fire on something that won't burn. A stony beach is ideal, as is sandy soil. Leaf litter and forest duff are not, nor is sphagnum moss, and overhanging branches are — in the language of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four — doubleplusungood. If there's an established fireplace, and if it's well sited, your problem is solved. Use it. If not, clear dead leaves and organic litter from a wide circle around your hearth. (How wide a circle, exactly? Well, how windy is it? Five feet will suffice in gentle breezes; fifty feet may be too little if the wind is blowing a gale.) Now is the time to make your hearth. A steel fire-pan or "environmental fireplace" is best. It contains the red-hot embers, and the grate is a welcome bonus. No fire-pan? Three rocks laid out in a triangle make a satisfactory substitute, combining an all-points windbreak and a pot-support, with or without a grate. Unless you enjoy ducking sherds of steam-propelled stone, however, don't quarry rocks from a nearby streambed.

That's all there is to it. Leave more elaborate construction projects to the organizers of woodsmen's field days and other entertainments. But there's one important exception. If rain seems likely — or if, as is often the case in fall, it's already raining — stretch a tarp above your hearth, being sure that not even the highest flames will reach it. Cotton canvas fares better in the role of fire tarp than does nylon, though cash-strapped paddlers may be forced to substitute polyethylene drop cloths for both. Duct tape will repair the damage done by drifting sparks, but watch out for flare-ups. Molten plastic isn't the best dinnertime companion, and a burning tarp on a windy evening is a real-life nightmare.

Now that you've chosen your site and made a hearth, it's time to get the show on the road. First, though, give a little thought to…

Lighting Your Fire

After all, you can't make a fire without striking a light. Unless you're a reenactor, a scout, or a survival enthusiast, forget flint and steel, bow drills, and burning glasses. Strike a match (or flick your you-know-what) instead.

Matches are one of the "ten essentials," and they were the mainstay of my firemaking kit for many years. I still carry waterproof safes filled with strike-anywhere kitchen matches on every trip, in fact. But matches aren't what they used to be, and some that I've bought in the last decade seem nearly fireproof. In a couple of instances, I've counted myself lucky if I could get one match in three to light, and even then the lit match guttered out in only a second or two. A short candle helps eke out these meager flames — the white Shabbat candles sold in many grocery stores are particularly handy — but only if you can light it. That isn't easy if all your matches are duds. I now test a random sample of twenty matches from every large box I buy. If more than one fails to light on the first strike against a dry rock, or fails to stay lit for at least five seconds, the box goes back to the store.

I've also moved with the times. Nowadays, while I still tote a matchsafe or three, I find myself relying more and more on the ubiquitous butane lighter. Not only is the adjustable flame mighty handy, but the lighters are cheap, reliable, and practically waterproof. If you drop one in the drink, simply fish it out, shake it out, and then blow the last drops of water out of the striker — three outs and you're ready to strike. Before you've flicked the little wheel more than a couple of dozen times, you'll have a flame. There's an unadvertised extra here for survivalists, too. Even after the last of the butane has burned away, the striker makes a pretty good substitute for a flint and steel. Add a little charred cotton and you're equipped to strike a light the new old-fashioned way. Call it neoprimitive firemaking, if you want.

Caveats? Not many. Butane chills out in cold weather. So keep your working lighter in an inner pocket or other warm place whenever the thermometer dips below freezing. At the other end of the temperature scale, don't store lighters in closed gear bags on hot, sunny days. And always carry a spare (or three).

Got your light? Then it's time…

To Build a Fire

Preparation is everything. Don't strike a light till you've collected and sorted all the fuel, from tinder to timber. And leave your big ax in its sheath. Felling "green" wood — living trees — to feed a fire is a greenhorn's game. Environmental and aesthetic considerations aside, green wood is wet wood, and wet wood burns like water. Scrounge dead and down wood instead. Even when rain's been falling for days, you can usually find dry wood in a few sheltered locations. Search in cavities at the bases of big trees, fissures and clefts in rock, and in the protected hollows deep in spruce "hells." Worried that you can't tell hickory from hemlock? Don't be. It's true that most softwoods smoke and spit sparks while most hardwoods leave beds of glowing coals, but you're usually stuck with whatever the last windstorm brought down. If it's dry wood — if it breaks cleanly, with a crisp Crack! — it's the right wood. Period.

Concentrate on sorting by size, instead. Start with the smallest stuff — tinder. Tiny twigs, so dry that they snap when flexed. Twists of cedar bark. Curls of resin-rich birch bark. (Pick bark up from the forest floor, or strip it from downed trees. Do not tear bark from living trees. I always carry a small bag of dry bark in my pack, just to be sure I have some when I need it.) Not enough bark and twigs lying about where you are? Then shave thin slivers of wood, scarcely bigger than toothpicks, from larger branches, using a sharp knife, machete, or hatchet. How much is enough? A softball-size wad will do. Twice this much is better still. Put it someplace dry while you pick out the…

Kindling. Larger twigs and small branches, though "large" and "small" are relative terms here: the largest will be no bigger than a fat pencil. A double handful should be sufficient. What's left is…

Firewood. Ranging in size from fatter than a fat pencil to the diameter of a large flashlight, and including quarter splits from branches as big around as your calf, this is what keeps your fire going. (You may want to unsheathe your big ax for quartering branches. Splitting wood with a hatchet is dangerous work. So is splitting wood with an ax, come to that, even if it is safer than using a hatchet. Neither is a job for a novice, and it's best to learn the art at home.) How much firewood will you need? That depends. How long will you want a fire? Only one thing is certain. It's better to have too much than too little.

Once you've collected enough tinder, kindling, and firewood, you're ready to build your fire. Crush the tinder into a ball. (It helps to shred the bark first.) You want it loose enough to admit air — no air, no fire — but tight enough to sustain the first tentative flames. Take your time and get it right. This softball-sized tangle of tinder is the heart of your fire. When it's ready, place it inside the hearth, leaving a hollow at the core just large enough to admit a lighter, a twist of birch bark, or a candle.

Next, prop kindling against the ball of tinder, one stick at a time, until you have a tepee-like cone of small sticks rising from the hearth. Place the sticks carefully. Be sure there are enough gaps in the palisade to admit air, and don't forget to leave a "fire port" opposite the hollow in your tinder. In wet weather, you'll want to continue building your fire until you've completed two tepees, a larger one outside the smaller. The reason? To permit heat from the first to dry and ignite the second.

Keep the balance of your tinder and kindling in reserve, and make sure your firewood is ready to hand. This is… .

The Moment of Truth

Strike a match and light your candle (or a cigarette-sized twist of birch bark), and then place it in the hollow at the center of the tinder. If you're using a lighter, simply direct a jet of flame toward the same target. It will probably be enough on its own. The small stuff at the core of your fire should ignite almost immediately. If there's no breeze blowing, fan the young flame gently. Your hand or hat will work fine. Be ready to add tiny amounts of tinder as needed. Soon, small flames will be playing along the sticks of kindling. If you used a candle to get things started, this is the time to remove it — carefully.

Once all the kindling is ablaze, add the first pieces of firewood and begin constructing a final tepee. Continue adding wood as the flames take hold, adding more kindling, too, if necessary. Move with measured speed. Don't smother your fire under "cold" wood, but don't allow it to starve, either. In minutes you'll have a bright blaze that can defy the elements. Congratulations!

This is a good time to repeat…

A Few Cautionary Words

Don't build any fire when it's not safe to do so. Even if it's been raining steadily for a week, keep a big pot of water handy to dampen any tendency of the flames toward irrational exuberance. And never leave a blaze unattended, even for a minute. A fire's not out till you can put your bare hand in the ashes.

Use dead and downed wood only. On well-traveled routes this may mean forgoing a fire altogether. In more remote areas, harvest small quantities of tinder and kindling as you travel. Then you'll never be without the means to build a fire in an emergency. I always carry birch bark and a candle stub in my rucksack, along with a full matchsafe. On more than one wet day, I've been mighty glad I had them with me.

Most important of all, never use stove fuel or gasoline to help start a fire. You'll feel the heat for sure, but it won't be a nourishing warmth.

Knowing how to coax a fire into life on a rainy day used to be one of the hallmarks of the experienced woodsman. It still is, and for good reason. A fire can cook your food, boil your tea, and cheer you up. Someday it might even save your life. But you have to build and light the fire first. No problem. Practice makes perfect, right? So practice! There's no better way to meet a worst-case scenario head on and turn it into an adventure. And remember — one match is all you need, but it never hurts to have a lighter.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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