View Full Version : Survival Fire

2007-03-11, 05:02
Thought I would provoke some discussion on the topic of creating a survival fire. We are talking about making a fire when you absolutely need it most. Worse case scenario. You are wet and cold. Your fuel is wet and cold, or frozen. You need a fire to survive.

As a dress rehersal for these conditions, three years ago, I planned a half azzed attempt at seeing how easy I could build my survival fire in the wet and cold of the Pacific Northwest Olympics, in February. I decided to play it safe and bring a tent, and to stay within 30 minutes of my truck. With wet rain and occasional sloppy snow blowing thru the air, I took to make my survival fire.

Here is what I did:
Location. I picked the best location I could find to make my fire. Some place that provided some form of protection from the constant rain and drizzle. I found a large cedar tree that had a mild lean to it. Right behind the tree was a good source of wood. Soggy, but much available, an overturned tree root ball, and a fallen broken tree top. Both soggy and wet, but I figured that if I could get my fire going well enough, wet wood in concentration would be better than having to go searching all over the place to drag "wet" wood together. I planned my fire beneath the leaning portion of the tree.

Fuel gathering. I still had to try to gather something that would actually burn. I brought with me firestarter goodies, but if you have ever experience trying to make a fire in extremely wet conditions, you know that a few firestarters does not make a fire. I located a fallen section of tree that had decayed a bunch. Probably too much to be considered fuel, but I kicked and kicked at it, and found a section in the middle that delaminated sort of like layers of paper. These were wet, but thin. I figured as I started to make my fire, that they would dry easy, and in their sheet form, would be great to keep out the rain and wind, and bounce heat back onto the early flame. I also paid attention to gather microscopic thin twigs. Lots. Although also soggy, I knew I would need these.

Fire Foundation. After rounding up all the necessary materials to make fire, I started by laying a large section of tree bark across a few large sticks to make a shelter to build the fire under. Inside of this, I started by making a sort of "birds nest" of really fine twigs. In the middle portion of this, I placed long thin shaving of the tree "paper". These stood up, waiting for flame to crawl up them. I then brought out my homemade firestarter kit, dryer lint, some waxed paper, and a bic lighter.

Here we go... I placed a wad of the dryer lint at the bottom of my "fire", shredded some waxed paper, and touched it off. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute of flame. Nothing else. Didn't even seem like it warmed my tinder. I tried this three or four times. I warmed my tinder. Schitt!

OK, now I am actually getting a bit cold here. My gore tex rain coat is soaking thru, and every time I reach down to do something with my "fire", my sleeve directs water directly at whatever I am trying to touch with my hand. And, mind you, we are under the best shelter that I could find.

Start from scratch. Go find thinner, dryer stuff. Slop, slop, slop around looking for something dry. Now I give in and grab my baby fiskar axe from my backpack and start chopping a larger log, hoping to find it dry inside. It is! I chop and chop, and chop until I get inside a ways, and start to shave out some mostly "dryish" slender shavings. Chopped the tip of my glove nearly off, with my too sharp axe. Close one...Hurry back now to try to make fire. I'm cold now.

Now on my knees, hunkered over, peering under a smoky bark lid, and trying to salvage anything that had partially dried earlier. Scoot this stuff together, pull out more lint, a scrap more of waxed paper, lighter. New tinder... Blow, Blow, blow, cough, nasty smoke makes the lungs wheeze...Knees are soaking thru on the mud. Fire emits smoke. Keep working it, keep working it...come on baby! Out. MUTHER &$#%!!! This is not funny now. What the Hell am I doing out here F'ing around with this mud pile, when I could at home snuggled up in bed!!!

Calm down, you can do this, that almost worked last time. I am no weenie. Remember why I came here, just for this....Try it again, thinner shavings, used my knife to split what had already smoked..., warm to the touch, sooty mess. Reassemble the sooty tinder stuff, a bit more lint, blow blow blow. And guess what....after an hour and a half, I had fire. Smoky, stinky, sting your eyes fire. It took me another hour to get this fire going well enough that I felt comfortable enough walking into the surround woods in search of some big ass logs to drag down to the fire. I spent until midnight feeding that fire. the rain and snow finally stopped around 10pm. At 8pm, I broke out my Jack Daniels, and some Yukon Jack. By 10pm I was rather drunk. By midnight, I was very drunk, very warm and had mostly dried out and finally crashed, stumbling into my solotent and sleeping it all off....

Here is what I learned;

Bring more, better fire starter. I was drastically close to running out of my cheesy firestarter stuff that I brought. I am smarter now. Bring some tin foil. I now carry my emergency firestarter kit, and wrap a couple of feet of aluminum foil around the kit. I have since learned to practice making my tiny, tiny starter fire in a tin foil "box" that I make at the base of my fire. The tinfoil works great to keep things dry, and bounce the heat back at your tinder. Start your fire early. This fire may take some time to actually "take"... Do not wait until you are so cold, and so psyched out that you cannot get things together and actually make this fire work. Psychologically, I was getting pretty worried and started to think that I was not going to get my fire going, very depressing. I can imagine if you were lost, and already very cold, these failures could "do you in" mentally. When I finally got a good fire going, my whole outlook changed. And, although I was not lost, was not far from my truck, had an MRE waiting for me...., when my fire took, it really cheered me up.

I now carry better firestarters. More of them. I like to carry some thin strips of sliced cardboard I have dipped in wax, so that I have tinder that I can slowly place into the exact spot I desire, one by one, to keep the start of my flame from going out. And I have learned to keep draggin way way more wood than you think you will need, to the fire location. You cannot have too much. You can have too little. Think small at the start.

I also like to have a wall behind me, and a wall on the opposing side of the fire, to bounce heat back at me. In this case, I spent the night sitting between my cedar tree and my fire. The tree had my "back" too, sort of my buddy watching my backside. (Cougar country, and the occasional spooky noise...)

I remember looking into my large pile of coals later in the eve, and thinking what a wonderful sight my fire would be to someone who was lost and alone out there....well I sort of remember thinking it...sort of....

2007-03-11, 06:44
Well all you said is all well and good. But we all have a fire kit so where is it is it hanging by our coat and hat so we take it with us ever time we leave the house no and is it in the car maybe but you just mite stop by that trail at a monument notice. yep you left the fire kit in the car now see a women carrys a purse so she have her fire kit but we men only carry our wallet and i know that we don't carry a fire kit on use at all times what i am getting at i think us men should carry a possible bag at all time then we could carry our fire making kit and some mrs packs plus esbit stove :beer:

2007-03-11, 09:44
Ice, great test and a great story. I can relate had the same problem last year only it was late summer. I got lucky and found a can of sterno my grandson was carrying and just nuked the dry wood I found inside a tree.

But it only lasted about three hours. it was a learning experience.

I am since better equiped I carry several starters and tinder kits.

Just Jeff
2007-03-11, 11:03
In SERE, they taught us to make splitwood fires when everything is wet. But they didn't make us build one while we were half-hypothermic and shivering, trying to use that little US knife and not slice our fingers.

But I did always have an opened ziplock bag in my chest pocket, and whenever I passed some good tinder I put it in there to dry as we worked all day. After it dried I put it with the rest of my fire kit in a closed ziplock.

And I always had a chunk or two of pitchwood in my pack. Great stuff...not sure how prevalent it is an all parts of the country, but definitely worth learning to identify. Now I usually carry dryer lint, candles, etc. Might make those cardboard things you're talking about, though...that was a good thread.

Great story, Iceman.

2007-03-11, 13:59
Jeff, good point about the pitch pine, locals hereabouts (GA) call it "fat-lighter". That is about the only thing natural in the south that will burn when it is wet that I'm aware of. It is impervious to water. I wonder how many other conifers. if any, produce this stuff besides southern pines. Many years ago when we used to use some Douglas Fir for framing and trim (mostly the latter), I would see what looked like resinous wood but I never tried to burn any of it.

In the north country there is always birch bark, that stuff is amazing.

Just Jeff
2007-03-11, 23:50
Found lots of pitchwood in the Colorado Rockies.

2007-03-12, 00:22
Jeff, any idea what sort of tree produced the pitch wood in Colorado? Ponderosa Pine maybe? Was it lying in chunks on the ground where the rest of the tree had rotted away like it does in the south?

2007-03-12, 02:57
Good story Iceman, some good points of interrest too. I like your observation on starting small to have the energy concentrated until "critical mass" is achieved.

here are a few of my own observations:
Most does not know that birch burns well when fresh, just watch out for tent/shelter.
Fresh dwarf birch schrubbery is not bad for catching a fire and dead branches on (lower par of) fur trees are often much drier and willing to catch fire than branches picked from the ground.
Resin from most trees is also good for providing extra heat to get the fire going.
Fluffed up Reedmace is good for catching sparks.

2007-03-12, 08:40
In the Northeast in addition to birch bark there is lots of Spruce with small dead lower branchlets that you can snap off easily. If it doesn't snap off it isn't dead and dry enough yet so you just move on. It's pretty rare that you can't find either Spruce or Birch, but in some areas where the Eastern Cedar is pretty thick it will do. The green leaves themselves will actually burn quite well and help catch the twigs etc, but if you can find dead stuff it is even better. Probably the best argument for small wood stoves is you get to know the fuel in your area, and you can start a larger drying and warming fire by first making coffee with a smaller one using the stove. I still carry a long beeswax candle to help me start it. Of course how often you burn fires depends on the traffic and fire risks in your area. Lots of woods here though, usually pretty wet, and not so many people.

2007-03-12, 11:26
Iceman, What I use as emergency fire starters is trioxane bars. You can get them from military surplus stores or on line. I have never experimented with them or had to use them in an emergency situation but I have used them to start fires with wet wood. Down here in the deep south, we don't have near the worry with hypothermia as you yanks do, but I keep a couple with my gear just in case. Not sure how long the burn time is, looked at a couple of places on line and it varried from 7 to 15 minutes. Not sure how wind resistant they are either, never had to use them under windy conditions but each time I have used them, they light easy and I have never had to use more than 1/3 of a bar each time. They also come wrapped in foil so they are water proof. This is just one more thing you can experiment with to see which is more efficient or practical. I'll leave the experiments to you, so far these have served my needs.

2007-03-12, 12:18
Bear, don't be over reliant on Trioxane. I've found they tend to loose their flammablility with age, and a lot of what you buy surplus are already old. I had a stockpile of those things (they used to be easy to come by in my unit) and some of them wouldn't even light. Rock has a comparison of Esbit and Trioxane on his website and the Esbit far outshines the trioxane.

2007-03-12, 13:23
Ok Take-a-knee, Thanks for the info. I'll read his comparison and might have to invest in a few Esbit tabs.
That's what I love about this site. Just when you think you have the perfect item or combo, someone shows you something better.

2007-03-12, 13:53
A old timer that spends a lot of time in the woods around here that bailed me out of the woods once suggested that a bag of potato chips is always handy as it makes a great fire starter, but is also good as food. I tend to lean towards a 500ml jar of honey as extra food, and some olive oil as emergency food / fuel. The occassion I came close to needing a survival fire was that time he bailed me out on his ATV. I got somewhat snowbound and into a long trudge situation and got low on food. I had too much junk and not enough food. Anyhow, the last night out was rather cold and wet in my tent and I wasn't really sure whether I was better off with the tent open or shut. Also, I wasn't sure whether I would be better off spending some time and energy building a fire or saving my energy and just crawling into the sleeping bag. I had gotten as far as gathering lots of spruce branches but in the end decided to just dive into the sleeping bag as I was down to only about 2 cups of oatmeal for food and had at least a full days trudge ahead of me. I am still not sure whether I would have been better off one way or the other, but I should have had more food and more insulation and less crap like overweight tents and backpack and jackets and stuff. A jar of honey and an extra wool sweater or a set of long wool underwear goes a long way, and makes any emergency fire situation a lot more pleasant. You need a waterproof layer, but it doesn't need to be an 5-8 pound tent with a 5-8 pound pack to carry it in, which is where I was at at that stage in my life.

2007-03-12, 16:24
OK folks - OLD surfer trick - how I spent my miss-guided youth living on the beach - and how we started bonfires on the beach out of driftwood... (actually I learned it in Scouts)
the magic product is Vaseline all surfers carried Vaseline for sunburn
Make a ball of Vaseline with- cotton/balls, paper towels, toilet paper, dryer lint, etc.. - anything that will function as a wick for the Vaseline.
This little ball burned for 5 minutes


where's my C-4 - nothin better for startin' fires / cookin' than C-4 ;-)


well shucks...
If I had read the home-made fire starter thread before I posted- you folks already coverd Vaseline and cottonballs

It started MANY!!! a bonfire on the beach for a bunch of cold shivering, lazy surfers !!!

Just Jeff
2007-03-12, 19:25
Jeff, any idea what sort of tree produced the pitch wood in Colorado? Ponderosa Pine maybe? Was it lying in chunks on the ground where the rest of the tree had rotted away like it does in the south?

Not sure what tree it was...there are some pretty big pines up in the mountains.

It was always in the stump of a tree that had been quickly killed, like blown over in a storm or something. I don't remember seeing it laying around in chunks...it was always still attached to the stump. Sometimes it was easy to pull it off, but often we had to cut it out with a buck knife and beater stick. Smells so good! I still have several chunks in my garage...I used to shave a little bit into my ash tray (I don't smoke) to make the car smell good.

So I always had a quick-fire kit in a ziplock with whatever tinder I could find throughout the day...goat's hair and stuff like that mostly. Then I'd put some pitch shavings into the tinder and leave it in my bag...saves time in making a quick fire and really helps in the rain. If the wood was damp, I'd cut off some toothpick to half-pencil sized slivers to help it out.

2007-03-12, 20:28
well not sure if i showed this here or not its a altoids can fire steel a chap stick thats is empty then fill back up from the squeeze tube petroleum jelly or you can just take the tube with you in a other set up

http://i33.photobucket.com/albums/d52/oops62/th_firecotton.jpg (http://i33.photobucket.com/albums/d52/oops62/firecotton.jpg)

2007-03-13, 00:33
Iceman, great post. I have experienced what you have experienced. On dry days I can do wonders starting a fire but on wet days I struggle. I have yet to succeed at the one-match-use-only-what's-out-there firebuilding challenge on a wet day.

I'd continue working on it unfortunately the local fire department has gotten whiff of my smoldering backyard experiments so I had to quit.

Sux living in the city...

Woods Walker
2007-03-16, 00:50
Here is my fire starting kit.

First the UL kit when I am looking to cut back on the OZ's. This is used for summer camping and my daypack.


25-cotton balls/Vaseline combo. One of the best fire starters. They burn for 5-7 minutes.

3 MRE matchbooks.

1 Bic lighter.

1 backpacker Mag fire starter. I just use the sparker to ignite the cotton balls when the lighter fails. Just pull the Cottonball/Vaseline combo apart some and toss a spark on it.

Here is the big daddy. I carry this for winter camping and my ER aka BOB pack. Seems like over kill but heck I like fire.


75 cottonballs/Vaseline combo
4 Bic lighters
1 Strike force
1 Magnifying lens
4 packs of MRE matches
2 packs of waterproof matches

My favorite natural tinders are Birch bark and pine tar if the conditions are wet.