What you’ll need for the activities in this chapter: •A knife (duh!) •Wood. Even an old broomstick will do for practice. •Some sort of cordage. Paracord is great, but cheap jute twine can be used as both cordage and tinder. •A tin. A tobacco tin or an Altoids tin. Something small, flat and with a lid. •A piece of cotton cloth. You can use other natural fibres. Fire Learning to control and make fire was one of the most important technological advances in the history of mankind. It’s the tool that allowed us to expand to every corner of the Earth. If you look at the history of human evolution, you’ll notice that the first big migrations started about the same time as the mastery of fire is attained. Although there is some evidence of fire use by hominids as early as 1.7 million years ago, a lot of scientists consider it rather sketchy and anecdotal. Most agree that the first real proof of controlled use of fire dates back some 400,000 years (starting 125,000 years ago there’s incontrovertible evidence of this type of use). Fire brought a lot of advantages to Homo Erectus. It made it possible to see and do things at night, it kept predators at bay, it provided warmth in cold weather, etc. It also brought a host of new dietary options to H. Erectus’ table. Thanks to fire, better sources of complex carbohydrates became available (like tubers that weren’t edible raw, amongst other things) and proteins from animal meat became easier to digest (cooked meat requires less energy than raw meat to digest). Fire also made food safer. Hundreds of thousands of years later, there’s still nothing like fire for those who live or play outdoors. It makes water safe, helps us harden wood tools, cooks our food and signals for help (and it still keeps predators away). In a survival situation, some studies have shown that fire has a very positive morale effect. A place with a nice fire going just feels like home, it’s engrained into our brains. Sadly, modern conveniences such as lighters and matches have contributed to make us forget how to make fire with simpler tools. Not too long ago, flint and steel fire kits were quite common and people were used to using them to light their cigarettes. There’s a reason why matches and lighters became so popular: starting a fire without them is damn hard. Our ancestors knew this and that’s why they always tried to keep a fire going and even came up with ways to transport it. I love rubbing sticks together, but I carry a waterproof Pelican box with lighters, matches, waterproof tinder, magnesium block and firesteel as part of my emergency gear. If I were to find myself in an emergency where wasting calories would be a mistake and hypothermia a very real threat, I’d reach for that Pelican box. Most primitive methods require a certain degree of dexterity and fine motor skills go out the window when you’re hurt, tired, cold or just scared. So, why bother learning this at all? Why not just carry a few extra Bic lighters and be done with it? Well, there are two answers for this. The first is a bit philosophical. I believe that it is our duty to pass down as much knowledge to future generations as possible. Especially the knowledge of those skills on which the very foundations of civilization rest. The only way to keep these skills from being lost is to practice them. It’s also about the pride of self reliance, choosing to use matches instead of needing to use matches. The second reason is purely practical: the more knowledge you’ve got, the more options you’ve got. I’ve never heard anybody complain about having too much knowledge at his disposal to deal with a given issue. Like I’ve said before, statistically survival situations in the US last 72hs. That doesn’t mean that all of them are over within that time frame. You might get rescued in three hours, or it might take three weeks. In those long term situations bushcraft and primitive skills can help you overcome supply shortages. They are also a great psychological boost: people who know how to make nature’s resources work to their advantage don’t feel that the world has turned against them when things go wrong. There are a few different primitive firecraft methods. We’ll only go into detail about a few, so that you have time to get some hands on experience with them. First of all, let’s go over two basic rules that apply to every method: •Think about where you’re going to start your fire. Be safe and take the wind into account. Always think everything over twice, it saves energy and keeps you from getting harmed (or starting a blazing bush fire and creating some very bad press for FTF). •Gather all your materials before you set to work. Collect your tinder, kindling and fire wood before you start working your behind off on your bow drill. All the work put into getting that little ember will be wasted if you don’t have the proper kind of fuel at hand. Plan ahead (again, thinking saves energy). The two main primitive fire making methods are: •Friction. Includes bow and hand drill, fire plough, pump drill, fire saw, etc. •Percussion. A hard stone (like flint) is used to strike another stone with iron in it (like pyrite). A carbon steel knife works, too. Friction fire methods require very simple materials (a few pieces of wood, perhaps a bit of cordage) and the devices are easy to build. However, it takes a ton of energy to produce an ember (especially when working with less than optimal materials). The best known of these methods are the bow drill and the hand drill, and those are the ones we’ll be focusing on. Percussion takes a lot less physical labour, but it does require good tinder and materials that aren’t as easy to find as those used for friction fire starters. If you’ve got a carbon steel knife, you only need to worry about finding a suitable stone and tinder. We’ll learn how to make good tinder through the magic of pyrolysis. Percussion fire starting (flint & steel) Starting a fire with flint and steel will be our first order of business at the FTF Bushcraft School. This method was used until rather recently, and reached its peak during the late 19th century. Most modern cigarette lighters still rely on this system to produce a spark. We’ll need three things to successfully start a fire with flint and steel: •Flint. Any hard rock, it might take a bit of searching but so far wherever there are rocks I’ve been able to find a suitable one. Using very basic knapping techniques (id est, bashing it against another rock) we can flake pieces off to expose sharp edges against which we’ll strike our steel. •Steel. Relatively hard carbon steel works well. Guess what has 4” of hard carbon steel and is hanging on our belt? That’s right, our beloved Clipper. Knives with laminated blades don’t work very well, because the spine is too soft to get good sparks (and has low carbon content). With those knives you’d have to strike the edge against the flint, causing some damage. The same can happen to knives with differential heat treatment. Stainless steel isn’t good for this either. Axes and machetes sometimes work, but you need to strike close to the edge, where the material is hard enough. The natural option is iron pyrite, which can be used as both the striker and the flint (you can in fact use two pieces of pyrite to get a spark). •Tinder. Basically, anything that will begin to burn from a spark. This is the tricky part about percussion fire, as long as you’ve got good tinder it’s a piece of cake. There are two types of tinder: natural and manmade. Tinder is such a valuable resource that it’s worth preparing in advance if at all possible. Finding a rock and a striker should be simple enough (just get your knife and start hitting the spine with rocks until you get a spark), but tinder deserves a little more attention. Natural tinder is found in the form of different fungi. One of them, known to bushcraft aficionados as true tinder fungus (fomes fomentarius), grows on living birch trees. It looks charred and is very useful. After removing it from the tree, cut it open and take the corky light brown interior material. Crumble it into a tin or a piece of bark to use as tinder. The harder parts can be used to brew tea. Many Russian folk medicines include powdered or boiled tinder fungus. Burning pieces where applied to the joints to help alleviate arthritic pain. Some people like to put little pieces in their pipes to help tobacco burn better. [Disclaimer: I’m not telling you guys to run out and start rubbing against mushrooms or smoking anything.] False tinder fungus (phellinus igniarius) is found on dead birch and occasionally aspen. The harder outer layer needs to be removed to get to the cotton like material on the inside. That material can be worked into tinder and also burned as a mosquito repellent. The cottony substance inside the fungus has to be boiled in slurry made from thin ashes from a wood fire before it can properly catch a spark (that’s the difference with the true tinder fungus, which you can use right off the tree). Both the true and false tinder fungus can be used to transport a smouldering ember for very long periods of time. A technique used by many aboriginal peoples to save themselves the trouble of starting a new fire. Using a process called pyrolysis we can easily make excellent, very reliable tinder out of commonly available materials. Cotton cloth works best. Pyrolysis is a thermo chemical decomposition at high temperatures with no oxygen present. An organic material is heated, it gives out gases and liquids and we’re left with a solid residue that’s much richer in carbon. What does all these mumbo-jumbo mean for our practical caveman uses? It means that after we work like hell to get that first fire going, we can use it to turn almost any natural fibre into almost perfect tinder that will catch sparks easily and turn them into beautiful glowing embers. If you have a small tin with you, cut your cloth into small pieces (2X2 inches or so) and put it in the tin. Don’t pack it too tight. Punch or drill a small hole on the lid (don’t make it too big). Close the tin and put it on the fire. Take it easy, it doesn’t take a volcano to make this work. Just some embers. If you’re using your kitchen stove, use a low flame. Be patient. Eventually smoke will start to come out from the hole. With some tins (if too much oxygen is getting in) you might even have a little flame, but it will die out. Wait a bit and take it off the fire. Don’t open it right away! If the cloth is still too hot when exposed to oxygen it might burst into flames. You might scream like a little girl and your hunting buddy might just be videotaping you... After the tin cools down, open it and check the contents. If the cloth is brownish, it needs more cooking. If it’s black but it crumbles when you touch it, you overdid it. Start over. If it’s black but you can handle it without it falling apart, you’ve got it. Go ahead, try it out. Burn a couple of pieces with matches or throw a few sparks on it with your lighter. If there’s no tin available, an alternate method can be used. It’s not as easy and it might take more tries. Cut the cloth in strips and wrap it around a stick. Place it over a flame, take it out and cover it between two pieces of bark. It works, but it takes more practice and results aren’t always as neat as with the tin, in a same piece of cloth you might get parts that are just right, some are burnt and some need more heat. I’ve got the best results with 100% cotton cloth. But charring works with most natural fibres, jute twine, paper, etc. A friend of mine even tried it on thin steel wool with decent success. What I like about cotton cloth is that the resulting charcloth is somewhat resistant to handling and carrying (compared to what you get with paper, for example). Old t-shirts, jeans, etc. Alright, we’ve got our knife (striker), a fresh batch of charcloth and a nice stone with sharp edges. Now what? In a nutshell, you need to strike the back of your blade against the stone and manage to land a spark on your tinder. There are a couple of different ways to do this. You can place your tinder on a piece of bark (or in your tin), hold the knife still and hit the back with flint in brisk downward motions. This is safe, because you can hold the knife by its handle, but don’t expect a shower of sparks. Or to be able to easily hit your intended target. I prefer to grab the knife by the blade, with the edge pointing towards my palm. I then place a piece of charcloth between my thumb and the blade. Holding the flint steady in my left hand I strike the back of the blade against it with fast, brisk movements. This approach is quick, but you need to remember that there’s a sharp edge pointing towards your palm. For a bit of extra safety, you can place the edge on a piece of wood and pound on the spine of the knife to drive it into the wood and cover the edge for safer handling. Once a spark lands on the tinder and produces an ember, softly blow on it and take it to your bird’s nest (a little bowl of dry tinder). Keep blowing until you get a flame. We’ll cover tinder bundles (a.k.a. bird’s nest), feather sticks and other similar things after the basic fire starting techniques. For now, if you manage to get an ember that’s good enough. If fungi and charcloth are giving you a hard time you can use cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly (Vaseline). Cover cotton balls in petroleum jelly, press hard and store them in a small canister. When you need to use them, open a ball up to reveal the dry interior. This will catch a spark and burst into flames, not an ember, it will actually catch on fire. It’s great, cheap, waterproof emergency tinder. You can carry them in one of these nifty “spy capsules” Spy Capsule, Large (with every order from this place, you get an extra capsule free). Homework! This will be the first assignment for our little course. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it simple. Here’s what I want you to do. •Make some charcloth. It doesn’t need to be charred cotton cloth, play around and use whatever tickles your fancy. As long as it can be used to catch a spark and glow into an ember without disintegrating in your hands, it’s good. If you’ve got the time and prefer to do it, go hunting for some natural tinder. Try to find true tinder fungus or something similar that grows near you. •Find a rock hard enough to get sparks from your knife. •Successfully strike a spark onto your charcloth and gently blow it into a small ember. •Pictures of any part of the process would be greatly appreciated. As you can see, this is something you guys can do in your kitchen. Just remember that the knife is sharp! Although the process is simple, it’s not that easy. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t get good sparks right away. Or if they always seem to land anywhere but on your tinder. An instructor once told me: “If you aren’t failing at primitive fire starting, you’re doing it wrong.”. Next week we'll start Lesson 2: Friction methods. The first picture below is true tinder fungus, the second one is the false one. Edited to add: JD has offered to copy the most important info from the previous thread to this one. To make it easier for everybody to find it. Thanks, mate!