The ability to light a fire is an essential wilderness skill. Whether you are practicing your bushcraft skills in the local woods or planning an expedition, fire-lighting skills should be at the top of your list.
Apart from the everyday comfort of having a campfire to cook over, to keep us warm in the evenings and as a focal point for socialising in camp, fire is an important survival tool.
Successful fire-lighting gives a boost to morale and can be an important phsychological factor in survival situations. Fire is an effective and reliable way of making water safe to drink and for signalling. Fire makes food safe to eat and wards off wild animals. It keeps us warm and helps us dry wet clothing.
There are many ways to light a fire but the humble match is often overlooked in favour of more impressive skills such as bow-drill or hand-drill or the commonly carried Swedish Firesteel (a.k.a Fireflash or Ferro Rod). People take matches for granted yet there are still a few subtleties to master and skills to finesse, if you want to get the most out of them.
Besides, practicing the methods in this article will help sharpen up your fire-lighting skills in general.
Preparation Is Key In Firelighting
Preparation is a vital aspect of successful fire-lighting. Success is largely determined by what you do before you strike a match. Put all the building blocks of success in place first.
For your kindling, collect small, thin sticks that are dead and dry. The best are either still attached to a tree or hung up in one. Avoid collecting sticks from the ground. You are looking for matchstick thickness sticks. They should break cleanly with a crisp and definite ‘click’.
The best small sticks for kindling are from woods that contain resin or oil that is flammable. In the northern temperate zone and in the arctic forests the best kindling comes from coniferous trees species such as pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), fir (Abies) and hemlock (Tsuga) but not larch (Larix). From the deciduous trees the birches (Betula) provide the best kindling.
A further advantage to the evergreen species mentioned above is that they often have dead branches low down on their trunk. There is so little light reaching these branches that the tree doesn’t waste its energy in maintaining them. This provides a ready supply of dry kindling that is also protected from rain and snow by the branches above. You can easily collect plenty of small dry sticks in a short amount of time.
After your initial kindling, you need some slightly larger fuel. Pencil-thickness is good for the next stage, then finger thickness, then thumb thickness. The idea is for each grade of fuel to easily ignite from the previous. You can’t light a log from a match. There needs to be some intermediate sizes of fuel. All of your fuel should be dead and dry. Make sure you collect and sort out your fuel before you begin to light your fire.
Select an area for your campfire. Check there are no obvious tree roots you might ignite. Also check above that there are no low-hanging branches you might ignite by accident. Even if this is not a risk, as a general rule it is best not to damage tree foliage by creating a fire too close under their branches. Obviously if you were in an emergency situation and you needed to use some trees for natural shelter and have a fire nearby to keep you warm, then this is a different situation. Even in an emergency situation, however, you don’t want to be starting a forest fire around you.
In the area where you will have your campfire, clear the leaf litter and other dead foliage away until the bare earth is exposed. If the ground is peat, you should not light a fire there. You must find a rocky area (such as next to a stream) to light your fire. In very dry coniferous woods this is good practice too, as it is easy to set fire to root systems. Generally it is good to have your fire within easy walking distance of a water source. This will provide you with all the drinking water you need plus you will have water to extinguish all remnants of your fire before you leave.
You should create a hearth of dead, dry sticks of around thumb thickness. On top of this you will create your fire-lay. Creating a hearth has several advantages:
- 1. A hearth prevents your kindling from sitting directly on damp and/or cold ground;
- 2. A hearth (of dead, dry sticks), provides a ready source of fuel at the centre of your fire;
- 3. The gaps in the hearth allow air (in particular, oxygen) to be drawn into the base of the fire.
Now that you have prepared the area and the hearth, separate the bundle of kindling into two good handfuls. Keep the kindling long. Each handful should look like the end of a miniature witch’s broom.
Now think about which way the wind is blowing. Even if there is only a slight breeze, take note. Kneel with your back to the wind and place your handfuls of kindling in a V-shape with the open side of the V facing you.
Make sure you are kneeling with your knees and feet together. Otherwise there will be a wind-tunnel between your legs (nothing to do with what you had for breakfast!) directed towards the base of your fire, which could easily extinguish your match.
Now You are Ready To Light Your Fire
Now you are prepared. You have collected plenty of dead, dry match-stick thick kindling from the most suitable woods available. You have collected larger fuel that is also dead and dry. You have selected a suitable area, prepared the ground and put down a hearth. You have arranged generous bunches of kindling and positioned your body taking into consideration wind direction.
Now you can light your match.
But you must do this properly. By properly I mean in such a way as to minimise the risk of failure, which is what this whole article is about. What if it is your last match? Always practice as if it were.
The first thing to note is that whatever type of container you are using to carry your matches, be mindful to protect them from the elements whenever you open the container.
If you are using a regular box of matches, you can open it in two ways – so that the match-heads show, or so that the base of the match-sticks show. What if it’s raining? Or what if it has been raining and there are big drops of water coming off the trees intermittently? What if snow is blowing off the trees? You don’t want a big drop of water or dollop of snow landing on your match-heads. Open the match-box so the base of the sticks is showing.
A match-stick is easy to break if you apply pressure at right angles to its length. It is very hard to break if you apply pressure along its length. Therefore, when you strike a match you should apply pressure along its length, not across it.
With cold hands, and reduced dexterity, it is easy to apply too much force and break the match unless you follow this rule. Again, if it’s your last match – or even if it isn’t but you make this mistake a few times – this simple mistake could cause you to descend into a much more serious situation.
As you strike the match, you should also support the head. Don’t be afraid of burning your fingers. You won’t. Just remove your finger at the end of the strike.
On igniting the match, take it straight into cupped hands to protect the vulnerable flame. Wait for the stick to take from the match-head. Don’t drop the matchbox. Not until the match-stick is alight should you take the match to the kindling.
Once the match is burning well, carefully take your flame to the kindling. Remember to keep it protected. This is a critical stage of the process. Remembering that heat rises, aim to light the kindling low down. The best spot is in the centre of the V-notch you have created by overlapping the two bundles of kindling. You have most fuel stacked up here and by lighting it at the bottom of this stack, you will create a thermal column up through the middle of it.
Hold the match about 1cm (0.5 inches) below the material you are lighting. If you can light the kindling in a couple of spots, all the better.
You should still be holding onto your box of matches. This is important. Apart from a standard match-box not being waterproof and being at risk of becoming damp while in contact with the ground, it may also become lost. In the excitement of getting your fire going you may forget about the box. You, or a companion, may stand on it or kick leaves or other debris over it. Keep hold of the box!
Once the fire has begun to establish, you can quickly stow the box in a pocket.
Keeping your kindling long allows you to adjust your fire as it becomes established, if necessary. You may need to re-position the kindling slightly or, if the nascent fire needs a little more oxygen you can lift the uppermost bundle a little to allow more air into the fire. You should certainly experiment with this effect when you are practicing as it can be quite dramatic.
Once the flames are coming up through your kindling strongly, you can add more fuel. Don’t put sticks on one at a time. Grab a couple of handfuls and lay them on in a similar arrangement to your original fire lay. Again, keeping the sticks long will allow you to manoeuvre the sticks and place them in the fire without scorching your hands.
And that’s it, your fire is established and you can now build it up further if necessary or use it to boil some water for a lunchtime brew. The initial principles are the same in either case.
Remember the critical importance of preparation and material selection. Choose and prepare your site well. Look after your matches and use them carefully. Take into consideration the weather conditions – wind, rain/snow. Then you won’t go far wrong. And if you are thinking that all of this seems like a bit of a faff, it actually doesn’t take long to do it. Plus doing things properly the first time normally takes less time in the long run.
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