Unlike all other species, we don’t flee a flame. We inch closer, extend day into night (making up for our poor night vision).
Humans were never content to see something so special and not control it, create it, ourselves. And so started the act that would forever separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom: fire starting.
For the regular outdoorsman, this is a critical skill. It’s great to have multiple tricks up your sleeve, in the backpack, or wherever else you stash your gear on your person.
Here’s a look at the fire starting tools I carry with me, my various successes and failures, and those I intend to try soon:
Fire piston – The fire piston is a tool dating back to colonial times and is the precursor to the diesel engine under the same premise: quickly compress air, super-heating it to ignite tinder placed in the tube. Hand-held, lightweight and requiring almost no resupply of modern materials, the fire piston is a good tool to have in your backpack. However, my experience so far with Numyth’s version has been dismal. I bought one this winter and tried it out immediately. I’ve had no success getting charcloth to ignite. Here’s a link to Goinggear’s page on the Vulcan, complete with video if you scroll down.
Charcloth – Charcloth, made from cotton or linen fabric, is a great option for fire starting, and I’ve had massive success with it. However, it requires a fire to make charcloth by placing the cotton (I used an old pair of denim pants) into a tin and then on the fire. The charcloth easily catches a spark from flint and will last long enough for you to blow it into a flame using dried grasses and twigs in a fire bundle.
Bow drill – The bow drill is a primitive way of starting a fire by using a bow and string to rapidly twist a piece of wood into a baseboard. This is probably one of the best of “rubbing two sticks together” methods. I’ve come close but haven’t yet had success with this method. The problem: if you don’t have the right types of wood (poplar and cedar in North America) then it’s a lost cause. Maple, pine and other resinous woods do not work. I know from experience. They get hot and produce a polished black sheen on the wood, but the wood dust will never gather enough to produce a sustainable coal.
True tinder fungus – I’m intrigued by this fungus found on birch trees in North America. When dry, the fungus will ignite with a spark similar to charcloth, slowly burning as a coal, and giving you ample opportunity to blow it into a fire with other tinder. I haven’t tried this yet, but here’s a video showing how it’s done from Canadian Bushcraft’s YouTube channel:
And in case you’re looking for some good ways to identify true tinder fungus, Wildwood Survival’s website has a fairly thorough examination of the fungi, including microscopic insight into why it works so well as tinder.
Birch bark – Invaluable find in the woods. Birch has so much oil in its bark, it will ignite when wet. This is a great kindling to build your fire. In damp conditions, birch bark will extend the life of your matches or lighter by holding a flame long enough to get the rest of your kindling going. Look for dead logs to take from first, but some birch trees shed thin layers while living. If the bark is thick, you can split it into thinner layers and strips to improve its flame.
Coghlan’s flint/magnesium firestarter – Indispensable tool. Some patience is necessary to scrape enough magnesium off the stick into a pile about the size of a quarter, but once you’re there, a spark from the flint will be enough for a short intense flame capable of igniting even damp tinder and kindling. Most times, I only use the flint, but I’ve had great success in starting a fire using the magnesium shavings. I recommend buying one of these and keeping it in your pack. Here’s Coghlan’s site, but you can find these in almost any store that sells camping gear.
Wood matches – Aside from a lighter, wood matches are probably the best you can do in fire starting tools produced by society. However, they’re useless when they get wet, which is why I keep mine in a watertight tube. Bonus, the bottom of the tube has a flint on it in case the matches run out and you need to resort to more primitive methods.
Zippo lighter – Pennsylvania-made, life-time guaranteed. These type of lighters have all kinds of uses. The flint striker is useful if you run out of fluid. The same can be said for the cotton and wick inside that holds the fluid. The metal casing could be repurposed for tools, too. Any lighter is a preferred fire starting tool. Accept a substitute brand if you want, but I’ll stick with my Zippo.