In a new regular Wednesday feature I’ll try my best to answer questions I’ve been asked by you, dear reader. We kick off with “what’s your favourite/most used fire lighting method?”. I’ve expanded on this slightly and added reliability into the equation too.
When you’re in the back of beyond fire is an invaluable tool. It provides a means of cooking, purifying water, providing light, warmth and boosting morale. If you find yourself in a survival situation it can make the difference between life and death.
For this reason alone you need a reliable, foolproof way of starting fire every time. Fire lighting is a skill worth practising to find the techniques that suit you best and to find the limits of your chosen method.
Once you’ve found a favourite don’t rely on it all the time – the more chances you give yourself the better. However, one method will likely become your ‘bread and butter’ fire starter.
So, here are my favourite wilderness fire starting methods in order of preference:
My number one choice due to it’s simplicity, wide range of possible tinders and ease of use. When nipping into the woods near the safety of a fixed camp or home I’ll often just carry a firesteel and rely on what I can find for tinder as the need arises.
Often called the Swedish Firesteel, it was originally developed for Swedish military use but has since gained popularity world wide and is very commonly available. Firesteels are made from ferrocerium, an alloy that’s pyrophoric – tiny amounts are combustible when exposed to the air. By scraping a hard edge along a firesteel you’ll release many small slivers from the surface. These oxidise in contact with air and a spectacular reaction takes place giving the characteristic shower of hot bright sparks.
The sparks produced by a firesteel are at a temperature somewhere around 3000 degrees celsius. It’s this which gives the firesteel the ability to light such a wide range of tinders. Plant tinders will probably still need some preparation to give reliable results – buff up fibrous tinders (such as inner barks, dry grass etc) to provide more surface area and finer tinder; scrape a small amount of shavings from the outer side of birch bark for the same reason. If your feather sticks or wood shavings are fine enough they can be ignited with the firesteel. They can also be used to light stoves. Very useful.
For the icing on the cake, firesteels will work when wet. If you find yourself with soaking wet gear and you need a fire to avoid hypothermia this could just save your life. Make sure they’re not stored away for any length of time in a pouch or pocket when damp as the moisture will cause them to disintegrate.
Match or Lighter
When they were invented in 1826, friction matches revolutionised our fire lighting experience. After the patenting of ferrocerium (hmmm, sounds familiar!) in 1903 the world saw the first reliable modern lighters. Since then they’ve become a commodity item right up to the point today where we throw away cheap gas lighters once they’re empty.
The big thing in their favour is convenience and lack of skill required by the user. Unfortunately both lighters and matches run out relatively quickly and can be affected by damp. Being able to instantly create a strong flame allows us to skip tinder if we can find sufficiently fine kindling (think here of the driest finest birch twigs or the fine twigs found at the bottom of spruce for example).
I nearly always have a lighter and a box of matches with me but for long term reliability would always pack a firesteel.
Flint & Steel
The ability to create sparks originated with the human discovery that iron pyrites (the mineral iron sulphide) when struck with a flint or other hard sharp edge produces sparks which can be used to ignite fine tinder. Anyone who’s tried using iron pyrites in this way will know that the sparks are a very far cry from the modern firesteel. The sparks are much less hot meaning that tinder has to be selected very carefully and kept extremely dry and possibly processed beforehand by scorching or charring. If you fancy a go with this, nodules of iron pyrites can often be found on beaches along the south coast of England.
Once man had the technology to make steel it was found that it also produces a spark when struck with a hard, sharp edge such as a flint. The spark is hotter than an iron pyrites spark but still nowhere near the temperature of a firesteel spark.
The science at work here is quite similar to the workings of the firesteel. By striking the steel against the sharp edge of a flint we are shaving off tiny slivers of steel. These slivers, heated by friction, oxidise and the by-product of this reaction is heat, resulting in a spark. Again, due to the lower temperature spark, careful tinder selection is required for success. Tinders such as char cloth and amadou are commonly prepared specifically for use with the flint and steel. Fine plant fibres, especially when scorched or charred also make ideal tinders.
This is a reliable method once the technique is mastered and you understand the range of tinders it’ll work well with. A steel will last a lifetime and if you lose your steel, the back of a carbon steel knife blade can be used as a stand in.
Last but not least we come to the most (or perhaps only) primitive fire lighting method here. By the very nature, all parts are totally replaceable in the field which makes them a very reliable back up. However, practise is needed to master the techniques, construction and materials required. Some are very simple to construct, others more elaborate such as the bow drill.
Using the bow drill in a primitive setting requires the manufacture of some form of cordage for the bow string. This in itself requires skill and if relying on plant fibres you need to be spot on with your technique to achieve success and avoid the frustration of broken strings and wasted effort.
The great thing about friction firelighting lies in the knowledge you can start a fire with materials found in nature. So, while I wouldn’t generally make a bow drill set just to fire up the stove, it’s a great thing to know you can do if the need arises.
Obviously this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s just my chosen few that suit the way I do things and the environments I’m used to. You’ve probably got your own favourites. Why not share them?