Monday, April 15, 2013

Wilderness Survival Part 7 – Fire

I love fire.  Fire is so useful and fun!  But….

If you go back to the beginning of this wilderness survival series, you will see that I chose to address survival subjects in the order of importance to survival (in my opinion).  So many of you may be wondering why I have written about six survival “musts” before getting to fire.  After all, isn’t building a fire one of the first things survival schools teach one to do?  When people are lost, aren’t they supposed to build a fire to stay warm and to help rescuers find them?  This is where I part company with many survival philosophies. 

A Quick Review:

I believe that nature is our nurture.  If one is skilled and works with nature rather than against nature, then the whole survival experience changes.  Remember that nature is not the enemy.  Nature is the source of many good things.  Second, if you know how to find what you need in nature, then you will not normally need to be rescued.  Third, one is not lost if one is in his/her home.  Nature is our home.  We leave the hustle and bustle of modern life to go back to our home, the wild and free places.  This approach takes skill development and the right attitude.  By learning nature’s rhythms we gain a new perspective; one that does not require us to get found or be rescued very often.

What are the two reasons most survival schools teach building a fire?  First, to stay warm.  However, if you have ever tried to stay warm on a cold night by feeding a fire, you know that one side roasts while the other freezes.  You also know that you are going to lose a LOT of sleep trying to keep the fire going.  Unless there is a shelter in place that the fire can heat, fire really is a poor solution to the cold.  Certainly for long-term survival, huddling by a fire is not a reasonable survival strategy.  Instead, build a warm shelter.  See my blog on shelter for more information.  The second reason many teach the “lost” to build a fire to get found more easily.  If getting found is the goal, then by all means, build that fire.  Review my blog on getting found for more information on this.

Proper Uses for Fire:

There is a third “survival” reason to build a fire which I agree with.  Fire provides light and comfort.  Fire can help to drive away dark feelings and fears.  But if one is at home in nature, then this is normally not necessary.  However, if you find yourself shaking in your boots and you need an attitude adjustment, then BUILD A FIRE.  See my blog on attitude for more information on how critical the right attitude is for survival.

Why else would we build a fire?  Fire is a wonderful tool that we can use to melt snow, sterilize water, cook food, harden wood, dry clothing, and preserve foods by smoking.  And there is nothing quite like a hot drink and a warm meal after spending several hours in the cold.  It is not critical for short term survival, but it is one of the most useful tools for extended stays in the wilderness.  I love fire!

 Knowing how to be responsible with fire in the wilderness is a critical prerequisite for anyone who wants to camp, hike, or live in the woods.  Fire can be friend or foe.  Responsibility does not only include fire safety to prevent forest fires and personal injury.  Abusing the wilderness with fire proves one is immature and has little understanding of or respect for nature.  This type of abuse is all too common and includes such things as making oversized fires, creating multiple fire rings in one locale, scorching trees or other plants, using a fire pit as a trash can, melting cans, bottles, and plastics and leaving them, failing to put out fires completely, leaving a fire unattended, building fires too close to surface water, and the list goes on and on.


When camping, use existing fire rings and scatter extra ones.  Pack out trash left by others.  Leave nature better than you found it.  If you are in an area where there is no fire ring, then consider using fire practices that respect nature.  One of the biggest mistakes is making the fire too large.  Small fires use less wood, create less smoke, leave smaller scars, and are much easier to use for cooking.  And small fires provide comforting heat and light that does not force campers to stand ten feet away.

Better yet, use a 180 Stove to contain your small fire and maximize your cooking.  With the 180 Stove you can cook or boil water using only a handful of twigs.  The cooking platform keeps the pan close to the flames and reflects the heat onto the pan.  The stove is lighter than carrying a backpacking stove with fuel, and more compact as well.  If you are not using the 180 Two-Piece Snow and Ash Pan, then scrape a little soil to the side, cook, douse, and then cover.  This way no scars are left on the land.  In more delicate areas or for cooking on snow, use the ash pan.

If you want to REALLY minimize the weight, then cook with the 180-VL.  At less than 6 ounces, the 180-VL allows one to cook efficiently with a minimum of weight to carry.  This stove is a bit smaller than the 180 Stove, but still does a fine job.  The ash pans are designed to work with either stove.  These stoves are small enough to fit in a back pocket, but assemble to form large and stable cooking platforms similar in size to a burner on your range at home.

Using the 180 Stove or the 180-VL greatly reduces the amount of fuel you will need to cook your food, protects nature from fire scars, and provides a much safer cooking method than trying to balance your dinner on rocks or micro-stoves.  Using these stoves also respects nature on deeper levels.  No toxic fuels are pumped out of the ground, hauled around the world, and forced into wasteful canisters.  No fuel spills into the ground water.  No canisters go to the landfill.

What’s more, learning how to make and sustain efficient fires using natural fuels calls us back to working with nature rather than against her.  And there are no valves, welds, screws, leaky O-rings, or hoses that often break in the woods.  These stoves just make sense and fit the respectful approach to living in nature.   They make a wonderful compliment to your fire skills.

In summary, fire can be a great friend on a lonely night and is a very useful tool for a variety of wilderness tasks.  While fire is not a top priority for short-term wilderness survival, it is a necessary survival tool for the long term. 

In future posts, we will discuss various fire-making techniques.