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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ask Paul: Making Fire in Wilderness

Dear Paul

When stranded in the wilderness or on an isolated island, what are some different methods of creating fire?

- Pyrotechnically Challenged in...SHIT, where am I?!

*intro'ed with the voice of the guy from the Allstate commercials*

"...Fire. Everyone needs it to survive. Without it, we wouldn't be able to eat or keep warm."

Ok, the good news; there's actually a lot of ways to make fire in the wilderness (given that you don't have matches, or a lighter, etc) The bad news; it's all pretty tedious work.


Before trying any of these methods though, always remember to make an appropriate clearing for you fire pit/area. Make a good 3 foot perimeter from the pit to anything flammable (or anything overhanging). We're trying to stay alive here, not burn down the forest.

Also, its usually a good idea to have your main fuel (wood) ready to be lit once you get your wee ember/spark turned into a flame, so have your wood pile and tender ready to go before getting started!


The most common and classic method is friction. Yep, rubbing sticks together does make fire! There are some key things to keep in mind when trying to make a fire in this method; always use dry wood, as even slightly damp wood is impossible to generate enough heat via friction to ignite.

The really REALLY classic version of this is the "hands clasped together, spinning a stick" method that we've all seen cavemen do on TV. Officially, this is called the Hand Drill Method. Anything beyond this involving sticks and friction are just variations of this.

To start: The Fire-board: find a good piece of dry, exposed wood (wood from inside a tree, no bark) that is decently flat on one side and can rest easily on the ground.

Second, Tender: Dry, highly flammable stuff like dry grass, wood shavings, pine needles, or Billy Idol's really bleach-burnt straw-like blonde hair.

Third, The Spiny Stick ("Drill"); a good length (1 to 1 1/2 foot) stick of rather uniform straightness and a decent width that you can spin easily between your hands (1/2" to 3/4" thick).

Prepare the Drill by making one side pointy, but not spear-pointy (a good 45 degree inset should work). Now, set up the Fire-board; you will need to make a hole/divot where the Drill will rest and create enough friction to cause your tender to smolder. This part is crucial and will no doubt require a few tries to get it right. The best place for this would be at a notch, or split in the wood that would allow for most of the sides of the cut end (the 45 degree sloped parts) of the drill to make contact (maximum friction) with the Fire-board while still allowing air to get to the tender as the tender will be right up next to all of this. Now, place the Fire-board on the ground in a manner to where you can kneel over it, but still allows for a bit of airflow to the tender beneath the notch.

Get everything in place!; With everything ready place the Fire-board on the ground in a manner to where you can kneel over it, but still allows for a bit of airflow to the tender beneath the notch. place tender (do not tightly pack!) under and around the notch/split. and rest your drill (pointy side in) into said notch.

Do The Twist!; Time to make friction between the Drill and the Fire-board. Spin the Drill between your hands in a back-and-forth manner (akin to the motion of rubbing ones hands to keep them warm) while moving your hands down the stick to keep strong positive pressure between the Drill and the Fire-board. Remember, we want friction here, so keep the pressure on!

This part takes forever to do, and usually doesn't work, but should you start to see some smoke coming from your tender, immediately remove your Drill and see if you can get that ember to spread! Blow on it lightly and see if it goes anywhere. Add tender if need be, but by all means KEEP THE TENDER SMOLDERING!!!! From there its just a matter of getting it large enough to become a flame (via blowing) so that you can light your tender in your prepared fire pit a VIOLA! All the comforts of 10,000 BC!

A good variation to this is the Bow/Drill method, where instead of using ones hands to spin the Drill, one fabricates a Bow (a bendy stick of descent strength and a curve to it with a string/shoelace/etc strung tightly between the ends) to spin the drill by placing a single wind of the bowstring around the Drill. Simply moving the bow back and forth causes the Drill to spin (rather fast). A Pivot is required to hold the Drill in place at the other end, and can easily be make from a stone/shell/other bit of wood with a divot. Pressure is applied to the Pivot to provide the force necessary for the spinning Drill to make adequate friction on the Fire-board and the rest of the procedure can be followed from above.


Flint/Steel; The use of flint and steel does produce sparks, however sparks are extremely hard to cause to ignite even the driest of tender. Flint and steel is usually used in conjunction with a highly flammable vapor or liquid, which then lights tender. The Fire-board/Drill method is by far more effective if flammable vapor/liquid is not available.

Along these same lines, a 9v (or above) battery produces enough voltage to generate a spark when the (+) makes contact with the (-), however the spark is miniscule and would definitely be unable to ignite raw tender. Should you find yourself stranded with something a powerful as a fully charged car battery, crossing the (+) and (-) lines makes a hell of alot of sparks, but can also kill you if you touch both the (+) and (-) terminals.

However, placing something restrictively conductive between the terminals (i.e. A small bit of thin wire) will cause the circuit to short and the wire will get awfully hot, possibly even red-hot. This too is ill advised, as shorting, and over heating a battery of this size has been known to make them explode. (thats tight, I said Ecks-Ploh-Da!)

Magnifying glass/Glasses: Considering that most of us don't travel into the wilderness with a magnifying glass, or have similarly thick glasses (or if we did, would stay the hell out of the woods!), but should you, then all you need is tender and good sunlight. Light your tender, get your fire going, and then go fry some ants! Woo! Behold your Magnanimosity over the formics!

I've actually seen some fancy-schmancy Swiss army knives with wee magnifying glasses in them. Oh those Swiss and their army!

Chemistry: Should you find yourself lucky enough to have a survival kit that includes Potassium Permanganate (a disinfectant to make drinking water) and glycerin (laxative), you can combine small portions of each to make a chemical reaction that results in fire. Apply small portions to tender and faster than you can say "Drinkingwaterlaxitive!" you have burning tender. On the flip side, why a survival kit would have these, and not any matches or a lighter is beyond me, bet then again, wasn't your pot-head brother rummaging around your survival gear a few days ago? Crafty pot-heads!

Me, my favorite method is shooting lasers from my eyes, but hey, thats just me...

Ok. Definitely not worried about the guys getting broken down and stranded on tour anymore. They've got a full fledged survivorman with them!

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