Dealing with Nature – Part 6: Practicing at Home

Hey, Happy New Year and Happy New Decade.  The holidays slowed down my getting this segment ready but finally, here it is. OK, let’s pick up from the last post.

Once you realize you are not getting out of your predicament right away and will have to spend at least one night, maintaining your core body temperature becomes job number one.  That means, in the mountains especially, you will need to stay warm and that means you will need fire and shelter.  We’ll tackle the shelter issues in the next posts. Indeed, I was intending for this post in the series on emergencies for Landscape Photographers to launch into a fire-making segment since that may well be THE foundational skill for staying alive, right up there with staying hydrated; but hydration more a matter of preparation (having water WITH you) than woods skill to solve for this type of situation.

Remember I’m not talking about long term survival when the thin veneer of civilization is peeled away, but a relatively short term, i.e. 3-5 days staying alive if you are stuck out in the backwoods before rescue arrives.  Still, because of their importance for your longevity, I’ve hammered away on practicing to learn these skills before you need them to save your life or the lives of others.  But I received an excellent question from a reader on that subject when I talked about fire making in the last post.  He wrote, “What if you live in the city where they frown on you making fires in the parks or your yards?”  Good question. And I’d certainly not suggest you bring yourself to the unwanted and negative attention of the fire marshal or police while practicing your woods lore skills.  But, as you’ll see, you don’t have to.

Further reflecting on it, the truth is, there are several issues that also might make it hard to practice some of these skills.  For example, due to the fire danger from years and years of uncleared underbrush here in SoCal, the forests are tinderboxes just waiting for some ignition, so in dry season (most of the year) open fires are often not allowed even in camp and picnic grounds.  By the way, as an aside, by comparison, In Colorado you were encouraged to collect and use any dead wood to help reduce the fire danger.  But here, they require you to leave it all as “natural.”  It hasn’t worked out all that well for them, or for poor people whose homes are close to the forests, but the fire goddess, Madam Pele, has simply loved all the dead stuff lying around and the fires here are consequently infamous for their ferocity and speed of travel.

So before we venture out and have to do this for real, lets examine how a city dweller, or an apartment/condo dweller, or even a picnicker or camper here where open fires are not allowed, might practice starting a fire for emergency overnight ordeals out in the bush?   And if THEY can do it in town, anyone with greater access to locations where making a fire is allowed, has zero excuse for failing to practice what could easily turn into a life-saving skill.

So to practice in an urban setting, there are two things to remember.  The first stems from the martial arts dictum we mentioned up front, i.e. the best way to deal with an incoming punch is not to be there when it arrives.  If – IF – you have properly prepared for your photo trek, including letting people know your itinerary, carried with you the means to navigate in and out of your desired shoot location, have the tools you may need, been careful along the way and not overextended your hiking, climbing, endurance, skill levels, then the odds are very high you will not ever need to use the remainder of  those skills except to show off at the next camping trip.  The very act of properly preparing tends to make you think of the things you need to do in advance and to carry with you.  Survival is as much a mindset as it is a skill set.

However, in terms of fire-making skills specifically, the second thing to remember is that the beginnings of a fire – any fire — are quite small.  Even if you were intent on making a huge council fire (and why you would do that eludes me), you would still start with a small tinder bundle and small pile of kindling, no matter how much fuel you might pile on later.  Getting that small flame started can be practiced safely at your backyard/patio grill or, failing that, a large, heavy-duty roasting pan filled with sand or dirt as your substitute for the ground.  Learning to find and identify good wood sources can be done without actually gathering any of it if you are in an area that prohibits it.

Learning to further split down chunks of wood can be done with a firewood bundle from the grocery store.  And with that, you can learn to make tinder and kindling as well as you can using real found and gathered wood in the forest.  Knowing you have with you the proper ignition kit and how to use it to start a fire, even if you learned to do it in your back yard or on your patio, is as helpful as learning it over a campfire.  And trust me on this, you do want to learn it before you have to do it under emergency/survival conditions for real with your life, and maybe others, depending on your success.

(As an aside, we’ll be demonstrating a lot of this in the Landscape Class at City College this coming Spring Semester)

As photographers, especially if you are also professional portrait or product shooters, you probably already have the gear to even practice shelter making.  For example, light stands, properly staked or weighted can be substitute “trees”  or poles to help you learn to rig a lean-to shelter with your tarp and other gear I’ve recommended.   Indeed, if you are a seasoned location shooter for stills or video, your location kits and grip kits with stands, boom arms, clamps of every description, reflectors, flags, cordage, etc.   would place you well ahead of the game and all you would need to learn and practice is re-purposing some of that to rig a temporary shelter instead of location lights, light modifiers, etc., for which they are designed.  And once you understand how to do it with your photo gear, it will allow you to understand what to look for in nature to substitute for it with natural materials when necessary.

So for this segment, let’s return to the issue of starting a fire, but this time we’ll talk about doing it in the back yard so you can learn how to do that with minimal effort and almost no travel.  Just remember, except for location, it is exactly the same process out in the woods. You still need (1) a properly prepared place,  (2) a source of ignition,  (3) then something REALLY easy to ignite as your tinder.  Then you need (4) to have ready an intermediate material that the tinder can light (the kindling) and which, in turn, will burn long enough to light the (5) actual fuel.  Let’s examine each of these elements.

However, also pay close attention to what you will need to do and especially what tools you will need to accomplish these tasks.  If you do not have these tools or supplies with you, then you are going to be in deep trouble or at least be facing a truly miserable night.

First, before you start to construct and ignite your fire, take the time to prepare a place for it.  One of the huge fires this past decade in the San Diego area was started by an idiot pretend hunter who decided to make huge “signal fires” without proper preparation and it quickly spread and got out of hand.  Several people died and countless homes were destroyed by his ignorance.  Karma was asleep for that one and he got away safely.  The critical lesson is to make sure people know where to come look for you and then, if you must make a fire, make it for warmth and first, properly prepare the area.  If you are next to a stuck or disabled vehicle, use the roadbed itself instead of wandering away from your best shelter and starting a fire where you might bring down the whole forest.

But if you must survive away from the vehicle and in the forest, and you need a warming fire, then first prepare the ground for it.  Scrape the area free of debris and all loose flammable material.  The bigger this area the better to avoid sparks from launching out into the forest, but at least clear an area about 5 feet in diameter.  The drier the fuel the less it will spark.  Those cracks and flying sparks are moisture trapped in pockets in the wood, boiling and exploding while blowing out small pieces of burning wood.  Many outdoors experts recommend also digging down a little, perhaps six inches, to make sure there are no roots or covered materials that can catch fire and actually burn underground until finding a way to erupt into surface flames and then into a real wildfire.

Do NOT use your knife to dig this fire pit. (You DO have a real knife with you, don’t you???)  Its blade and sharp edge is too valuable to risk damaging it on hidden rocks.  Your knife should be seen as a toolmaking implement and not the final tool itself.  Find a stout branch, whittle a small flat spade-like end with it and use THAT to dig and scrape around on the ground, reforming it as it wears down.  If you have a folding (or real) shovel in your kit, then great, by all means use it.  The axe/shovel/pick tool I showed in a previous post is perfect for this but I normally do not lug it with me when away from the car.  So if I am forced to do this without the car right there, and I’ve not taken one of my survival backpacks which usually have a folding/entrenching shovel in them, then all I may have is my knife.   So, again, use your knife to make a digging tool, not AS the digging tool itself.

If you are able to create a depression for the fire, make some trenches to bring air into the center.  And if you can find them laying about, ring the pit with stones.  These will also provide some additional height to a barrier to sparks being ejected from the fire into the surrounding areas.  IF you were near a source of them, you could also line the fire pit with small stones according to some manuals.  But here is an issue.  If the stones were in the water, for example at a stream bed, even a dried one, they might contain pockets of water inside.  When those heat up and start to boil, they can make the stones explode in a shower of rocky shrapnel.  Unless you are absolutely certain about the stones being bone dry or gathered well away from water, just use ones found on the land for a ring and make sure the ground under the fire is free from anything that might ignite or smolder from the heat of the coals.

Of course, in town you need not worry about that, use the barbeque grill with some aluminum foil as the ground or if you do not have a grill, use the large roasting pan mentioned above with an inch or so of sand or dirt in it.  Now, lets get this thing going.

IGNITION:  Ignition is created by either a small flame itself (like with a match or lighter), or a source of sufficient heat to ignite flammable materials such as a hot spark (flint and steel or ferrocerium rod) or a hot beam such as from a lens element.

Depending on the ignition and  tinder to be used, the initial heat source itself might be all that is needed, or, it might require a secondary part such as the “char cloth” traditionally used with flint and steel, or some form of “fire-starter” material.  In that case, a “tinder bundle” is used to transfer the fledgling flame to the proper tinder itself if the ignition source itself does not itself include a flame.

If you were a tribal member away from civilization this would be something you did every day and so was easy for you.  But, let’s get real here: you are not; and for you it will not be easy, especially the first time. That is why now, in the 21st century, it is so much easier to simply have a match or lighter handy, perhaps even a candle, stored away in your vehicle.  When you are cold, a little unnerved by what is happening, and perhaps have some very anxious folks gathered around looking to you to help them make it through this ordeal, anything that will make it easier is worth its weight in gold.  And don’t fall for the myth that aboriginal people or pathfinders like mountain men, made their fires with only stuff found at the site.  Mountain men and explorers of the 1800s carried flint and steel and charcloth; many aboriginal people gather good fire drill spindles when they can and then carry them with them on treks.  It is not a failure of your Daniel Boone merit badge to do as they did, but with modern supplies such as matches or a lighter.  After all flint and steel was “modern” to Jim Bridger and the mountain men and the natives quickly adopted them when they could.

I believe in redundancy based on the old survival adage when referring to equipment and supplies: “one is none and two is one.”  If you only have one source of ignition and it fails or is lost, then you are now in deep trouble.  Always – ALWAYS – have at least one backup available, just in case.  I pre-make small fire starter bundles from dryer lint or cotton balls removed from pill containers.  For mine,  I also coat them in candle wax and pack them into cut-down cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet tissue.  For mine I  include some magnesium shavings so that when ignited simply with a match or even a hot spark, they will burn very hot and catch most kindling on fire quickly and easily. They will burn for 10-15 minutes which is long enough to even dry and light some damp tinder.  REI and other camping supply houses have commercial fire starter available and it works fine.

By the way, should you make something like this, remember to NOT hold in in your bare hands to light it.  The magnesium burns at several thousand degrees.  Use some sticks like chop sticks if you don’t have pliers or something in your car.  My uncle used to make such fire starters from wax-impregnated cotton balls and a home-brew version of a sort of thermite.  It certainly worked but it was a little harder to ignite requiring a very hot spark, and, to me, it was a bit dangerous.  Thermite-type compounds are easily made but once ignited, burns at around 4,000 degrees.  It will then ignite darn near anything that burns, but it will also burn right through darn near anything — including steel – and are extremely difficult to extinguish until the material is all consumed.  As an example, thermite cannisters are used by the military to burn through tank armor. To be honest, it always scared me a little, so I tended to stick to traditional tinder.  However, my first job out of high school was as an engraver with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City.  Most of the embossing was done on magnesium plates, so I would collect the shavings and use them instead.  They were much easier to ignite and burned at about 2,000 degrees, which is still hot enough to catch even damp wood on fire.  It worked so well I still use it.

TINDER: Tinder is composed of flammable material that is so easy to ignite, that a small flame from either a lighter or match or from a fire starter such as a tinder bundle or even a small candle, can be successful.  The process is to start with easily ignitable material and add increasingly large pieces until a sustainable flame can be created.  To this end, such material as very small twigs, purpose made wood chips, saw dust, so called “feather” of “fuzz” sticks created on the spot, are used to create this “pre-fire” fire.  Often it was traditionally composed of dry grasses, tiny twigs, forest floor litter so long as it is dry.  However, one of my home-made fire starters will suffice to ignite the kindling directly and I don’t have to go on a quest for truly dry material for a traditional tinder bundle.

KINDLING: Kindling, the next step, is some relatively easy to ignite material that the small, tentative flame from the tinder can set it  ablaze, and which will, in turn, produce a flame of enough intensity and duration to ignite the lager fuel pieces. Kindling is usually finger-sized small, dry branches or pieces of a fuel log that were split down to finger size.  A hatchet or carefully employed axe can make easy work of splitting larger chunks of wood into smaller ones for kindling.  Note: do not – repeat, DO NOT — try to hold a piece upright with your hand and then swing a hatchet or axe down on the end to split it unless you are really tired of the hand you are using to hold the piece.  The injury you can inflict on yourself doing this will be astonishingly painful and because of the speed of infection out in nature, can bring your survival attempts to a swift and painful, if premature, end.  Besides, hitting yourself in the hand with the working edge of a sharp axe will pretty much destroy any plans you may have had about continuing your fire or shelter making project.

If you have a strong enough knife you can also use a technique called “Batoning” with it to split the wood down into useable kindling.  But unless you are working with very soft wood, if you try this with a thin blade or a folding knife, you will likely just break it and then have a small broken blade fragment that is not good for anything other than cutting yourself.  Making some “feather” or “fuzz” sticks mentioned above from a few pieces will make it easier to catch the kindling on fire. The small thin edges of the “feathers” will catch pretty easily and, in turn, ignite the main piece.  But this too is far easier with a really sharp knife not damaged by trying to dig with it.

Once the kindling starts to burn, additional pieces of kindling are added until a flame is well established, a bed of coals is started, and larger pieces can be added and will burn without crushing the starting pile.

Some campers and survivalists buy sticks of “fat wood” (readily available on eBay) to include in their survival kits especially when carried in a vehicle.  Fat wood is usually some type of pine, spruce, cedar, fir, etc. that has lots of resin and pitch in it.  It lights easily and burns very hot.  Lots of people buy bundles of it online to use with their fireplaces.  Good fat wood can even be lit with sparks from a ferrocerium rod directly without needing tinder.

FUEL: Fuel “logs” for a small survival or camp fire are typically wrist or arm-sized chunks of wood.  Wood of larger diameter can be used once the bed of coals and fire is well established.  But gathering such larger pieces requires some equipment (axe or saw) while the smaller parts can be often gathered by using leverage to break longer dry branches or standing dead saplings between trees, hitting them over rocks, other logs, or across trees.  You can pre-notch the longer branches or saplings so they will break where you want them to.  If the wood is truly dried out then you can often create fire sized pieces faster this way than trying to chop them to length with an axe. But do go back and look at the contents of my emergency backpack where you will see a folding saw…

FIRE LAY:  The “Fire Lay” describes how the components of the fire are to be arranged and structured.  Since we are into safety and wanting to make sure your survival fire does not get out of control and start a wildfire that consumes the forest and you along with it, the issue of the “Fire Lay” will also include preparing the ground upon which the fire will be constructed as we noted above.

So, with the ground prepared, it is time to start the fire making process.  Here, it is easy to get off into the weeds, so to speak.  “Experts” (and the quotation marks are on purpose here) declare there is only one proper way to lay a fire.  Unfortunately, they disagree as to what that is… and there are several traditional options and an almost unlimited number of ad hoc variations and hybrid combinations of approach.    Here is the real secret:  they all work.  So why the debates?

Well, given the size and dryness of the wood involved, some will work a little better in some conditions.  Traditional types are (1) the “teepee” lay, (2) the “log cabin” lay, and the “lean-to” lay.  Sometimes a combination is used, for example, kindling is structured as a teepee lay to give more surface area to the flame which burn upwards easier then downward, then fuel might be added in more of a log cabin lay.  If you are rebuilding a fire and part of a fuel log remains, or if you are starting a fire with minimal kindling then a lean-to approach can work to more quickly start igniting the larger pieces of wood.  This is used a lot in fireplaces and stoves where the fire was allowed to go out before all the pieces were completely burned to ash.

But, again, THEY ALL WORK.  The secret is that there is no secret.  Until you are experienced enough to know when one approach gives you a slight edge over another, the key for all of them is that the infant fire needs plenty of oxygen, especially at its early stages before it has gotten hot enough to set up its own draft.  The trick is to have the early tinder and kindling pieces close enough together to ignite each other but separated enough to allow a good flow of oxygen in and around them.

Blowing on the embers or using a bellows in a fireplace works because it increases the oxygen supply to the infant flame.  Some survivalists and outdoors experts use a bit of tubing or even straws to direct the flow of air to the critical spot rather than simply blowing that wastes a lot of your breath on non-burning areas.  When all else fails, use your hat to fan the starting flames into a real fire. Just down blow or fan embers into the surrounding areas to start a wild fire.  Those embers are capable of starting a fire in dry grass for several minutes until they completely burn out.

Just remember if you are doing this practice in a roasting pan or on a grill, all you really need is to get a small handful of kindling going.  If the kindling is lit then the added  dry fuel will catch easily.  Your task is to learn to get the fire going to the kindling stage, the rest is the easy part.

OK, so you have your fire going, now you can not only help warm yourself and your area, you can calm the nerves of any companions worried about the critters around (whether or not there actually are any to worry about), and you can help purify water or prepare some warm food or beverages If you thought to bring some.

But your upcoming night will be made far less miserable if you also have a good shelter.  So that will be our next segment.  We’ll then talk about dealing with injuries and then later we’ll wrap this series up with a final segment on getting yourself found as quickly as possible.

Stay tuned.  If this has been of interest or helpful to you, let me know or “like” the post.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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