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To Build a Fire

In an emergency, knowing how to start a fire under adverse conditions can be the key to survival.

By David Alloway

"The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death... Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure."

The protagonist in Jack London’s short story "To Build a Fire" is a prospector snowshoeing to a camp in the Yukon in minus-50-degree weather, whose survival depends on his ability to start a fire. It is an unforgettable cautionary tale on the need for any outdoorsperson to know how to build a fire quickly and under adverse conditions.

Moisture and wind are the enemy of fire, and panic and fatigue are the foes of the fire-builder. It is imperative to remain calm and protect your beginning flame from the elements. By using the following tips you can quickly have a fire in wind, rain or snow.

A fire requires ignition, tinder, kindling and fuel. You should carry a reliable means of ignition anytime you venture outdoors. This can be waterproof matches, a lighter or specialty items such as magnesium bars, which are sold at most camping outlets. Scrape a magnesium bar with a sharp knife, and you’ll get a small pile of highly flammable shavings. Scrape the artificial flint attached to one side of the bar to unleash a shower of sparks that will ignite the shavings and burn at temperatures hotter than 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

It also is a good idea to carry tinder with you when afield. Tinder is any fine, highly flammable material that catches flame and sets the other components to combustion. Fine steel wool readily ignites, and so do shredded cotton balls, bandages and alcohol swabs from a first-aid kit. You can also purchase trioxane bars at surplus stores in waterproof pouches that burn for over two minutes.

Natural tinder sources include items such as dead pine needles, dried grass and abandoned bird and rodent nests. Even during rainstorms, pine trees usually protect the dropped needles at their base from moisture. Dry inner bark of dead trees such as cedar (juniper) and cottonwood can be shredded for excellent tinder. If you are in an area with pine or fir trees, gather the hardened nodules of sap that collect on broken limbs or insect holes. When ignited, this sap burns hot and long enough to dry and ignite damp kindling.

Kindling consists of small wood pieces that increase and transfer heat to the fuel. Fuel is the large wood that keeps the fire going and allows you to stay warm, cook, purify water and signal for help. You should gather "standing dead wood" for fuel — dead limbs that are still attached to a tree and off the ground and away from moisture. In areas where wood is very wet, you may need to split larger pieces and chop out the dry inner portions. Once a fire is well established, wet wood can be placed nearby to dry.

The surest way to build a fire is to proceed in this order:

  1. Lay the tinder in a clear spot and loosely pile the kindling on top of it in the shape of a tepee. Leave an opening to ignite the tinder.
  2. On top of this, loosely place some of the smaller fuel, allowing oxygen to freely flow through the fire and support combustion.
  3. Light the fire, and when the fuel is burning well, add larger pieces. It is important in the beginning stages to resist the urge to rearrange or disturb the fire, as this can cause it to go out.

Jack London’s character comes to a tragic end when frostbite sets in before he can properly build a fire. But even in places where hypothermia is not a danger, a fire can help you fight loneliness and panic when night falls. And when you find yourself lost in the backcountry, a fire can be a good way to signal for help.

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