First off when it comes down to tactical Survival Situations were you become an ISOP, you have to avoid starting a Fire at all costs. Not only dogs but also humans are able to smell a fire quickly. So even when you hole up your fire, someone will easily recognize it. There are many documented cases of ISOPs that didn’t started a fire at all. Scott O`Grady for example spent six days behind enemy lines and never even attempted to build a fire place to remain under the radar.
Nethervless, there will be situations were you have to do so. Really bad weather or getting wet while crossing a river are a good example. In contrast, during a civilian SAR scenario the ISOP is advised to start a fire to stay comfortable and also use it as a signal to show the own location.
Starting a fire seems to be some kind of magic when you read some articles on survival. Approaches are reaching from drilling fire, using Flintstones or even lenses to start a fire. But what about your lighter?! Oh well, I forgot your survival kit contains a fancy magnesium fire starter. They seem to be the better choice as they are in literally all kits you can buy. But compared to start a fire with a simple lighter the magnesium rod works much slower. The truth why magnesium rods are included in survival kits is simple: They are licensed for flight duty. To be fair, they have their advantages as they are working in every condition. Even when wet. So dont drop them. In this article we try to turn magic into science and pragmatism.
To start a fire you need to know how fire works. Fire needs three basic and one advanced factor. Basic factors are: Heat/Energy (eg. your lighter), flammable material (eg. wood) and oxygen. Those three factors need to be in the right relationship, as you can’t burn down a massive block of wood with just a match or can’t start a fire while there is no air circulation.
The fourth and advanced factor is understanding that adding a catalyst will help to enhance a chemical reaction. A good allround catalyst is ash. So collect ash after you have put out the fire.
Now after we learned how a fire works let’s talk about the tools. I carry three tools in my survival kit and usually more of them in my first line.
First off, I carry a flint lighter as my basic tool. I also carry a electric lighter as a backup or for when my hands get to cold to operate the flint lighter. As a last resort tool, I carry a magnesium rod. As said before, usually I carry matches and lighters in my pockets as well. So it’s unlikely I will run out of heat sources for my fire. No need for primal fire starting techniques here.
Next thing we need is tinder, I usually carry a pack of six Esbit solid fuel tabs in my survival kit. Those are the easiest way to start a fire, they are also great to cook a ration. If I run out of solid fuel I still have at least two small candles, they are not only a great starting point for a fire. You can also use them to prevent hypothermia under a rescue blanket or poncho. I also carry four sanitary tampons as tinder. You can simply cut them with a knife and fold them out. You can add some wax from a lipstick to enhance their property’s. Does it seem necessary to drill fire after those three lines of tinder? It’s a nice skill and fun to learn. But it won’t be very useful in a real survival scenario. It’s also important to source tinder out of the nature. There are plants and trees like birch that have a reputation to be excellent tinder. It’s true. But don’t waste your time to look for the “magical tree” you heard off. If you cross a birch, collect its bark. If you cross a pine, get some of it. But don’t waste your energy searching exclusively for those trees you heard of as a boyscout. Instead, use your brain. Collect dry wood bark, wood of low density and remember that every needle tree includes etheric oils.
Always look for tinder and small branches in a survival situation. Collect them even when wet. Store them in your pants and jacket pockets near the body to dry them on the move. All around the world you will also find a lot of junk and trash. Look for paper, rubber and plastic as they make great fuel. Also collect the plastic packaging of the items you have used.
Another thing that is nice to have is FireCord, it looks like normal paracord but includes a fishing line, wire and a line of waxed cotton which makes a great makeshift tinder.
You should stage the materials of your fire from tiny, over small to big around your tinder. Put wet wood on the outside as it will dry quickly.
Remember to always collect the remains of your fire as they prove to be a good tinder and also work as a catalyst. I carry a zip lock bag in my survival kit, mixing freshly collected wood and tinder with ash.
Last thing you need is patience. Fire is a complex progress and even professional instructors can have a hard time starting one under harsh conditions. So go out yourself and make your own experiences. Mix your experience with solid facts and knowledge so you don’t rely on magic.
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