This installment of our Build a BOB series focuses on one of the most important, as well as fun, aspects of survival planning.
My apologies to all of you who didn’t spend at least a bit of quality time with those two knuckleheads back in the day. Those of us who did are forever scarred with that memory and when the subject of making fire comes up, the above sound bite inevitably comes to mind.
Fire serves many purposes. It lights up the night. It cooks our food and disinfects our water. It keeps us warm and helps us to dry out. Fire also provides a significant psychological boost. Sitting next to a campfire just makes us feel a little better about things.
Fire requires three things – oxygen, fuel, and heat. The absence of any one of those elements will result in a failed fire. Generally speaking, when we’re talking about oxygen, we’re referring to letting the fire breathe and not smothering it. When it comes to what to pack in your BOB, we’re concentrating on ready-to-light tinder and tools for getting those items lit.
As we go along, bear in mind that the focus of this series is on what to have in your BOB, not necessarily instruction on how to use the goodies. While I’ll include some tips and tricks here and there, the idea is just to discuss the various options available.
There are two primary types of fire starters – those that emit flame and those that emit sparks. The flame emitters are things like butane lighters and strike anywhere matches. These should be your primary methods of lighting a fire. They are simple, easy to use, and reliable under most conditions. That said, here are some pointers.
Butane lighters don’t like cold temperatures. If you find your lighter won’t light in the middle of winter, hold it in a closed bare fist for a few seconds. Putting it into an interior pocket of your jacket or a pants pocket for a bit should work, too. Anything that will warm the fuel inside will help.
Neither butane lighters nor strike anywhere matches get along well with water, so keep ‘em dry. There are many different types of match containers on the market today. I like this cheap plastic one as well as this not-so-cheap metal one. Some of the available containers are large enough to store a small butane lighter. I generally prefer lighters over matches because I can store a lot more “lights” with the lighter than I can with the matches. I do, however, usually carry both.
A great way to help keep matches viable no matter what the weather is to coat them with wax. Simply melt some old crayons or candles, then dip the match heads into the wax. When it comes time to use a match, just rub some of the wax away from the head and strike as normal. A bonus is that the wax is flammable as well, giving you a hotter and longer lasting flame. The downside is the wax makes the heads larger, which means you can store fewer matches in the container.
Pay the little bit extra for the name brand butane lighters, such as BIC. The cheap ones you’ll find at gas stations in their 3/$1 bowl often don’t last very long and tend to leak. The better made name brand lighters last a lot longer and are worth the added expense.
Recently, I’ve been seeing ads for these things referred to as “everlasting” matches or something similarly named. Basically, it consists of a small metal container you fill with lighter fluid. Then, there is a small “match” you pull from it and light by striking it on the side of the container. I just find it rather gimmicky and there are far better tools out there.
As for the spark emitters, most of them on the market right now are ferrocerium rods in one or another configurations. You’ll see these rods as standalone products, with or without a handle, as well as attached to blocks of magnesium or other items. There are two types of rods, true ferrocerium and mischmetal. My good friend John McCann has a great video here that explains the differences between the two.
For the standalone ferro rod, I heartily recommend the Light My Fire Swedish FireSteel. I have been using their products for years and have never had trouble with them. That said, you can find ferro rod blanks, which are just the bare rods, on ebay fairly cheap. You can leave them bare or affix some sort of handle to them for comfort and ease of use.
The important thing to remember with ferro rods is you need a striker. Other than the blank rods, most ferro rods are sold with a striker. If need be, the spine of your knife, provided it has a 90’ angle and is made of carbon steel, will work. A shard of broken glass or ceramic will work, too. The nice thing about ferro rods is that they are unaffected by weather conditions. It doesn’t matter how cold or wet it might be, a properly used ferro rod will rain sparks down on to your tinder.
There is a little bit of a learning curve with ferro rods. They aren’t so much as struck as they are scraped by the striker. Hold the rod firmly in one hand and the striker in the other. Now, right here is where many beginners make a mistake. Your instinct will likely be to scrape the rod as though you were carving it, moving the striker down the rod toward your tinder. That’s not the best technique as you will likely end up hitting the tinder with your striker hand, moving it away from the sparks. Instead, hold the tip of the rod into or just above the tinder, then slide it backward against the striker. In other words, keep the striker in place above the tinder and move the rod instead.
Ferro rods often come with some sort of coating or paint on the rod. This needs to be removed before you’ll get sparks to fly off the rod. Just scrape the rod a few times with the striker. Once you see bare metal, you’re good to go. There’s no need to scrape the entire rod clean of the coating, either. Just do one or two swipes with the striker and you’ll be fine.
As much as I generally detest most of the gimmicky, gadgety stuff that permeates the prepper world, I have to say I’m digging the Wazoo Bushcraft Survival Necklace. It has a small ferro rod and striker threaded on a leather cord. It is a great way to always have a fire starter with you, plus it is kinda cool looking!
One more fire starter product that is practical is the BlastMatch. Essentially, it is a ferro rod and striker assembled together so you can use it single-handed. You simply push the spring-loaded ferro rod down into your tinder bundle and the striker scrapes the sparks down. Simple, easy, effective.
Another product that requires only one hand to operate is the Spark-Lite Fire Starter. If you can operate a butane lighter, you can operate the Spark-Lite. Think of it as a lighter without the fuel reservoir. You use your thumb or finger to roll the wheel and sparks come out. Very small and yet very practical.
Okay, now that you have 87 different ways to light something on fire, what are you gonna light? Tinder comes in a few different types – natural, DIY, and commercially produced. As a general rule, tinder is material that is dry and will light easily from a spark or flame. Ideally, it will burn long enough to get the rest of your fuel going.
Natural forms of tinder include things like plant fluff, cedar shavings, chaga fungus, and birch bark. Bark and wood shavings should be shredded into as fine of a material as possible. This provides a lot of surface area to catch sparks. In your BOB, keep a few empty plastic bags, preferably ziploc ones, of different sizes. When you take a break on the trail, look around for natural tinder. Toss what you find into a plastic bag for later use. Using natural tinder whenever possible will help to extend your supply of DIY and commercially produced tinder.
Incidentally, a great addition to the BOB is a simple pencil sharpener. Use it to create shavings from sticks, which works great for tinder.
There are several easy DIY projects that will result in great tinder products. One of the easiest is to add petroleum jelly to cotton balls. Toss a small handful of cotton balls into a plastic bag, then add a spoonful of jelly. Mash it all together and you’re done. I store these messy cotton ball fire starters in a plastic match case. http://amzn.to/1TqJ5zB Tie a string to one of the cotton balls and put that at the bottom of the case, leaving the string to dangle on the outside. Feed in the rest of the cotton balls, then screw on the cap. When you need one, remove the cap and gently pull on the string. The cotton balls will rise up as if by magic, allowing you to pick off the top one without having to dig through the container.
Another oldie but goodie is to take a cardboard egg carton, fill each little egg compartment with dryer lint, then cover them with melted wax. These work great but tend to be big and heavy, which is something you’ll generally want to avoid in your BOB.
Not all dryer lint is created equal
Dryer lint that comes from natural fibers like cotton works great for starting fires. Lint from manmade fabrics, though, not so much. If your family wears mostly denim, cotton, and that sort of stuff, you’re golden. Otherwise, ditch the lint and use cotton balls. They are certainly cheap enough!
Jute twine makes for great tinder, though it burns fairly quick. Many people carry a small roll of the twine in their BOB to as cordage as well as a backup form of tinder. For burning, cut off about six inches, then pull apart the fibers to make sort of a nest shape. What some people have done is cut segments of twine and then dip them in melted wax.
There are all sorts of products sold today as fire starters or tinder. Some of my favorites include:
Instafire – This stuff is awesome. It consists of volcanic rock and recycled wood coated with wax. It is so waterproof it will actually float on water while it burns! I like that the pouches allow you to control how much or how little of the product you want to use. It will light easily from spark or flame.
Mini Inferno – These little disks light easily and burn HOT! The downside is they are kind of pricey, with six small disks running about $8.
All-Weather Cubes – You’ll probably only need to use maybe half of a cube at a time, these are so potent. You shave off as much as you’d like, then light it with spark or match. It burns hot and for longer than you might think.
One more product worth mentioning is the Fire Blowing Tube produced and sold by Survival Resources. Remember way back at the beginning when we talked about the three essential elements for a successful fire? Waving at a budding fire is one way to get more oxygen flowing but it is actually pretty inefficient. With the Fire Blowing Tube, you can direct the airflow where it is needed most – the base of the fire.
What I recommend is keeping some sort of fire kit in your BOB. Use a waterproof or at least water resistant container to store the bulk of your tinder. Keep a couple of butane lighters as well as some matches with that kit. Additionally, keep a lighter and a ferro rod with striker accessible in another pocket of the pack. When you hit the road, take those out and put them in your pocket. This way, no matter what happens, you’ll have a way to start a fire on your person at all times.
Fire is important, make no mistake. Even if your bug out plan consists of being on the road no more than an hour or two, plan ahead in case things go awry.
Get caught up on all installments in this blog series here:
First aid / Hygiene
Signaling and Communication
Choosing the Pack or Container
Useful Odds and Ends