So, you find yourself lost in the woods. Often this happens when a person is hunting, camping, hiking, or fishing. Anything you do to spend time in the wilderness can result in disaster. A hiker leaves the path and gets turned around. A hunter tries to stay out past sundown. A storm rolls in and pins down a family that is camping. All of these scenarios can threaten your survival. However, with the right training and thought process you can survive.
Once it becomes apparent that you are lost, the first thing to do is to stop walking and stay calm. The worst-case scenario is to panic. When people panic, they often start trying to hike to safety with no idea where they are going. This will typically move them further into the wilderness and away from safety. Stop where you are and evaluate your situation. Often your best bet is to stay where you are and wait for help. This is assuming that some friend or family member know where you are and when you are expected home. Be sure you tell somebody about your wilderness plans.
Then, you will need to evaluate how to spend your time and energy. You should always be trying to improve your situation. The four pillars of survival are shelter, fire, food, and water. These are the tasks upon which you must focus to survive. To prioritize them, you must look at the rule of 3s. You can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three hours without warmth from a fire or shelter.
This shows that fire and/or shelter are your most urgent priority. However, building a shelter can take all day. You may not have that much time before it gets dark and cold. A faster solution would be to build a fire. You can get a fire going in just minutes if you know what to do. Fire will help you survive in many ways. It provides warmth, but also lights your camp, can cook food, can purify water, and can keep predators away. The smoke from the fire can be used to signal for help, can kill bacteria, can preserve meat, and can keep biting insects away. The soot from the fire can be used to brush your teeth, clean your tools, settle an upset stomach, act as a sunscreen, and camouflage your skin for hunting.
Prepping a Fire
The most important part of building a fire is collecting the proper supplies. I learned this the hard way on my first survival challenge. I started at dawn and spent all day building my shelter. I only gave myself about an hour of daylight before I started collecting supplies. After putting together just a small stack of wood, I began trying to start my fire. Once I figured it out, it was too dark to go out and get more wood. I burned through my firewood in just about two hours. It started raining and the temperatures dropped. I almost had to tap out due to hypothermia, but luckily had an emergency blanket with me and made it through.
You should always start by collecting tinder. This is the fine, dry material that will catch a spark or flame. The best tinder in the wild is something like dry grass or dry leaves. If it is wet outside, you can use a bird’s nest or cattail fluff. You can use birch bark or pine resin as they both have waterproof chemicals that are flammable. You can also use artificial fire starters like dryer lint or pencil shavings. If you have any flammable liquids like alcohol, gasoline, kerosene, or lighter fluid they can always help. You can purchase waterproof tinder in several forms. You can also make char cloth and bring it with you. This is made by putting squares of cotton cloth in a tin, poking a small hole in the tin, and throwing it in a fire for 20 minutes. Char cloth will catch a spark or work well with a lens. Next, collect a variety of sticks for kindling for your fire. Finally, collect larger sticks and logs for fuel wood. To make it through the night, you will need enough tinder to wrap both hands around, enough kindling to wrap both arms around, and a stack of fuel wood at least knee high.
There are a variety of different structures that you can use to build the fire depending on your needs. A simple teepee or log cabin design is most common because they produce a large amount of heat and light. You can also build a top down fire in which dirt or sand is packed in between logs stacked flat to make it burn slowly. This is perfect to light a fire and keep it burning all night. However, the toughest part of building a fire is getting it lit. There are a variety of fire starters to help, but they are not all as effective as the next. In this article, we will cover the pros and cons of each fire starter and which might be best for you.
Once you have collected supplies and have the structure put together, it is time to get the fire going. Here are your options for fire starters:
Matches – These are one of the most popular options as they are very inexpensive. Matches can be purchased practically anywhere. However, there are some serious downsides for survival purposes. All matches are prone to blowing out in any decent amount of wind. You might go through 10 to 15 matches trying to get a fire lit on a windy day. Paper matches are the worst. These only light about half the time as they are pretty flimsy. Standard wood matches are a bit better but are worthless if they get wet. You can buy waterproof matches that will work when slightly wet. However, they still blow out in the wind.
Lighters – Another common option that tends to work better is bringing a lighter. The most common and inexpensive option is a standard Bic lighter. You can buy a Bic lighter for a dollar or two, and they are actually pretty reliable. However, they are not windproof or waterproof. If the lighter gets wet or you are dealing with a windy day, you could spend a large amount of time trying to get your fire lit. They cannot be refilled in any way. However, they are cheap enough to keep several in your pack in case one runs out of fuel. Torch lighters are windproof and can be refilled, but only with specific fuel. That means you must keep the proper fuel in your pack. Electric arc lighters are windproof and do not need fuel. However, they are not waterproof and require a power source to recharge them periodically. This means you likely need to keep a battery pack just to recharge your lighter. Your best possible option is the good old Zippo lighter. These lighters are made of heavy-duty steel and are both windproof and somewhat waterproof. You can actually light a Zippo and set it down on the ground to then use both hands to get your tinder lit. You can also refill a Zippo with any flammable liquid, so you can often scavenge for fuel if you run out. I always keep a fueled-up Zippo with me, but also a few Bic lighters.
Ferro Rods – These fire starters are your best option in many ways. A good ferro rod will last about 10,000 strikes, so no fuel is needed. They are windproof, waterproof, and shoot out sparks at a whopping 3000F. It takes some practice to get used to them, but they get the job done. However, not all tinder is going to take a spark. You will want your tinder to be super fine and dry or to have flammable resin inside the bundle. Accelerant or char cloth can also help. I typically keep at least two ferro rods on me which is easy because many multipurpose survival tools have one built in.
Lenses – You may have seen people on television starting fires with lenses. This is absolutely possible if you have the right conditions. You will have to have strong, direct sunlight or it probably will not happen. This means getting to a clearing, and cloudy days are off limits. Your tinder will have to be super dry and super fine, or you can use char cloth. You will need to get the perfect angle and distance between the tinder and the lens for this to work. The lens should be perpendicular to the line between the sun and the tinder. Adjust the distance until you have the smallest focal point possible. You may have to hold it at that point for a long time, so get comfortable. Keep it there until you see smoke. When you blow on your tinder you should see an ember start to flare up. Continue to feed oxygen to your ember until it ignites. You can bring a lens with you or can scavenge for a lens. Lenses can be found in cameras, binoculars, and eyeglasses. They can even be made with a plastic bag, condom, or bottle filled with water. You can shape one from clean ice if you have the patience, but none of these makeshift lenses work as well as a glass lens.
Piston Starters – You do not see piston fire starters very often, but they do work well. The principle is that quickly compressed air gets hot enough to turn fine tinder into an ember. On the end of the piston is an indentation in which you can place a small piece of tinder. You then insert it into a cylinder and slam them together. When you pull out the piston, you should have a lit ember on the end. This can then be transferred to your tinder bundle and coaxed into a flame by blowing on it.
Friction Fire – There are several ways to build a friction fire. However, they are all pretty tough to perfect. You see people on television rubbing two sticks together all the time. However, they often do not show that the two-minute clip took all day to film. If there is any moisture in the wood at all, it will not work. If you do not select the perfect type of wood, it will not work. It can take days to start a friction fire even if you do everything right. I suggest that you keep other fire starters with you to avoid having to build a friction fire.
However, you may not have any other choice. If you have no other way to start a fire, you can give it a try. Be aware that I suggest lots of practice on this fire-starting method in advance so you know what you are doing. The most common way to start a friction fire is with a bow drill or hand drill. These both start with a fire board under one foot with an indentation carved near the edge. A notch is carved in the side of the indentation to collect sawdust and draw in air. A spindle is placed in the indentation. This is a stick about six to 12 inches long and about ½ inch thick. The bottom end is rounded to create friction and the top end is sharp on a bow drill set to rotate freely.
If you are using the hand drill method, you simply roll the spindle between your two hands rapidly while applying pressure downward. If you are using the bow drill method, you will add a handhold made of wood or stone at the top of the spindle. You then have a curved stick about two to three feet long with cordage stretched between both ends. You will press down on the handhold with your non-dominant hand. Then twist the spindle into the cordage and then run the bow back and forth with your dominant hand to rotate it. With either method, the friction creates a fire powder of sawdust that gets very hot. Eventually it will start to smoke, but do not stop until you have a good ember built up. Then add the ember to your tinder bundle and blow on it gently to coax out a flame.
There are other methods for friction fire you can use. The fire plow method takes a fireboard and carves a groove down the center at least 12 inches long. You then use a thick spindle to drive the end of it forward along the grove. This is done over and over very rapidly. Eventually you build up a small pile of sawdust that should get hot enough to ignite. You can also use the fire rope method for friction fire. With this method you will create a rounded fire board with a grove carved perpendicular to the length. Dig a shallow hole about an inch deep and place the fireboard over it with the groove face down. Put cordage underneath the board and then hold each end. It is helpful to tie a loop on each end for grip. Stand on both ends of the board and pull the cordage back and forth to create friction. Eventually this should create sawdust powder that will ignite. Pay attention to the length of your cordage so you are not bent over the whole time straining your back.
As you can see there are bunches of different ways to start a fire. No matter which method you prefer, you must take the time to practice. Even if you just want to use a lighter or matches, building a fire is not always easy. Never just read about starting a fire and assume that you can do it. Start by working with dry materials. Then try starting a fire in wet or cold conditions. You will find that these variables can make the process very difficult.
On my first winter survival challenge, the temperatures started around 20F and it snowed all day. I spent most of the day building my shelter but allowed a good amount of time for fire building. I collected my wood and started to build my fire. However, the snow had made the tinder wet. It would not light. As the sun started going down, I knew I was in for a long night. The temperatures dropped into the negative single digits. I had no fire, no sleeping bag, and no tent. The winds were kicking up to 20 mph, and I did not do very well on my shelter. By the early morning hours my internal body temperature was around 95F. The first signs of hypothermia were starting to set it. It was the first time I was forced to tap out from a survival challenge. I knew I would not make it until morning.
Do not make this same mistake. Never underestimate the difficulty of building a fire. Get in your practice in advance. Practice when you hike, when you camp, and even in your back yard. Use several different types of fire starters. Always keep several different options in your pockets and in your pack when you go into the wilderness. If you are faced with a survival scenario, be realistic about the challenges you face. Give yourself plenty of time to get your fire going well before dark. If you do these things to be prepared, you will stay nice and toasty all night.
Chris has spent many years working and teaching in the IT field. He enjoys spending time outdoors and learning about new topics. He likes playing golf, spending time at the beach and working on classic cars and woodworking projects.