Most of the time, starting a fire involves little more than striking a match or clicking the wheel of a butane lighter. In minutes a cold night becomes warm, the steaks on the grill begin to sizzle, and we sit back, feeling content. An outdoor fire is the hearth away from home, a comforting circle of light that we share with friends and family. Fire takes on a completely different meaning when you are lost or injured. Its warmth can save your life. Frayed nerves are soothed by its lively company, anchoring you in place and greatly increasing your chances of being rescued. Fire can also serve as a distress signal or a way to harden and shape wood into weapons. If you’re able to gather food, fire cooks your meal, making it safe to eat and renewing your strength. Is it any wonder that ancient man awarded keepers of the flame the highest stature, or that human sacrifices were made to fire spirits? Not all fires are created equal. The Native American star fire, for example, is a terrific means of conserving fuel, but it produces little heat—not a wise choice in life-threatening conditions. Conversely, the parallel log lay is capable of warming the length of your body through the night. It permits you to rest and store up the energy you’ll need to get out of whatever jam you might be in. To enjoy fire’s many benefits, sportsmen should learn how to build six types. Each begins with a tepee. FIRST STEPS Before a fire can save your life or cook your meal, it must pass through three stages of development: ignition, establishment, and maintenance. Ignition requires kindling. Fine, dry kindling will ignite when exposed to a match, but it seldom catches fire if you use a sparking tool. In that case you will also need tinder, such as char cloth, fungus from the bark of a birch tree, or an artificial version. Collect larger pieces of wood to establish the fire once it’s begun. You may also need logs to maintain it. Fires eventually take many shapes, but all are rooted in the same design—a tepee of loosely arranged sticks. Start with matchstick-size kindling, and create a pocket at the base for the tinder. Tilt progressively larger sticks into a skeletal tepee shape to promote air circulation 1. PARALLEL LOG LAY Objective: To keep you warm through the night Uses: Warmth, survival Difficulty: Moderate The key to an all-night fire is a backing wall that reflects heat onto you as you sleep, while at the same time it dissipates smoke upward. Collect plenty of fuel, especially when temperatures are below zero. Build two tepee fires a couple of feet apart in front of the backing wall, then place dry logs parallel to one another across the flames. Once the fire is established, you can switch to green wood, which doesn’t burn as hot but lasts longer. Four 5-inch-diameter green logs spaced an inch or so apart should keep you warm for several hours. Fire-Building Tip: Stretch a tarp or emergency blanket behind the sleeping area, to keep your backside warm. 2. STAR FIRE Objective: To conserve scarce fuel Uses: Cooking, some warmth Difficulty: Easy Featuring sticks or logs arranged like the spokes of a wheel, the star fire is a superior design for conserving scarce fuel. The trade-off, however, is that the flame at its axis produces little heat; in addition, you must tend it frequently, shoving pieces progressively inward as the ends char. Use the star fire in warm weather, or if all you need to do is heat a pot of water or warm a partially enclosed shelter, where its low flame makes it safer than other designs. Fire-Building Tip: To prevent the fire from spreading too far from the center, prop the outside ends of the sticks a few inches off the ground or slightly pull the sticks out from the center. 3. CROSSHATCH Objective: To burn longer logs if you have no axe or saw Uses: Warmth, cooking Difficulty: Easy The crosshatch fire is similar to the star fire, but the wood pieces cross in the middle rather than abut at their ends. If you don’t have an axe or saw, this is a great way to burn long logs into serviceable lengths. Once a log burns through in the middle, take the two pieces and recross them over the fire. Fire-Building Tip: A few logs equally spaced will result in a contained fire with a high sheet of flame. For a lower flame that will spread from the center, push the logs closer to each other or add more of them to the crosshatch, decreasing the space between the logs. 4. MINIMUM IMPACT Objective: To have a safe fire that doesn’t destroy fragile vegetation Uses: Warmth, cooking Difficulty: Moderate Burning a fire on rich organic soil can rob the ground of nutrients and destroy fragile vegetation. In ecologically sensitive areas, such as tundra and high-altitude meadows, you can reduce such damage by building a mound of mineral soil, then making your fire on top. Look for mineral soils, which are sandy, light colored, and more granular than organic soils, in streambeds and in the cavities of stumps. Fire-Building Tip: Place a ground cloth under the mound of mineral soil. After the fire burns out, scatter the ashes, gather the edges of the cloth, and carry the mineral soil back to where you found it. LIGHTING METHODS All sportsmen should carry at least two tools to start fire—a form of flame-based ignition, such as windproof, waterproof matches; and either a Spark-Lite tool or a magnesium-and-steel sparking rod. Flame Ignition Striking a match or flicking a butane lighter takes but a second. If you have dry kindling and can find a suitable lee, this is the simplest way to start a fire. Tuck the tinder under your tepee setup and hold a match to it. If all you have for tinder is twigs, break them in half, grasp a handful with the finest twigs on the bottom, and ignite them by holding a match under the bundle. Transfer the burning tinder to your tepee. The sustained flame of a candle is a good choice for damp conditions. Spark-Based Ignition A sparking tool uses wind to help light tinder. It’s a vital piece of any survival kit. Using a Spark-Lite Tool: Holding the tool horizontally, rotate its wheel so that the sparks are directed downward onto the frayed ends of a Tinder-Quik tab. Using Magnesium and Steel: Shave magnesium flecks into a nest of tinder. Then scrape the steel-rod side of the tool with the striker, directing sparks onto the tinder. 5. DAKOTA PIT Objective: Conserving fuel, cooking in windy areas Difficulty: Moderate to difficult To build a Dakota pit fire, dig two holes about a foot apart and link them with a tunnel. Use one hole for the fire, the other as an air passage. This is a very efficient design for conserving fuel and cooking in windy areas, where a fire built at ground level eats a wood supply quickly and is difficult to control. Fire-Building Tip: Line the pit with flat, dry stones, which will retain heat for cooking, reducing the amount of fuel you have to burn. FUEL & TINDERS With commercial tinders available at sporting-goods stores (my favorites: the Tinder-Quik tabs used by the military), there’s little excuse to be searching for something to burn when you get cold. But in an emergency, chances are good that you’ll be able to find tinder or kindling—if you know what to look for. 1. Bark Shaved inner bark of birch, poplar, cottonwood, and many other trees burns readily, even when damp. 2. Grass Dried grass is overlooked as tinder, but a softball-size bundle easily ignites with a match. 3. Spruce Tips and Pine Needles The dead branches on the undersides of spruce and pine trees provide excellent kindling. If the twigs have dead pine needles, all the better. 4. Conifer Resin Hardened blisters of resin develop on conifer bark wherever a tree has been injured. Resin takes longer to ignite than other tinders, but once started it can burn for several minutes.** ** 5. Larger Fuel As you hunt for firewood, think in terms of food value. Hardwoods such as hickory and oak are fat with “calories” and generate high heat. By comparison, softwoods including most evergreens flare quickly, providing a “sugar rush”; this makes them a good source of kindling but a poor one for generating sustained warmth. Regardless, the critical factor is that the wood be dry. 6. Fuzz Stick Where tinder is scarce, shave curls from a larger piece of wood to create a fuzz stick that resembles a small shock of wheat. 6. KEYHOLE Objective: To create hot embers for extended cooking Difficulty: Easy to moderate The keyhole fire is structured for cooking over hot embers. Start with a substantial tepee fire, then add wrist-thick branches. When the fire has burned down, scrape glowing coals into the keyhole away from the flame. Fire-building Tip: A fire ring isn’t necessary for the main fire, but frame the keyhole with rocks or logs to support your grill. Lacking a grill, you can cook game on a spit or on a makeshift grill made of interlacing green branches. You also can suspend a pot over the main flame to heat soup, stew, or water. FIRE RESPONSIBILITY A few years ago, a lost hunter burning a signal fire was indicted for starting the worst wildfire in California history, a blaze that charred 270,000 acres. Heed fire restrictions in dry seasons and follow the five rules at right for determining where it’s safe to strike a match. 1. Don’t build a fire under overhanging branches or on steep slopes where an updraft could cause flames to spread. 2. Scrape away dry leaves, grass, and other flammable materials in a 10-foot-wide circle around your blaze. 3. Never leave a fire unattended. 4. Keep water handy and put your fire dead out. You should be able to stir the ashes and coals with your hands. 5. Don’t bury a fire. Roots and coals may continue to smolder and flare up several hours later.
6 Fires Every Sportsman Should Know
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