Saturday, February 12, 2011

Survival Fire Starter

It’s warming over the next few days, so the snow should disappear quickly. I went out to clear away the front sidewalk and a drift across the front door, and guess what I dug up out of two-feet of snow. A package from Cabela. The box was wet, so fortunately it contained a Boundary Waters waterproof roll-top dry bag, and not something fragile. UPS had obviously dropped it out front just as the storm came through a few days ago. I called UPS and had a tag put on our address, asking that packages be left at the back door under the patio roof.

Nothing makes for a more complete picture of tripping peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction than that of a moon reflecting over water, with the canoe brought up and turned over close to the campsite, the tent, and as a focal point, a nice campfire. The reasons are simple. First, there’s something basic in our nature that finds peace and fascination in dancing flames. Even more importantly, for tens of thousands of years the fire also meant survival, warmth, and food, making it the center of life. The use of open campfires has evolved tremendously, however. A lot of that has to do with the earth’s over-population, and the high-density use of lakes, camping parks, and river banks. The use of fires has become greatly regulated, the risk of an improperly set and maintained fire near a wooded area containing homes, and the frequent lack of downed, dead wood have made reliance on an open fire more difficult. It’s also very possible that the canoe trip schedule may coincide with a burn ban. Cooking is mostly done on a stove today unless a portable metal firebox is carried to build a small fire in, leaving an open fire more frequently relegated to the role of providing ambiance. There are some hardcore paddlers who don’t feel they’re camping if there isn’t a campfire, and there are those fortunate enough to be in more remote areas where these problems don’t exist as much. Still, when Jake Stachovek did his 5,740 mile kayak circumnavigation of the Eastern United States, he used an open fire only twice in ten months. There is, however, a time and place when a fire is not just welcome, but absolutely essential, and that is for survival after a hypothermic total-immersion capsizing.

Among those who have perished in the wild, or even in the creek behind the house, the greatest percentage have actually expired from hypothermia rather than from any other causes. There may be other things than capsizing that start the chain of events, but they lead to hypothermia. Even getting out of the cold water in a couple minutes won’t stop the rapid loss of core body heat. Survival requires a quick and abundant source of heat. It is also assumed here, because reports indicate this is often the case, that you will crawl onto shore with little beyond what is on your person. Your canoe, packs, and supplies have been separated from you by wind or current, and you are dependent on your survival pack to get you through the critical first hours and day. The survival pack may be contained in your PFD pockets, if so equipped, or in waterproof plastic bags in a fanny pack that you routinely wear. The most important part is getting the fire started at all. For this we need a dependable fire-starter that builds a fire more quickly. We want at least two sources of ignition, such as waterproof matches, Swedish magnesium fire striker, a butane lighter or two, or even a mini-torch. There are many fire starters to choose from, including steel wool, duct tape sprayed with bug repellant, a candle stub, dryer lint or sawdust soaked with paraffin, pine cones, commercial fire paste or fire ribbon, etc., but the one standard that most seem to come back to is simple Vaseline soaked cotton balls. They are compact, inexpensive, easily made at home, and a small prescription bottle can hold 24 of them. This is not just enough for initial survival, but to build fires for a week or two.
Simply work as much petroleum jelly as you can into the cotton ball. Roll them up tightly and stuff them into the pill bottle, which should have a tight waterproof cap. When you’re ready to use one, build your fire base with tender, twigs, and pencil-size branches. Larger pieces can be added once the fire is going, but rarely do you want to add anything larger than the tube in a paper towel roll, or about an inch-and-a-half. We want the fire material to be completely consumed without leaving large partially burned logs to spoil the camp site. Take out one cotton ball and pull it apart as much as possible to permit a lot of air in and also increase the surface area. Place it under the tender and light. One cotton ball should burn nicely for two minutes or longer, which should get almost any fire going if properly prepared. Here is one I set in the frying pan to show the size of its flame.
In addition to the cotton balls, some will add some dryer lint and a few pieces of commercial tender stick or small pieces of soft wood painted with or dipped in molten wax. This takes up no room and adds no weight to the pack, yet virtually guarantees a rapidly growing fire.  Stay warm.
Best regards, Jim 

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