Fire is an essential key to any survival situation. Twenty-one years ago my team and I were heading to the Italian Alps from our home base of Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. We made the long drive to one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. After the first two days of moderates spring temperatures, the weather took a turn for the worse while we were practicing maneuvers. Our estimated time of departure was still two days away and we had plenty of supplies for the trip. However, unbeknownst to us, the weather could change rapidly in this area. It rained for the first few hours and then dumped the snow. Within the first 24-hours, we were in a couple feet of snow. To make a long story short over the next 24-hours it continued to snow, the temps plundered out of sight, and we lost an entire pallet of water due to it freezing and busting. A fate that we could have easily prevented if we were more prepared for the situation. We ended up being stranded in the Alps for another five days while we tried to get our equipment running. The moisture and snowy conditions made it very difficult to have the one essential we needed, fire. Many troops suffered mild frostbite and we learned a valuable survival lesson. Never be caught without a reliable fire source. We had to go to extreme measures to build a fire to thaw water and to stay warm.
I know you are thinking that is a pretty extreme situation, but I assure you it was as real as it could get. I do not think some of you reading this are going to head to the alps on a training exercise turned bad, but you could be heading out with your family for a weekend of backpacking and camping. Out of all my years in the military and life experiences in the outdoors, a couple lessons I learned the hard way were: always have a reliable fire starting source and always know how to navigate. I grew up in the mountains of West Virginia hunting, fishing, and trapping. I loved to camp, hike, and spend time outdoors. The Army was a great place for a person like me growing up. Through a series of unfortunate events God’s creation can be brutal and is very unpredictable. That is why this article is being written to hopefully prevent a fun family outdoor camping trip from becoming a full-blown survival expedition. In the service, we were taught such skills as survival and the essential elements of fire as a survival source. Now I want to share with you some essential tools to carry with you for your next outdoor adventure.
Basics of a Fire
The basics of a fire as you probably already know are a spark, oxygen, and fuel. We will get in detail about the most reliable source of spark in a moment, for now, let’s talk Fuel. A fire needs fuel to remain burning. Simply put you cannot just place a log that is twelve-inches in diameter on the ground and expect it to burn when it is wet and cold outside. You have to have tinder and kindling. The basics of fire are as simple as these three elements but without one of them, you cannot have a fire.
Fuel For a Fire
Tinder is a material or substance that ignites easily and burns fast.
Amazon offers a tinder from Ultimate Survival Technologies called WetFire Tinder. Definitely a must in a cold wet environment and even in some really humid environments. It claims to be the best fire starting material in the world and I can agree that it is fabulous. With eight cubes individually wrapped it can start numerous fires for you and burns at 1300 degrees. The fascinating part about WetFire ($9) is like its name it will burn in the wettest conditions giving you a safe fire starting tinder every time. I keep a pack of this in my pack all the time so to avoid situations like I have had in the past.
Another element needed is kindling. Kindling is nothing more than some small sticks or material that will catch fire easily but will burn longer than tinder. Stacking sticks in a teepee fashion or in a way that air flow can get between the sticks is essential. (I will discuss this importance in a moment about oxygen.)
Once you have the elements such as tinder which could be dried leaves, grass, a piece of char cloth, or better yet the WetFire then you need to have the kindling stacked in such a manner to allow airflow between the sticks. The main source of heat and longevity to your fire is the fuelwood This should ideally be something that is solid and preferably dry. Fresh cut logs can contain a lot of moisture and will not burn as well as something as a dead piece of oak. This fuel is what will provide the heat through the night or even to cook dinner. This covers the fuel section let’s talk about oxygen.
Oxygen is a necessity for a fire. It is something so easily overlooked because it is so readily available. The reasoning for stacking your kindling in a teepee fashion allows oxygen to pace through the sticks keeping the fire burning. Have you ever used a Zippo lighter? If you open a zippo and ignite it, it will continuously burn until you close the lid and remove the element of oxygen. If you burn a piece of a shirt and then place it in a tin can and seal it up the oxygen is removed and the fire will go out. However, the piece of shirt or cloth remains charred black in the airtight tin. When you remove it that piece of cloth can become tinder such as char cloth and ignites easily. In order to have a successful fire make sure there is some sort of airflow to the fire.
Spark is where the rubber meets the road. You can have an abundance of tinder, kindling, and dried wood for fuel. You can have an abundance of airflow and or oxygen. By themselves, they cannot do anything but add spark and they become sustainable resources.
If you ever were a Boy Scout or Girl Scout you can probably remember starting a fire with two sticks, or even the bow method. Thankfully when we go out camping with our families we do not need to sit around doing this anymore and getting blisters from all the friction. Companies make reliable fire starters to help us enjoy the great outdoors. Besides having the obvious lighter in your pocket there are some more reliable resources for a spark that will not falter in moist climates or run out of fuel as fast.
1. UCO Titan Stormproof Match Kit
This kit found on the REI website is phenomenal for conserving space and having a reliable resource of spark in a watertight container for those emergency needs. These 4-inch long waterproof and windproof matches are an exceptional way to ensure you always have a fire starter. The kit comes with twelve matches that burn for twenty-five seconds each, three replaceable strikers, a waterproof case that floats and has a lanyard. The case has a built-in striker integrated into for easy striking. I would not call these my go to match for every fire-starting need but they are great as my backup source when the conditions are extremely rough and my main source of fire fails. I only say this because they are limited to twelve matches in each container. [Purchase: $9.29]
UCO evens has there own fire starting course.
2. MSR Strike Igniter
REI also offers the MSR Strike Igniter It is the perfect resource for lighting campfires, camp stoves or any other canister source. The starter is simple in design and easily attaches to your backpack or onto your gear. It is even more reliable than a lighter because moisture doesn’t affect its usefulness or performance. It produces a 5,500-degree spark and lasts for 3,000 to 12,000 strikes that are way hotter than a traditional lighter and lasts far more than the average lighter. I use the Strike Igniter as my main source of spark in all of my outdoor adventures. Recently I took a few days and set out with my family for an excursion across one of my favorite hiking areas in West Virginia, Dolly Sods. My wife and our five children are my life. I do everything with them and cherish them. I tell you this because I trust strikers like MSR’s Striker Igniter to provide the essential element of fire for them and myself. [Purchase: $15.99]
3. Light My Fire 2.0 FireSteel
Just for the purpose of giving you other options Amazon offers a fire igniter similar to the MSR Striker Igniter. It produces a 5,400-degree spark guaranteed to start your tinder. Has a lifetime of 12,000 Strikes and works in wet environments. It is small only three inches in length and connects to any of your gear. No matter the situation there is a fire igniter that will perform every time. [Purchase: $19.99]
Staying Warm and Happy
When I spent my first night out in the wilderness I remember how harsh the environment could be. Oh, how exciting it was to bundle next to the fire and to stay warm from the elements. As I transitioned into the military it became a survival tool and a morale booster. If you are cold, wet, and hungry moral goes down and so does the chance of survival. With a strong ability to start a fire all of these three elements are no longer a problem.
Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to comfort is to make sure your tent and sleeping bag and rated and designed for the conditions you plan on camping in. We put together a list of some of the best backpacking tents for each season of the year.
Fire is essential to producing much-needed warmth when it is cold, keeping you dry when you’re wet, and a means for cooking when you’re hungry. Whenever backpacking with my family sitting around the fire in the evening is the most relaxing part of the day for us. Enjoying the outdoors should never be a chore. It should never have to become a survival situation for anyone. That is why proper preparation for the trip is essential to understanding the environment in which you will be in and making sure that the gear you have will be sufficient in all conditions nature can throw at you.
The products I have listed are not all inclusive as there are numerous products on these websites from Cabela’s, REI, and others that might fit the need you have. Spending the majority of my life in the outdoors I have grown to trust these products and use them regularly on my expeditions. The next time you are planning a weekend camping trip or a week-long backpacking adventure take the time to properly prepare yourself for the conditions you might face. Always make sure you have a solid fire starter that will not fail in cold wet environments and always have a back-up for those emergency needs. Enjoy your next excursion in the wilderness or on a campsite by making sure you are warm and happy next to a fire. Be safe and have fun!