Hunting > Adventure

The Emergency Fire

Want to avoid a cold and miserable night lost in the woods? Be prepared with the skills to start an emergency fire.

You are miles from your truck trying to fill your last deer or elk tag when you break a leg, or hunting snowshoe hare in the New England mountains when you get turned around at dark, or waterfowl hunting in Minnesota when you slip and fall into a frozen stream ... at the very least you'll be cold and miserable, at the very worst you'll die. Because accidents happen, you need to be prepared with the skills to start an emergency fire.

Fire Gear

These essentials weigh next to nothing, but they can save your life, especially if you get caught out overnight. Carry them in a waterproof pouch in your pack.

Butane lighter: The old advice used to be to carry some waterproof matches in a waterproof container. Though that is still good advice, a butane lighter is better. Matchsticks snap, are tough to start in wind and run out quickly. A modern survival lighter, like the Cabela's Alaskan Outfitter model ($40; cabelas.com), is a smarter option. It's waterproof, wind-proof and has an automatic-relighting system. It has a big, easy-to-use ignition switch, which is something you need when sparking a fire with numb fingers and the cold shakes.

Tinder: This critical stuff jump-starts your fire. In remote areas I carry at least two quart-size and sealed bags stuffed with shredded wax paper, dry leaves, dead balls of grass and so on. You can never have too much tinder!

Fire Paste: Carry a tube of Coghlan's Fire Paste ($3.95; rei.com). Squeeze some of the flammable gel on kindling. When your tinder pops, the paste will ignite and burn the kindling and larger sticks into a good-sized flame.

Fire Plan

In an emergency, you don't have time to find the perfect fire site. Check the south side of a ridge or bluff that is out of a cold north or northwest wind. Plus, a southern exposure is warmed naturally by any sun that is out. Look for a thermal spot that is sheltered by some evergreen trees, but remember your Boy Scout lessons-never build a fire under snow-laden branches. If you can find a windless spot near big rocks, great, they will help hold and reflect your fire's heat and light.

With your boots, scuff out a huge spot (maybe six by eight feet) in wet dirt or snow. Clear enough dry ground not only for your fire pit, but also to stack your wood and keep it dry.

Perhaps the most important step of all: Work fast before dark to gather enough kindling, small fuel (sticks thick as your fingers), larger fuel (thick as hot dogs) and finally big logs that will burn for hours. In a survival situation, a big mistake that cold, scared people make is gathering way too little wood. If you use up your tinder and kindling and your fire burns out in 20 minutes or so, you're in trouble.

Obviously, the deader and drier all that wood is the better. Remember Scout rule number two: snap dead sticks and branches off standing trees and the tops of deadfalls, and don't mess with wet wood on the ground.

I use a one-side anchor for a backcountry fire that is generally a 10- to 12-inch dry log. I lay it perpendicular to any slight wind that is blowing at ground level. Then I lean a big, wide heaping pile of kindling against it. I stuff a tinder ball beneath the kindling, pop my lighter on it and presto, instant flame. I keep adding lots of kindling and larger branches until I have roiling flames.

Again, I can't stress enough how important it is to have a huge stack of dry wood at the ready. As your fire grows, keep adding larger and larger fuel. Those big, beautiful flames will keep you warm and dry and will give you the resolve to survive a cold, dark night. 

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