Imagine this scenario: You discover you are lost. You barely had time before it got dark to collect firewood, and you’ve got a big pile of it nearby. You have collected a pile of pine branches to put between you and the cold ground. The temperature was about 50 when you started hiking, it’s in the low 40’s now, and expected to drop into the 20’s overnight. You didn’t expect to get lost, so you aren’t really dressed for those temperatures. The only fire tools you have are a Bic lighter and a UST StrikeForce ferrocerium fire starter with a Wetfire tinder in the handle. The Bic is out of fuel because it developed a leak or the button got pressed while it was in your pocket; whichever it was, the butane has evaporated and the lighter is useless.
You successfully used your single piece of Wetfire tinder to light a fire with the StrikeForce. You’ve hiked all afternoon, the last two hours trying to find your way back while in a mild panic. The adrenaline that drove your emergency preparations is wearing off. You’re way past tired, you are exhausted. You lay down beside the fire, and it’s really kind of comfortable, like camping without a tent. Without intending to, you doze off. You wake up shivering two hours later to a black night and a cold fire. Your teeth are chattering. You realize you are in a dangerous situation. You’ve used up your only piece of tinder and you have a very long, very cold night ahead of you. What do you do?
Burn your underwear.
I know that sounds like a lead-in to a lame joke, but I’m not joking. Serious backpackers say things like “cotton is rotten” and “cotton kills”, because cotton loses its insulating properties when wet. But the reality is that a lot of day hikers are walking around in ordinary cotton underwear, either shorts or a T-shirt. And you can use it to start a fire. You want to take it off first, of course.
I tried a piece of fabric from an old pair of cotton underwear. I cut a piece about 1.5” x 4”, kind of ragged like it would be if you cut it with a knife or tore it with your hands. I stretched and pulled on the edges to separate the threads a little so it would light easier. I lit it with sparks from a ferrocerium rod, and it burned about two minutes. That’s long enough to get another fire started. You would want to fold it or wad it so that as much of the edge as possible is exposed, since that is the part that is easiest to light.
This is a specific example, but the general idea is that of making emergency tinder from whatever you have available. Almost any cotton fabric will burn if you fray the ends. I made a case for one of my pocket fire kits out of canvas; the fabric isn’t as easy to light as setting your shorts on fire, but it will burn. In that case, the emergency tinder is right there with everything else. Cotton denim will work as well. A lot of people hike in denim jeans. That is, denim emergency fire starters. Tear away a hem at the bottom and light it. To light denim or canvas, you want to separate some of the threads to make a “fuzz pile” that you can put at the base of a bigger piece.
When I was lost at Brainard Lake, I used up all the tinder I had brought with me. Once that was gone, I tore into my first aid kit and lit the alcohol wipes. They were small and didn’t burn long, but they will start a fire. About any alcohol-impregnated wipe will burn if the alcohol content is high enough. This includes hand sanitizer wipes, as long as they are alcohol-based (not all of them are).
You can also light hand sanitizer from a bottle, as I mentioned last time under “chemical tinder”. It’s hard to light the stuff that is only 62% alcohol. The 70% variety works quite well.
If you have any wax-based lip balm, such as Burt’s Bees (contains beeswax), pinch off some of that and work it into a piece of cotton cloth or a piece of paper (shred the paper to make it easier to light) or into a tissue. The wax will significantly extend the burn time. Some people like lip balm that is based on petroleum jelly; that will work about the same way. The paper or cloth works as a wick and the wax or petroleum jelly is a fuel source. And, yes, ordinary ChapStick brand will work.
Use a knife to shave tiny shavings from a piece of dry wood. You need a good-sized pile to get a fire started, enough to make a wad that will fill your palm. And if there is any wind at all, this may be impractical since you can’t keep the shavings in one place long enough to get them lit. Making and lighting wood shavings is good practice for using a ferrocerium rod; if you can light this, you can light about anything.
For women – cotton tampons. I assume not too many men are carrying these around in their purses, so it’s not applicable to us guys.
Dead pine needles. Hard to light without something such as a facial tissue or cotton ball, but once lit they flare up quickly. They also burn up quickly, so you need a lot of them to start a fire. If you just have a tiny piece of cotton or lint, or a single tissue, pine needles may give you just enough burn time to get the fire going. Of course, if you don’t hike where there are pine trees, you’re out of luck here.
Fatwood, if you can find it. This is pine wood that is saturated in pine resin. You find it in pine stumps and often at the base of a dead pine branch. In the scenario I described earlier, you probably won’t find it in the dark. But if you start before dark, you may be able to cut or break off some pine branches that have fatwood at the base.
If you can find a pine tree where a branch has broken off or there is a fresh scar with pine sap running down, the bark right around it may work. I’ve shaved off tiny pieces of pine bark that is saturated with pitch and been able to light them with a ferrocerium rod. The pine pitch burns hot, although it’s really smoky. But in an emergency, you don’t care about that. This requires the same technique as making a pile of wood shavings, but you need less of it and it’s easier to light. It’s also harder to find. This is really only practical if you have a knife, saw, or multi-tool to dig out the saturated wood.
Other tree bark can be used as tinder. I haven’t tried birch bark, but I’ve read that it is quite effective as tinder. Useful for those who don’t hike in pine forests.
Dead tree leaves. The drier and crispier, the better. The disadvantage here is that the best leaves for tinder are on the ground, where they will tend to pick up moisture from the dirt. But if you can find some really dry leaves, you can light them. Leaves still on the tree are good if they are really dry, or leaves caught in bushes and grass where they aren’t in contact with the ground.
Tree leaves tend to want to smolder rather than burn. I’ve found that the best way to light them is to find some that are curled up; that way when you get them lit, the fire will feed itself. It might seem that you would want to crumble them but I’ve found they are easier to light if you leave them intact. Crumbled leaves don’t seem to get enough air to burn effectively. You want leaves that are dry and brittle enough to crumble, but you don’t want to actually crumble them. If you have to use leaves, you want a pile of them because they don’t burn very long. Make a tinder nest of leaves under a pile of small sticks, light one on the bottom, and let it light the rest of the pile.
The scenario I started this post with might seem improbable. But getting lost is never something you plan for, and the improbable does happen. When I got lost, it was in deep snow and there was limited natural material around. You read of people who didn’t take their backpack because they weren’t going to be gone very long or go very far – and then they got lost. People get lost when inadequately prepared for the conditions. Hunters get lost. People set their backpack under a tree, walk away, and can’t find it again. Cross-country skiers get lost. People even get lost in national parks where there are marked trails – they get off the trail or take a couple of branching trails, and then realize that they don’t know how to get back. Here in Colorado, the rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park perform over 100 search-and-rescue operations each year. That doesn’t even count the mountain rescues that are performed outside the park.
Waterproof match containers do leak if the cap gets loose. Bic lighters do fail. That’s one of the reasons I like having a ferrocerium rod, even with other fire-starting methods; it is inherently waterproof. It’s better to have alternatives and not need them than to need them and not have them. It’s best to carry enough tinder to light a fire a few times, not just once. But in a pinch, there may be alternatives you haven’t thought of and I’ve tried to describe a few here.
Next time I’ll look at the practical aspects of starting a fire.