On the list of what to do in an emergency wilderness survival situation, building a fire is often assigned a low priority by survival experts. Here in the Southern Appalachians, two factors have convinced me to change my mind about that. One, the humidity. And two, the lowly chigger.
On a late winter trip out West I once found a logging road that recessed into the earth on a steady downhill gradient. It was like a bobsled run with several feet of snow. The road spiraled down a small Colorado mountain for about a mile before leveling out. I had a plan.
On the night of the full moon I hiked up the mountain wearing boots, snow pants, a tee shirt, and my trusty stocking cap. In my daypack I carried a fleece-lined windbreaker and a cookie sheet. At the top I donned the jacket, sat down on the cookie sheet and pushed off for one of those grandly memorable escapades of life. That ride was pure bliss. The temperature was just under 20 degrees F.
My point? I stayed comfortable throughout the adventure. The low humidity made that 20 degree; night nothing like a comparable night in Georgia. In the humid South, 20 degrees has a bite. It nips at the skin with a sting. Not only does humidity make cold colder, in the summer it makes the heat hotter. Humidity is one of the defining traits of our homeland.
At a wilderness skills gathering in North Georgia, teachers came from all over the country to teach participants the various aspects of survival lore. The fire-making teacher traveled here from the West. He collected the needed materials and went to work demonstrating the demanding process of spinning a stick in his hands, grinding its end into another stick to create enough friction to ignite a fluffy ball of tinder. He spun and he spun and he spun, but he never made fire.
"The humidity of the South has humbled me." Those were his words. You may be starting to get the picture now. Humidity is a big deal. You have to factor it into your plans to survive an unexpected situation.
Fire has many applications: cooking, hardening of weapon points, tempering of stone to be used for weapons, smoking hides for longevity of suppleness, preserving food, purifying water, burning out crafts that include a cavity (canoe, bowl, spoon), defense, drying out things that need drying, nocturnal visibility, insect repellency, preparing medicines, morale-boosting and more. But the all-important gift of fire is its warmth - to fend off hypothermia.
Hypothermia is the number one killer of people lost in wilderness. This condition is simply defined as the lowering of the body's core temperature to a point where it cannot recover without external help. Without that help in the form of another source of heat (a fire, a heater, another warm body, a warm drink), a victim of hypothermia will almost certainly die.
Succumbing to this killer is not a tragedy reserved for the winter months. Rainy days in summer have been known to bring on hypothermia. An overnight in the spring mountains can do the same. A person working hard at building a survival shelter can easily coat his body in a layer of sweat. When the night rolls in, the rapid cool-down of the body due to the evaporation of that sweat could be a critical factor. It can push a body right over the threshold that leads to death.
About thirty years ago I began self-imposed annual survival trips just for the adventure of it. In those days it was an inspirational way to sharpen my skills at surviving. It also made me a better teacher of those skills. I reserved a week to disappear and in that week I remained in one place, from which I spiraled out to find my needs. In this way, I built one shelter and used it for the duration.
To travel and build a new shelter each night is more work than anyone would want to do. It takes about four hours to construct a good shelter that is rain-proof and cold-proof. That's four hours in an energetic working mode. No matter how carefully one tries to regulate body heat, by the end of that project a body is covered with sweat.
On the first night of such a trip, I exercise without fail what has become a dedicated ritual for me. I build a substantial fire, make sure it is going well with plenty of back-up wood stacked nearby, strip down and hang my clothes to dry by the flames, run to the creek, bathe thoroughly, run back to my fire and dry my body by the flames.
Even on a camping trip for pleasure, the last thing I do each night is take that chilly bath - no matter what the season. I sleep better, and I sleep warmer. This practice would not be possible without fire, because the bathing lowers body temperature and could initiate the plunge into hypothermia.
The Fire Challenge
The arrangement of sticks that a person lights with a small flame, in order to make a large flame, is called a pyre. My experience as a teacher is that most Americans don't know how to build a reliable pyre without chemicals. In my fire classes, most of my students believe that they can, but when put to the test, nine out of ten fail. Here's a test for you to try. This is a worthy task and a chance for quality time with your children, as all of you attempt the one skill that I feel everyone should know.
Build a pyre that you can successfully light with one match while the forearm of the lighting hand is flat on the earth. The goal is for the pyre to catch and become so engulfed in flame that a 3" square of newsprint ignites at the height of your knee above the pyre.
Here's the sequence:
The Match Lesson
I have found that many children are afraid of matches. That usually means that no one has taken the time to teach them how to safely strike one. When the flame ignites, many children panic...and in the process, burn themselves.
Demystifying the Match
Have your child hold an unlighted match out of the wind in a vertical position - match head up. Strike your own match and move your flame to the child's match head. When it ignites, talk to the child about the safety of this exercise due to the fact that heat rises. Very rarely have I seen a flame travel down a matchstick. The flame will almost certainly die by itself. Let it.
If the child still shows a lot of fear, repeat this exercise - this time with the child's match held horizontally. Once the second match is lighted, ask the child to raise the match head until the match is vertical. Let it go out.
Now for the striking. For safety, strike away from the body, because pieces of a match head can fly like tiny meteors. Hold the "cool" end of a match between thumb and long finger with the index applying pressure close to the match head Because this pressure needs to push the match head along the scratch strip, the proper position of the hand requires an outward turn of the wrist.
Demonstrate how to strike the match and slide the index fingertip out of harm's way. Have the child practice this maneuver without actually striking the head into a flame.
Choosing a Site
Build your pyre in a safe place. Which way is the wind blowing? Do flammable materials lie downwind? Is the soil safe? (I know of a campfire that migrated underground over a 2-day period. It smoldered and surfaced about 15 yards away due to content of sawdust in the earth. Though no one knew it at the time, this was the site of an old sawmill.) Is the site a low point where water runs when it rains? Is the space above the fire safe? Do you have water handy nearby to douse a fire?
Consider the prevailing wind again. You'll want to light the pyre from the upwind side. If the wind is strong when it's time to light the pyre, you can block the wind with your prone body.
Building A Good Pyre
Because that match flame is always pointing upward, the pyre must be designed logically to receive a match. In other words, the fire-maker must be able to position the match flame underneath the very item he hopes to ignite.
Constructing a Platform
To achieve this, crisscross small sticks as a shelf an inch or two above the ground. You can accomplish this by several different methods. One is to push four Y-shaped poles into the ground, making a 4" square. Orient the Y's in the same direction. Connect the crotches of each pair of Y's with a pencil-sized "rafter". Span these two rafters with 5 or 6 slightly thinner "cross-rafters", all parallel. These last comprise the shelf.
Your best burning material (kindling) should be laid down on the shelf. Usually this includes the thinnest dead sticks you can find - preferably sticks with flammable resin inside...like pine. (If white pine, use as is. If another pine, peel or carve away bark.)
One of these sticks can be chosen as the champion stick of all kindling. When you lay down you little pile of kindling on the shelf, be sure to let this champion stick protrude down below the shelf like a fuse. It is this fuse you will first ignite with your match.
My favorite fuse is carved from a dead pine limb. It's nothing fancy. Look at what piles up around the feet of any "whittler". Such a shaving has a natural curl and this allows me to lay it flat on the shelf while the curled end hangs down between two cross-rafters. Bend down and memorize the position of that fuse beneath the shelf.
Your tiniest kindling should be a bundle of very thin dead sticks - this bundle being about the size of one-half a baseball. Slightly thicker sticks can be layered over the first bundle, and then pencil-size sticks layered over these. Now you are ready for a conical stacking of poles.
The cone-shape is the best design for longevity and heat intensification of a fire. Begin with pencil-thick dead sticks. Lean them over the shelf so that the top end of each pole touches the top of the kindling mound. Place poles all around the pyre except where you plan to insert the match. Once the first layer is complete, start a second layer of poles - these sticks a little thicker than the first. There is no limit as to how thick you graduate. Stack the poles tightly. Once you are up to the log size tipi pole, it is possible to keep a fire going through days of solid rain.
The Moment of Truth
After setting the newspaper in place, light the fuse. At this point, nothing else can be altered in the pyre. Let it burn. If the paper ignites on your first try, you are in that elite 10% of the population. If it lights on your second or third try, you deserve even more respect, because you stuck with it. You didn't give up.
Be sure to keep things safe by putting out the fire. Douse it with water. Crunch the wet charcoal with your boots and cover the char with the mud you've made.
Now, what was this about chiggers?
In the third article of this series, you learned about making a survival shelter using leaves and sticks. Such a design requires a person to auger into a contained pile of leaves for insulation. Chiggers - those unbelievably irritating mites that bite and leave an itchy welt - are not a problem in winter. They make their annual debut usually in June. But there are mountain nights in June that are cold enough to bring on hypothermia. If a person were to sleep in leaves at that time, he might wake up miserable - covered in hundreds of maddening welts.
Such a malady could be so aggravating as to destroy morale and prevent efficient work. A person could give up in a survival situation.
Chiggers don't bite some people. It has to do with body chemistry and/or diet. I happen to know that my picture is in the wild edible books that all chiggers read. I know about the misery. I would never burrow into leaves during chigger season. Therefore, on a chilly night anytime from June to September, I need a fire...and a shelter that will accommodate a fire. That way I can sleep without a cover contacting my body. I can saturate my clothes and skin with smoke. Beneath my body I can make a mattress of select leaves that repel chiggers. Pawpaw, sassafras, walnut, perilla, juniper. All the while, my fire keeps me warm.
Mark Warren owns and directs Medicine Bow Wilderness School, teaching nature classes and Native American survival skills in the mountains of north Georgia.
For more information, call: 706-864-5928 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org or write to: Medicine Bow, 104 Medicine Bow, Dahlonega, GA, 30533. To view the school's class offerings, please visit the web site at www.medicinebow.net.
Read all of Mark's Article in this Series...
"A Light in the Forest ~ Seeking the Company of Fire"