One of the most important Scoutcraft, or bushcraft skills you can learn is preparing and lighting a fire. With a fire, we can dispel the darkness of the forest if we’re lost, stranded or injured and with it, dispel the negative spirit that could come into our minds and plant thoughts of defeat.
We can drive away the cold, which causes hypothermia, we can purify our water and cook our food. It is light, from the darkness.
These are the basic principles when starting to light a fire. The first thing is to find a suitable location where there is access to fuel. This is very important. Secondly, clear the ground down to the bare earth, if possible. This will help you to ensure your fire is manageable and is in no danger of becoming an uncontrollable fire.
Next, always lay down a platform. Preferably made from dry wood. This has several reasons. Firstly, it will help to ensure your tinder is protected from the moisture on the ground below. Secondly, it allows air to come up underneath the fire, and it provides insulation from the cold ground below. Even on a hot day, the ground may be cold, but the wood is warm. When the temperature drops to -50, this could mean the difference between success and failure at fire lighting. But, the most important purpose for this platform is that it’ll start to burn early on and create embers and a good heart to the fire which makes it certain to start and light properly.
The next step is to provide kindling. Thin dead twigs are exactly right, and a good thick bundle as well. What I like to do, is to split it in half into 2 bundles and to cross them, over the pile of wood.
The next step is to place tinder. The tinder is placed under the sticks. Now, you can use different types of fibrous materials such as dried grass, moss etc, but one of the best tinder is birch bark. I like to find a good birch log that has rotted, but not the bark. This is because of oils in the bark. The oil acts as a preservative and also burns very well. So this will make very good tinder to place under the kindling. I just just shred it down so its very thin and will take very easily when I introduce a flame to it.
The next step is to get ready to introduce fuel to the fire. I can add it to the kindling once we've ignited the kindling. The fuel goes upto little finger thickness. I won’t need anything else thicker that for the time being. There should be plenty of other thicker fuel within arms reach that I can just grab if and when I need it.
To start the fire, I’m going to use sparks. To turn the sparks into flame, I’m also going to use some of the birch bark. I have to prepare that for lighting. The best way to do this is, with a sharp knife, to shave the inside of the bark until you have fragments of birch which will light when I introduce a spark to it. The device I’m going to use to light the fire is called a ‘firesteel’. It’s basically an alloy of metals that, which, when a striker is scraped against the metal produces a shower of white hot sparks. This can be used to ignite many different materials. The way I use it is I point the firesteel towards what I want to ignite, and with the back of my thumb with the striker near the end of the firesteel, I push down on the striker. This will shave off pealings of metal. So what I do now is to drop the sparks onto the shavings and when they catch alight, I’ll move the flames underneath the kindling.
Once the flames come through the top, you can add more fuel. And that is one of the most important skills in Scoutcraft. Lighting a fire.