Surviving in Tough Times: How to Build a Fire

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Knowing how to build a fire would be essential to survival if society falls apart as some predict.
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“Long-Term Survival in the Coming Dark Age” by James Ballou is more than a blueprint for bad times — this informative guide may inspire you to a new level of self-sufficiency.

Would you be prepared to survive in the event of a
complete breakdown of modern civilization? In
Long-Term Survival in the Coming Dark Age (Paladin Press, 2007), author Jim Ballou
introduces you to the essential skills and mind-set you will need to survive a
complete, long-term shift in the way the world operates. Learn how to build
a fire, recycle and salvage everything, develop survival bartering skills,
prepare and store caches and much more. The excerpt below comes from chapter 5,
“Making Fire.”


You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Long-Term Survival in the Coming Dark Age.

Let us now shift our attention to the subject of fire, as I believe this will
always be of great importance to our lives in one way or another. In primitive
times, fire was used for keeping warm, cooking food, signaling, providing
light, hardening clay and wooden tools, and for smoking meat and hides to help preserve
them, among other things. In a future Dark Age, I expect that fire might be useful
for keeping warm, cooking food, boiling water to purify it, sterilizing
surgical instruments, firing clay, heating, tempering, and melting metals, and
for providing light wherever electricity might be unreliable or in short
supply. I am convinced that the ability to create and control fire will give
knowledgeable survivors a significant advantage in the future, just as it has
in the past.

As important as fire
obviously is to the quality of human existence, it is also potentially very
dangerous to the environment and a real threat to the survival of those who
find themselves in the path of a raging wildfire.

Various systems for creating
fire include the friction bow-drill, several different sparking devices, and a cigarette

Attentive supervision and
proper safety measures therefore will be every bit as important as the ability
to create and effectively use fire. The most common hazards associated with
fire are the blaze spreading beyond the hearth or fire pit due to popping
embers or wind-blown ashes; soot and smoke filling the lungs; and carbon
monoxide poisoning and asphyxiation in confined spaces where the fire consumes
all the oxygen.

The majority of problems can
be prevented by ensuring that shelters have adequate ventilation; fireplace
chimneys are clean and in good condition; campfires or candles are not
positioned too close to low-hanging tree branches, dry leaves or grass on the
ground, curtains, or other unintended flammable matter; breaks or walls are
used to shield wind around the fire pit; proper equipment such as tongs,
pokers, shovels, buckets, and thick leather gloves are on hand for safely handling
the fire; a supply of water or loose dirt is available to put the fire out; and
no fire is ever left unattended.

There are a number of
methods by which ignition might be initiated. The chemical reaction we know as
fire is really a rather complex process, but we can create and effectively use it
for our purposes if we only understand a few basic essentials.

Three things are required in
order to build a fire: oxygen, fuel, and heat. These requirements comprise what
is sometimes referred to as the “fire triangle.” Without all three, a fire will
not burn. Also, there are two different types of combustion: flaming combustion
and glowing combustion.

Flaming combustion burns
fuel gases, while glowing combustion burns fuel solids.

Typically, a burning piece
of wood will undergo the flaming combustion process first, until the gases
contained in the wood have been completely consumed by the flames, and then the
wood will usually undergo the glowing combustion process for an extended period.
The glowing combustion is seen as the glowing coals or remaining embers after the
flames have died down.

Primitive methods for making fire

Early methods for making
fire, such as the bow drill, the hand drill, or the fire plow, relied on
friction to generate the necessary heat.

Fire piston
One primitive method used in
some parts of the world is the fire piston, which utilizes rapidly compressed
air to produce enough heat to ignite the tinder. These fire sets consist of a
cylinder of hardwood plugged at one end and bored inside to about a half-inch
diameter, with a perfectly fitted wooden shaft or piston having a cupped tip to
hold a small pinch of tinder, and a push knob on the opposite end.

With the piston started in
the cylinder, a sharp blow on the knob with the palm of the hand forces the piston
swiftly in, creating the compression that ignites the tinder. The piston is
then quickly removed and the tinder is transferred to a larger tinder bundle
where it can be fanned to flame. The principle is the same used in diesel
engines. While seemingly simple in concept, everything has to be just right for
the fire piston to work. In the demonstration I watched, a gasket of thread was
wrapped around the end of the piston to create an airtight seal. (To be honest,
my own limited experimentation with the fire piston has yet to yield a glowing
coal as of this writing.)

The bow drill method
The more common bow drill
method for obtaining fire is one that demands a bit of practice to master, but
a determined individual with some fundamental knowledge can create fire using
very basic natural or makeshift equipment. The fire set consists of a
fireboard, spindle, top socket, and a short, loosely strung hand bow. The cord
used with the bow must be fairly durable to sustain the friction generated
while spinning the spindle.

I personally applied a great
deal of effort over a period of time attempting to create fire using the bow
drill, quite unsuccessfully at first but nevertheless producing my share of smoke,
until I watched the technique demonstrated in a video and finally learned how
to do it correctly.

Different instructional
sources recommend different types of wood for the component parts. Some prefer
softwoods, while others recommend using hardwoods.

My guess is that most types
of wood will produce a coal when the proper techniques are applied. I’ve made
it work with pine and cottonwood, though some say that pine is too resinous for
best results.

The spindle should be a
straight shaft between about 5/8- to 1-inch in diameter, somewhere between
about 8–14 inches long, and tapered at both ends like a pencil. The wooden
fireboard, or hearth, should be fairly flat on the bottom for stability, and
long enough to accommodate multiple drill holes.

The drill holes can be
started with the tip of a knife blade. Shallow funnel-shaped depressions fairly
close to one edge are sufficient to start with. Wedge-shaped notches should then
be cut from the closest edge of the fireboard to the centers of these holes,
which will allow the charred powder produced by the friction of the spinning
spindle to escape and accumulate.

The top socket can be made
from a piece of hardwood, bone, antler, or rock that will fit the palm of the
hand. The socket has a depression into which the top of the tapered spindle
will fit to stabilize it during the spinning.

The depression in the socket
should be as smooth as possible to minimize the friction at that point.

The hand bow can be a simple
bent stick, to which the cord that serves as the bowstring is secured at both
ends. The bow can be a rigid L-shaped stick, about a foot and a half long. The
cord should not be strung taut, but with some slack, so that it can be wrapped one
time around the spindle with just enough tension to rotate the spindle. The
cord will have to sustain a fair amount of friction.

Synthetic cord of at least
1/8-inch diameter, such as a bootlace, clothesline, or parachute cord usually
works well. Leather, rawhide, and plant fiber cords have all been used in the past.
The disadvantage of rawhide is that it stretches. The disadvantage of plant
fiber cords is that they tend not to wear as well.

Survivors might have to make
do with whatever they can find or make.

The key to the bow drill is
the coal that must ultimately appear in the generated charred powder. The
process will never create fire until the coal is produced. With adequate materials
and good technique, a coal should develop within a minute or two of rapid spindle

The coal won’t be visible at
first, but its existence will be apparent when the smoke issuing from the charred
powder is thick and continues rising from the powder on its own without further
friction. By then the powder will be a very dark brown or black, and it will contain
a tiny coal that won’t be visible until air is gently blown on it.

Very often when people are
first learning the bow-drill technique, they will encounter little trouble
generating a substantial amount of smoke, but they might lack the acquired
intuition for accurately reading the smoke, or fail to understand exactly how
to proceed once they have the hidden coal in the charred powder. If the powder
keeps smoking steadily after the action stops, it’s time to set the spindle
aside and nurture that coal buried within. This is the most delicate part of
the whole process.

Before starting the spindle
to spin, an adequate tinder bundle should be prepared into which the coal can
be transferred after it develops. A mass of fine dry fibers, like a bird’s
nest, makes the ideal tinder bundle.

Mosses, crumpled dry leaves,
certain fuzzy tree barks, and cattail fluff are all popular for tinder. A flat,
rigid leaf or flat piece of bark might be useful under the fire hole in the
fireboard to catch the charred powder. A thin, pointed twig is also useful for
prying the accumulated powder out of the wedge-shaped notch in the fireboard
and onto the flat plate of bark, where it can be gently blown on before being
transferred to the tinder bundle, or directly into the tinder bundle. These things
should be made ready before the drilling starts. It is also important to have
the fire pit ready with dry twigs stacked up to take advantage of the flames
that will hopefully soon arise from the bird’s nest and have a supply of
firewood to sustain the fire once it gets going. Survivors are usually people
who learn to think ahead.

The basic technique with the
bow drill might be described as follows:


  1.  Place the fireboard on
    level ground with one of the fire holes over a flat piece of bark to catch the
    powder, or bridge the fireboard over a shallow depression in the ground filled with
    some tinder for catching the powder. 
  2. Kneel down next to the
    fireboard on one knee and step on one end of the fireboard with the other foot
    to stabilize it.
  3. Wrap the bowstring once
    around the spindle’s middle section and, holding the components with one hand,
    fit the bottom point of the spindle into one of the holes in the fireboard.
  4. With the top socket in
    the palm of the hand, fit it over the top of the spindle while steadying the
    spindle upright. Moderate downward pressure should be applied to the socket and
    gradually increased when the spinning starts.
  5. With the opposite hand
    holding the bow close to its end nearest the body, a sawing motion back and
    forth should get the spindle spinning smoothly. The speed can be increased
    gradually to build up the friction in the fire hole, until heavy smoke indicates
    that a coal is in the powder.
  6. Once it becomes apparent
    that a coal is in the powder, the spindle can then be set aside and the powder
    carefully transferred to the bird’s nest tinder bundle using the pointed twig,
    and gently fanned or blown on. The coal will first appear in the charred powder
    as a tiny glowing red dot the size of a pinhead when the air hits it.

As it is fanned or blown on,
it will grow. The powder containing the coal should be placed into the center
of the tinder bundle where it can spread and flame up. The tinder should be
gradually closed around it while a steady stream of air is supplied to it. The
smoke will continue to increase until the flames erupt.

If the spindle starts
binding or squeaking during the spinning, something isn’t right.

The components should be
closely inspected and any needed corrections made before continuing. Also, if
the bowstring stretches and gets too loose to effectively spin the spindle, it
should be tightened up sufficiently.

A small amount of slack in
the cord can often be taken up simply by cupping several fingers of the bow
hand over it at that end and drawing it into the curve of the bow to tighten it
up, holding it taut during the spinning.

The hand drill method
A simpler friction fire
method, but one that some consider more difficult for the beginner to master,
is the hand drill. The principle of using a wooden shaft to create fiction by
rotation in a depression in the fireboard is exactly the same. But with the
hand drill, the smaller diameter shaft (normally 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch diameter)
is rolled back and forth between the open palms of both hands to produce
rotation. The hands spin the shaft one direction and then the other, while
simultaneously applying downward pressure. The motion simulates rubbing the
palms of the hands together, and they work their way down to the base of the
shaft very quickly, forcing the frequent changing of hand position back to the
top of the shaft, temporarily disrupting the rotation.

Some books show a variation
to this technique that includes the use of cord thumb loops tied to the top of
the shaft, whereby the hands can continue rotating the shaft with suspended
thumbs, allowing enhanced downward pressure and sustained motion without the
problem of the hands working their way down to the base. This simple adaptation
makes the hand drill perhaps even more practical overall than the bow drill,
once all of the particulars have been worked out.

Flint and steel
While the friction fire
methods produce a smoking coal, the more modern flint and steel fire methods
produce sparks, which are actually very small hot shavings of carbon steel. I have
never been able to ignite organic tinder directly with a spark from flint and
steel, but when the sparks fall on black charred cloth, the sparks will create
glowing coals that can then be fanned and introduced to the tinder bundle to
obtain flames.

Charred cotton cloth or
canvas can be produced easily using virtually the same process as described to
make charcoal, but instead of wood chunks, a metal container is filled with
pieces of cloth. The lid is locked securely on a container that has only a
small ventilation hole to allow gases to escape and, exactly as we do while
making charcoal, the container is placed in a fire and cooked until flames emit
from the ventilation hole. The limited oxygen within the container permits the
charring process, but prevents the conversion of the cloth into ashes.

Flint, agate, chert, and quartz are the most common rocks
for creating sparks with steel. I believe the best steel for sparking is
hardened, plain high-carbon steel. Most files make fine flint strikers when a
long scraping surface is ground smooth on a flat side or edge.

My preferred method for
striking flint and steel together entails covering the fingers of my left hand
with a leather pad to protect them from the sharp edges of the flint and,
holding the steel in my left hand and the flint with my right, striking the sharp
flint against the smooth surface of the steel with downward glancing blows over
a piece of black charred cloth, directing the sparks onto it until one
continues glowing after it hits the cloth. Some people prefer striking the
steel against the flint. My method is simply an attempt to simulate the action
of a flintlock gun, which I know from experience works very well. In any case,
a good tinder bundle must be kept ready to take advantage of a hot coal.

There are more modern
variations of the flint and steel system sold in outdoor outfitter stores. They
use the same type of flint substitute material (primarily a composition of iron
and cerium) used in some cigarette lighters and, when scraped by an edge of
steel, this produces extremely hot sparks. The popular flint strikers embedded
into magnesium blocks are wonderful products for the backpacker’s kit. They
throw showers of super hot sparks, and small amounts of the magnesium can be
scraped off of the block and into a pile of shavings using a knife blade,
quickly providing effective tinder that will possibly ignite even damp leaves
or pine needles.

Firemaking tips

Wet weather
Getting a fire started in
wet weather can be a monumental challenge, even with a healthy supply of
matches. A few simple tricks may improve the odds. If survivors are fortunate
enough to have road flares, getting an emergency campfire started should
obviously be no problem at all, but we can’t always count on having these when a
fire is needed.

Standing deadwood is always
preferred over damp, rotting trees and branches collected off the ground, or
green live wood, as these can be difficult to ignite. Thick branches can be
feathered with a series of knife cuts to expose layers of dry material and
create finer fuel with better air exposure to aid combustion. Pitch or resin (tree
sap) can be the fire maker’s savior. It does not absorb moisture like porous
wood does, and it is very flammable, even in the dampest of conditions. It
burns hot, and will sustain flames usually long enough to dry out other moist tinder
materials in adverse weather.

Quite often, the difference
between success and failure in attempting to create fire will be determined by
the tinder. Materials that don’t easily ignite can really waste your efforts.
Most of the fine, fibrous organic materials make suitable tinder as long as
they are dry. Prepackaged tinder or other fuels can be very important to a survival
kit. Cotton balls can be rubbed in petroleum jelly to make them more flammable and
then sealed in plastic containers to keep moisture out during storage. When
they are needed, their fibers can be pulled apart slightly to enhance the air
circulation. Fine 0000-steel wool is another good tinder to pack in the survival
kit. The wool will burn when showered by the hot sparks from the striker in the
magnesium block.

A lot of survival books
describe the technique of starting a fire with a magnifying lens. When we were
kids we would burn holes in leaves and newspapers with a magnifying glass for
fun. This method requires certain elements for it to be successful: sunshine, a
magnifying lens with sufficient magnification power, the skill needed to
concentrate the sun’s rays into a small focal point and then hold it steady
until combustion is obtained, and proper tinder or flammable material to take
advantage of the generated heat. Burning holes in newspapers on a hot summer
day is one thing — creating and sustaining a campfire in adverse weather conditions
is something else altogether.

a fire

There may be situations when
a fire is needed, but building one is risky because the light or smoke may
reveal your position to others who are hunting you or who might be considered
hostile. The famous “Dakota Hole” is one way to have the warmth of a small fire
while keeping the thermal signature to a minimum. It is simply a pit in the ground
about the same depth and diameter as a 5-gallon pail that will contain a very small
fire. A ventilation tunnel is bored into the base of this main fire hole,
angled down from a surface opening several feet away and ideally about the
diameter of a pop can, to carry the needed air to the fire in the bottom of the

By keeping the flames below
ground level in the Dakota Hole, and using the driest available wood to
minimize smoke, a degree of warmth can be enjoyed and limited cooking can be
accomplished, possibly without drawing unwanted attention to the campsite.

Such a hole is also easy to
fill in when it’s time to pack up and move, burying the ashes and erasing the
signs of a campfire. If the position of the fire pit is near the base of a tall
tree, the branches might serve to help screen any dissipating smoke, minimizing
a detectable smoke signature. However, extra caution should accompany the
increased fire hazard of a fire close to a live tree, or under any low-hanging

Read more: Learn how to use and tie knots in Surviving in Tough Times: How to Tie Knots.

This excerpt has been
reprinted with permission from
Long-Term Survival in
the Coming Dark Age: Preparing to Live after Society Crumbles, published by Paladin Press, 2007. Buy this
book from our store:
Long-Term Survival in the Coming Dark Age. 

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