Monday, January 6, 2014

Fire-starting Practice in the Rain

Today was a day made for hypothermia, just above freezing and raining fairly hard. A foot of slushy snow on the ground. Since the paradox of fire is that the more you need one the more difficult it is to build, I figured I'd take a hike and practice.

I took a small tarp, a knife, a ferrocerium rod, a matchsafe with 25 stormproof matches, and three pieces of "Tinder Quik" tinder. Way more than enough, right?

By the time I found a good flat spot with a rock that would serve as a reflector, I was overheated from post-holing through the heavy snow. By the time I rigged the tarp to give me a place to work out of the rain, I was wet and fairly cold even with a poncho on. 

I collected some birch bark and broke off some 'squaw wood' from white pine trees and carried them back to the tarp. I split the wood and carved some feather sticks, but even sheltered from the rain it was impossible to keep things dry. It took all three of my tinder pieces to get even birch bark burning. I nursed it very carefully and got some shavings and twigs burning, but ran out of kindling before I could ignite enough larger wood for the fire to be self-sustaining. I ran off to collect more. By the time I returned, the fire had gone out. There was plenty of birch bark and beech leaves on trees all around, but everything was too wet to light with a ferrocerium rod, so that left the storm matches. I used about half of them just to get the birch bark dry enough so that I thought I'd be able to light it when a large stray raindrop landed right on the matchsafe's striker strip. That was the end of that.

So I feel like the 'Cheechako' in Jack London's "To Build a Fire", or 'Hatchet Jack' from 'Jeremiah Johnson'. (Well, except that instead of freezing to death, I hiked home and my wife made me soup and pie...)

The tarp was one of those reflective types with a grommet at each corner. I've had it in my daypack for several backcountry trips in case of emergency, but had never used it before now. Even though I was careful not to string it too tautly, all four grommets had torn loose by the time the day was over.

I have an elk hunt planned for this fall in a very remote area, and I realize that I need to be much better prepared and equipped. I'd like to confidant of reliably starting a fire not just in rain and wet snow, but also in darkness and wind, and preferably one-handed. 

Lessons learned (or more accurately, things I already knew reinforced):

Use and test your gear before you really need it.

Carry more firestarters and especially more tinder than you think you'll need.

Process more kindling for your fire than you think you'll need.

Never miss an opportunity to fill your pockets with dry birch bark.