Flint and Steel firestarting, despite appearances yesterday, is NOT as easy as you might think.
We headed into the woods for the first group outing of 2006. As three of us had afternoon plans we intended to keep the hike short. Final turnout: Dan, Jeremy, Emma, Spen, Rebecca, Matt, Holzi, and me. Not bad for some last-minute planning.
For the past several months (on and off) I have been playing with various methods of firestarting. The method that has given me the most fits has been flint and steel. It always seemed simple enough but the lack of results discouraged me. I'd move on to a more reliable method always thinking I'd come back and work on flint and steel again later.
Finally, a week ago, I managed to catch a spark on my charcloth and transfer the glowing ember into a bundle of jute twine. That ember was blown to life inside the bundle and I had finally crossed over from "tried to" to "did it" (sort of.) While catching a spark and turning it into burning tinder is a success it isn't the kind of "save my life when I'm lost in the woods" kind of success. It is only a step on the path of flint and steel firestarting.
Tinder, kindling, and fuel wood are needed for fire. Burning tinder keeps you warm for a few minutes (at best) while a FIRE will warm you until the last of the embers cools. I had to take my flint and steel firestarting to that level before I could consider the skill mine. Fortunately that was mostly a matter of proper wood collection.
When collecting tinder (pencil-lead sized pieces) you want ONLY the sticks that snap off easily. If they bend they're going to be too wet to burn initially. Collect enough of these pieces to fill the space between your hands with you are touching index finger to index finger and thumb to thumb.
Next is kindling. Collect a big two-arm load of thumb-diameter sticks about as long as your forearm. This also needs to be nice and dry to most effectively build your fire but wetter sticks WILL dry out on the fire at this point.
Last is the fuel wood. This is the stuff you get that's as big around as your wrist, as long as you can carry, and can be larger, shorter, dryer, or wetter. Just keep in mind that wet logs WILL smoke more than dry. Build a stack of fuel wood to knee height if you're wanting the supply to last the night.
For our general purposes the kindling fire is more than enough to get us by. If on an overnight, however, there would be someone assigned to wood-collection duty as soon as we set up camp.
So, once the proper wood was collected I pulled out my striker (an old file,) my flint (harvested from my parents' landscaping,) my charcloth, and my jute twine. Unravelling the twine can be a pain but it will be worth it when the fire leaps to life. Three strikes with the file and I had a spark in the charcloth. The charcloth was stuffed into the bird's nest of jute and blown to life. The burning tinder was placed at the base of the tinder pile and allowed to burn. Once your tinder pile is burning add some of the kindling. Once the kindling is applied sit back and realize that you have actually built and started a FIRE with nothing more than a rock, an old file, and some burned cotton.
NOW I owned the skill. Picture Tom Hanks in "Cast Away" at the moment his ember turned to fire and you have some idea of what I was feeling.
It was now my responsibility to teach what I had learned to anybody that wanted to also own the skill. Sunday was my first chance and I happily obliged.
I lined up the necessary gear, built up how it could take me many strikes to even get a spark and many more to catch one, and then promptly caught a spark on the first or second strike. Whoops. :)
Matt, who had been paying close attention, pulled out his flint and steel firestarting kit and assembled his charcloth and flint just as I had and on his first or second strike caught a spark.
Everyone else just looked at how easy it was and went back to work on whatever they had been doing before our VERY short lesson.
Hmm...it takes me several months of trying to get a spark into the charcloth, another month of getting the charcloth to light the tinder, and another week after that to get the lit tinder to burn wood. Matt takes about a minute to cover all that ground. He's a natural.
There are a few tricks to flint and steel firestarting which I will get into later this week.
The outing was fun, it started and ended well, no injuries, no hurt feelings, and lots of positive comments already this morning from those involved. This makes me happy.
Time in the woods is sometimes best enjoyed alone. Other times it is nice to know that others share your passion and the company is welcome.
Thanks for reading,