Last year Emily Sotelo was going to hike all 48 of New Hamsphire’s peaks before her 20th birthday. She got though 40 of them before dying on a hike. It was unexpectedly bad weather along with some rookie mistakes that killed her. From an article recounting her death…..
According to Kneeland, Sotelo wasn’t carrying any of the essentials that officials recommend for day hikes, even in the summer. No map, compass, or matches. No flashlight or headlamp, though her parents said she used her phone as a light and had a backup battery pack.
In her pack, she had granola bars, a banana and water that likely froze very early on, Kneeland said. She wore long underwear but only light pants and a jacket. She had heated gloves and a neck warmer but no hat. Her shoes were for trail running or trekking rather than insulated boots that are recommended for winter.
“I often refer to them as a glorified sneaker,” Kneeland said. “Low on the ankle, no ankle support. Probably what happened is, when you start post-holing in snow and underbrush, they get pulled off.”
Emily made a lot of mistakes as we all do (especially when we are young). But if she had the equipment and the knowledge of how to make a fire, the same ice covered trees that hindered the search party looking for her could have saved her life even with all the other mistakes she made. At least, that is theory behind why the Park Service in New Hampshire tells you to take matches with you when you go on a hike in the mountains.
Now when I was Emily’s age, I never had any equipment with me to start a fire either. These days when I am out and about I generally have something with me to start the fire. But all my fire starting has been done in good weather. When you actually need to start a fire, the weather is generally pretty bad or you would not need the fire. So how well would I do with what little knowledge I have and equipment I have on hand in less than ideal conditions?
To answers these questions, I intend to do one fire a week from the start of January through the end of March. I am not trying to teach myself anything exotic but rather to see how well what I “know” and what I have carries over to fire starting in winter weather. The goal is to try something new either in terms of conditions or in terms of equipment used every week. I also plan on timing each attempt just to have some kind of basis for comparison (and also because if you ever actually need a fire, you don’t have all day).
So with that preamble out of the way, below is my first fire report for the two fires I made on January 2nd 2023.
Conditions: The temperature when I started was 46 degrees and there was no precipitation. Early in the week it had been raining on top of snow and there was still snow in some spots but all and all the weather was as good as it gets this time of year. But even though it had been at least 24 hours since it last rained, everything was still wet and everywhere I walked there was mud under my boots.
1st Test: “The Winter Coat Pocket” Fire.
A bic lighter in an Exotac Firesleeve and cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly. Both things are normally carried in an inner coat pocket in my winter coat.
Carrying around cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly is an easy and cheap way of having an almost guaranteed fire. Below you can see how many of them I fit in the small bag that I keep in inner coat pocket (and for reference, I have small hands).
I had my bic lighter in an Exotac Firesleeve. This is a case that protects your bic lighter from water, being accidentally depressed and thus losing all it fluid, and from being smashed while still allowing you to easily use it whenever you want.
There is a significant group of critics who consider the Firesleeve to be a gimmick that is not worth the money. And to a certain extent, they have a point. You can protect a bic lighter from water with a plastic baggy and one of the first things they taught us in a wilderness skills course was to tie a piece of bankline around the top of our lighter to prevent the lever from accidently depressing in our pockets. But for someone like me who is prone to smashing fragile things kept on my person, the $16 price (at the time of this writing, I don’t remember what I paid) is worth it to keep me from smashing my lighter.
There is one thing about the Firesleeve that I thought was pretty gimmicky and that is the little tab that you can use keep your lighter on without using your thumb. You should not need to keep your lighter on that long to start a fire and who is that big of a wimp that their thumb can’t take a little flame?
Spoiler Alert: I mildly burnt my thumb starting my second fire of the day…..
I started the clock just before I entered the woods on the south side of my house. It only took me walking about fifty yards to get to some evergreens with lots of dead branches on the lower levels. The main purpose of this fire was to set a baseline of time when for how long it took with the “right” stuff so I was not in a hurry. Since the ground was so wet I made a base for the fire out of thumb size pieces and I collected a pile dead twigs from the lower level of the evergreens for the cotton ball to catch.
At some point I realized I was poking along so slowly that the fire was going to take embarrassingly long to start and I picked up the pace a bit. But I was never really hurrying.
When I felt that I had collected enough dry(ish) wood that I could create a fire hot enough that it would burn even less than ideal wood, I lit the cotton ball and put the twigs over it. From there it was simple to add on the thumb size wood until the fire was hot enough that I knew it could be sustained. I then took a picture and stopped the clock.
I did not clear away all the debris and leaf litter from around where I started the fire because that would have created a muddy mess. It was so wet and muddy you could not have started a forest fire with a blow torch. But just to be safe, I covered the entire site of the fire with snow that I brought from nearby when I was all done. I say all that because when I looked at the picture of the fire afterwards, everything in the picture looks perfectly dry when that was not the case (although you should be able to tell by how untouched everything even right up close to the fire that it was all really wet).
The fire when I stopped the clock:
Total Time Elapsed: 13 minutes
2nd Test: “Lighter only” Fire (failed). “Lighter plus Pocket Knife” Fire.
Equipment Used: At first this was going to be a lighter only test just to compare it in time to the other test. But after a few failed attempts and running out of daylight, I had to bring in my pocket knife to help me out.
The first test was more about setting a baseline comparison then real practice so I wanted to do a second fire that was a little more challenging. I figured I would see how long it would take me to start a fire using a “lighter only” and no other tools. I knew it would be harder without the cotton ball in the wet conditions but I figured it was doable.
I started the clock on this test in the same location as I ended the other test. So there was no walking to speak of as all the evergreens were already nearby. I was little more focused on gathering the wood this time but still not hurrying. I kept an eye out for hardened sap on the evergreen trees as I was gathering wood. I did not find a lot but I found what I hoped was enough. It did not help that I lost a chunk of what I did find trying to gather it (it is harder to gather when you don’t use a knife).
I built the base of the fire same as last time but I took more time processing my twigs and had more of them. I tried to arranged harden sap in a way to best ensure it caught the twigs on fire and set it alight.
The sap caught fire just fine but it did not last long enough to set the twigs on fire. That set me to looking around for something else that might start off my fire train as even the “dry” twigs would not stay lit if you tired to light them on fire.
I tried dead pine needles from a branch that was sheltered but they did not want to keep a fire going anymore then the “dry” twigs alone would. I tried beach leaves from small standing trees. They took the flame pretty readily but would not sustain.
At this point, I was running out of daylight. I knew where there were some birch trees but it would have been pitch black by the time I got to them. So I decided to break my rules and use something besides just a lighter. I took one of the larger branches that I had gathered that was half punky and ripped the punky part off as it had absorbed to much moisture from the surrounding air. Next I took out my pocket knife and started slicing off thin shavings of wood from the center of the stick until I had a small pile.
Even then the wood shavings did not catch right away. It only took a couple of seconds for them to light but when you turn a bic lighter on its side, the flame naturally roles towards your thumb even if you are working with the breeze (there was none to speak of). When things catch right away this not a problem but it don’t take long for your thumb to start to hurt. It was only after I started writing up this report that I remembered that the firesleeve has a “gimmick” to solve that very problem.
Below is the fire when I stopped the clock. It looks bigger in the picture then the first one but I think that is just because it was getting dark as so the fire shows up more. And of course, all the stuff I wrote about why I did not clear away the pines and such from the first fire also apply to this one.
The fire when I stopped the clock:
Total Time Elapsed: 36 minutes
I knew that it would be harder to start a fire without the cotton balls but I really thought I would get the fire going with only a lighter. If I had more time, or if I had a birch tree nearby, I am sure that I could have. But when you truly need a fire, you don’t always have the option of more time or only needing the fire when a birch tree is around. A more competent person also might have gotten the fire started, but I don’t think I will ever have the time to be an expert fire starter.
Almost everywhere along the east coast there is plenty of stuff to burn in any situation you might find yourself in. It is getting it started that is the trick. That is why when they found the well preserved body of Stone Age man high in the Alps they found that he had fire kit in his pouch that included plenty of tinder. Intellectually I knew this already and that is why I have a lighter and a tinder source in my inner winter coat pocket. But I did not think that conditions were bad enough that I really “needed” a tinder source.
Now if you want to compare the above sorry tale of incompetence with someone who knows a lot more experience, you can watch the below video by Paul Harrell. He is not a “survival expert” and so does not show any fancy tricks. He shows his age in this video as it is more my Dad’s era of tips and tricks then anything from the present time (for one thing, he does not seem to know about ferro rods. They are not the same thing as the flint an steel he talks about). But as an old guy who has been a hunter/competitive shooter/comedian his entire life, he has a lot more experience than me and he is working in conditions that are worse. It is interesting to compare what he did to what I did.