Fire Log #2: Wet Lighter Drill and Backpacking Lighter Test

The rules I set for myself for doing a fire every week were that I had to try something new every time. To my rational mind, the concept is similar to how you go up when you are lifting weights. A little bit more every time is how you progress. The problem is that my irrational daydreaming mind thinks it knows more than it does and just doing one new thing seems boring.

As a result, I had planned on doing four new things for this test. I wanted to do a wet lighter drill, I wanted to start a fire at night using only the flashlight I almost always have in my pocket for light, I wanted to use what I call my “backpack” lighter to start a fire by itself, and I wanted to start a fire with no other tools then my “backpack” lighter and flashlight in wet conditions without relying on evergreens to provided my wood. I did not think this would take me much time (I was on a tight timeline for this test) as I figured I could test all four of those things with one fire. But in the end, I only succeeded in successfully accomplishing two of my four goals because I did not know as much as I thought I did.

Conditions: I forgot to look at the temp when I started but it was 33 degrees out when I ended. Everything was extremely wet because of recent rains. Start to finish it was extremely dark as it was at night and there was solid cloud cover. Occasional snow or ice was coming down for the sky but not heavy enough to really impact anything. It was what I would call breezy (weather forecast said gust of up to 15 miles an hour) but the wind speed did kick up somewhat towards the end of test.

1st Test: Wet Lighter Drill In The Dark.

Equipment Used: My “backpack lighter” and my Streamlight Microstream USB rechargeable flashlight.

Equipment Digression:

What I call my “backpack” lighter is a regular bic lighter with some bank lined tired around the top and what I think is Gorilla tape wrapped around the body (been a long time since I set this lighter up so I don’t remember for sure what brand tape it was). The bank line is to prevent the button from being depressed accidentally and all the gas escaping. The Gorilla tape was what I thought would work as emergency tinder if I ever needed it. Picture of my backpack lighter below…..

It don’t look like much but it is a lot cheaper set up then buying a fire sleeve for it like I did for my winter coat lighter. It is not protected against crushing but in the right place in your pack that is not a real problem. And while it can get wet, I was pretty sure that I could bring a wet lighter back quickly so that was not a huge concern of mine.

The Streamlight Microstream is one the best flashlights I have ever bought. Extremely small so you hardly even notice it in your pocket but it throws out a ton of light and I can recharge it if need to with the same battery pack that I carry around to recharge my work phone (when I am out in the field I typically kill my work phone in half a day, even when I am in the office my work phone is sometimes almost dead by the end of the day). It has a clip on it that you can use to turn it into a headlamp if you have a ball cap on and it is small enough to easily hold it your mouth. Picture below for reference so you can see how small it is.

I know it does not look like a very functional flashlight but it is. One time a co-worker was looking for a leak above the ceiling. He was trying to use the flashlight on this phone but it was not throwing the light far enough to see what we needed to see. When I pulled out my flashlight he flat out told me it would not be any better his phone light (I may have been busting on him for not having a flashlight as that is pet peeve of mine when my guys don’t have flashlights given our roles). He was shocked when my little flashlight lit everything up and he used it until he found what he needed to see.

When I first went out into the darkness and started to move towards the creek to do the wet lighter test, I was disturbed to find that while the momentary function worked fine but it would not work in the always on mode (most of the time I only use the momentary function). But I quickly realized that I needed to tighten the cap down and the flashlight worked flawless after that.

Narrative for wet lighter drill:

I dunked my “back pack lighter” in a flowing stream with my right hand and then my left. I wanted to make sure the lighter was good and soaked but given how cold it was I did not want either hand to have to stay in the water for too long. I was surprised that the water did not feel all that cold but my hands did start to go numb not long after.

I started the timer after I took the lighter out of the water and began the wet lighter drill. The first struggle was getting the bank line off. It is set up with a knot that is easy to loosen but either through the fact of my general incompetence at physical tasks or the fact that my hands were already being impacted by the cold it took me longer then I thought it should.

After I got the bank line I went through what I remembered of the steps of the wet lighter drill. I had no particular trouble but it seemed to take longer than I thought it should. What really frustrated me is that I started to get spark, but I still could not get it to light. I was taught that all you needed to dry it out enough for it to spark and it would light. Eventually I got the lighter to work reliably and I marked the time and then moved on with the task of starting the fire.

All told, it did not go too badly. This was technically not the first time I have done a wet lighter drill as I did one for class back in July of last year. But it was the first time I have done the drill in the dark and cold so I am going to count it as doing a new thing.

Time For The Wet Lighter Drill: Just about 3 minutes.

2nd Test: Light a fire using the tape wrapped around the lighter (failed). Get a fire going in a wet area without relying on evergreens (failed). Light a fire in the dark (success).

Equipment Used: The now working backpack lighter. The streamlight microstream. And after the tape failed, a cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly.

I started the time for fire starting as soon as I had the lighter working reliably. It was then that the dark really started to impact me. Normally you just find what you want and make a pile near where you want the fire. And If I had not been trying to avoid relying on evergreens I would have just picked a good one and made a fire near it. Since I was not using a evergreen and since I was avoiding making a fire right on one of the trails, I found it unexpectedly difficult to re-find where I was dropping off stuff to start the fire.

I don’t want to oversell the difficulty. I was in a small patch of woods that I knew well and I had a good flashlight. But I got aggravated enough trying to constantly re-find my fire spot that I started the fire when I knew I did not have enough good materials. My thought was that the light of the fire that I was getting started would mark the spot and make it easier to run around and get the rest of my kindling to get the fire good and strong.

It was then that I discovered two things. My hands were numb enough that it was a little bit of challenging to get them to work the way I wanted them to (I had more difficulty then I should have peeling the tape from around my lighter). I also discovered that I could not get the tape that I was trying to light to stay burning. The idea behind this test was that I remembered a video of Jason Salyer simply wrapping duct tape around wet kindling and setting it on fire (I later discovered my memory was incomplete). But for me the tape wrapped around the kindling would not stay lit. At the time I thought that maybe it was because I had got that tape wet when doing the wet lighter drill or maybe something about Gorilla tape made it not work as well as normal duct tape.

To be fair, I did not spend very much time trying to make it work. Between my hands being cold and dinner time with visiting family fast approaching, I decided that a wet lighter drill, making fire at night, and hopefully making a fire without relying too much on evergreens was all I was doing after all. So I pulled the little bag old cotton balls out of my coat and then the tape and everything else lit right up. In no time I had enough of a fire that my hands warmed up.

But I still had problems as I had not gathered enough kindling to really get the fire going. And while the cotton ball did get things going, my little fire was still struggling to make the wet nearby wood work. In spite of some huffing and puffing and trying to help the fire out, I was losing ground. The nearby wood was just too wet.

When I tried to go further afield to look for better wood, I lost all sight of my fire as soon as I went a couple of yards. I had thought I would be able to see the glow and maybe if the flashlight had not prevented my night vision from developing I would have. Regardless, I had to hunt for my fire every time I went back to it. If my fire was not constantly trying to die on me this would have been no big deal but the extra delay only made ignominy of the fire going out seem more and more likely.

In the end, I gave up on the idea of not relying on evergreens to get the fire going. I went to the nearest evergreen and got a couple of dead branches from way up on the tree (had to jump to get them). They were the driest wood by far I had seen all night and they were enough to get my fire to a solid footing.

The picture below does not do the fire justice but I did not realize how much the light from my flashlight was going to wash things out.

Total Time Elapsed: 36 minutes (plus the time of wet lighter drill everything was just about 40 minutes).

Lessons Learned:

1. I did not understand how to use tape as a fire starter. I possibly do now but I am not going to say for sure until I successfully start the fire using this method.

My goal with the tape was to duplicate a Jason Salyer video that I had last seen a little over a year ago. I did not bother to refresh my memory before this test because I thought it was a simple enough trick that there was not much to remember. But when I reviewed the below video after my failed attempt, I discovered I had failed to remember a crucial detail.

I don’t know why, but I had thought if I put flame to the tape it would light up like a candle wick. But almost everything under the sun needs to be processed a little bit in order to catch fire. Even fuel oil will not ignite in a boiler if it is not atomized first. If I had made the little ball of thin strips of tape that you see Jason making in the above video, I suspect it would have worked just fine for me. It is possible that the tape being wet is also a factor but I doubt it. If I ever try this method again, I will test it with the tape dry and with the tape wet to see if it matters much.

2. Cold water will impact the wet lighter drill.

I was not happy with the time it took me to do the wet lighter drill. It is very simple drill and I think it is taught mostly so people don’t panic under stress in a hypothermic situation. The main point of the drill is that is reliable and fast and can be done even if you are not thinking real well. So how did I screw up something so simple?

To figure this out, I went looking for a video about how to do the drill from the guy who taught me (Joshua Enyart). I found it (see below) and discovered that I had not done a few things as well as I might (I forgot the drying of striker on shirt and when I blew on the lighter it was more of angle then straight up and down like you see him doing below). But he repeats what I remember him telling me in person and that is as soon as you get it dry enough to spark it will light. And yet I was very clearly getting sparks long before I got the lighter to light.

That got me to thinking. I know that bic lighters did not work well in cold weather (it is one of their downfalls and why you need to keep them close to your body in the winter) but I had not thought that 33 degrees was all that cold. But a quick look at Wikipedia shows that the vaporizing temperature of butane is 30 to 34 °F which was the temperature of the air and water that night. In other words, not only did I get the lighter too wet to work, I got the lighter too cold to work. It needed to warm up before the liquid butane would turn to gas and light.

3. I don’t know enough to reliably start a fire in wet conditions without either an accessible large evergreen or tools.

In one sense, this is not that big of deal as rare to get too far from evergreens in the part of the country where I live and I almost always have a pocket knife if I had to do some processing. But it is still something I have learned as I honestly thought I would have had an easier time doing without evergreens if I had to. I strongly suspect that if I get around to trying to make fire near birch trees I would have an easier time doing without the evergreens.

But the biggest thing about this series of misadventures is that reinforced the value of doing these drills. It only took me an hour all told (counting getting to the site and putting out the fire with a bucket I walked back to the house to get when I was all done) and it taught me/reminded me of a bunch of small but important details that I tend to overlook when only learning about these things intellectually.

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