As a follow up to trying to get the “Bad Girl” to start her own fire, I wanted to see if she retained anything useful and if she could start a fire when she had to gather the wood herself. A good opportunity to do this presented itself in the form of a nephew’s birthday party. The property at which this party took place had more suitable woods then I own (a good part of my property is swamp) and wandering out into them was a good way to burn off some of the sugar high after the presents were unwrapped.
Two of my brothers decided to come along as well. I had thought they were just coming along to add to the pressure on “Bad Girl” but as it turns out, they wanted to try their hand at staring a fire in poor conditions themselves. As a result, there were three people of varying skill levels trying to make fire in the snow with scavenged wood for the first time.
Originally I was going to do something myself while “Bad Girl” was doing her thing, but with so many people to watch I did not really do anything other than set up an alcohol stove using the Firebox Nano stove and light it with a ferro rod. So what follows will just be my observations on the three first time fires in the snow.
Conditions: The temperature was in the high 20s with snow everywhere. It was cloudy with no real wind. This one was done in the daylight with plenty of time for everyone to do what they needed to do. The below picture (the only one I took of the day) shows what the open field we walked up looked like that day.
Test: Start a fire in the snow with firewood gathered from the snow covered landscape (including standing dead).
To make things easier to understand, I am going to present the story of each fire individually even though they happened concurrently. We will the start with the first one to get a fire going.
The Silverware Thief
Intro: The Silverware Thief (calling him that because that is his blog title) was the oldest and most experienced of the group (save for the fact that I had helped bad girl start a fire in similar conditions a couple of weeks ago). Over the course of his life, he had started many a bonfire, campfire, and wood stoves. He is also one of the few (if not the only) people who actually reads ever fire log so he had a good idea of what to expect. But he had never started a fire in the conditions that he faced with the method he used during this test and he does not have time to watch the videos that I embed. That helps explain his one surprising mistake in an otherwise very competent run.
Equipment Used: One Zippo Typhoon Match
The Silverware Thief was clearly intent on lighting his fire as fast as possible. He quickly assembled a very serviceable ball of fine kindling that I thought was just big enough to get larger kindling going. But he did not gather any bigger kindling. I temporally forgot I was not supposed to helping and expressed my concern. His reply was that he had some standing dead right close and he could get more wood in plenty of time.
When he was ready to start the fire, he elected to use one Zippo Typhoon Match as his fire starter. By this time, I had remembered that I was not supposed to be helping so I just watched him figure out the match container. He quickly figured out where the strike pad was and he knew what it was for. But then he surprised me by trying to strike the match off of the rough part of his jacket. He was clearly trying to experiment to see if he could light it without the strike pad (he may have even said as much) but the very fact that he tried the experiment indicates that he did not know that all available “storm proof” matches regardless of manufacture are safety matches.
Since The Silverware Thief had damaged the match head on his jacket, he had some trouble getting it to light when he tried it on the strike pad. But with a little more effort than normal, he got it lit and in turn he successfully lit his kindling. And just as he said, he was able to gather enough other kindling fast enough to create a sustainable fire in very short order.
Estimate of Total Time: I failed to start the timer until after people had spent some time gathering their kindling so I can’t be sure of total time from when they started. But I would guess based on what my timer was showing that the Silverware Thief got his fire to a sustainable state in under 15 minutes.
The Silverware Thief did very well for his first time in starting a fire in winter “survival” conditions. I think he would have been faster if he had broken off a couple of dead evergreen branches and strip them down into their component parts rather than focus solely on the gathering of fine material in the beginning. But that minor quibble aside, he demonstrated a good understanding of fire and its needs and the success of his fire was never in doubt once he got the match lit.
When it comes to matches, I strongly suspect he does not know the difference between Safety Matches and Strike Anywhere matches. I meant to ask him about that when we were all done but he had to leave before everyone else was done to put kids to bed and I forgot to follow up with him.
When we were kids, the only person we knew who regularly used matches was our Grandpa and he used strike anywhere matches exclusively (at least in my memory). In our parents home growing up lighters were always the thing to use when starting a fire so we never had much occasion to use matches. So I suspect that the Silverware Thief’s knowledge of matches stems of childhood memories of Grandpa.
But these days it is very hard to find strike anywhere matches. And as Paul Harrell grouses in the video I embed at the end of my very first fire log, what strike anywhere matches you can find no longer work very well. There is some debate is to why this is, but in the end it don’t really matter. The important thing to know is that if you buy matches today they are most likely safety matches. And safety matches can only light if the strike pad has a chemical that will react with the match head.
This is why I am not sure if matches are worth the weight in a emergency firelight kit. The strike pad and the matches both have to be protected from water. You need to be able to easily find the strike pad in the dark and have it in a form that is too easy to use even if your hands are numb and don’t work very well. I think the Zippo match container that I have solves all those problems very well. But the size of it makes me wonder if it is really worth carrying considering what you could be taking instead.
The Bad Girl
Intro: “The Bad Girl” was already introduced in Fire Log #9. She had already started in fire in conditions like this with guidance. This test was about whether she could start one having gathered all the wood herself and without any advice.
Equipment Used: One ferro rod and one cotton ball soak in petroleum jelly.
Since this was primarily a test for her, the Bad Girl is the one who choose the site for the fires. As soon as we had got past the edge of the field, she made a bee line for a couple of large evergreens at the edge of the property. This was a good selection on her part and as a result there was plenty of dry wood for everyone to start fires with.
After she had choose the location, she started gathering her fines first by walking around the edges of the evergreens and breaking off dead fines. This was proper material selection on her part but it was a very slow way of doing it. But she kept after it until she had enough fines and then moved on to bigger stuff.
When she was finally ready to start her fire, she had enough of the right kind of wood and it was separated properly. Using the ferro rod and a cotton ball she got everything burning and in very short order she had a sustainable fire. If she had been faster at gathering kindling she would have given the Silverware Thief a run for his money.
Estimate of Total Time: It took the Bad Girl about five to ten minutes longer then the Silverware Thief to get her fire to a sustainable place.
It made me very happy to see that she had truly learned from the last time I convinced her to give it a try. That said, one of the lessons she learned last time led her astray during this test.
When I asked her why she took so long gathering the kindling, she said it was because she was afraid of it getting wet. I think part of that fear might have been because I had her break off the fines and stick them in her pocket last time. But that was with wood that had been lying on the ground for a couple of weeks in the rain and snow. I was trying to make sure it had a chance to dry out but I honestly don’t think that did much as she is a very cold blooded small framed girl. I doubt she put out enough body heat to dry much of anything.
Regardless, I pointed out that wood she had used last time had been lying on the ground for a couple of weeks through all sorts of bad conditions and she still got it lit. In this case, she could have broken off some of some branches and thrown them in a heap in the snow and she still would have done fine. If she had done that, she would have taken a lot less time to get the fire going.
But given where she started from, this is a minor quibble. She has gone from someone who could not start a fire in the snow without help to someone who knew just what to do to get a fire started. And this transition seemed to make her pretty happy. As she expressed it, it felt good to know you could start a fire anywhere.
Of course, that is not quite true. She can start a fire in bad conditions if she has the right tools. Now the question is how could you put together a fire kit that she would actually carry and have with her should she need it? This is particularly challenging given that she is a female and her cloths often do not have this wonderful thing known as pockets.
(on a side note, I can’t resist pointing out the the below video shows what it is really like to be able to start a fire anywhere).
The Strong Silent One
Intro: When he was young I used to call him “Bashful” after the Snow White Dwarf. Now that he is grown and done all sort of adult things that don’t seem to be as fitting and naming him after that particular dwarf gives the wrong impression of his level of athleticism. But he is still not a very outgoing man so we will go with the strong silent stereotype to describe him.
Even though we are brothers, we are of different generations so I don’t know for sure what his experience with fire is like. When the older boys were around, he did not light the fires. And when he was around his peers, I was not around to see what he did. The only thing I know for sure is that he has lit plenty of wood stove fires. And as events would show, he had never tried to start a fire in wet or snowy conditions before.
Equipment Used: At least three Zippo Typhoon matches and at least one cotton ball soaked in petroleum jelly.
The Strong Silent One made his fire furthest from the other two so it was harder to watch him and still see what the others were doing. Also, it was clear to me as soon as I saw his fire lay that he was not going to light is his fire so I focused more attention on watching the other two who I thought would succeed.
The problem with his fire was twofold. The first is that he was trying to start off with material that was too big for the level of general dampness. At some level, I think he understood that because he was trying to use as his flame starter some crumbled up punky wood. If it had been August his idea of how to do a fire lay might have worked. But in the middle of a snow covered landscape it had no chance with the standard fire lighting tools.
I don’t know what all he tried but I know he used at least two matches and a cotton ball before he looked dejected enough that I thought I should offer some help. I offered to help get his fire lay started “the cheating way” (I had in mind using an Esbit tablet or two) or to show him how to do it the right way.
He wanted to do things the right way so I gave him a very brief lecture on the concept of the Fire Ladder and showed him where to break off some branches. In almost no time he had a roaring fire going.
Estimate of Total Time:
No point in talking about how long it took him when it was not working. After the short lecture he had a roaring fire going in what was not much longer than 10 minutes but I was not watching him real close after he got it going.
Whenever I am talking about fire starting, I have to fight the temptation to talk about the fire triangle and latent heat (important to understand what moisture is doing to your fire making efforts). But experience has shown me that people’s eyes tend to glaze over when you talk about such things (although my experience trying to talk to people about those things is mostly in context of HVAC equipment).
What seems to have worked well for both the Bad Girl and for the Strong Silent One is to take a dead evergreen branch and show them how there is three types of kindling on the branch. The fine branches that grow out of the pencil sized branches that grow out of the thumb sized branches. You need to think of fire as climbing a ladder from one size to the next.
To start a fire you need to take a dead branch with all those sizes of dead branches still on it and break it down into those three types. You should have a least a softball pile of the fines and a basketball pile of pencil sized, and the amount of thumb size you left over from doing that should be right. You take your fines and put them over your flame source. Once the fines catch, you put the pencil sized over that. When they are going you put the thumb size over that. At this point you now have a fire big enough and hot enough to drive moisture out of crappier wood that you will find around.
Of course, this is overkill if you are in dry conditions with dry wood. An even bigger downside of this lecture is it is reliant on a particular type of dead evergreen branch that you will not find everywhere. Even a lot of evergreen trees will not have these dead branches on them depending on their maturity, type and growing conditions. But in this part of the country you don’t have to go far to find something like this. And more to the point, it is a very easy to way to teach the concept of a fire ladder. If you are in bad conditions and you can’t find this type of dead branch, you still have to recreate the basic concept out of what you do have even if that means taking a knife to some wood to create wood shavings.
Conclusion: This was probably one of the most fun fire tests I have done. Not only was it nice to see rapid improvement in younger siblings, it was also interesting to see how people’s personalities expressed themselves in how they went about trying to start a fire. In general, it reinforced the lesson that the knowledge of how to build a fire in bad conditions is more important than the method used to start it (at least among the “big three” of fire starters). But did highlight that there can be blind spots in regarding how to use and deal with the fire starters that might need to be addressed (such as how matches work or what happens to a lighter when it get cold).
It was also interesting to see how different people seemed to gravitate to different methods of starting a fire. Bad Girl has focused on the ferro rod (she tells me she does not like the smell of matches) where as both of the males wanted to use the matches.
I am not sure what lessons can really be learned from all of this that was applicable to my original question (how best to build fire kits for people who don’t have time to practice) but I guess it is good to be reminded about how we are all different when I start thinking in theoretical abstracts terms about what is good for a particular class of people.