They didn't have matches and they didn't have lighters. What they had was ingenuity and lessons passed down from past generations. Today you're going to learn some of what they knew and used to survive and live successfully off the land -- even in harsh conditions such as those faced by tribes that lived in the Great Plains and cold winters that could be 20 degrees or even 40 degrees below zero for many days or weeks at a time.
The difficulty is usually the result of wet weather or even snow on the ground. You can't burn wet wood or tinder -- not without gasoline. Even then it may not burn for long depending on how wet things are.
To get a rolling fire going, one that gives off plenty of heat and keeps you warm, that's going to take wood -- dry wood.
In the woods there might be plenty of wood around but how are you going to get wet wood hot enough to burn? The answer is tinder. Before we talk about tinder though, let's talk about how you can set fire to tinder, even if you don't have matches or a lighter: You need flint (quartz).
Now that you've got two pieces, now you can make a spark. Some quartz is hidden inside rocks, which you'll have to break open. Smash large rocks against other large rocks and see which ones break (sometimes you'll see a spark just doing that smashing). Or have a good sized hammer, and hammer rocks to pieces, watching for sparks to fly as your hammer strikes a rock (that's a good indication that that rock contains quartz).
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Other rocks to look for: Agate, carnelian, jade, bloodstone, chalcedony, chert can all work for creating sparks by striking against steel. Now, you might get a spark striking two of these types of stones against each other, but it's not going to last long enough to make it to your tinder bundle.
Now that you've found a piece of flint, you can strike it against steel and get an easy spark; but if you don't have any steel (knife, blade, hammer, screw driver, etc) you need to find a piece of iron-ore, like iron pyrite, which is common in many regions.
Let's talk about tinder for a moment -- tinder can be dried grass, thin dry shavings of wood, twigs, dry leaves, bark, pine needles (pine resin in the needles enables them to burn faster and hotter than dry leaves, keep that in mind), and other dry flammable debris in the forest. Dead, dried moss burns great -- even healthy moss that's a rich green can burn well as long as it's not wet.
If the moss is wet, there's a way to dry it out, or simply to begin the drying process (more on that below).
1) Dig down into the dirt and keep on digging until you get down to dry dirt (you may want to dig at the base of a large tree with good ground cover as you're most likely to find the driest dirt there).
The dirt on the forest floor may be wet -- but don't be fooled. Down below that layer is dry dirt -- but you may have to dig a foot or even two to get to it. Once you've reached dry dirt, scoop it out until you have a large pile of dry dirt next to the hole.
2) Squeeze the moss with both hands as though ringing out a wet rag.
3) Place that moss within a pile of dry dirt and cover it over. Flatten out the moss so that it's not bunched up.
4) Grab a large rock (dry it off with a shirt first if it's wet), and then begin to pound the dirt with the rock, where the moss is covered.
This is what's happening: As you pound dry dirt into the moss, you're "ringing out" the moss, like you would a wet rag. Keep pounding it. At the same time you're creating a small amount of heat from the force of impact -- which will aid in the drying of the moss by pounding the dirt. Remove the moss and move it to another patch of dry dirt. Keep pounding it. By the time you're done you should have semi-dry moss -- moss that may be dry enough to burn. Do this with pine needles as well, and also small twigs (which will be your first pieces of kindling).
A second way to dry out moss and (damp, dead grass) is by using your open palm to rub these pieces of tinder very fast against your leg. The same physics of friction that go into a "rug burn" can be used to dry out small amounts of moss and grass. For best effect (or any effect) your pants need to be dry.
1) Place the tinder "ingredients" on your leg and with your palm down start rubbing your hand against the tinder, very quickly, and continue to rub until you feel heat from the friction on your palm -- now you know it's working. Now you know the friction is generating heat.
2) Continue to rub your hand fast against your leg (the moss and grass and pine needles will begin to heat up under your hand effectively slowly drying the moss, grass, and other tinder debris) until each bit of moss and grass is dry or semi-dry.
The first step of working with tinder is to create a tinder-bundle. Often this works best with dried grass or dried moss and even a few dead and dry pine needles (mentioned above) -- though green pine needles right off a tree branch can work as well. A tinder-bundle is needed when you don't have any paper to burn -- paper is popular with people who camp recreationally -- paper is not generally used as tinder by survivalists as survivalists usually want to know how to make a fire using primitive methods, such as collecting natural tinder from the forest and then setting it on fire with a spark (rather than by using a lighter).
Tip: Cattail fluff makes great tinder as well; look far and wide for cattails; you'll usually find them growing near ponds and even lakes and sometimes rivers.
Tip: Look for conifers, as these are trees that can have sap (pitch) present. Within the sap is a substance known as resin, which burns well, once lit. Added to your tinder bundle, your tinder bundle can burn longer and hotter, helping a fire come to life. Conifers are trees that have cones, commonly called pinecones, though not all conifers are pine trees. Some conifers are spruce, Douglas-fir, cedar, hemlock, yew, larch, Monkey-puzzle Tree, Norfolk Island Pine, and Bald Cypress. Some trees, like pitch pines, form thick layers of pitch, which is easily harvested right off the side of the bark of the tree. Douglas-fir (which produces the richest, most flammable pitch), on the other hand, has the most available pitch in stumps and logs, which you may need to cut into.
Other places to find conifers with resin for harvesting is at log jams along rivers, or where logs have been washed ashore in previous months.
Collect resin in cans and save for future fire-making needs.
That first tee-pee of sticks will be built over your tinder and tinder-bundle. A second tee-pee, with longer and slightly bigger sticks will be built over the first tee-pee, effectively creating a second layer of sticks. The key though is to leave space for the fire to breath; one way to do this is by not using too many sticks and piling them too close together. If the wood is completely dry then spacing may not be an issue -- often though you may be dealing with sticks that are partially damp -- not completely dry. This could be the case in the hours following a rain storm or a morning with low clouds and condensation on the ground.
Don't give up on that water-soaked log quite yet. You can set it next to your fire and let it begin to dry out from the nearby heat. If you plan to be there for a few days you can place any wet logs you find near the fire, and begin the process of drying them out while you burn through any drier pieces of wood you find. After a few days or maybe a just a few hours those large soaked logs will be dry enough to begin feeding into the fire.
If you plan to be anywhere near the mountains then you should always have extra clothes with you. The safest thing to do with these clothes is keep them wrapped in a garbage bag that's tied shut to protect from moisture in the event you should fall in a creek or river -- then you'll have dry clothes to put on after your fall -- which will help you avoid hypothermia in cold conditions.
If you have dry clothes handy we need to look at these now for drying out wet tinder:
1) Lay these extra clothes out on a dry area of ground or under a tree and out of the rain.
2) Spread out the tinder you've collected on top of the dry clothing and now ball that clothing up as tight as you can. What you're trying to do is ring out moisture from your wet tinder and transfer it to your clothing.
3) Once you've done that, your tinder should be slightly drier -- collect it and move it to another piece of dry clothing you have. Repeat step 2. After you've done this, if you have a third piece of dry clothing you can use, repeat step 2 again. That's three times you would have "rung-out" your wet tinder.
By now your tinder is a bit drier -- though it may not be all the way dry.
4) The next step will involve rubbing your hands together using a little bit of tinder, piece by piece. This entire step may take 5 - 10 minutes but by the time you're done guess what -- you may have enough dry tinder for a tinder bundle that it may now catch a spark.
If the rain is coming down build your fire underneath a tree with good ground cover, keeping the rain off your tinder and kindling pile. If there is no good tree cover build a primitive shelter out of tree branches, moss, and patches of dirt and even bark -- use whatever you can find to build a slanted structure with an open face that will give the fire you're building protection from the rain.
You're going to use this same principle to dry out some of that tinder you've been drying by first balling up / ring out into your dry clothes. After being balled up / rung-out in your clothing, the tinder is already partially dry --
6) Next, take a few pieces of grass or leaves from that tinder and rub them briskly between the palms of your hands. Be patient. Do this for as long as it takes to dry out small bits of tinder. Set it down in a dry area and continue to work on the tinder-bundle, until you have a generous amount of dried tinder ready to catch a spark.
Keep in mind that this requires a few minutes of patience -- you are generating heat from the friction of your hands being rubbed together while also breaking down the tinder into smaller bits and pieces -- both drying the tinder and making it thinner and easier to catch a spark.
Here's how to make your kindling more apt to burn, once your tinder bundle has been lit.
1) Twigs and small sticks have a thin bark with interior wood -- it's that thin bark that we need to dry out first. Take each twig and roll it up in a piece of dry clothing -- a sweatshirt or sock, for example, and squeeze tightly -- you're trying to ring out the stick's moisture into the piece of clothing wrapped around it. When you've got a small pile of dry sticks, you're now ready to start a fire and your chances of success improve.
2) Have very small pieces of kindling -- such as twigs -- and then some small branches ready to feed to the fire once those twigs are burning. Once those small branches catch fire you should have enough heat to fuel a growing fire where you pile on (leaving enough space between branches for the fire to breath) more small branches that are at least semi-dry.
3) Search far and wide for semi-dry pieces of kindling. Don't rush this fire -- don't try to put it together in 5 minutes if the conditions are damp. Take 30 minutes or even an hour putting together a dry tinder-bundle and stack of kindling following the steps above. Nothing is more frustrating than being cold and wet in the wilderness and unable to start a fire because the tinder is too damp or the kindling is too damp, or both.
These aren't the only mountains that can create their own weather. That is true for many large mountain ranges, whether it's the Rockies stretching through Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, the Sierra Nevadas in California, or even the Appalachians running through numerous states on the East Coast.
You'll want to dry out a generous amount of tinder and tinder-bundle -- rub your hands briskly, generating friction, drying out each piece of grass, leaf, moss, and small twigs until they're dry enough to catch a spark.
If you don't see any brush, you may have to dig down underneath the snow. If you're in a snowfield head for the nearest trees and look for brush there -- you may have your best chances of finding it. If not you can dig into the tree bark and limbs above with your knife for shavings and strips of wood.
2) If no coal forms after a few sparks hit the tinder bundle, then it's probably not dry enough. Repeat the process mentioned above for drying tinder.
2) Look for dry or semi-dry tinder and kindling around the bases of these trees.
3) If you have a knife -- which you should -- you're in the mountains, remember -- cut away at the bark around the base of the tree and break it vertically into small, long pieces, Use your knife to cut these pieces of bark into thin strips. These thin strips can be used as both tinder and kindling. To use as kindling, simply pile up a number of these strips. To use as tinder, simply pull each strip apart to thread-size strips, so thin you can tie a knot -- that's how thin you'll want to get these strips of wood if you want to use them as tinder.
4) To ensure you're able to start a fire on the first try ... be patient with this process and accumulate more tinder and kindling then you think you need. That way you have extra tinder and extra kindling to feed that first attempt at a fire, greatly improving the chances of success of it turning into an actual campfire that you're able to feed larger branches and logs into and maintain a good fire that burns into the later hours of the night, or even all night if you have collected an ample supply of firewood.
Smash a rock against another rock with damp grass in between the two. The heat from the force of these two rocks smashing together is another way to dry out damp grass, moss, pine needles, etc. You may have to pound repeatedly and for a while. Consider laying a dry shirt over the tinder debris and pounding on the shirt with a rock. Careful though, don't over do it ... you don't want to tear any holes in that shirt.
You won't have a fire of course unless you have a dried tinder bundle where these magnesium shavings have been set on fire themselves.
Cutting magnesium shavings off your magnesium stick has a consequence though -- the more shavings you cut off, the smaller that stick will get. If you're going to be in the wilderness for a long duration of time, you may want to resist the urge to cut away shavings and simply focus more attention on finding and making dried tinder that will easily catch a spark, without a need for magnesium shavings.
Once you get that first fire going you can then use that fire to dry out tons of tinder for future use -- you'll never have to search for wet tinder if you remember this step (just be sure to store that dried tinder in a way that it stays dry, such as a sealed plastic container or large Zip Loc freezer bags).
1) As a string is pulled by the movement of the bow, the stick is spun against the base piece of wood, generating friction. The trick is to keep a constant motion going, and good eye-hand coordination, so that the tip of the stick being spun stays focused on the same spot on the wood base.
2) Like any activity with repetitive motion, practice makes perfect. Once you've got proper form down, and good balance, this can be a breeze for you -- just as it was for early century Native Americans who had been practicing this method probably since childhood.
2) The spot on the wood base will heat up (from friction) and as it heats up it will start to smoke. At the same time, dust is forming, and that dust will eventually accumulate to form a coal (ember). You'll know that its close to forming a coal after you've checked once or twice to see how much dust if forming around the edges -- when there's quite a bit of smoke coming up, stop and gather the dust, and it should form a coal (if it's hot enough).
Look close -- do you see a coal? Your tinder bundle should be close by -- carefully and quickly transfer the coal to the tinder bundle and begin to blow on it. If you've done this right the coal will heat up as you blow on it and the tinder bundle will ignite. Set the tinder bundle down either underneath your kindling pile or simply quickly build a kindling pile around your tinder bundle as it burns.
Be sure to give thanks to God for the warm fire he's given you -- a kind reward for your efforts and patience at making a fire in rainy, wet, or snowy conditions.
Congratulations -- this is true survival.
Or if you're driving up over the mountains and crash down a ravine -- and survive the crash -- you can get out and make a fire -- even if it's wet outside.
Of course you do have some powerful fire-making materials in both a car and airplane at your disposal -- gasoline you can take right out of the wreck, as well as the ability to create a spark simply by touching a wire you salvage from the wreck to both terminals of the car battery.
Have a tinder bundle ready and a few pieces of kindling soaked in gasoline and you will have a signal fire going in no time, as well as a a fire to keep you and any other survivors warm and alive through the day and into the night.