No one knows exactly when humans first mastered fire, but there’s evidence that it was more than a million years ago. In the 1960s the paleoanthropologist F. Clark Howell found fossils in Ethiopia that tell a remarkable story: Bands of early humans organized complex hunts, setting well-coordinated fires on the grass plains to drive herds of elephants into swamps, where the mired animals were slaughtered, butchered, and carried away. The strategy of combining fire and mud is a stroke of genius as dazzling as any modern technological breakthrough. Recent evidence also suggests that about 72,000 years ago, people were heat-treating stones with fire to make better tools and weapons. So it’s no wonder we love fire. It’s been with us a long time—perhaps longer than language.
A few years ago I was taking a course given by a former Air Force survival instructor, Byron Kerns. The first thing he asked me to do was make a fire. After I got it going (I had matches), Kerns explained that most of the time we don’t really need fire in the wilderness. With the right clothing and shelter, he said, you won’t freeze. But there is something about fire that is deeply embedded in human nature. And as Kerns put it, “It’s amazing to see what fire can do. You’re out in the woods, you’re cold, you’re lost, you’re lonely. But the minute you light that fire, you’re home, the lights are on, and supper’s cooking.”
I once talked to a man who had wandered out-of-bounds at a popular ski area—for about three days. He was very lost in a very cold place, and he was not dressed for it. There were trees, so he had fuel, but the only way he could think of to start a fire was to strike his ski pole on rocks. Unfortunately, aluminum won’t make sparks. He survived, but just barely.
For a long time, I was just like him—I didn’t really make fire; the match made it. All I did was gather some twigs. Today, most people have forgotten how to actually make fire from scratch. We’ve lost the need to be on intimate terms with the craft, though we still retain that ancient yearning when the sun goes down.
When I began traveling in the wilderness and felt the need for a campfire, I explored all sorts of methods. I began simply by carrying a reliable old Zippo, with water-resistant matches as backup. (As an experiment, I left my Zippo out in the rain all night, and it lit right up in the morning.) Bic lighters are wonderful but don’t work in the wind; the Zippo does, up to a point. But both are less effective in the cold. Vapor pressure drops, and they stop working altogether. Matches almost always work, at least if they’re waterproof or dry.
I learned how to start a fire with flint and steel, using tinder or the magnesium chips from a bar. Magnesium is great—it can be used as both a starter and a reliable fuel, but getting good organic tinder can be tricky, especially in wet conditions. I learned to knead Vaseline into cotton balls and store them in film cans. A single spark, even in windy, wet weather, will light the cotton balls and roar into a flame that will ignite wet wood. Anything with enough petroleum in it will do—ChapStick, for example. At another survival school, I learned to make fire by friction using a bow drill. If you have a year or two to devote to this skill, it is an excellent way to start a fire. The nice thing is that the materials are usually available in the wild: Crack a rock to create a cutting edge, slice the bark off a tree to create fiber, use the fiber to make cord (this is a craft unto itself), use the cord to make a bow, use the cutting edge to make a fire board and spindle. The bow and spindle make a coal. Transfer the coal to a tinder bundle and blow it into fire. The first time I tried this, it took me two days. It was satisfying, but if I had truly needed fire, I would have been in trouble.
I’m still working on making fire with a hand drill, which means rotating a spindle against a fire board by rubbing it back and forth between your palms. Experts tell me it’s easy. I once saw a man get a coal with a hand drill in about a minute. My hat is off to him.
With all the effort that I’ve put into starting fires, I’m not sure how I missed the fire piston. I stumbled across it while doing some research and found videos on YouTube that blew my mind. I knew the physics: You compress a gas and it heats up. That’s the basis of the diesel engine. Most people are familiar with the opposite effect. If you depressurize a gas, it gets cold, as a spray can does within a few seconds of being discharged. I had simply never thought of this in connection with starting a fire, and I’d never heard of fire pistons. No one in survival school had mentioned them, and neither had any of the books I’d read. I was amazed by how quickly I could start a fire with any of the pistons I tried (see Deep Intel, at bottom). Not much is known about the origin of the fire piston. A 1907 account by Henry Balfour, curator of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, traces it to south Asia, from Sumatra to the Philippines, and to Europe. In 1901 an explorer in Siam (now Thailand) found Malayans lighting their cigarettes with fire pistons.
I’m still working on my firecraft. I want to know as many ways as possible to start a fire, not because it’s absolutely necessary to have one, but because it provides comfort in the wild. In that sense, it really is a survival tool. It calms us down, and being calm allows us to think more clearly. It also gives us the enjoyable illusion of being masters of our domain. There is a wonderful DVD available from the Midwest Native Skills Institute called More Than 40 Ways to Make Fire Without Matches ($27; survivalschool.com), which even includes a segment on how to make fire from water and ice. (Hint: Use them as you would a magnifying lens.) It makes a great gift for someone like me, who might get lost in the wilderness and would rather be at home with the lights on and supper cooking.
Deep Intel: The Ultimate Firestarter