When you are wet, cold, lost or hungry, nothing can improve your chances of survival (along with your mental state) like a fire. It needn’t be a roaring inferno – a small fire can keep you warm while conserving whatever tinder and fuel is available. The biggest problem with fires is that most people never practice lighting one under bad conditions – torrential downpours, high winds, no shelter or sub-zero temperatures. The conditions that are most likely to find you in need of a fire make it near impossible to get one started, unless you have practiced ahead of time.
There are hundreds of fire starters on the market (mini fire starter logs, flint and steel, steel wool, magnesium bar, etc). Many of them are very good but they all require some level of dexterity for success. Buying a few and throwing them in your pack or vest without a second thought about their operation or limitations is a very bad idea. You wouldn’t dare order a fly reel without reading the reviews, and you’d never head out to fly fish for Atlantic salmon without first making sure your reel holds enough backing. Would you trust your safety to a fire starter that you’ve never tested? The easy answer, of course, is that you shouldn’t.
While summer weather in Michigan is typically hot and humid, it doesn’t hurt to think ahead about potential survival situations that may come up during a fishing or hiking trip. Nighttime temperatures in Michigan can and do dip into the 30s. A simple two mile hike into a hidden fishing hole can be an unmanageable marathon out if you twist or break your ankle. An hour or two spent practicing fire-building now could pay off years from now.
The best news is that you may be carrying several decent fire starters with you already. Simple snack foods like corn chips and cashews are oily treats easily pressed into service as fire starters. Check out the following list and tight lines!
Cotton ball and oil firestarter
Soaked in olive oil, Vaseline or hand sanitizer, the cotton ball is an easy to make fire starter that’s been used for years. Olive oil burns the longest, while alcohol is easiest to light. Your best bet is to use a little of each – soak in olive oil first, then add a shot of hand sanitizer (often 80%+ ethyl alcohol). This combo has been shown to burn up to 9 minutes – 30 seconds of contact with a flame can get it going in a monsoon.
Frito (corn chip) fire starter
These salty corn chips contain enough oil to light and burn for 2-3 minutes, even after being dunked in water. The heavy layer of cornmeal with oils and fat ensures another minute or so of red hot cools after the flame goes out.
This staple of the trail-mix bag is hard to light, but will yield 2+ minutes of fire once it’s ignited. Other nut (peanuts, almonds) will also catch fire with a little effort, but the cashew burns best.
Many fishermen keep a lighter in their vests or tackle bags for the occasional cigar or smoke while they fish. They are light and compact, so pack a second one in another part of your gear, just in case. You will still need tinder to build a fire, but without an ignition source, any of these methods are useless. A Zippo lighter typically holds extra flints and lighter fluid that can help you build a fire if needed.
These finely shredded steel pads will catch fire with a few well-placed sparks, although a lighter is more reliable. Even after being immersed in water, steel wool can be shaken out and lit almost immediately. The secret, as with any fast-burning tinder, is to have it positioned directly below what you are trying to burn. You can ignite steel wool with the business end of a 9 volt battery – simply get the steel fibers to cross the contacts, setting off sparks and embers. A cell phone battery may also do this, but crossing the contacts (if you can reach them) can damage the battery and void any applicable warranty.
Egg carton fire starter
Dryer lint, pressboard egg cartons, dental floss and paraffin (wax) can be easily combined to build a highly flammable firestarter. Cut the paper egg carton into individual cups. Pack each cup full of dryer lint and tie shut with dental floss. Melt wax (old candles or canning wax) in a jar placed in a pot of boiling water (don’t let water get into the jar). When the wax is melted, hold the egg cup by the thread and dip it into wax until submerged. Remove and let it dry for a few hours. When you need instant flame, turn the waxed egg cup upside down and light one corner. Stand back – these can burn for 10 minutes or more, even in a serious rainstorm. They generate more than enough heat to ignite very soggy tinder.
Teepee or log cabin
The log cabin style of stacking logs doesn’t necessarily work better or worse than the teepee style – what matters most is good airflow. Fanning a small fire with your hat or a plate from your pack can help get the flames going. Digging a shallow X under the kindling can also help improve ventilation.