by Todd Walker
In the context of wilderness survival, the speed at which you are able to build a fire could mean life or death. There are many real-life accounts available where cold and wet people die in the woods.
The purpose of these exercises is not to compete against one another. However, a little friendly competition among friends is always fun. The most important aspect of practicing emergency fire craft and shelter building is the role these skills could one day play in keeping you alive in the wilderness. Plus, they make camping way more comfortable.
Poor Decisions and Survival Experts
You don’t have to reach “survival expert” level to build a fire or make shelter. Here’s a little something for the self-proclaimed survival experts to think about. My buddy Tommy runs a popular Facebook group and put an interesting spin on this disturbing online trend… something I’d never thought of but makes total sense.
Here’s my paraphrased version…
Expert status takes thousands of hours and experience in a chosen field. Making poor decisions typically lands you in a survival situation. People claiming to be survival experts should also add to their resume, “Poor Decision-Making Expert.” I’ve never seen nor have I heard of anyone being in a real survival situation for 20, 30, or even 40 years and lived to tell about it.
To be an expert in survival, one would have had to be in hundreds of real survival situations. That basically makes one horrible at preparing beforehand. I can’t speak for you, but “Poor Decision-Making Expert” is the last thing I’d want in my bio… or tombstone.
I prepare by practicing in the field with varying conditions. Carrying a few pieces of emergency equipment and developing the skills needed to use said equipment gives you an edge if things go sideways in the woods.
The following speed drills have suggested times to shoot for based on our physiological response to cold. Cold stress has a way of slipping up on you and can overwhelm the body’s ability to thermoregulate. Consequences include impaired performance and even death.
2 Fire Speed Drills
Besides being well clothed for your environment, fire craft may be the most forgiving of all survival skills. Here are two speed drills to help develop proficiency in making life-sustaining fire.
For more info on my philosophy on Emergency Fire Kits, read this article. We can play around with “what if’s” to manipulate and test our skills. But at the end of the day, my trusty Bic is my go-to for fire. That’s only because I don’t have a road flare in my kit. Oh wait… I do, thanks to Alan Halcon’s suggestion. The point of these drills though is to practice different “what if” scenarios.
1.) Five Minute Water Boil
Disinfecting water for hydration can be achieved by boiling. For this drill, you are allowed to use a spark ignition source only. For context, you’re unprepared and only carried one lighter and no sure fire tinder… and the lighter was emptied when the tab was pressed down against that can of sardines stuffed in your backpack.
- One metal water bottle
- Ferro rod and striker
- Natural tinder material and sticks off the landscape for your kindling/fuel
- Use a large tin can to hold the 32 ounces of water if you don’t have a metal canteen
Collect tinder, kindling, and fuel size material. This task will consume the most time for this drill. Try to collect these materials in 10 minutes or less. Look for standing dead trees with low hanging limbs. Become familiar with the trees in your locale which produce instant kindling. Resinous trees are a fire-making dream.
Breaking the small twigs, you should hear a distinctive snap signaling a good, dry candidate for fire. I’ve found living Cedar and Beech trees often times have small, dead limbs within arms reach. If you have Hemlocks in your area, you’ll not find a better source of dry, pencil-led size kindling.
Once you have all the necessary natural material collected, start the clock and make your fire lay, ignite your fire, and bring the water to a rolling boil… in under 5 minutes. Remember, time is of the essence.
“Fire don’t care about pretty. It eats ugly. In fact, fire loves chaos.”
For this drill, I’ve found that making a long tubular bundle of small twigs and breaking the bundle over my knee to create an A-frame structure works well. Credit for this technique goes to Christopher Wick’s demonstration at the Pathfinder School years ago. You may want to use gloves for this part.
Common Water Boil Mistakes:
- Natural tinder material not prepared properly for spark ignition.
- Kindling too large (not enough surface area to volume ratio) for quick ignition.
- Canteen tips over. Lay finger-size sticks flat on the ground to form a flat platform. The stick platform also reduces heat transfer from the cold ground to the metal container.
- The fire lay doesn’t surround the canteen. You want flames to contact as much of the canteen as possible.
- Blowing or fanning the fire from the top down. Get down low and blow from the bottom of the fire lay… without singeing your eyebrows off.
Now add a variation to this water boil drill. Use a lighter or matches and your favorite emergency fire tinder. Compare your times. How’d you do? Get creative and try doing this drill one-handed to simulate an injury. Try it in the rain, as well.
2.) One Billet Boil Up
One-stick-fires are not new to me. However, I discovered the interesting history behind this challenge on Chris Noble’s site, Master Woodsman. I wrote an article about this challenge with an excerpt below for details.
Here’s what you’ll need. Keep in mind that these are challenge guidelines not competition rules. You’re only competition is you for the sake of testing your skills.
- One wood billet (species of your choice) around 6 inches in diameter and about one foot long – I used a standing dead red cedar billet for my challenge.
- Sharp ax or hatchet
- Sharp knife
- Bush pot or tin can large enough to hold one quart of water
- Kitchen matches (strike anywhere type)
There are dangers involved when using a sharp ax. Even more so when using a short-handled ax/hatchet. A bleeding ax wound puts you in a whole new predicament. If you practice this speed drill, know that you are using sharp cutting tools which do not discriminate about what they cut… fingers, shins, and hands included. If you are new to ax and knife work, spend time learning to properly handle these cutting tools. You are responsible for your own appendages.
Take your time and keep it safe. One piece of gear worth considering for beginners is a Kevlar or chain mail glove.
For those experienced in ax and knife work, the time frame for this speed drill is under 10 minutes once you have your wood billet ready. The idea is to create all the needed items, tinder, kindling, and fuel from one log. This drill will come in handy if you ever need to find dry material for fire in a rain-soaked forest.
My first attempt at this drill took over 12 minutes. My second attempt was in the eight minute range. Below is my video of this drill:
Check out this lumberjack competition where a lady smashes all the guys with a time of 3:06!
Don’t get hung up on the stated times for the speed drills. The important thing about timing yourself is that you are able to evaluate your progress in this skill. Let us know if you give these a try.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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