How to make a fire
Knowing how to make a fire is one of the most fundamental wilderness skills. This is particularly true for sea kayakers on a secluded beach with a hypothermic casualty or in some trouble themselves. Practice and learn different methods, so you know how to make a fire anywhere and under any condition., particularly windy and wet conditions on a beach.
A fire can fulfil several needs. It can keep you warm and dry, you can use it to cook food, purify water and to sterilize bandages. Its smoke can keep flying insects at bay and it can be used to signal.
Before you can begin to build your fire, select your fire location. Select it with care, a good fire location is important. First, choose a site that is sheltered and protected from the wind and has a supply of wood or other fuel available.
There should be nothing nearby that could catch fire, such as dry vegetation. And very importantly, if there are cliffs, ensure you won't have anything dropping on your head. It's generally a good idea to find a safe dry area above the strand mark and away from cliffs and any potential slippage. Once going ensure your fire doesn't get out of control, basic safety is always an essential consideration. Clear any debris away and start the fire on solid ground or on a layer of stones or a flat rock. A bed of dry wood also works well as this will eventually burn down and contribute to your coal bed. A good base for your fire eliminate the possibility of a ground fire and leave no trace except soot stones and some Ashe.
To make a fire, you need to build it up gradually, beginning with small pieces of wood, then progressing to larger pieces as the fire gets going. You can grade your fire material into tinder, kindling, and fuel. We have already covered off fire building materials and fuel but a short summary follows as a reminder.
You will need some material that ignites very easily to start a fire. Good tinder is dry material that takes only a spark to ignite and your tinder must be absolutely dry so go to some lengths to ensure water tightness when packing your tinder and fire making kit. There are a number of things you can use for tinder, paper, leaves, grass, bark and resin.
Use your knife to turn dry sticks and pieces of bark into powdery tinder. Tinder is the most important part of your fire, so prepare it well. If you have found resin, rub it on small twigs and sticks and have plenty of tinder on hand so your fire will not go out.
Learn how to light a fire with matches, or to be more precise, light your tinder. And practise using a flint striker; these are cheap and available online and are the most efficient way of getting a hot ember to start a fire. We take lighters and matches for granted but you'll be surprised at how difficult these tools can be to use on a cold, windswept beach when under pressure to get a flame going.
Kindling is readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. Small dry twigs and sticks are best and they should easily light when placed on a small flame. The dead branches on the undersides of trees provide excellent kindling, and they are usually dry, even if it has rained for weeks. On a beach even seaweed works well although it does stink somewhat and of course, you may have access to drift wood and dry grass.
Once your fire is established, you can add larger pieces of firewood and try to ensure your firewood is as dry as possible. Look for dead standing trees, they are usually a good source of dry firewood.
A simple fire shield can help to shelter your efforts of igniting your tinder in the first instance and it also provides a wind break and a heat reflector. You can use your kayak lying on its side and secured with sand or shingle or build a simple 'lean to' fire shield using whatever material you can find washed up on the beach......and there is usually plenty of jetsam along or above the strand line.
Of what you burn when collecting jetsam! Some materials are toxic when burnt and some old drift wood has been treated with bitchumin which is now outlawed in the United Kingdom.
Build a long fire to accommodate the body length of your casualty. Start with a standard fire pit and once you have a good fire going with a generous bed of coals, the fire pit can be extended to full body length. This done in conjunction with a good wind break makes for very effective radiation of heat onto the length of your casualties body. And remain calm, take your time and think about what you are doing. Use the 'four second rule' - STOP and take four seconds to consider your circumstances. Use the acronym SAFE: Stop - Assess - Formulate - Execute.
For more information and skills have a look at our 'Sea Survival' course advertised on our 'courses' page.