Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Building Fires in the Rain

There's no better time or place to test your fire building skills than in Oregon's Coast Range, in February, in the rain!  These were the conditions that eighteen Search and Rescue team members experienced recently.  The SAR team-members and I gathered one wet Friday afternoon to brush up their survival skills and to test the effectiveness of their clothing and the equipment they carried. 
Intuitively I think we understand the difference between building a fire on a hot July day and building one in February when it's bucketing rain, you're cold and wet, your fingers have lost their dexterity and their strength, you need a fire to help protect the victim of an accident and you need it now!  But sometimes we need a reminder on just how difficult building a fire can be.  Friday afternoon was just such a reminder!

For those of you who have yet to try to find yourself in similar situation here are some of the lessons they re-learned that afternoon:

If it's coming down hard the first thing you must do is erect a rain-fly over the area where you hope to build your fire.  Lacking a tarp find some natural protection from the precipitation by selecting a fire site that is under the over-hanging branches of a tree - preferably an evergreen.   Regardless of how good your tinder is or how skilled you are at fire building, if it is pouring down your chances of success are not very good. 

Under wet conditions you must have good tinder.  By my definition "a good tinder" is one that you have brought with you – one that works under all conditions. Good tinder should be easy to ignite under difficult conditions.  It should be long burning in wet, windy weather and ideally should also be waterproof. It is very unlikely that you will be able to find such tinder on-site. 

Of all of the commercially available products nothing beats a cotton ball saturated with Vaseline (petroleum jelly) for starting a fire under difficult conditions.  Having said that, several of the students had trouble using this usually effective fire starting aid.  The difficulties they experienced were a direct result of the amount of Vaseline they had used to saturate the cotton ball.  More is not necessarily better!  Too much Vaseline saturates the cotton to the point that, when the cotton ball is “fluffed-up,” no fine fibers are created.  It is these exposed fibers that catch the spark from a metal match  (or other heat source) and are ignited and then, in turn, provide a wick to burn the Vaseline.  Coating just the outside of a cotton ball with Vaseline is also not good enough.   While this produces a lot of fiber to light, the limited amount of Vaseline shortens the burn time – there’s not enough fuel!   A cotton ball with just the outside surface coated in Vaseline is also not waterproof.  Liquefying a container of Vaseline by heating it in a microwave and then dunking cotton balls in the melted petroleum jelly is also not a good idea.  This procedure supersaturates the cotton again making it difficult to light.

So how much is enough?  There’s no precise answer to the question but here’s how I make mine.

Start with the largest cotton ball you can buy.  I like “Johnson & Johnson maxi size.”  Tease the cotton fiber into the largest thinnest disc you can without tearing into pieces.  Coat the fiber with Vaseline until there is no dry cotton left but without adding so much Vaseline that the fibers collapse into a soggy, gooey mess.  This is the part that takes a bit of experience.  You have it just right when, after adding the Vaseline, long fibers are created when the cotton ball is pulled into two pieces.  
 After being stored, don’t forget to pull the cotton ball into two pieces once again and then place the compacted lower halves together retaining all of the “feathers” that are created.  It is these feathers that will catch the spark and cause the Vaseline to burn.

Here’s another tip that comes to mind regarding the storage and use of the cotton ball-Vaseline mixture.  If you work or recreate outdoors in cold weather keep your cotton ball container warm or warm it before you try to remove the fire starter.  A frozen, saturated cotton ball can be very difficult to remove from the container and will also be difficult to light.

Locating fuel for the first stages of your fire is also a very important step.  Even in wet weather, it is usually possible to find thin, dry twigs (match stick thick up to pencil thickness) under the overhanging branches of larger trees – especially evergreen trees such as fir and spruce.   When small, dry fuel is not available collect what you can and then scrape off every scrap of wet bark and moss from the wood.  With larger dimension wood split it into thinner and thinner pieces until you end up with a pile of wood splinters that are long and thin.

And finally, your fire building success will depend on not only the reliability of your heat source, the quality of your tinder, the process you use to build the fire but also the time you take to get everything ready before you apply the heat source to your tinder.   If you take short-cuts you are doomed to fail!

For more information on building a fire check out the DVD "Skills of a Survivor" and the downloadable eBook "A Better Way to Build a Fire"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Preparedness and the Will-to-Survive

From my very earliest involvement in survival training nearly forty-five years ago "the will-to-survive" has been promoted as the key to living through some catastrophic event.  But is it really?   The more I speak with people who have found themselves in trouble the more I have come to believe that a person's tenacity to live becomes important in varying degrees depending on their level of preparedness for a life threatening event.  In other words the more prepared you are the less you will have to call on your will-to-survive!  Conversely, those people who have never consider the possibility of finding themselves in a life threatening event, and are now faced with dying in the outdoors, (or anywhere else for that matter), have only their tenacity to live, their will-to-survive, their determination to make it through a tough situation to facilitate their survival.  Sometimes their will-to-survive is enough and sometimes it isn't!  Sometimes you can have all the will-to-survive in the world but Mother Nature still overwhelms you! It is also true that being skilled and well equipped is not a guarantee that you will live to tell the tale - but it is a good start! 

Survival is both a psychological and a physiological test. Psychologically you must accept the possibility that at some point in the future you may find yourself in a crisis where, weather you live or die, depends on your level of readiness for the event.  Denying that such an event will ever occur or believing that there will always be someone nearby to provide you the help you need sets you up for failure and in this case "failure" could very well mean you die!  Accepting the possibility that you might find yourself in trouble is the first step in getting ready for a situation which you hope will never occur but might happen the next time you leave your home for work, start up the mountain on foot or board a plane.  Or any one of a thousand other scenarios that result in people being precipitated into a crisis unexpectedly.

Physiologically, to survive you must be able to defend your body temperature.  When you strip away all of the smoke and mirrors survival is nothing more than being able to maintain your body temperature within three or four degrees of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as possible.  Doing so requires both skill and having the tools you need to survive.   Those who believe that they will be able to manufacture the tools needed to live-off-the-land and then survive for long periods of time are deluding themselves.

"Don't let your ability to survive be affected by your lack of preparedness.  Those who are prepared may never have their will-to-survive called into question!"