For me bushcraft is an exploration of the natural world; it’s about understanding the trees, plants and wildlife around us. When our hunter gatherer ancestors looked out into the forest they saw the supermarket, DIY shop and chemist all in one. Everything they needed was out there, the trick was to know what to look for, where to look for it and when. And so for me when it comes to lighting a fire it’s all about natural materials.
With that said, it also makes sense to carry something with me that will allow me to light a fire quickly if I find myself in a life threatening situation. So I’m going to briefly mention some manmade tinders that will allow me to do that.
And there are plenty out there, from BBQ lighter blocks, bio-ethanol blocks, wire wool, inner tube, Brasso, tumble drier lint, waxed paper, fire cord and undoubtedly many more. In the past I’ve rolled up corrugated cardboard and filled the holes with wax. I’m sure many of you will have your own personal favourites but I’m going to discuss 2 that I use routinely.
Cotton wool is cheap, easy to get hold of, ignites really easily and burns pretty well. But you can improve the temperature of the flame and the burn time with ease. Swipe it into some petroleum jelly and you have a hot, long lasting flame to build a fire around. As well as having a small container of petroleum jelly with me (in my first aid kit for blisters and dry lips), I often have hand sanitiser with me as well. Some are flammable , others not, and if you’re going to have hand sanitiser with you, it might as well be flammable.
You can also make an excellent fire starter from cotton wool pads and candle wax. Simply melt the wax in a bain marie type set up and dip the cotton wool pads in using a pair of tweezers.
To use, simply open up the pad and ignite. These will burn for a good 5 minutes, giving you ample time to construct your fire.
Charcloth is carbonised material, typically it’s made using cotton but any natural fabric will work. It has a low ignition point and can be ignited using a wide variety of sources, including fire steels, traditional flint and steel, mirrors, lenses and fire pistons. You can see how versatile and useful it is. Once ignited it needs to be placed into a tinder bundle and then blown into a flame.
It’s easy to make, but I would definitely recommend doing it outside as it’s very smoky and stinks to high heaven. The only other thing you need is a tin. I use a fairly large tin as I tend to go through charcloth quickly on courses I’m teaching, normally a sweet tin or biscuit tin. I prefer to use fluffy cotton such as towels and tea towels as the charcloth retains this fluffiness, giving greater surface area but denim works well too.
Make a small hole in the lid of the tin, place the material inside and pop the lid back on.
Put the tin on a fire. I’ve found making charcloth to be more art than science, so looking for cues rather than exact timings. Once the tin is on the fire you should get copious amounts of smoke pluming out the hole in the top. From time to time I’ve had the smoke catch fire but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to the finished charcloth.
After a few minutes the volume of smoke should reduce considerably. At this stage put a bung of some sort in the hole. You’ve now cut off the oxygen supply and so the material will carbonise.
Leave it on the fire for a few minutes longer, take it off and leave to cool. The first time I made charcloth I was so excited I didn’t wait long enough, took the lid off, let in oxygen and the whole lot ignited! If the material hasn’t turned black, you can repeat the process.
My fire lighting kit
I keep a few things in a tobacco tin for fire lighting. I have a fire steel, lighter and Fresnel lens as well as a bio-ethanol block (great manmade tinders), a few cotton wool balls, wax coated cotton wool and petroleum jelly. I also have a lighter in my trouser pocket at all times. I could probably do with spreading some of this kit around a bit more so that I don’t lose everything in one go!
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