I originally wrote this article on one handed fire lighting in January 2015 and it was published in Issue 2 of The Bushcraft Journal. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it! You can also look at a short video we made during our experiments.
My mind is drifting as I walk along a well-worn trail enjoying the late afternoon sun when I slip on seemingly nothing. Initially my tumble seems innocuous, but the fingers on my right hand soon start to swell and bruise; I head down to the stream I’ve been following and immerse my hand in the cold water. I suspect that at least two of my fingers are broken. I use gaffer tape to bind them together. I’m on my own in the woods and darkness is only a couple of hours away, and I don’t have time to walk out before nightfall. Other than my injured fingers I’m well prepared and have my usual kit with me: a pocketful of birch bark that I collected earlier in the day; knife & axe; tarp, hammock, roll mat & sleeping bag; fire lighting kit, water filter; a billy can and some basic rations, so I decide to set up camp. Its early spring and I don’t expect it to get too cold, but dark clouds are gathering to the south west and it looks like rain is on its way. I need to get my tarp up and a fire lit but I wonder how I’m going to accomplish these simple tasks with my injured fingers.
Okay, I made up the little story above, but I don’t think it unlikely. So what would you do in such a situation? This is a question I asked myself recently, prompted by some left handed tai chi sword training. Whilst I’m reasonably competent using my right hand, I really struggled with the most basic of techniques using my left. Ho Kyung, my teacher, explained that traditionally it was regarded as important to be able to do everything left handed in case you were injured in battle.
I’d like to think it improbable that I ever suffer an injury in such a manner, but a simple slip or fall in the woods? A distraction whilst using a knife or axe? Or the type of cold injury Paul Kirtley described in the first issue of The Bushcraft Journal, in which he stated “In a wilderness setting, a loss of manual dexterity is potentially fatal.”? With that in mind, I’ve deliberately set a scene that should throw up some interesting challenges but isn’t immediately life threatening; I want to explore ways of accomplishing common bushcraft tasks in different ways rather than discussing survival scenarios. I intend for this to run over a series of issues of The Bushcraft Journal, tackling different tasks each time. For this first article, I’m going to figure out some ways of lighting a fire one handed.
It’s all in the preparation
Fire lighting is all in the preparation, so collecting plenty of tinder, kindling and fuel wood and grading it into different thicknesses. So I set off to collect materials. Collecting firewood is a simple task; I pick with my left hand and hold it using my right arm pushed against my side. I can only carry a limited quantity of wood this way, so I use my coat as a makeshift carrying device and pick up the pace; zipping up the coat proves troublesome so instead I tie the arms together.
Back in my overnight camp I use my foot to clear the ground back to bare earth and begin sorting out the fire wood. I group the firewood together according to size, starting with match stick thin twigs, then pencil thick, then thumb thick and so on. Some of the firewood I collect is long, so I put it between two stems of an ash and use my body to push and break it. I’m making progress but it’s taking me much longer than normal. I lay a bed of sticks onto the bare ground and construct a ‘V’ shape on top of it, with the wind blowing into the ‘V’. Again, straight forward, just slower than usual.
Now I need to light my fire. I keep my fire lighting stuff in an old 2oz tobacco tin which I remove from the side pocket of my rucksack; the zip is a little awkward to undo one handed. I grasp one side of the lid with my thumb and the other with my fingers and prise the lid open.
Using a fire steel 1 handed
I don’t generally use a knife with a fire steel, instead I either hold the striker still and draw the rod backwards or hold the rod still and make a small thumb push on the striker. Both of these techniques have something in common: one part moves and the other stays still. So if I can keep either the striker or the rod still, I should be OK. I decide to try with a knife as well and to use cotton wool in my experiments, pick the strongest candidate and light my birch bark.
Knife still, rod moving
After trying a few permutations, I lay the knife across a stick so that the knife is parallel with my body, the blade towards me and the tip pointing to the left. I then kneel on my right knee and put my left foot on the knife to hold it still (a bit like the bow drill posture). Because I lay the knife on a stick, the blade is off the ground a little, allowing me to put a cotton wool ball under it. I pull the ferro rod across the back of the knife and the knife moves. So I apply more weight onto the knife and try again, instantly producing a plentiful shower of sparks, lighting the tinder. And because the movement is simple and requires little co-ordination I find it easy with my left hand.
Rod still, knife moving
Next I place the rod on the ground pointing forward, again on a small stick, kneel down and put my left foot on the rod. I put a cotton wool ball towards the end of the rod, anticipating that the sparks will go forwards. I use the back side of the tip of my knife and flick it along the rod away from me. Nothing. I alter the angle at which I hold the knife and try again. Sparks, but not as many as with the previous technique, enough to light cotton wool, but I’m not convinced it will light a natural tinder as easily. And it requires more co-ordination and I find it tricky left handed.
Rod still, striker moving
As the striker is already in place, I put down another cotton wool ball and try the same technique, but instead use the striker which came with the fire steel. Lots of sparks immediately and the cotton wool ignites. An easy technique to do left handed.
Striker still, rod moving
Standing on the upside down striker is my final try and other than needing to take care not to scrape the knuckles of my good hand on the ground, is reasonably effective and produces sparks that light the cotton wool. But experience has shown me that tinder doesn’t always light with the first spark and I can imagine scuffing myself with this technique.
I decide that for me the most effective approaches are 1 (knife still/rod moving) and 3 (rod still/striker moving); I decide to use method 3 on the birch bark. But buoyed by my success so far, I decide to try
Traditional flint & steel
I place a large piece of flint onto the ground with a sharp edge facing away from me. I place some char cloth under the flint and bring the steel towards the flint. I find this awkward, too confined, and don’t create any sparks and a few more tries don’t either. I turn the flint so that the sharp edge is pointing to the right. Now I can bring my left hand across my body; this feels better and is easier to do, but still no sparks. It takes me several more attempts, each time moving the flint and altering the angle of the steel, but eventually I produce sparks that ignite the char cloth. I’m pleased with the result but don’t pursue any further as I don’t have a tinder bundle prepared.
Lighting the birch bark
I lay a bed of sticks on the ground and build a ‘V’shape on top of them so that the wind blows into the ‘V’. I place my birch bark in the ‘V’. I lay my ferro rod onto the bed of sticks so that it sits within the birch bark. I flick the striker off the end of the rod a few times, producing a good quantity of sparks each time. Whilst it takes me around a dozen or so strikes to ignite the tinder, this seems a good method. And then on goes the fine kindling, the pencil thick kindling and so on. My fire is lit!
I’ve enjoyed trying out different ways to light a fire one handed and think that it has added a new dimension to my understanding of fire lighting and I’ve learnt some new techniques that are simple, safe and practical. Give them a try and let us know how you get on.