by Todd Walker
Judging comments here and on social media, our last article, Primitive vs. Modern, was well received.
Then I spot this portion of Alan Halcon’s comment in my notifications, “This article really touched a nerve…”
I braced myself to read the full comment from someone I hold in high esteem in the survival community.
If you’re unfamiliar with Alan’s modern and primitive survival skills, you owe it to yourself to check him out at Outdoor Self-Reliance. Anybody who produces consistent hand drill coals in 12 seconds is someone who has my respect. He also holds the record of spinning a hand drill coal in the unthinkable time of… wait for it… TWO SECONDS!
Being familiar with his way of challenging our “best practices” and beliefs in the survival community, I clicked to read more of his comment…
“This article really touched a nerve, albeit in a good way.
For so long, I’ve constantly said a similar thing— In a survival situation, when I want to start a fire, I want a road flare. During my classes, I share with my students, “My litmus test for a survival fire starting tool is… Can a five-year old use it?” If the answer is no, it has no business in your survival kit…”
Why would the world record holder in fire by friction prefer a road flare over hand drill or bow and drill in a real survival scenario? It’s pretty simple. Fire is life. The times we need fire the most are usually when fire is hardest to come by. There’s not much wood, wet or dry, a road flare can’t bring to combustion temperature.
With that being said, we should re-examine our survival fire kits.
The Five-Year-Old Fire Kit
My grandson is now 9 years of age. Time really flies! He’s usually my test subject when it comes to simplifying wilderness survival. He got interested in making his own fire two years ago. He had to overcome his fear of fire by learning to properly strike a kitchen match. Which brings us to the point of this article.
Could a five-year-old use your fire kit?
Let’s say you’re somehow incapacitated on a back country camping trip that turned sideways. Your young son or daughter will need to make fire for warmth until rescuers pin point your Personal Locator Beacon. Self-rescue is no longer an option.
An emergency fire kit should have simple, sure-fire methods of combustion. This is not about a fire kit you take to the woods for experimentation. Remember to keep it simple enough that an inexperienced child can make fire.
Before getting into details of ignition sources, I can’t stress enough the importance of surface area to volume ratio. I’ve watched many adults fail to build sustainable fires by not taking the time to prep a fire lay. A soldering torch wouldn’t even get the thing going. Collect or create small stuff first!
If I have to rely on primitive fire methods, I went to the woods unprepared. I’ll admit there may be that rare occasion where rubbing sticks together is your only chance of fire. If the plane crash in the jungle doesn’t kill you, just use the burning debris field as your fire.
Jokes aside, not many of us will be in the above situation. Most of us simply go camping, hiking, or milder outdoor adventures. That doesn’t discount the need to prepare with modern fire tools.
The trusty “thumb drill” has thousands of fires in a lightweight container that can be lit with one hand. Every lighter in my kit has been de-child-proofed. Simply bend the safety device out of the metal housing and pull to remove. Flatten the metal wings down flush with the housing and you have a lighter a five-year old can light.
This simple step makes ignition easier for adults as well.
The argument often arises about lighters not working in high altitude or when wet. While I can’t speak from personal experience about lighters not working at the summit of Mount Everest, a wet lighter can be made functional again in around two minutes. Blow into the metal housing several times. Work the wheel which strikes the flint by rolling it on your pant leg. Keep this pattern up until your lighter flames.
If you keep matches in your kit, it would be very wise to teach your children and grandchildren how to strike a match. Even more importantly, build their confidence in starting fires using only one match. This task requires as much special attention to the fire lay as you would in primitive fire making.
Which brings up the whole issue of prepared tinder – both man-made and natural…
Daryl and Kris Halseth run a family business called Dragon Fire Tinderbox. Any of their prepared tinder products weigh very little and provide an emergency source of tinder in your kit. It’s also a great teaching tool to help kindergarten-age children learn what a good tinder material looks like – fine, medium, coarse – and how it burns.
This stuff is a campfire in a bag and can be lit easily with a match or lighter. Spark ignition (ferrocerium rods) work on this tinder as well. However, keep in mind that this emergency fire kit has to be simple enough to be used by a young child.
Dirt Road Girl had trouble with consistent fires using a regular ferro rod. I bought her a Sparky™ Fire Starter for her kit. This device is pressed down to direct a shower of sparks on tinder material one-handed. Open flame is the best choice, but Sparky™ is a good backup.
In an emergency situation, the last thing you want your young child to have to find in the forest is dry, fluffy stuff that will ignite easily. Collect your own natural tinder or buy a bag of Dragon Fire for your kit.
I carry both DiY and commercial sure fire starters. One of my favorites is InstaFire. Click here to read our review on how versatile this stuff can be in an emergency fire kit. If you choose to buy commercial sure fire, purchase enough to test before staking your fire and life on them.
A homemade fire starter which lights as easily as a five-year old’s birthday candle is waxed jute twine. There are no chemical accelerants in this recipe. Simply coat jute twine in wax. Flick your Bic and you have a long-lasting fire starter.
Another fine homemade sure fire is cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly. They can get messy so store them in an airtight container in your kit.
Every kid loves birthday candles. I have a tealight candle stowed away in my kit. It takes up the space of about a dollar’s worth of stacked quarters but offers a long burn time to help a child start a fire.
Wrap a few feet of tape around your Bic lighter and you will always have a dependable source of fire… even if you need to burn stuff in the rain!
Here’s a tip to help your child remove the duct tape from the lighter with minimal struggle… especially if you use Gorilla brand duct tape. That stuff really sticks. Before securing the last half-inch of tape to your lighter, bend it over itself to create a pull tab for little fingers to grab. Not much is as frustrating as trying to find the end of tape on a used roll.
Strip off a foot of tape, wad it up loosely, and set it on fire with the lighter. Duct tape has many survival uses. Fire starting may be the most overlooked.
I wouldn’t stake my life on a five-year old starting a fire with solar ignition sources (magnifying lens or fresnel card). I carry one in my fire kit which Max, my grandson, has used to start fires. However, it takes prior practice, good tinder, and full sun to achieve ignition.
Flint and steel is one of my favorite spark ignition sources. The learning curve is too steep for a young child to use in an emergency. You need prepared charred material and hand-eye coordination to prevent injury… something a kindergarten lacks.
As mentioned previously in this article, spark ignition is a good backup if you have experience using the device. I had an experienced ten-year-old Boy Scout and his dad from our troop over at my shelter this summer. I invited him to start his first spark-based fire by scrapping a ferro rod. He succeeded in making fire but only after several attempts and coaching. A great learning opportunity for all of us.
Fire by friction… we won’t even go there.
I just returned from the Foxfire Mountaineer Festival where I had the pleasure of teaching friction fire methods along side of Alan Kay from the TV show Alone. Several adults and a few pre-teens achieved their first fire by friction in a controlled setting with proven friction fire sets. Quite a few failed. Practice primitive but always prepare modern when it comes to emergency fire starting.
I certainly encourage you to practice the Emergency Ignition Sources to Avoid with your children in the safety of your backyard or campground. But if your life ever depends on a five-year old starting a fire… stick with a Bic for your emergency fire kit.
Thank you, Alan Halcon, for sparking the common sense idea for this article!
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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