Of all the skills necessary for survival and peace of mind in the backcountry, using one match to ignite a successful fire is near the top of the list. Whether it is for boiling a cup of tea on a leisurely trip or trying to warm yourself frantically after getting damp on a cold winter’s day. Knowing how to use one match to start a fire could mean the difference between sipping warm tea cozy by the fire and hypothermia creeping into your bones as you nurse a cold night.
Below I am going to give two scenarios where knowing how to light a fire with 1-2 matches can be crucial.
Imagine this scenario. It’s a cold winter’s day. Something like the minus -22 that is about to happen this Sunday in Newfoundland. You have taken the dog out for a stroll on the East Coast Trail. As you make your way down a long set of slippery wooden steps they have crafted, you get so caught up in the awe inspiring views that suddenly you slip and go head over heels. After the ordeal you realize that your right knee has been severely injured. Unable to walk on that leg and back up the enormous flight of stairs, you panic and reach for your cell phone. To make matters worse, you have landed yourself in a valley of no service and didn’t even bother to tell anyone where you were going. You begin to panic. Not many people traverse these trails in the dead of winter and nighttime will be closing in over the next couple hours. Because it was supposed to be a quick walk you are bundled up but not fully equipped for an evening in the bush. Most people have the mindset to get a good walk in, make the heart pump, and even sweat to prove to yourself you had some good exercise. We do this with the intention of getting back to our warm vehicles and back to home base with no issues. Sweating is usually inevitable. There is nothing wrong with it. If we wear proper base, mid, and outer layers as well as remove and replace them as we heat up and cool down it can be minimized. But in a situation like this you have perspired and now become cold and dormant as you sit on a log nursing your newfound injury. Relax. Assess the situation.
Knowing you can’t return the number one priority is heat. Chances are you are there for the night. What you should do now is reach into your premeditated SURVIVAL KIT (never go into the woods without some variation of safety supplies) and pull out your strike anywhere matches, lighter or fire steel. The matches should be strike anywhere or waterproof. If they are not waterproof then keep them in a pill bottle or something that will keep them dry. Both objects are great but a lighter’s flint can fail when wet and damp and the fuel can also freeze at very cold temperatures (although that is doubtful in Newfoundland). The fire steel is no good unless you know how to use it and generally takes a little longer than the lighter or matches. It is also much easier to drop a burning match in to a bed of dry tinder versus poking your lighter in there. At the end of the day matches are the most reliable fire starting tool to have for a quick emergency. As you open your matches you notice you have 4 left. That means a couple for now and a couple extra in case the fire dies overnight. You see some birch bark on a tree and a couple DEAD/DRY branches nearby. Check out my article Back to the Reserve: Wandering a Familiar Place with a Packraft and a New Friend . In here I talk about the significance of using dry wood and not green to start a blaze.
The important step now is not to rush. Although you are cold, patience is crucial for starting a good fire, especially when you are relying on just a couple of matches. Once you make a good pile of birch bark and small dry sticks you strike your match. If it doesn’t
light. Take your next one and you better make it work. When your hands are cold you can easily snap your last match which could be the difference between hypothermia and keeping warm. Hold it close to the base of the matchstick and apply pressure with your thumb while making a small shelter with your other hand to prevent wind from blowing it out. Slide the match down the ignition strip. Viola. You have a fire and comfort. Knowing the basics and being prepared probably just saved your life. You would continue to build a small shelter and bunk for the night with a pending rescue in the morning. I won’t go on with all the other things you should do in this article because it was only meant to describe the importance of starting a fire with limited matches. I will cover the rest some other time.
It is the fall of the year and you and your friend are out duck hunting in your canoe/kayak/aluminum boat or ark you built out of old mans beard and alder bushes. After a unfortunate capsize you make you way to shore with nothing but the wet clothes on your back. Your bag is gone in to the murky water and you are left to your SURVIVAL KIT that is located inside your pants pocket. It consists of a pack of matches, an energy bar, fishing line, a hook, a survival blanket, some paracord and a whistle. Your buddy has a multi tool in his pocket and managed to salvage his hatchet knowing the importance it would have. It poured rain the night before and every piece of timber is as soggy as a Purity cracker soaking in a hot bowl of soup. The temperatures are cool and it won’t take long for your body to feel cold and vulnerable. After many unsuccessful attempts to start a fire with the driest material you can find (dead would with a wet outer coating) you feel that you will never get a solid flame. The night closes in and in the morning you manage to walk out to the road after nearly freezing to death.
Enter the beauty of feather sticks or curls as some people call them. In this situation they needed to get to the dry core of the wood. If not you stand little chance of getting a fire ignited unless there is birch bark in the area, which isn’t always the case. You could also look for a dead tree and check for dry thin branches that were sheltered fro
m the rain. Ultimately it would really help to have some tinder on you in a dry container but you may
have used that the night before or just neglected to pack it. In any case, if you use the saw in your multi tool to cut some small dead logs then you may be in business.
Once you have some sticks use your knife or axe to shave away the outer damp layer until you get to the dry innards. Then you just want to make a big pile of these dry shavings. You can also split the wood. This makes getting to the core much easier. Lay some wood with dry side facing up on the forest floor to keep the base of your fire away from the dampness. Lay your pile of shavings on top and then cut some bigger splits. Some people (like myself) just keep the curls attached to the split. I will show that in the pictures below. Once you pile these loosely to allow air flow all you need to do is strike your one match and slowly slip it in between the curls. Make sure the match is cupped between you hands wind or no wind. A quick gust could come along at any moment. In no time you should have a burning flame and warmth that can save your life!
But remember. None of this comes fluently without practice. I know that most people will say that this is never going to happen to me, but one of these days it may very well be the case and I hope you are prepared. Everyday around the world people are put in these situations. Do you remember Brian from the fictional childhood novel Hatchet? Not a real story but it’s a real scenario. We could be next. You’ll thank yourself and maybe me. Plus, it is always fun to work with nature and make something out of nothing. So what are you waiting for. Get out there and have a go at it while you relax, knowing that you are not in that emergency situation. Take some dry splits and tinder just in case you can’t get the real thing done.
And of course, some people reading this take gas in the woods or 5 lighters or a blow torch and a box of newspaper. All very good if you can manage and have the space, but it is not very practical. If you fall in the pond you’re screwed. The bottom line is that you still need to get to the dry wood. These situation’s I have listed prepare you to succeed with a single match and a tool. That was the goal here. Using only one is very possible if you are calm and careful. That way you are not recklessly wasting them in the event of a multi-day trip or survival situation where you may need to ration them .
A final note to ponder:
One of the characteristics you will develop while spending time in nature is PATIENCE. My old trapper buddy in Labrador who had developed matured backcountry wisdom once told me that “You can’t put a time on anything out here” In other words, a task will take as long as it takes. You never know what will happen. There is no rushing in the woods. Rushing causes carelessness which causes injury or death. The key to surviving in the bush is to live consciously, with care and thought put into every action. That goes from starting a fire to launching your canoe. A little hard work and determination doesn’t go astray either.
Please be careful out there folks.
As always, if you have any questions or know other ways to get it done then please feel free to drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep chasing those adventures