Flint and steel fire-making has become a traditional way of staying warm, cooking food and providing comfort and security. But far from being a quirky tradition for the voyageurs, it was a matter of life and death, not a choice between the use of lighters, matches or other incendiary devices. This match-free, fire-making method remains one of the most reliable ways to start a fire. It’s simple and the tools required are waterproof and compact.
In the past, a piece of carbon steel was struck against a piece of flint. The force of percussion caused a small shaving of carbon steel to ignite, producing a spark. Nowadays, modern firestrikers are made from carbon steel and the man-made metal ferrocerium, and can be purchased in any outdoors store.
You can substitute a striker by using the back of your knife; even a broken piece of hacksaw blade will do. Almost any metal will work as a striker, as long as it is as hard or harder than the ferro rod.
Whether you use natural materials, or opt for using modern alternatives with this traditional technique, the easy-to-follow instructions remain the same.
PREPARE YOUR TINDER
The success of your fire depends on the quality of your tinder bundle. Before any sparks are cast you’ll need to build a bed of tinder where a spark can grow into a flame. Tinder materials need to be very dry, and the thinner and more fibrous the better. Traditionally, tinder was made from charred vegetable matter such as cotton (char cloth), cattail fluff, birchbark shavings and certain fungi.
A cheap, modern alternative is made by coating cotton balls in petroleum jelly. When you want to start a fire, open up the cotton ball to expose the dry, fluffy inner. The petroleum acts as fuel for your flame allowing the cotton to burn for three to four minutes, instead of just seconds. Keep it stored in a waterproof container.
Prepare a supply of toothpick- and pencil-sized fuel to add to your flame. The first 60 seconds of your fire are the most important and will usually determine whether or not you will be successful.
To create a spark, hold your striker in one hand and the ferro rod in the other. Place the hand with the striker directly on the ground just above your tinder materials. Angle your striker at slightly greater than 90 degrees to the ferro rod.
When casting sparks, keep the hand with the striker stationary and draw the ferro rod towards yourself. This helps prevent pushing your hand forward into your tinder and scattering it.
Use deliberate, powerful pressure as you pull. You should see sparks. Experiment with angle and pressure if you’re not successful at first.
Direct the sparks onto your tinder bundle. Once the spark catches and creates a red ember, gently blow it into a flame and add your fuel.
Jeff Butler owns and operates Northwoods Survival (northwoodssurvival.com).
This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2015 issue of Canoeroots and Family Camping magazine.
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