You’re lost. You’re cold. You’re wet. You’re not going to get out of the woods soon. What’s your plan? Of course, you need to build a fire! Good idea? Bad idea?
Making an emergency fire has long been one of the pillars of wilderness survival response. The ability to do this is codified in the Mountaineers 10 Essentials List. After watching big chunks of the west burn during our exceptionally dry summer, it might be time for a “reboot”.The 8th Edition of Freedom of the Hills calls for matches or lighters and fire starter, able to start and maintain an emergency fire. It does note that in snow or glacier conditions, where there is no firewood, one should carry a stove. In the wilderness areas I travel in, no fires are allowed above 3500 feet elevation. That often covers most of the trip. This restriction underscores the scarce amount of firewood present, the fragility of the terrain, the importance of air quality, and the danger of wildfire. Yet somehow are we to excuse the construction of an “emergency fire” based on perceived extreme conditions?
What’s the point of the 10 Essentials List anyway? These are items that go with you whenever you walk away from trail head, in case an outing of a few hours takes an unexpected turn. Some items, like first aid and repair, help you return promptly in spite of surprises. Others like navigation aids and sun protection are to bring you back without adventure. The rest, insulation, illumination, nutrition, hydration, emergency shelter and fire are for situations where your return might be delayed for hours or more. The 10 Essentials is a good system and yours should be well thought out and in your pack. But it is primarily a day hiking and climbing system. If you are going out overnight or longer, you will take this stuff anyway. For delays or changes in plans, you just need to bring extra.
So suppose you are hurt, lost, benighted, out of time or stuck and it is going to be a longer outing, maybe lasting until help arrives. How will your 10 Essentials see you through? Consider this: The last thing you should be doing is building a fire. It is going to take a lot of effort. It is hard to get right. It has the potential to make things much worse. Your time should be better spent on shelter and protection.
“But I need to build a fire anyway to keep me warm and/or dry me out”, you answer.
O.K. let’s do it by the book.
Step one, clear a fire area down to mineral soil. No trenching tool in your ultralight kit? Well maybe just keep going until you find a exposed bare spot.
Step two, gather firewood. Remember it needs to be dry, small to mid sized and enough to keep the fire going as long as you need it. You did remember to get hurt or lost where there was lots of perfect fire wood easily available? You did plan to have this happen in nice dry weather? How much are you going to need? If you plan to stay warm all night or until found, it’s going to be a lot? You are still mobile aren’t you?
Step three, get it going. With any luck and with good fire starters, this should work. But of course it is going to smoke and in your direction. Now dodge the smoke and get the fire hot enough to generate some warmth. If you have built some of these fires, you know that being warm by a fire is constant challenge. Your back is cold, your front is hot. The fire dies down, or smokes some more. If it is raining, you are not really getting dryer. Maybe even you are burning spark holes in your jacket and pants.
Alternatively you could have picked a nice, nesting spot with some natural shelter. You can then get right to work putting up a small tarp and getting out your extra clothes, emergency shelter bivy and food. You’re done a lot sooner, out of the rain and secure for as long as you need to be. With the ability to make some hot water, your extra food can even be warm.
You pick the better strategy. I still do carry emergency matches, fire starter and lighters. But I don’t expect to use them.
If you are teaching new folks about wilderness travel, consider the choices implied in emphasizing fire as a survival tool. Smokey will thank you.
Bravo, Henry! I’ve often wondered about the wisdom of the “matches or fire starter” in the ten essentials for all the reasons you mention. My only forced overnighter was a day hike that was stretched to two nights due to a swollen stream. It was February and raining like fury so there would have been absolutely nothing flammable in the woods except for my matches (assuming they were dry). Not many BTU’s there. This is, after all, the Pacific NW. Thanks to some of your other tips I now have the ability to craft a shelter much more easily than to build a fire. I hope I won’t need it but…