Getting a fire going (in the rain and wet) is the most important thing you need to know – ever. If you don’t know it, one day you will die from your ignorance. It will always be unexpected. Folks are always heading off for a day’s drive wearing shorts and tee shirts into the High Country (in summer) without a cigarette lighter or matches (one of the chiefest follies of non-smoking) as if blizzards can’t happen at 1000+ metres on any day of the year. They do!
Della & I ran into one on the South face of Mt Whitelaw in summer 2015. Sometimes they manage to keep their engines and heaters running long enough to survive…It is also astonishing the numbers of people who manage to still die because they can’t figure out how to walk downhill; roughly speaking every drop of 100 metres equals a rise in temperature of 1C, so you can soon be out of sub-zero temperatures in Australia (which is what we did!). The brother of one of our incipient Prime Minister’s managed to die in this way a few years back – leading me to question the genetic basis of his suitability for high office! Also, it is quite hard to die of cold if you keep moving.
Excelsior: world’s best fire lighter, but you need a knife to make it!
An old hunter’s trick (eg if you get ‘bluffed out’, or for some other reason have to spend the night out without a tent or fire), is to just keep walking all night, eg around a tree, keeping in contact with it with your fingers at arms length. It is a good idea to change rotation every now and then to avoid dizziness. The theory is this keeps you warm and alive and still knowing where you are, and avoids you falling off a cliff etc.
An old friend of mine told me his sergeant kept his group alive in the Korean War by marching them around in a river one night when the air temperature was minus 30C – as they had no overcoats; we often manage to send our troops of to war like this! He also told me that he had never been able to run so fast (I believed him!) as when a couple of thirty calibre machine gun bullets stitched through his torso, an experience I hope I never have to repeat!
Rather than face collapse from exhaustion though, it is better still to be able to find/make shelter and warmth. Being able to light a fire can also save you if there is a bushfire approaching. In such an event light a fire and move onto the burnt area as soon as you can – and get down, eg dig a hole and bury yourself: Radiant heat kills! Worry about the legality later – if you survive!
Similarly, if you are sheltering from a bushfire in a river, try to lie in the water with your head on the shore, with one of your (wet) garments over your face. Lack of oxygen in a fire front often means you will pass out, so you don’t want to escape burning only to drown! Wool is also the best protection from the danger of being burnt to death in a bushfire.
Fire Lighting: The same old friend, Ray Quinney taught me how to light a fire in the wet – and many other things, eg the Spanish Windlass, Cobb & Co Hitch & etc, etc. Lighting a fire in the rain is very difficult. In the wet is bad enough. Clearly you first have to have a cigarette lighter (I always carry a mini BIC – or several!). Keep it dry if you can – as when the flint is wet it won’t throw a spark to ignite the gas until the flint dries out (it will – under your arm or keep trying under your raincoat, etc). If you are hiking keep it in a mini snap-lock with a couple of esbits or a piece of bicycle inner tube – anything which burns well and steadily, and will do so when wet! Rubber is good because it doesn’t break up and disappear, so it will always be in your kit – until used! Some old-timers used to thread a section of it on their belt – a good idea! Never mind about the bit of black smoke! Pollution or Death! You should remove the childproof nanny state gadget with a pair of needle nose pliers etc as soon as you buy the lighters, it as it makes it just abut impossible to use.
Then you have to have something dry to burn and somewhere out of the rain to burn it. If it’s cold and wet, don’t worry about how big a fire it is: it won’t get away. If there is a large fallen tree, or trees nearby set fire to the whole thing. You can’t have too much fire when it’s really cold. (Of course if you have what I call a ‘fire tent’ it is a different matter. More about that later). On a wet day as you move along you have to be constantly on the lookout for any dry kindling. The underbark of some trees such as Stringy Bark on the lee side or the underside of branches is good. Roll it between your hands and it fluffs up into really splendid tinder. Look for dry leaves, twigs etc blown into hollow logs or trees & dry hanging branches – particularly of eucalypts – timber becomes quickly sodden once it is lying on the wet forest floor, collect them eg in a waterproof bag as you travel along. A supermarket bag is good for this and weighs practically nothing.
If it is raining heavily you may have to light your fire in a fallen hollow log (never in a standing hollow tree – it will fall and kill you!) or under a log where the fire will not be put out by the rain when it is still small. You may even have to construct a shelter for your fire (a tarp is good but you need to allow distance between the material and the fire and it needs to be open enough so that smoke can get away. You may have to split twigs eg with your knife to get enough dry kindling, and shave them to make ‘excelsior’ (see photo). You have to start really small (out of the wind) and slowly work your way up. Avoid the temptation to add too much fuel at one time and smother the fire. You may get only this one chance, so take your time.
Sorry, I left out the most important bit: how to make ‘excelsior’ (wood shavings). This was originally one post and included the bit about knives (http://www.theultralighthiker.com/carry-a-knife/) . Both have been copied over from one of my ‘older’ pages (http://www.finnsheep.com/HIKING.htm) . As I said there, you really need a knife (probably a fixed blade), to split wood to get at the dry heart and shave it to make this unsurpassed tinder.
Laying a Camp Fire: Don’t make a silly ring of stones. There should never be! Don’t go around making stupid obstacles for others to trip over and which only interfere with properly laying out a fire. It might sometimes be useful to make a fire up against a wall of stones so that more of the heat is reflected back towards you. A back log works just as well, and doesn’t explode, or create an obstacle for others later on. One of the chiefest problems with bringing stones and fire together is that some stones really do explode, and will send red-hot shrapnel into your eyes to permanently blind you –if you are silly enough to light a fire in a ring of stones.
In this photograph, the backlog has nearly burned through. You will see that the fire has been laid out lengthwise in front of us. This is what produces the most heat. Just lay each new piece of wood parallel to all the others and after a while you will have a nice long bed of coals which will make you toasty warm, particularly if you have something at your back like this Tyvek shelter (as here) to protect it from the cold wind (which seems always to be drawn to the fire)!
Here is a way to make a one ounce wood saw: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/how-to-carry-a-saw/ that might also come in handy for getting emergency water, (See Hatchet)