Starting a Fire with Ferro Rod & Steel

In a true survival situation, if one had to pick a single item in advance without knowing any of the details, there is only one obvious answer what that choice should be: caviar and Dom Perignon.

Sorry, classic Bond aside, anything with a good blade (multi-tool, or just a good knife) is item # 1. But second on the list—and first in many specific situations—is a Ferro Rod & Steel. With a little knowledge, and a bit of practice, you can be capable of building a life saving, morale boosting fire even if it’s raining hard.

We’ve come a long way from flint, Frodo. Ferro rods have been on the market a long time, without changing much, because they really do the job. One good, confident scrape, and they give off such a powerful spark that old school survivalists would almost call it cheating. Except they’d be the first to tell you, there’s no such thing. If you’re lucky enough or smart enough to have a Ferro Rod and Steel with you in the event of unforeseen calamity, the hours of calorie smashing labor you’ll save change everything. Practice twice, two camp fires, and you might join the ranks of backpackers who never bother with matches again.

The tricks to doing it right are the same for any fire, whether you have a spark or flame of your own, or have to resort to friction or an improvised magnifying lens. So let’s get to it:

Location

Anyone who’s read To Build A Fire knows that even an adept survivalist can make bad decisions after a few critical things have gone wrong. Too cold, too tired, need fire … and you build it under a tree you think is dry, until a plate sized leaf tips half a bottle of rainwater right on your newly born flame. Think you’ve found the perfect dry spot, then the wind gusts up. The common sense preparations are easy to mess up when you’re in a hurry, or a panic, but they still are mostly common sense.

Do: look for a place where you’re likely to shelter for sleep. Pick a spot for the fire that is sheltered, but will still get the heat to you, and allow you to cook over it. If you have to, dig, or build a ring of rocks, or both. If you can’t do any of these, well just listen to what your mother shouted in front of every single one of your classmates on that first day she dropped you off at school without walking you in: “DO THE BEST YOU CAN!” (Or is someone projecting?)

Depending on your understanding of local predators, and the need for warmth, you may want to plan your fire spot to be as close as possible to where you’ll be sleeping, without risking the ignition of your shelter or bedding.

But as with all advice, remember the immortal words of George Orwell, “violate any of these rules sooner than do anything outright barbarous.” In other words, don’t be stupid, you have to rely on yourself, so practice confident decision making even if you have to fake it for a bit. Think things through, then decide. For example, if you plan to cook anything over the fire, and might attract a bear, then throw the above advice in the trash and either separate your sleeping spot from the cooking and eating site, or belay the cooking for once you’ve slept and are ready to get moving again. Keep the fire going all night long if you can, with a dry, twiggy branch nearby that can pull a Johnny Torch and Flame ON, to be waived in the mug of that scouting wolf or panther. Enjoy a breakfast while it’s light, and move on.

Starter, Kindling, Dry Wood – things you need to find

As with all categories, things blur at the edges. For example, between kindling and that little ball of lint, dried moss, or extremely fine twigs you have to find to start a flame. Survival can be a constant game of triage. Having trouble finding some kind of perfect, pouch-sized bit of natural fluff that you’re sure will catch a spark like Uncle Bob’s breath after his ninth swig of Jack? But you’re lucky enough to have armloads of dried, fallen branches about? Then do the easy and obvious first, gather the wood and put it by your chosen spot. Do the larger kindling next if it’s easy to find. Small sticks and twigs.

Have a knife? Just can’t find something right to catch a spark? Get to whittling. Fine, dry wood shavings blaze up just fine.

The last thing to do is have your gatherables in order for the spark, flame, fire sequence.

Prep the gatherings, then spark it up

There are some advanced tricks if the weather is just horrendous, or flat, usable space is at a premium (like on a ledge of a cliff), or other circumstances. One somewhat more advanced example is below, but the basic setup is: starter (shavings, fluff, dry moss, etc.) nestled in the lightest pieces of kindling, with more kindling at hand, then larger sticks and wood. The starter, the light kindling, and a few larger sticks can all be constructed in advance, but if anything is preventing that, at the very least try to make sure everything is within easy arm’s reach of you, while you sit beside, squat, kneel, or hunch over your fire spot.

This gets to the biggest reason at least a few practice campfires truly help. We could spend five paragraphs telling you about the sweet spot between too much air, and not enough. Too compact versus too separated. And even then there’s nothing like doing it for real once or twice, just having to coax a flame into a fire with your hands and guttural, soft puffs of breath. 

But use your mind’s eye, particularly when selecting starter material. You can see in your own mind a perfect little ball of highly flammable dried moss. The truth is, some moss doesn’t ignite as well as you expect, while others flame up like they’ve been soaked in kerosene. Experts in survival are always asking locals what they know, but let’s face it, any typical human being unlucky enough to have found themselves in a truly unexpected survival circumstance probably hasn’t had a chance to consult on the local flora production of ideally suitable fire starting materials. Whatever it is, wood shavings, a weird ball of fluff that could be natural or might have fallen from the purse of a countess who’d sailed above in a hot air balloon, your fire starter is supposed to flame on easily, and therefore almost certainly will consume itself in a matter of seconds. It needs to catch the spark, trigger a flame, and have that flame meet kindling, right away. In every stage of the process, if something is packed too tight for air, it won’t light properly, if too loose, it won’t have enough substance to ignite and trade fire. Some like to build a teepee of sticks, others go more log cabin style, while still others let the materials and shapes dictate the structure. However you prefer, the fundamentals are the same: smaller, more flammable & more quickly consumed nestled in and among larger twigs, then to sticks, to bigger sticks, branches, etc. One reason against fully constructing the fire in advance is, the less you have to struggle to get your hands close to the starter, the better, so keep that in mind if you decide to build around it. 

So the small kindling either needs to be already against the starter, or you need to be able to put the flame and the kindling together, immediately, in one very smooth, sure move.

This is when the guttural puffs of breath can make the difference. Experts make a barely audible “Kuh” or “Koo” sound, close to the flame, the starter and the twigs. Done right, these soft puffs manage to deliver oxygen, move the thickest smoke without dispersing it too much, and the fire bursts alive in a kit not larger than something one could hold in both hands. Add a few larger twigs and branches gently on top, and well, everything’s relative. Eddie Murphy’s Uncle poured gasoline all over a pyramid of firewood, singed his eyebrows off, and shouted, “NOW THAT’S A FIRE!!!!!” as flames towered so brightly the horizon in the neighborhood may have dimmed in comparison. You? You’ll be just as exuberant over a few sticks making an eight inch flame. Because getting warm and dry, and doing that primal thing that separates humans from all the rest, earned you this day’s bit of triumph.

As to the promised advanced technique. Just say you couldn’t get the perfect location for your fire. The only nook where it’s calm enough to light a fragile starter is barely a foot across, or you even had to dig a narrow hole to make some breathless space. This is when you prep your fire nearby with kindling and sticks, but make a separate bundle that will allow you to ignite the starter, and have it grow while you carry it. The bundle is constructed to ignite fast on the inside, and continue to alight only slightly slower as it grows outward, giving you just enough time to deliver it to your already properly constructed campfire. Some survivalists have been known to steal a bird’s nest as a readymade bundle. You get the picture. The starter’s on the inside, with enough room for you to scrape a spark to reach it, it lights up and is gone in seconds, but not before the outer twigs have ignited and are in the process of growing a real flame fast. If you can’t find one, make one, out of the dryest, thinnest twigs and other brush that you can find.

But we’ve saved possibly the most helpful tip for the last. You may be cold, hungry, and scared. But you’ve still got your wits and you need to harness them. The way to do that is by visualizing the small steps you’re taking to build your fire, in advance. Once you’ve gathered all the materials, close your eyes and watch yourself make the fire, from spark to flame to warming your hands. Is there anything missing in your detailed visualization? If not, see it, then do it.

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Ed - April 23, 2020 Reply

Great introduction Thanks!

Tom Fitzpatrick - April 23, 2020 Reply

Thanks for the info!

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