Fire key to staying alive, getting found in emergencies

Posted on: May 16, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Redundancy has its place.

Have you ever told a teenager to clean their room?” Put away their laundry? Take the garbage out? Maybe even – oh, the humanity — set their phone down?

And – here comes the tricky part – had them listen right away, without a reminder or two or three?

Yeah, me neither.

Rarely, anyway.

That’s where redundancy comes into play. You say it, say it again, have your spouse say it, text it, write it on a note stuck to the refrigerator and then, ultimately, say it again.

If that’s a lot of work, at least the job gets done. And that’s the important thing.

So it is with fire in a survival situation.

Get lost in the woods and there’s almost no chance – unless you’re going to be on your own for a long, long time – you’ll starve to death. Humans can go three weeks without food.

Water is not the most critical need either. Oh, you can find yourself feeling really parched at times.

But humans can make it three days without water in most cases.

The elements are far more deadly.

Three hours, that’s about how long people can survive if they’re cold and especially wet. Hypothermia kills quickly.

An emergency fire can ward that off – not to mention provide a psychological boost, too. The night doesn’t seem co cold, so dark, so lonely with a fire blazing.

So, since it’s that important, be redundant. Make sure you have more than one way to get your fire going.

Redundancy in this case can be the difference between suffering and not, or even between life and death.

“You want to have at least two methods of making fire,” said Jason DeCosky, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s bureau of wildlife protection and a veteran of military survival training. “Never leave this to chance.”

The first method can be one of those convenience store lighters, made by BIC and similar companies. A Zippo-style lighter can be great, too.

The second can be something more primitive: waterproof matches, a ferro rod, even a striker like the Blastmatch made by Ultimate Survival technologies.

Just be sure to practice with those tools before you really need them, DeCosky said.

Sparkers in particular are often coated with some material to protect them while packaged. It can take a few times using them to remove that and actually make fire.

Pack more than one kind of tinder to get your fire going, too.

There are all sorts of commercial tinder products available. In a pinch you can improvise and burn things like duct tape, too.

But it’s also possible to be prepared by making your own before going out.

PJ or PET balls – they go by both names – are cotton balls rubbed with petroleum jelly.

“You don’t want it so wet that you can’t catch a spark. You want it so you can pull it apart and see the little fibers of the cotton,” DeCosky said.

Hit with a flame or a spark, they’ll burn for three minutes or so.

Something that burns longer – but requires a flame from a match or lighter to ignite – is a homemade fire starter crafted from sawdust or dryer lint and wax.

Take a cardboard egg carton and fill the cups with lint or sawdust. Pour melted candle wax over that. Allow them to cool.

They can then be cut apart and carried as waterproof fire starters. Lit with a match or lighter, they’ll burn three to five minutes, time that can be handy if your other material is damp or there’s a lot of wind.

In any case, build your fire around those starters using kindling – sticks and other wood pencil-sized or smaller – and only later larger wood. Be sure to have plenty on hand before lighting your fire, too. You don’t want it going out while you search for material.

And be prepared to keep that up.

In any survival scenario, you’ll spend much of your time tending your fire. That’s especially true if the weather is bad.

“You’re not going to be sleeping much,” DeCosky said.

But you’ll emerge alive and that’s what counts.

A survival fire as a beacon

In a survival situation, the main benefit of a fire is the warmth it provides.

But it can also serve to signal to rescuers.

Smoke attracts attention, especially when people know you are missing and are looking for you.

And darker is often better.

Light-colored smoke can blend into the landscape, especially if there’s snow on the ground.

Black smoke, though, stands out everywhere except, perhaps, around thick conifers.

To make it, put something petroleum-based into your fire.

If you’re around a vehicle or boat, that can be seat cushions, floor mats, rubber steering wheel covers, oily rags and the like.

If you’re traveling by foot, consider carrying a length of bicycle tire inner tube in your pack. There are plenty of ways to use it anyway, and in a survival scenario you can throw it on the fire to create thick, dark smoke.

Finally, be sure to build the fire in a prominent, open area where the smoke will be visible rather than dissipating in the treetops.

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

Share This Article

Shop special Everybody Adventure products today!