Practical advice for common survival scenarios

Posted on: February 10, 2017 | Matt Fincher | Comments

Starting a fire by building and using a bow drill? That’s hard core.

It’s also, most of the time, unrealistic and unnecessary, at least as applies to the typical survival situation.

In those cases, thinking ahead and carrying just a few simple items will carry you through.

So says Dan Wowak, owner of Coalcracker Bushcraft in Mahanoy City, in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County. He’s a trapper and bushcraft skills instructor who competed in season three of the History Channel series “Alone.”

He and nine others were sent to Patagonia with just a few tools of their choosing and tasked with staying alive, solo, for as long as they could.

Wowak didn’t win the competition, though he spent 50-plus days living by his own hands.

That’s not at all what the person who unexpectedly spends a night or two in the woods is up against, he noted.

“Remember, all you’re trying to do is last until somebody can find you,” he said.

The key, he said, is staying dry and warm.

Carrying a tarp will often satisfy the first part of the equation, he said. Having a fire will take care of the second.

But how to get it?

“So people ask me, what’s the best fire-making item that I can keep in my bag or my backpack for that emergency scenario?” Wowak said.

“Honestly, probably carrying a road flare is going to be your best bet because you can light that and that’s going to set whatever you put it against on fire. Wet, dry, it’s going to start a fire.”

It’s best to have multiple options, though, he said. That’s why he also carries a disposable lighter, along with a ferrocerium rod – which throws hot sparks when scraped with a knife blade or other tool – and fire starters.

Nature provides a variety of fire starters, Wowak said. Birch bark is one. It typically lights easily, from a spark as well as a flame, he said.

Fat wood is another.

“It’s one of the best fire starters in the eastern woodlands,” Wowak said.

Fat wood is the resin that collects in pine trees and can be found not only in the East, but anywhere pines grow.

It’s best to collect such natural materials – birch bark, fat woods and the like — in advance and have it on hand rather than need to seek it out in a time of absolute need, Wowak said.

Otherwise, he recommends carrying a commercial fire start of some sort, like that made by WetFire and others.

The most important step to take to stay alive in the woods is the one you take at home, though, he added. That means preparing.

Wowak suggests leaving the house with a plan, dressing appropriately for the weather, having a tarp for shelter, and having the ability to start fire.

“Then you’re going to be, for the most part, dry and warm. And it requires carrying very few items,” he said.

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

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