Practicing Survival: Starting A Fire Without Matches

Recently, while examining a new edition of a popular survival handbook, I noticed a conspicuous omission in an otherwise good text. Although the author began with the obligatory (and ever-important) “always be prepared” advice–and followed it with a list of necessary survival-kit materials and equipment–he then skipped on to other subjects. There was nothing said about the fact that “being prepared” also means being able, in the sense of learning and practicing various techniques, and knowing how to actually use the gear one has so carefully assembled.

Over the years, I’ve often noticed this error-by-omission in reference books and the approach of most outdoor recreationists, including most hunters. The vast subject of “survival” demands a mix of both intellectual knowledge (which is information with understanding), and practical skills. Power, of course, requires focused effort and at least a modicum of trial-and-error, hands-on practice.

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Ideally, the way to learn both primitive and contemporary survival techniques is to attend a series of intensive training programs–“survival schools” that start in the classroom and move into the field and then into the raw wilderness where students can put their newfound skills and knowledge to a real-life test. I’ve learned quite a bit that way myself, and I think there’s much to be said for formal schooling when that approach is feasible. But daily reality must be taken into account, and the fact is, most hunters are not going to spend weeks undergoing optimal survival training in all of its various aspects. Some just don’t have the time, and many, especially those past a certain age, aren’t willing to endure the rigors and hardships of primitive-survival course work–like spending five days and nights sleeping in crude shelters, eating raw earthworms and deadfall-crushed mice, suffering the shivers and sweats and sunburn and gnawing gut of life as natural.

To Learn and Practice Survival Skills

Fortunately, there are less intense and more pleasant ways to learn and practice survival skills. One method I’ve used for years, and recommend to others, is both straightforward and commonsensical: Identify key skill areas (survival-kit assembly, water purification, fire making, shelter building, first aid, signaling for help, and food-getting, for example), then subdivide these categories into specific techniques and abilities you want to learn and master. Next, find ways to practice each skill “on the side,” so to speak, without pressure or stress, perhaps even as a form of recreation or what could be called “recreational learning.”

Consider knot-tying as an example. I’ve seen many hunters, even experienced ones, who are inherently incompetent with a rope or line. They’ve never taken the time to learn the basics. Even in normal field conditions they fumble and bumble; in an emergency, they would be helpless or worthless when a bit of skill could make a difference. Knots are so easy to practice and master; in many cases, you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your living room. You could, for example, keep a couple of four-foot lengths of smooth rope and a good knot-tying reference near your comfortable chair while watching TV.

Pick out a knot to learn or master, and work on it for a few minutes at a time during the innumerable commercials. (Some knots worth knowing include the reef or square knot, the bowline and sliding bowline, the quick-release or highwayman’s hitch, the fisherman’s or water knot for joining two ropes of similar thickness, and the single and double sheet bends for joining two ropes, or a rope and a line, of differing diameter.) Tying these over and over, they become almost automatic as if your fingers are doing the thinking and work for

(Some knots worth knowing include the reef or square knot, the bowline and sliding bowline, the quick-release or highwayman’s hitch, the fisherman’s or water knot for joining two ropes of similar thickness, and the single and double sheet bends for joining two ropes, or a rope and a line, of differing diameter.) Tying these over and over, they become almost automatic as if your fingers are doing the thinking and work for you so that you might even be able to tie some of them with your eyes closed, simply by feel, which can be a valuable skill in an emergency. For more elaborate rope work, such as the very useful trucker’s hitch and a variety of lashings, you’ll need more mobility and may have to head to the garage or yard. This type of “practice” is straightforward and easy, yet how few hunters ever think to do it?

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Some Survival Skills for Practicing in a Yard

Many survival skills can be practiced in a yard or nearby field or bit of woods. You needn’t always trek into the wild. Some examples: No-match fire-making, rigging tarp shelters, setting (and then disassembling) various types of animal traps, deadfalls, and snares. You probably will need to go into the wild to get hands-on, trial-and-error practice with such skills as making a debris hut shelter, digging and using a snow cave or trench (take a kid or three along to make it a fun afternoon outing), or if you want to attempt primitive food-getting by actually using traps or procuring wild edibles. I’ve often combined a bit of survival practice with camping trips, river floats, and day hikes. For instance, just for fun, as a self-test while camping, try starting the campfire with a no-match method–bow and drill or spark-and-tinder, say–then, once the flames are roaring, kick back in a camp chair and sip a preferred beverage during the elk steaks sizzle on the grill. This kind of practice is hardly a grueling survival effort, and can be fun.

I don’t, however, want to imply that you should only practice in comfortable conditions. Part of survival training and ability is learning to expand your comfort zones and discomfort tolerance, to function in spite of cold, heat, pouring rain, blowing snow, or whatever you might encounter. So, for example, once you know how to properly make a fire (first with matches, then with only one match, then by various means without matches), it’s wise to test your skill under adverse conditions. Go out in the rain or snow or below-zero cold and see if you can get a fire going before you succumb to hypothermia or frostbite.

I can attest from experience that it is very satisfying to pass this kind of woodcraft final exam, and also that it is something of a wake-up call when you fail and realize that if this weren’t simply for practice, if this were really life or death, you might have ended up like the doomed protagonist of Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” As a practice, however, failure of this kind can be highly motivating. It makes you think: What if something like this happens for real on my late-fall elk hunt? Or if the car breaks down on a lonely winter road? Now, perhaps for the first time, you understand what those experiences could be like, and that motivates the effort required to raise your game.

Now, possibly for the first time, you know what those experiences could be like, and that drives the effort required to lift up your game.

Another good reason for practice is to test the accuracy, feasibility, and the effectiveness of techniques and tactics presented in reference works. Illustrations, mainly line drawings, can make all manner of things seem plausible, while what I call their “field reality” can be another story entirely. A picture of a parched desert river bed has Xs marked, and the caption says, “Dig here to find underground water.” More than a few times I’ve been to those deserts, with the temperature well over a hundred degrees, the sun like an oven broiler, and the riverbed as hard and dry as a stone, and have said to myself: Good luck digging for water! Even if you had a shovel, which in survival-reality, you probably wouldn’t.

Another example, particularly relevant to hunters, is using firearm cartridges or shotshells to make a fire if you don’t have matches. This neat trick is mentioned or depicted in most survival manuals. But try it sometime, before you have to use it while stranded in the frigid wilderness. Just for practice, follow the instructions in the manuals and see what happens. Maybe you can make it work after a couple of tries. Or you might have to go through half a box of ammo. Even if you had that much ammunition on hand during an actual hunting survival situation, you wouldn’t want to waste it trying (and perhaps failing at) a fire-making technique you’d only read about but never bothered field-testing.

A lot of successful practice is primarily a matter of DIY education, using reference texts and videos for basic how-to guidance, but it’s also smart to take advantage of other forms of learning. While complete survival courses may not be available, there often are a surprising number of local classes, lectures, group activities, university campus recreation programs, and one-day seminars you can attend with little time expended and much benefit. To cite just a few of many examples, in my bailiwick I’ve gone on edible plant walks and mushroom-education outings with a local botany group, attended campus-rec lectures and slideshows on avalanche safety and rescue, and have gone into the winter mountains with a cross-country ski group to learn the fine points of digging and using emergency snow caves.

When thinking about survival skills, don’t forget first aid, lifesaving, and rescue, aspects of which are often taught (sometimes for certification) at a nearby Red Cross or campus-rec program. Regarding practicality, it’s far more relevant to know how to stop a bleeding wound, splint a broken limb, or do CPR than to chip out obsidian arrowheads and make a crude bow-and-arrow. Exotic aspects of survival are admittedly fascinating–and I’ve spent a good deal of time and effort learning about many of them–but it’s important to focus primarily on the trouble you’re most likely to encounter. This might seem like common sense, but as Mark Twain (may have) said: In the real world, common sense is anything but common.

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