Fire: Human Heritage, Survival, and Hanging Out
According to recent studies by Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, it is hypothesized that humans evolved partly due to their ability to control fire and, in turn being able to cook food. In brief, this adaptation allowed humans to externalize their digestive process by allowing fire to break down their food for them before it even entered their bodies. This allowed our bodies, over the course of thousands of years, to devote energy that was previously used for digestion, to other things, such as using our brains to write articles for The Trek and arguing about pack weight.
It would appear that fire is pretty important. If the evolutionary side of things doesn’t excite you as it does me, you can still grasp the importance of fire in your day-to-day life. When you step back and think about it, fire is the root of everything we do on a daily basis, whether there is a literal flame involved or not. Flip that light switch and the light comes on. Turn the key over on your sweet 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a spark combusts the gasoline which then allows you to get that thing rolling down the road so you can pick up dudes or chicks…. with the help of your Kenny Loggins cassette tape blasting Danger Zone of course.
Somewhere, there is some form of combustion taking place to create the energy that powers that light bulb that illuminates your home or powers your refrigerator, whether it be the sun 93 million miles away, a coal power plant down the road, or the gasoline in your classic American car. Fire rules your life, and you probably don’t even know it!
Ok, so how does this apply to extended periods in the backcountry? You won’t be needing electricity or a bitchin’ ride out on the trail, that is unless you really can’t stop jamming Kenny Loggins on your smartphone. Fire is one of the most versatile tools in your backpacking tool kit. But first you must understand the process involved to get a fire started in the first place. Yes there is a process. Unless you’re bringing along a bottle of lighter fluid or fancy fire starting brick, knowledge is your best friend.
Before starting a fire you should always adhere to the Leave No Trace guidelines and abide by any fire bans in any area you are traveling in. These restrictions are not in place to harsh your mellow braaah. They are there to prevent you from burning down an entire forest that people have spent countless hours and decades trying to preserve for future use. Forests and wilderness areas aren’t getting any bigger, so let’s try to at least keep them from shrinking by accidentally burning them to the ground. You should always have your fire contained in a fire ring or in a mound of dirt that has all flammable debris removed for at least 10 feet around it.
Step-by-Step to a Successful Fire
- Gather your materials
- Tinder, aka Dry fluffy stuff. This is the harder stuff to get ahold of because it usually has been laying on the ground and is slightly damp. Dry grasses and pine needles work fantastically. There are also various tree barks that you can utilize such as dried cedar bark and birch bark but NEVER take these from a live tree. Removing bark from a tree opens it up to infection and can kill it very easily. Let me repeat this, NEVER TAKE BARK FROM A LIVING TREE. The best practice is to throw 2 or 3 cotton balls in your first aid kit. They are hands down some of the best tinder as long as they are kept dry.
- Dry sticks. Dry means when you try to break them in half they snap without much effort. If they bend and are pliable they are not dry. You will need various sizes ranging from very small (smaller than the size of your pinky) on up to sticks about the diameter of your thumb. From there you just need a few good sized logs to maintain the fire.
- A lighter and/or cookstove. I would never travel in the backcountry without a lighter. Not a chance. You must also keep your lighter dry at all times or it will fail you.
- Arrange your materials
- I like to make four piles starting with the smallest to biggest fire starting materials. I make a pile of tinder, followed by a pile of my smallest twigs, then a pile of medium sized twigs and then finally a pile of larger sticks. This stage is crucial for building a successful fire. An unorganized pile of fire-starting materials is a recipe for failure. Trust me, I’ve lost a lot more fires than I’ve ever gotten started.
- Build your fire-starting structure. For ease and stability I choose the “Log Cabin” method. You basically stack that sticks in Lincoln Log fashion and build the frame of a miniature log cabin with your medium sized sticks, as pictured in clip-art glory below. Place your tinder in the center of this structure. Have a pile of your smallest dry wood near and ready to create the “Roof” of the log cabin once the tinder catches.
- Pull out your trusty lighter, light the tinder and very quickly, and gently lay a few small twigs over top of the log cabin and allow them to catch fire. Add more and more small twigs until they are aflame. From here add medium and large sticks until you have a sustainable base fire.
- Pat yourself on the back, you did it. Now make sure you don’t burn the whole forest down.
- Watch the fire. Never leave a fire unattended. You created it, now it is your responsibility. Fire is a like your drunk friend who you always have to keep an eye on at the bar. It takes constant attention and can get out of control at the drop of a hat. You just need to reassure it, “Hey bro, it’s cool, calm down, here let’s get you some water and get out of here.” Always put out your fire before you leave camp. Never assume someone else will do it.
Reasons for Knowing How to Build a Fire
It can save your life
Listed below are a few applications that fire can be used for. Fire building is an indispensable skill because essentially, the only thing you need to bring with you is the knowhow. Little known fact, knowledge is the lightest piece of backpacking gear.
In a bad situation, fire can literally prevent you from dying of exposure and hypothermia. As an outdoor skills instructor, the motto we used to teach was you can go 2 weeks without food, 2 days without water, 2 minutes without air but it only takes 1 cold night to die from exposure. The simple act of knowing how to start a fire can extend your lifespan in a bad situation and prevent an untimely demise. Since you are backpacking you’ve already got your shelter covered in the form of a tent or hammock, lucky you!
Fire will purify water. If you are stranded, lost in the wilderness, or simply can’t find your water filter, the last thing you need is a bout of giardia. This will cause massive dehydration which can put you in a bad situation very quickly. With a good base fire building skill set you can use your cook set to boil your water, generally for 2 minutes, to make sure it is bacteria and virus free and to keep you hydrated and healthy. Fire also serves as a nice backup for cooking when you run out of stove fuel. Never happened to me though. Nope, not ever. Not even one time… Ok fine, it happened. I don’t want to talk about it.
Fire will help search-and-rescue teams identify your whereabouts in an emergency. If you need to use the fire as a signal, get it started and burning nice and hot then toss a bunch of green, living leaves and branches over the flames. This will create a great deal of smoke, hopefully alerting those searching for you. I saw it on Survivorman, that means I’m an expert.
Sometimes it’s just nice sitting around a fire and staring into the flame. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful. To me a campfire is reminiscent of some of the best times I’ve had in my life. If you are feeling low and need to do something to take your mind off of the trail or anything at all, start a small fire and just chill out. It can do the mind and body some good. Nothing brings people together at a shelter better than a nice mellow fire in the fire ring or a bottle of whiskey, but that is a story for another time.
Human Heritage as a Trial by Fire
Humans seem to have an innate fascination with fire. As stated in the introductory paragraphs, it has been a vital resource for us since the days of living on the African Savannah, staving off lions and roasting porcupine meat. Fire has helped and continues to help us continue, almost a little too well as a species today. We owe a lot to fire. It has had a significant role to play in our existence and the least we can do is learn how to create and respect fire. In the process we are reconnecting with our human heritage.
*all images sourced royalty-free from pixabay.com
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.