OK, call me a whimp, but, solo wild camping in winter doesn’t deter me, I love been out in the snow and ice, it’s the 8 hours of daylight that’s the disincentive, the thought of the isolation, in sub-zero temperatures is one thing, the thought of having to spend up to 16 hours of it in total darkness, simply lacks the appeal to me as it may not to others, even with the potential of watching downloaded films on the Ipad, the fact remains, I’d still be stuck within the confines of a bivi or one man tent for 16 hours, exposed to the elements, in the middle of mist filled cloud, and possibly, snow, ice and constant rain or sleet absorbing the terrain, it really doesn’t sound like much fun. There are only so many spoons you can whittle in one night, besides, once the shavings fall inside the sleeping bag, well, it would be worse than the Highlands and Lake District midges.
So, as I have rediscovered my love for the outdoors, I needed to discover a new alternative. I’ve been a devotee to Ray Mears for many years, and, Paul Kirtley certainly knows his stuff too, as do many others. With the assistance of the marvelous YouTube, and, so many hours of watching many publications, I decided to venture to the woods and make an attempt at the first and foremost necessities of the outdoors, fire-making, with a ferro rod, steel, tinder and kindling, which, in January, in northern England, one of the wettest and frozen parts of the UK, the testing challenge certainly was awaiting me.
Another, and probably one of the biggest challenge, was finding some secluded woodland which doesn’t have, ‘Private’, ‘No Camping’ or ‘No Fires’ signs daubed all over them, especially, been situated so close to a major English city. What little woodland there is available, much of it really is littered with heavy traffic, I’m not the only one who enjoys the benefits of wild woodland.
The greatest natural ally for fire-making in the outdoors is the deciduous Silver Birch. I’m not going to pretend I’ve magically transformed into some kind of woodsman overnight, I certainly haven’t, but, this particular tree offers bushcraft, amongst other things, a bark which can be used for both tinder and fire-starting, a nutritious sap which can be tapped and drank, the bark can be heated and the resin collected, which is useful as a waterproof glue and again, helpful for fire starting. Plus, if you visit Canada with Ray Mears, he’ll take you to a native American who, minus instructions or a plan, can, transform the bark and timber into a traditional canoe.
Now let’s be realistic here, if my memory serves me right, man has made fire since forever and a day, and even earlier than that, which, really does pre-date Swan Vesta, Ronson or the legendary Zippo, not to mention the 10 for £1 disposables readily available on any swag market stall in the country, so, it’s fair to suggest, that today’s modern hi-tech equivalent, old Homo Sapiens,  should easily equal and surpass these ancient people’s, we’ve progressed, haven’t we? In my new Swanndri shirt I felt like an oversized Hobbit but, the question remained, could I step back in time 4,000 years and equal primitive man? That, was the question. Who fears progress?
This is how it’s done, (not the fire, she’s cheating, but the rest, the shelter, bedding and cooking, she’s good), the thing is, where on earth, around my neck of the woods, would it be possible to find a traffic free spot, in the woods, where you could construct something as good as this? Thank you Survival Lilly 🙂
The landscape I was searching for was heavily wooded, close to running water, isolated and free from traffic, and hopefully, containing Silver Birch and dead standing trees, I’d no intention of destroying anything living, that wasn’t on the agenda.
The location I found, was close to the Ebor Way footpath, far from been isolated or free from traffic and as far as silver birch were concerned, there wasn’t one to be seen for miles around, but, the decision for the location was simple, it was tucked away down an embankment, adjacent to the river, an area, which on viewing, was frequently flooded and an over flow for the main river, and, absolutely abundant with dead driftwood, there was more dead wood around me than in a timber yard, and, even without the silver birch, this was a superb spot to practice fire making, especially as I was now using my own tinder and nothing more, the challenge awaited.
The next step probably was the most time-consuming of the entire manufacturing process, that been, the collection and distribution of the required materials.
“The greater the need for fire, the greater the difficulty in its manufacture”
Preparation is imperative and following the simple initial procedure really does ensure the end result flows smoother, I had a tinder pouch with a variety of potential contents, old man’s beard, silver birch bark, cotton wool, cotton wool soaked in fat/dripping, old bicycle inner tube – cut down into small pieces and a piece of magnesium block, I’d yet to find and prepare any fatwood. The ferro rod and striker were itching to make their debut.
“Manufacturing fire really does warm you three times, the first, collecting the firewood, the second, igniting the tinder, and third, the fire itself!”
It took me, probably, the best part of an hour to prepare the location and collect all the wood, due to the terrain it wasn’t difficult, dry and dead wood littered the area, dead bracken lay everywhere, to say I was only yards from a river, a river that floods and can be treacherous, the debris it had gifted me during its last flood was abundant.
Excluding the tinder, the 3 required stages are as follows, 1:- a pile of dead twigs, dry leaves, bracken, or anything small and combustible enough to take a small flame, 2:- a second pile of bigger twigs, small branches, roughly between 10 and 20mm in diameter, then, 3:- the bigger and substantial content for the fire, the dead and hopefully dry logs, if they seem too wet, take the axe to them and split them into smaller, dryer pieces, usually, the centre of random logs will be reasonably dry, the more the merrier.
So, the moment of truth finally arrived, the preparation completed and a pile of twigs and dry leafs collated on the surface of the base logs, the neat piles of the following stages located at arms reach, some cotton wool and rubber inner tube placed within the kindling, and, we’re off. Had they still failed, I could have soaked the cotton wool tinder with the used cooking fat, I had in a tin in my rucksack, or shaved and feather the centre of a piece of the thicker logs I’d collected, adding more dry and combustible content, but, fortunately, it deemed unnecessary. The ferro rod sparked immediately, and the cotton wool ignited, and, for a moment I thought I’d achieved immediate success, not this time, unfortunately the kindling didn’t immediately take to flame. With my second attempt, I ignited the rubber from the cotton wool, and, although everything was slightly damp, the kindling took to the combination or rubber and cotton wool, and, hey presto, I had fire, a wonderful feeling.
I’d anticipated the result to take longer and be more difficult, but, I’d made it easier, simply by preparation and planning, by collecting all the required elements, having them close at hand and available. If I can do it, anybody can do it. Referring back to the base logs, it’s also useful to lay two more stage 2 bits of wood between the base and the tinder/kindling, if the 2 pieces are laid in an inverted V shape, hanging beyond the fire so the two ends could be used as handles, should the kindling require a little air blowing inside to encourage the flame to emerge, it’s possible to, relatively safely, lift everything, using the V shaped sticks, and blow at the kindling to assist the flames to manufacture.
Summary, for a first attempt I was quite satisfied, there are things I could have done to have improved it, such as increase the base platform by adding more logs, it’s something I’ll take with me for next time, I could have stockpiled more reserve fuel, but, I wasn’t intending to stay too long, my challenge was simply to build a fire and, I achieved it, and, it was superb practice, my methods worked for me and I learnt a lot, so, with this little extra knowledge gained, next time, I’ll be there to advance myself a little more, I’m looking forward to it.
And finally, the golden rule applied, Leave No Trace or Leave Only Footprints, even though the area where I’d been, will, without doubt, flood in the next few weeks or even days, my conscience dictated my decision, so, I scattered the ashes and covered the location with wet leaves and mud, conscience cleared.