Monthly Archives: January 2015

Heat, the Primal Need

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(Article 3 of 6 in the Survivor Series)

Warmth is the other half of the Shelter issue: getting warm and keeping warm is the whole point of building a shelter. The danger in Exposure is losing body heat. Unless you are lost by a volcano or in a hot springs area, you’ll probably need fire. This article will cover collecting materials, building a fire, maintaining it, taking its warmth into your shelter, and using it to cook and signal rescue.

Fire-building is an art form. You’ll get warmth from a poorly constructed fire, but taking the time to select, gather, and structure your materials results in a brighter, hotter, longer-lasting fire that will produce good coals.

Collecting Materials

Know your materials. A little study now will make identifying much easier later.

  • Softwoods (most trees with needles) burn quickly, generating a lot of heat and light for a short period of time, but do not produce adequate coals for cooking.
  • Medium hardwoods (like cottonwood, poplar, aspen, willow) burn slower than softwoods.
  • Hardwoods (like oak, maple, hickory) burn slowly, providing low heat and low light. They produce solid, long-lasting coals – great for baking and slow-roasting.
  • Softwoods and medium hardwoods are great for starting fires, while hardwoods are great for maintaining them.
  • If you can’t tell by touch whether or not wood is dry, touch the wood to your lips.
  • If a piece of wood or a stick snaps with a sharp crack, it is probably a good piece of firewood.
  • Long-dead branches still attached to the tree are usually very dry wood.
  • Remove all bark as much as you can and set it aside for your signal fire. It doesn’t burn well and it smokes a lot, exactly what you want for that purpose.
  • Try to keep your fire materials dry by not laying them directly on snow or bare ground. Pile them on rock, under shelter, if possible. Or use two sticks to raise it. Keep your extra tinder, at least, inside your shelter in case of rain.

You’ll need four types of fuel: tinder, kindling, primary wood, and final wood.

  • Tinder: anything dry and airy. Tinder must be collected away from the ground to ensure its dryness. The paper-like bark from birch or cherry trees works well, as does the inner bark of dead trees that is stringy or fibrous. It can be torn off in strips and fluffed between the palms or beaten with a rock, providing excellent tinder.
  • Kindling: dry twigs or slivers of wood ranging from the thickness of a needle to the thickness of a pencil. Best placed in a tipi fashion over the tinder. You can make kindling from branches the size of your thumb by placing one on a rock and hitting the end with another rock. Peel the splintered stick into smaller pieces.
  • Primary wood: ranges from the thickness of your pinky to that of your wrist. Light to medium hardwoods (like cottonwood or aspen) are best.
  • Final wood: generally, wood too thick to break. It should only be placed on the fire when it is roaring. Damp wood will work, but dry is best, of course.


  • Don’t jump on wood or slam it against a tree in order to break it as these are both rather risky actions. Instead, burn it in half or place it in the notch of a tree and lever it in half.
  • Any wood that is in contact with the ground should be considered wet. It can still be used as fuel on a well-established fire, particularly if you want smoke for a signal.
  • Place damp wood around your fire-pit (raised on small stones for air flow) where the heat from the fire can help dry it out. It won’t happen immediately, but if you’re stuck for multiple days, it can make a significant difference.
  • If you can’t find any dry tinder, check your pockets for lint/fluff, or any paper, like receipts. You can fray some fabric. If you have chapstick or any petroleum or alcohol-based items like hand sanitizer, they are very effective. Even snack chips, or your actual pocket lining.

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