To Start a Fire

Remember how Tom Hanks struggled to make fire in Cast Away?
Mother nature starts fires all the time, in various ways. About 100 bolts of lightning strike the earth every second, some of them starting fires. Volcanic activity litters the earth with super-hot rock, igniting forests with ease. Occasionally, meteorites impact the earth and start a fire. But us? How did we come to start fires, before our technology made it easy? We scarcely think about how to start a fire; our homes are typically heated by controlled, calibrated mini-fires, contained and invisible inside high-tech metal furnaces, which rarely need our attention. For stoves, barbeques and campfires, we invariably reach for the nearest matches, lighter or torch to get things going. All these modern aids tend to obscure two facts:
1) It is very difficult to start a fire, even under ideal conditions, without using any “modern” methods.
2) It is extremely difficult to start a fire in the wilderness, under wet or snowy conditions; it requires incredible expertise, and a little luck.
We define “modern” methods as those mentioned above, which typically involve flints and fuels, and chemical innovations like phosphorus-tipped matches. So what was available to our ancestors, during their daily quest to stay warm in winter? Evidence suggests that two methods have been in use for perhaps 100 000 years: flint-and-stone, and friction methods. For a realistic portrayal of fire making, the movie “Castaway” is hard to beat. The hero must start a fire using the only methods at his disposal: the friction of wood on wood. Even in ideal conditions (sunny, warm and dry) he endures hours of exasperation, blisters and blood before finally succeeding. He was using the fire plough, a difficult, exhausting friction method which we won't try here. Better yet is the bow and drill, which maximizes the friction between wood surfaces, with less effort.

The Bow and Drill Fire Starter

This is a marvel of early technology. We have six principal parts:

1) The bow: a slightly curved branch about 2cm in diameter, and 60cm long.
2) The string: about 1m long, shoe or boot laces work well.
3) The drill: a 30cm long straight stick about the width of your thumb.
4) The hearth: a dry, flat board about 10cm by 20cm and 2cm thick.
5) The ember pan: a flat, dry surface to collect embers.
6) The chuck: a smooth, hard object to hold the top of the drill.

The idea is to push the bow back and forth (with the right hand in this case), causing the strings to rotate the drill. The bottom of the drill becomes very hot, and bits of hot ash are discharged through a notch, and fall down on the ember pan, providing the nucleus of a fire. The ember can then be supplemented with tinder, and subsequently with kindling, to make a campfire. For someone lost in the wilderness, all of these items could be hand-made, provided you have a pocket knife and some laces in your boots or shoes. A survival saw really helps, though. On our snowshoe outings, we try to make a fire using the bow and drill method. Check out our Video. It is always a challenge, and interesting every time. Join us, for this primal, thought-provoking experience!

We demonstrate the Bow and Drill during our Sleighs and Snowshoes Getaway, deep in the wilderness!