It was cold in the tent.
I hadn’t opened my eyes yet, but I could tell I would be able to see my breath once I did. I was nicely swaddled in wool and down blankets, but the tip of my nose and the apples of my cheeks told me it was time to get up. I stretched cautiously, making sure no limb breached my cocoon of blankets. I had layered my clothes, but all that cold air was going to sap away body heat and I wasn’t ready yet. An uneven bed and a concerned eye on the fire made for a restless sleep. Despite my efforts, I had lost the fire in the middle of the night and you’re about to read why that’s not entirely a bad thing.
February 2021, I was a first-time winter camper and novice survivalist intentionally testing myself. Over the years, through research, various one-on-one teachings, and chance encounters with really cool people, I’ve educated myself on survival and apocalypse preparation. Some skills were learned and practiced in safely controlled environments, while others were done under the watchful eye of experts, but I’ve never applied any of them to an outdoor setting or executed any of them all alone. Winter camping was a perfect opportunity to put an end to that, plus there wouldn’t be any bugs. I hate bugs. I had given myself rules and goals. One rule: a lighter can only be used once, every fire thereafter needed to be started from flint or ember of a previous fire. Well, I won’t beat around the bush, I had used the lighter the very first night. I was running late (as usual), chasing daylight (as always) and what can I say, I panicked. So, this particular morning meant “go” time.
Overall, I wasn’t too worried. I knew I’d figure it out. I’ve always loved fire. I have been playing with it for an exceptionally long time, consider it my friend, and believed my affections would translate to success. I can’t pinpoint how old I was when I first started playing with fire, but I can confidently say I was quite young. I grew up with wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, plus I have the added advantage of being a product of the ’70s and ’80s when the world was full of smokers, so lighters and matches were always around to play with.
I have specific memories of grandma and dad enabling my pyromania. Grandma would task me with lighting her gas stove and later, her Pall Mall cigarettes. She would be in the back bedroom, folding laundry and call down the hallway for me to do one or the other. My olfactory memory was heavily shaped by this, as a non-smoker I still enjoy the first few seconds of a freshly lit cigarette. My dad also recognized my fire fondness and fed the passion by giving me lighters. Thanks to dad, I amassed an impressive lighter collection, many I still have today. All of this was done to the chagrin of my mom. She didn’t necessarily protest but she certainly didn’t ask me to light cigarettes or give me lighters, but I digress…I simply mean to impress that fire play is no stranger.
As much as I’ve bragged up my pyromania, my recent fire-building experiences have been executed with relative ease. They are usually done indoors with a lighter or match and when I’m feeling “first world,” I use a Duraflame. Most times I’ve built a fire simply because I could, it certainly wasn’t necessary. This experience was going to be different; fire was needed for comfort. On the topic of comfort, here’s another rule: No buying additional food, I must return home with less food than what I took, ideally eating everything and no waste. There would be a gallon of water waiting for me at the site that might be frozen (per the host’s message). I could either buy more water or melt snow. To add to the experience, I opted to try melting snow then re-evaluate the need to buy a gallon.
Most of the food I packed could be eaten raw: apples, veggies, boiled eggs, RX bars, etc. but I knew being cold and eating cold food, would get old quickly, so I incentivized myself by packing tempting foods that needed to be cooked. Dry pasta, raw plant-based meatballs and sauce, potatoes, butter, and of course coffee! For my sweet tooth, I brought cinnamon and sugar for the apples. The idea was to sprinkle the apple with cinnamon and sugar, wrap it in tin foil, then throw it into the fire for an “almost” apple pie vibe. Of course, this menu was dependent on my ability to get a fire started and keep it going.
I had seen Bear Grylls and countless TV personalities start fires dozens of times. Not to mention the real-life people that had shared with me their experiences. I was certain I could recreate fire with half the effort. They often started with nothing, no shelter, and surrounded by harsh elements. I had the advantage of last night’s embers and a big tent; how hard could it be? My mind’s eye was doing a great job of hyping me up. Feeding me successful visions of how my morning would play out. Mentally, I saw what the small flame would look like and feel like in my hand. I pictured myself moving the fledgling flame, quickly, into the stove without burning my fingers or worse, extinguishing it in transit. I was so excited to play with fire out of some necessity. Starting my morning fire would set the tone of the day. First, I needed the fire for warmth, then I needed it for coffee, then breakfast, then warm water to wash my dishes, then more water to wash my face and hands, then maybe some tea later... Oh, the triumph and pride I was going to feel from sipping a cup of dark magic steeped over a flame I created from an ember!
That positivity was all well and good, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. With that understanding, I anticipated my fatigue, discomfort, impatience, and lack of skill, so the night before, I prepped all the items I would need to be successful. I prepped the paper, kindling, and lint so all I had to do was grab and burn! Thanks to that foresight, I was chilly but confident enough to attempt a morning fire with a full bladder and chilly toes. My mindset was, “I’ll just start a fire THEN put on my boots to march to the outhouse.” In hindsight, how cute was I?
Kneeling proposal style by the small wood burning stove, I arranged kindling into a little pyre. With cold fingertips, visible breath, and my small wooden sacrifices ready, I tumbled a glowing ember into a nest of lint. I cupped my hands and began blowing on the nested ember. I knew this would take a few attempts, but I was certain a flame would answer my call. How could it not? An ember couldn’t be that much different than a Bic lighter. I mean, they both had the potential to burn me or whatever else encountered it…
For several minutes I was crouched by that stove, blowing, and fidgeting with what I held in my hands. Alternating between softening and increasing the flow of air, and each time I had delusional confidence that a flame would be imminent. It didn’t and it wasn’t.
It was becoming brighter outside and the plastic thermometer hanging on the tent read 21°. My wool socks were no match for the cold platform that anchored the tent, and my toes were now cold and cramping. I set the nested ember back into the stove and pulled on my boots and stretched a bit. Winter fire-starting, now with boots, I thought to myself. Fingers trembling, I once again grabbed the nested ember and blew. Nothing happened. “Ok...” I said out loud to absolutely no one.
I cupped my hands tighter and blew softly. The ember flashed a brighter orange but still…nothing. Come on. Changing nothing, I blew again…nothing happened. Seriously?!
I tried this whole blowing approach over and over and each time the ember would wink a brighter orange but yield nothing. So, I grabbed nearby kindling dust to sprinkle directly onto the ember, thinking the small wood flecks would grab the heat. Once again, I blew, aaaand once again nothing happened.
Realizing that trying the same thing over and over was stupid, I switched tactics. I grabbed some strips of a torn-up paper bag. Holding the paper scrap in one hand, I rested the other end of the paper right on top of the nested ember and blew gently. I watched as the end of the paper started to smoke and turn black, at the tip of the blackness, tiny little ember flecks winked and sparkled as they climbed and consumed the length of the paper but didn’t actually catch fire or create a usable flame. JESUS CHRIST!
In a huff, I chucked the ember, lint, and paper into the stove. No point in being gentle, it’s not like the combo was a threat to anyone or anything. I have no idea how much time had passed but my rage was in full swing and blinding me to reality, plus I really had to pee. I started to bundle up for the trek to the outhouse. As I pulled on more layers, I had a funny thought: what if a fire started from what I randomly threw into the stove? What if I came back and a nice little flame was be-bopping around in the stove? It wasn’t just funny; it was my inner sloth wanting that outcome.
I made my way towards the outhouse and it was so quiet. I liked the rhythmic sound of snow crunching under my feet. The sun was starting to rise, and I could tell it was going to be a sunny day. As I walked, it occurred to me that no one was keeping score. I woke up with a-start-a-fire-or-else attitude, and I could pump those breaks. This was my very first attempt at winter camping and the fire wasn’t that detrimental. The temperature wasn’t dangerous, I wouldn’t perish, lose my job, or have to sacrifice a small goat or child, for a favorable outcome. I just needed to decide: Do I keep trying or do I give up and start my day with cold food and cold water? That’s it. I already knew the worst possible outcome.
This was my inner monologue reminding me of another rule: get comfortable with discomfort. This rule is my favorite. I learned it when I first learned a survival skill involving ropes. I find it applies to much more than just survival and it has served me very well. (Down below, I’m including a note to explain why I love this rule so much). Yes, I was uncomfortably cold and really wanted a cup of coffee to enjoy during the sunrise, but nothing was at stake if I didn’t get it. As I progress in skills, the future challenges will get harder and that would be when I needed my shit together. For now, this was practice and a bit of child’s play. Who knew a stroll to an outhouse could be so therapeutic, but there you have it, that chilly little schlep allowed me to work through my issues.
All these thoughts eased the pressure I put on myself. If I wanted, I could spend the entire day trying to start a fire but that wasn’t going to happen because I really wanted to go hiking. The fire could be attempted later. I started to think about the other things I wanted from this trip: new sights, a lot of quiet, fresh air, no small talk, lots of walking in the woods, and most of all, fire bragging rights. With that, I decided to devote a little more time to the fire but also decided it would be ok if I said, “to hell with it” and left for the day.
With my bladder empty and my mindset renewed, I was ready to try again. I knelt by the stove and dug around for a new ember. The embers were now much smaller and provided fewer options. This time, using the lint like an oven mitt, I grabbed an ember. I tried blowing again and nothing happened. I thought to myself, I better get comfy. Shifting from kneeling to sitting cross-legged on the ground, I tried again and again and again. Blowing on the ember, shifting the lint here and there to no avail; I set it all back in the stove. Of all the items I brought, the lint betrayed me the most. I mean, how many times had I read or been warned about a lint trap catching fire?? This whole time I thought the lint was my golden ticket when in fact it seemed like the lint was either suffocating the ember or all together flame retardant. The lint wasn’t even showing signs of singe! This made me realize that Bear Grylls and safety experts around the globe are a bunch of dramatic assholes. With that, I decided to rely on good old-fashioned paper.
Using a small stick, I poked the ember free of the lint and decided to work within the stove instead of my cupped hands. I kept the lint nearby because its fate was sealed. It was going to be the first thing I sacrificed to the flames. Nothing was going to bring me more satisfaction than to watch it shrivel out of existence once I got a fire started. I grouped the remaining embers to consolidate what was left of their heat. I grabbed another strip of brown paper to rest on top. Now, I had to adjust airflow. The stove door was wide open, so I closed it leaving just enough room for my face to press inside. I’m sure the view from inside that stove, had me looking like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, no cap. This time the paper immediately smoldered and created a crazy amount of smoke inside the stove but no flame, FOR FUCK SAKE!
I was irritated again, but this time I was served irritation with a side of dry eyeballs, but there was hope! The intense smoke proved I had enough heat, I just needed to tweak a few things. I reached into the stove to unfold the paper then resumed “The Shining” position. I blew steadily and just like that, poof, a small flame joined the party. I hissed out a “yesss” to absolutely no one, but just as I said it, I could see the little flame about to wink right back out of my life. I reached in to grab the paper and change its angle. Holding the burning paper between my index finger and thumb created the perfect angle. The flame had all it needed to climb, consume, and grow…Science explains this action as combustion needing surface area, but I’m telling you it’s the satisfying way I’ve made countless items burn. My fellow pyros know this moment. It’s the moment something is burning and gaining momentum, and as the Firestarter, you wonder how long you can hold on to an item before the fire reaches your fingers. Science is great but lived experience is better.
With a workable flame going, I matter-of-factly placed the useless lint on the flame and sat back to take in the view. My whole body relaxed as I leisurely tossed more sacrifices to the growing fire. All I had to do now, was get it hot enough to make my coffee. As I waited for that to brew, I quickly messaged a friend who offered me advice on how to better save my embers. I now know this is called, “banking.” I was going to be gone all day, so I wasn’t too confident with my banking efforts. It’s a good thing I was pessimistic because when I returned, 8 hours later, all that was left, was ash. Tired and super hungry, I knew cold apples and veggies weren’t going to cut it; I wanted that spaghetti and meatballs. Time to bust out the flint.
The sun had already set, and the morning shenanigans popped back into my head to spread some self-doubt. I had never used a flint, I was using lint again (yippee), and I had seen people struggle with directing the sparks, so I mentally prepared myself for another round of frustration. I remained standing, put the lint nest on top of the stove, and started flicking one, two, three. Cute little sparks appeared but no takers. Again, four, five, six and that sixth strike created a spark that did a perfect swan dive into the lint and the lint responded instantly, and I mean INSTANTLY.
It was so fast I almost didn’t believe what I was seeing. It took me a second to fumble and grab the burning debris. Once it was in my hands though, I took a few more seconds to admire and watch it burn before transferring it into the stove. I still can’t believe how easy that went. I also can’t believe that a tiny spark did more lint damage than an ember. Perhaps I was too harsh about safety experts and Bear Grylls.
**Authors note on getting comfortable with discomfort. I learned this rule with regards to being tied up or restrained. I tend to be overly prepared for encounters with evildoers, so yes, I intentionally sought out this training. So here is the knowledge bomb behind my favorite rule:
Being tied up isn’t just about being restrained, an experienced captor can tie knots on the body’s pressure points to cause pain. This deters a captive from moving or trying to escape. The first time I was bound with rope, I was told that until I got free, “I would feel pain every time I moved or fidgeted.” I can tell you it SUCKS. I once had a knot tied so hard that it instantly made a sweat breakout on my neck and back and prompted me to heave and vomit a little in my mouth (there’s a video). This was obviously a potent deterrent to moving but I had to keep going to get out of the bind (which I did).
Chances are a captor doesn’t tie up someone to shower them with love and affection (or if they do it is one-sided), so that’s the motivator to endure some self-induced pain. The notion of dislocating a shoulder or breaking a finger must be an option to increase chances of escape and survival. That’s the “heavy” part of this rule, but this type of thinking helps me get through challenges of a less extreme nature...such as tough physical workouts or in this case, winter camping. Get comfortable with discomfort. Here endeth the author's note.