I planned a week-long trip to head out into the Appalachian Mountains and had my bags packed within an hour of getting off work that day. There wasn’t a single part of me that wanted to stick around longer than I needed. When I have a bushcraft expedition planned, I want nothing more than to get it started.
Turns out, rushing the packing process can do a lot more harm than good. I was only a couple of hours into my week-long trip when I realized what I’d missed. I built a fire up, prepared the wood, and went to light it. Normally my lighter stays in a zippered pocket on my pants, but it wasn’t there this time.
Of course, I kept a backup set up waterproof matches, so I was forced to resort to those. When I opened up the waterproof canister, I saw two matches. This is approximately the time that the curses started flowing from my mouth for the next few minutes.
Remember, it’s important to keep your cool, even when you’ve messed up and forgotten a lighter.
I had to fight to keep a fire alive for the whole week, with the fear of having to figure out another system for starting the fire again. When it becomes the focal point of your entire expedition, lessons must be learned to stay warm at night.
Here are five lessons I learned when I forgot my lighter on a week-long bushcraft expedition.
1: Keep the Flame Alive
Since I knew that it would be difficult to start another fire once the one I had went out, I needed to keep the flame alive. Fortunately, this was something I’ve played around with in the past but had never needed to use it.
Some tactics to keep a coal-burning come from ancient tribes transporting fires. Humans are naturally a nomadic species, so we got really good at moving fire from location to location as we moved. They also probably forgot their lighters at home.
When you’re storing a coal for a long time, you are essentially limiting its oxygen to an absolute minimum. This way, it stays alive but won’t burn out quickly. There are a couple of ways to do this, and some work better than others, depending on your environment and available materials.
The Apache Match is a great tool that you can use to move fire from place to place. Depending on its size, you can also store fire overnight, so you don’t need to wake up periodically and tend a fire. This one can be made anywhere and works really well. It burns slightly faster than other methods but still will bring a coal to your next site without it going out.
The first step in building an Apache match is to gather some dry tinder, sticks, or other debris. You’ll also want to incorporate some live moss as it will help slow down the burn. Tightly bundlethe materials you have gathered and tie them together using cordage or Paracord if you have it. It should look like a huge cigar that only the forest wizard from The Hobbit would ever smoke.
Once you have your match/cigar and are ready to start moving or sleeping, place a big coal from the fire into one end of the cigar. The coal will slowly burn away at the Apache match, but the compact build will slow it enough to where you can revive it later on. For traveling, you can also wrap it in moss to make it easier.
The fungus Daldinia concentrica, also known as a coal fungus, King Alfred’s cake, or cramp balls, works impressively well to sustain a coal. These shelf fungi are found on dead and decaying trees all around the world. They are much denser than your typical mushroom. At first, you may think it is just a tree burl. When you find these, stash a couple in your pack.
To house coal for a long time, carve a small pocket in the fungus that a coal about a quarter’s size can fit into. The mushroom will start to smolder after a minute and will continue to smolder for a long time. If you have moss on hand, it will do a good job of protecting the coal even further, as well as your hands.
One of the coolest things I’ve found with these coal “mushrooms” is that you can use them as a baseboard for bow drilling as well. The fungus is so dense that it works just as well as a softer wood. But burning fungus just isn’t the best or most pleasant thing to breathe in while exerting yourself.
To create an ember box, you need to have something like a tin can to hold it in – and the tin can becomes your ‘box’. These are really cool because the coal is housed and safe from any accidents or other danger. Fortunately for us, there are also many tin cans littered around the woods that will be perfect for this use.
For an ember box, you need to poke a few holes in the base of the tin can so the coal has some access to oxygen. Lay down a floor of moss with some charcoal on top of it. Then you will place your coal inside and finish it off with some extra moss. The charcoal will slowly burn away, and the moss will keep it safely housed.
Banking a Fire
If you aren’t moving camp but need to keep coals alive overnight or while you’re out hunting or checking out the landscape, then you can bank your fire.
The process of banking a fire is simple, and it’s a great way to leave coals smoldering for long periods of time untouched. You just need to have had a fire going for a long time beforehand for it to work out well. The key is having a load of ash to bank your coals into.
Bring all of the coals and burning wood into the same area, so the heat is concentrated. Pile ash up so that it blocks a lot of the oxygen that the coals are getting from the outside. Remember that it’s easy to smother a fire. If you pack the coals down or pile on too much ash, you could smother the fire rather than keep it alive.
A big pile of ash will keep the coal safe from any wind or air coming in and burning it out. In the morning, you can easily roll over with some tinder and kindling to get the fire going again in minutes.
2: Quartz on Quartz
I once watched a ten-year-old hit quartz rocks together with enough determination that he was able to get large enough sparks to start a fire. It’s true that it works. A high level of anger and persistence can put out enough energy if you have hard enough rocks. It isn’t easy, though.
On the third night of my trip, my fire died. I woke up to a cold pile of ash, and I hadn’t made an Apache match like I had the other nights. That day ended up being fully committed to having a fire started by nightfall.
My first match was used to get the first fire started. I stared down the solitary match that remained in its waterproof housing and knew I needed to keep it for a true emergency. Starting a bow drill set would take a lot of time that I didn’t have, and my mind kept wandering back to watching that kid smashing rocks together and getting sparks. Curiosity got the better of me.
That night, I lined up my tinder and started striking. The sparks were going just about everywhere that I didn’t need them to. I struggled with different shapes of rocks and angles at which I hit them together. By the end of the night, I was cold and tired enough to fall asleep without a fire.
When I woke up, I was refreshed and ready to give it another go. On this fourth morning of my trip, I actually considered using the spine of my new knife for striking. But I knew that quartz on quartz was possible, so I kept going. After another two hours, I finally got a spark to catch on my tinder that I could then blow into flames.
For the remaining three days of my trip, I paid closer attention to my fire and took all the precautions to keep it alive.
Since that adventure of starting a fire with two rocks, I have attached a Ferro rod inside all of my adventure packs. I also have begun to pack leather gloves because of the blisters and cuts that quartz inflicted on my hands. But now I know it’s possible to make sparks if there are hard rocks nearby, and I’m in a pinch.
3: Know your Edible Plants
That first day that I went out, I had brought enough snares to feed myself the whole week with rabbit meat. Once I realized I wasn’t going to have a guaranteed fire, I knew that I should start collecting plants.
The payoff for trapping your own food is high. You get a huge amount of protein, and it will fill you up a lot faster than a wild salad will. But it also requires more time, and you can’t eat it raw.
Even once I got a fire started, I went out and collected as many edible plants as I was familiar with in the area. If I wasn’t going to have a fire, I still needed to eat.
If I had spent more time studying up on my edible plants, I probably would have eaten a lot better on that trip. I didn’t spend my time setting snares until about the third day because I couldn’t be sure that it would pay off.
But thankfully, I always bring Petersen’s Guide to Edible Wild Plants along with me. But a guide will only take you so far in the field. I am always more comfortable when I’ve eaten something before, and I prefer not to try new items in the middle of a trip.
4: Pack Multiple Backups
Like I said earlier, I now strap a Ferro rod to just about every loop that I have available on my gear. It seems like overkill, but these are lightweight and take up virtually no space at all.
Inside of my pack, I also keep a small Pelican box that is dedicated to fire. I have matches, waterproof matches, a Ferro rod, a bar of magnesium, and a couple of cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly.
The time I forgot a lighter was early on in my bushcraft experience. I hadn’t nailed down my gear systems, and they definitely needed some work. One of the biggest things was knowing what to pack multiples of.
I researched waterproof lighters in-depth and finally landed on one to pack along with me on every trip. It’s not my go-to choice for starting a fire, but I’ve definitely used it in a pinch. The Tesla Lighter is awesome for when you get soaking wet, and a normal lighter won’t work. It’s windproof and waterproof, but you need to remember to charge it.
I keep an extra BIC lighter on me as well as the Tesla Lighter. I’m not the best at taking care of my electronics, so I know I may head out one day, and the lighter won’t be charged. I don’t like to carry solar panels because it just adds more weight that I don’t need.
Waterproof matches are easy to find, and if you make sure to check that you have enough of them, they’ll serve as the perfect backup in any situation.
5: Double Check your Gear
The most obvious lesson that I learned from forgetting a lighter was to double-check my setup. I never thought it was essential until I forgot a necessary piece of gear. Now, I have a complicated system of laying everything out and packing it exactly where it belongs. This way, I’ll know if anything is missing as I pack.
Now that I’ve gotten my system down and memorized, I feel that it’s even more critical to double-check everything. When I get too comfortable with my packing, I know that I will end up forgetting things. It’s important to force yourself to slow down and contain your excitement in order not to miss something.
Just double-check it all. Maybe even triple-check it. You’ll thank yourself for the meticulous packing system that you will develop over time.
Forgetting a lighter is horrible. Not having a backup system sucks even more. There were many different things that I could have done better to take care of myself in that situation. I was new to bushcraft, though. It wasn’t that easy for me. I didn’t have a mentor that told me all about their mistakes they’ve made over time.
I hope that my mistakes can help you stay safe out there without any cold and wet nights. Fire is one of the best and most important things to have along with you in the bush. You want to spend the time to not forget what makes fire easy for you.
This trip was meant to be fun. It turned into a constant fight to get the fire going or keep it alive. All because I forgot a lighter.