” It’s In the Mail….”





Miss Connie has finished the custom 9’x9′ silpoly2 TarpTent… it’s “on it’s way” from NC.

Now–  about the 16″ of snow still hanging around up here…


Playing With Fire- Taking Your Skills Into the Woods


The Zen masters teach us that “you will never drink from the same stream twice”.  In just that way, you will never build the same fire twice. No two sticks or logs will ever burn the same.

For my own part I have moved away from larger fires when I go out camping. To my way of thinking, the one in this photo certainly qualifies as a full-fledged bonfire.

I have had friends who felt the the fire was not big enough if it was not 10 feet in diameter with 30 foot flames. Once at an established campground in Canada I watched some kids cut up a length of downed, creosote-treated telephone pole and sit around in the choking black smoke all evening long. —To each their own.


Smokey The Bear says, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires”… This is what he says because he’s nice, polite bear. What he means is don’t be an asshole.

For me, a big enough fire is when the flames reach six or 8 inches in height, and mine are seldom more than a foot in diameter. If there is already a fire circle at an existing campsite, I will go ahead and use it. However I will seldom build one on my own.

Quite possibly the single best piece of advice about fire building is that it is never too early to start thinking about your next fire. As you hike, keep your eyes open for any suitable tinder that you can pick up along the way. If you are planning to camp in an established site, the chances are quite high that you will find previous campers have pretty thoroughly picked it over for both tinder and firewood. Tinder is light enough in weight that it’s no burden to carry and by gathering some along the way you can shorten the time it takes you to get a fire going once you reach camp. All of the same factors apply if you were simply planning on selecting a site on your own for backwoods camping. You can never tell what will be available when you get there. A brief rain shower can compromise the quality of any tinder you might scrounge– having some in hand is always a good idea.

Just a couple of pieces of birchbark, or a couple of nice, resiny pinecones can get your fire off to a good start. Pick up what you see you along the way. Even if you don’t use it, someone else might need it.

Once you’ve found your campsite, just because it’s not dark yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start gathering wood if you want to sustain a fire all evening. It’s always easier to find decent wood while it’s still light out. It’s always safer to cut up your wood before it gets dark.

Next, you can probably never practice your fire building skills too often. I learned my basic skills in Boy Scouts over 50 years ago. No Brag, Just Fact: in those 50 years, I have never failed to successfully build a fire, no matter the conditions, and even when others efforts had failed. In no particular order, here are a few suggestions:

  • AlwaysAlwaysALWAYS clear a fire pit three times the diameter of your desired fire. This should be scraped down to bare earth [dirt] at least twice the diameter of your fire. [the absolute necessity of this cautionary is one of the reasons why it is suggested that you Do Not make a fire pit at an undeveloped, or backcountry site] If it’s necessary to build a fire in snowy conditions, you will need to dig right down to ground level or the melting snow will simply quench the coals from underneath. The best thing to do in these conditions is to make a “raft” of green or wet logs laid down adjoining and parallel to each other about twice the diameter of your fire, and then build your fire on top of them.
  • If you do feel the need to make a fire pit where one has not previously existed, try to line it with a circle of rocks at least 4 to 6 inches high
  • You can use a large or flat rock on the opposite side of the fire to reflect the heat back in your direction or into your tent area.
  • Cutting up fallen timber is always safer than trying to drop a standing tree. In many areas, it is illegal to cut “standing wood”… Don’t!
  • Instead of relying on newspaper, use native tinder that you find– your process should be about practice, not taking the shortest path.
  • Carry some char-cloth to catch a spark
  • Keep your eyes open for, and pick up useful tinder as you hike
  • Save your matches as a fallback– at the very least try to start your fire with sparks from a used-up lighter– the satisfaction, and sense of independence that you gain is immeasurable.
  • “Making a fire is a very simple, incremental matter of coaxing your heat source from a glowing ember to an ever larger flame. The secret to this process is in staggering your tinder in a similarly incremental way”–  have a complete selection of your materials, from the tinder all the way up to sustainable “burning wood”, readied before you start trying to light your fire. There is nothing worse than having your fire die back out while you have to leave to scrounge up more material.
  • The higher, the drier“… kindling/dead-wood harvested from higher up on a tree trunk will probably have died back more recently and as such, will be drier. Kindling selected from a dead fall or as dead branches off a tree trunk will be far drier than wood that has already rotten enough to have fallen onto the ground.
  • There is dry wood inside wet wood“– you will frequently find that by splitting even small branches lengthwise to expose inner surfaces you will discover the interior wood much drier. Even stripping the bark off can be beneficial at the early stages of fire building. This is especially true if it has been raining.
  • Damp/wet wood can be stacked around a fire to start drying out before being added.
  • Several wet, or even semi-rotten logs can be used as backdrops to reflect the fire’s heat back on yourself if there are no stones or rocks available for that purpose.
  • Always bank your fire down overnight, never leave it unattended, and always quench it thoroughly before you leave the site.
  • And finally, always be a good guest in Mother Nature’s home– don’t toss in your beer caps, empty tin cans, old tin foil, and other non-burnable items… That’s just plain nasty. Carry a trash bag, don’t be lazy and carry out your trash.


Most of the time, my personal choice for fire and cooking is my little FireAnt stove from Merkware/Emberlit.  Made out of titanium, it weighs under 3 ounces, packs flat in a pocket for easy accessibility, and can boil 2 cups of water in less than six minutes on only a few small sticks the size of your finger. While this is not the raging bonfire that many people think of as necessary for their camping experience, it is an ecologically sound choice, provides a surprising amount of warming for its size, and gives you quite a few of the comforting qualities of an open fire, while being much easier to maintain and requiring far less fuel.

I can cook my dinner on it before daylight fully fades, let it die out, but rekindle it in just a couple of minutes once it is full dark to enjoy the comfort of a “campfire”– and between times, if it’s rainy, foggy or dewy, I can keep the whole thing dry… kindling, fuel and all… under a grocery bag.

Playing With Fire- The Tinderbox


I wanted to give you a quick look at some of the things that I have scrounged up in the way of easy, and dependable tinder. For a large tinder-stash I use a repurposed USPS mailing box. Whatever I find just gets added to the large box, and I refill my pocket tin from that as needed.

Clockwise from the top:

  • green jute gardening twine
  • birch bark
  • birdsnest
  • Sisal rope [center]
  • cotton dryer lint-  polyester won’t work
  • wasp nest “paper”
  • pine fatwood pieces

The more I go out in the field, the more my experience has shown me that I can always do without “more”. So I’m constantly trying to reduce the size of my carry. I don’t actually need to have very much tinder along to start several fires successfully. What I need is a container that is easy to pocket, so that I can add to it as I travel and to access it easily when I want to get my fire started.


The can on the left was an earlier solution, but was too tall to be pocketable.  It was quite watertight and great in my pack, but that was the whole problem, it had to be unpacked. However, one day last fall I picked up an empty snoose can down in the parking lot at the market. [Think Skol smokeless tobacco]. The three-quarter inch height, and super tight fitting lid make it perfect pocket tinderbox.  The only thing that doesn’t fit easily into the snooze can is the flexible pocket coil-saw with the ring handles. That is no big deal, nor great loss, as I discovered that it was not a very practical or useful item. I can work up my small firewood quicker with the camp knife.

Right now in my pocket tinderbox I have some rolled up balls of the cotton dryer lint, some squares of waxed cloth, a half a dozen thick matchsticks of the fatwood, and the little brown balls are tarred shipbuilders oakum [The loose brown fiber at the top of the photo is the tarred oakum.  It is what is used to caulk the seams between boards in wooden ship building. I found a box of it discarded down at the dump on Cape Cod years ago and actually used it when I built my home to caulk loose cracks that otherwise could’ve allowed cold air and insects in. It’s incredibly incredibly versatile material and makes an ideal tinder]. Underneath everything in the can there a few chunks of hardened pine sap. Each of those little balls of tinder provide enough material to fluff up into a pile the size of a golf ball. Also, I try to leave plenty of room in the canister for the addition of anything that I may find along the way as I hike that would make good tinder. And from the great results I have gotten from the “Flaming Dragon Turds”, I will probably toss one of them in there as well.

Over time I have used everything from an Altoid’s tin to a plain old plastic baggy for my tinder collection. The snoose can seems like the best solution I have found so far. An Altoid’s tin can let water in if you don’t put tape around the lid, and that’s inconvenient to peel off every time you want to use something out of it. I have held the snoose tin under standing water and it showed no signs of leaking.

For your own purposes, just look around and find something you already have to use as a tinderbox initially. You can always change it out later. You don’t have to have something made out of brass with a screwtop and a built-in magnifying lens that cost $35. The only important thing is to have your tinderbox WITH you. When you are actually carrying one out on a hike, its very existence down there in your pocket actually makes you look around and be more observant of things that might provide good tinder. Tinder-hunting is just one more item that allows you to become more involved with your wilderness experience.

Playing With Fire- “Flaming Dragon Turds”

I have been trying to come up with a homemade fire starter off and on for several months now. Everybody who is interested in camping and bushcraft has probably heard the suggestion of cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, but I have always found them messier than I like. They work. They are pretty much waterproof. But they are sooooo…. …. …. well, messy. You end up with Vaseline all over your fingertips and your fire making gear. At least that’s what happens to me.

The ability of cotton fibers to catch your spark is one of the big advantages of this system though, and I didn’t want to stray too far from it. Here is what I have settled on for now.


My wife has always used “makeup squares”  as opposed to cotton balls, so I started with those.  I suspect I would find them down with the dollar store if I looked.

In previous attempts at making fire starters  I had unearthed one of these old DuraFlame FireStart blocks… I have no idea if these are still made, mine had been in a bin in my RV for years, but you should get the same results from a chunk off of any kind of crayon-log. It’s only disadvantage is that it does have that waxy burning smell, but for the purpose of a firestarter you only have to put up with that for a couple of minutes.

And, finally, I already knew that dollar store lip balm was a good substitute for Vaseline without the greasiness. [2 for a buck at mine]

IMG_0477    IMG_0478

  1. I took a gumball sized piece of the FireStart, warmed it in the microwave, and pressed it out flat to the size of one of the makeup squares… It’s probably about an eighth of an inch thick.
  2. One of the makeup squares was smeared on both sides with enough lip balm to cover it well. [on one side it serves as glue, and on the other as the medium to catch a spark]
  3. The two pieces were simply sandwiched together between squares of waxed paper and then trimmed to size.

Each sandwich yields four postage stamp sized “Flaming Dragon Turds”. I actually set mine to dry on a sunny window ledge for several days before I cut them into usable sized pieces. As they “cured” the waxed paper started to come off of its own accord, however you want to leave it in place to keep the chips from sticking together while stored. When you are ready to use one, you simply rub a finger nail across the surface to roughen up the fibers, strike a spark to the edge, or just touch it off with a match.

IMG_0480    IMG_0481

Here you can see one burning…  just moments after lighting with a ferro-rod, and again a minute later at full flame.  The total burning time outdoors at 28°F  in a light breeze was between four and five minutes. It provided a good strong flame that resisted attempts to blow it out… if anything, it caused it to burn brighter and harder.

Playing With Fire… Store-bought Stuff

In my first “Playing With Fire” post I covered char cloth, the perfect material to catch a spark. Tinder comes next.

One of the simplest, handiest items you can add to your fire kit is a plain old pencil sharpener.

For me, it was a simple matter of rooting through a few of the junk drawers around the house. I knew I had a couple of the large, cylindrical ones for sharpening carpenters pencils down cellar in my toolboxes. I also found two or three plastic ones left over from my daughter’s childhood, and several that had apparently come free with my wife’s eyeliners and lip pencils that were up in the bathroom drawer. I found also two “high quality” ones left over from way back in architecture school. One in beechwood, and one in aluminum. I suspect I will find homes for a number of them in my emergency kits, but the one shown below is the aluminum one for my drafting set. I like it because it has the secondary advantage of two sizes of openings.


Making a fire is a very simple, incremental matter of coaxing your heat source from a glowing ember to an ever larger flame. The secret to this process is in staggering your tinder in a similarly incremental way. The fine shavings achieved from a pencil sharpener are an ideal early-stage. From them you can easily move on to wood peelings, then to ever larger splinters, and finally to twigs and smallwood until the flame can reach a point where it is strong enough to ignite your actual kindling pieces.

Also in the above photo- in any real emergency situation the absolute priority is in starting the fire.  I am not such a “gram-weenie” that I begrudge carrying a tiny bit of extra weight if it will facilitate that same quick and efficient fire building. So, another thing that it is in all my emergency kits and my little firebox are “magic” candles. We all know these from birthday parties… they don’t blow out. This is very handy out in the woods, out in the breeze. Additionally, as they melt, the wax will coat your other tinder and smallwood, and further encourage the flame. One or two of these magic candles tucked in your kit alongside your waterproof storm matches take up almost no room, but give you just one more certainty of achieving fire.

Fire Steel


Having mentioned flint and steel fire making in my earlier post,  I went and rummaged through stuff looking for one I made about 30 years ago. I wore this around my neck on a silver chain for almost 20 years before the attachment ring wore through.

This one is made out of an old square-cut house nail from a historic building I renovated down on Cape Cod. Starting out with the iron/steel that I forged into a circle with a blowtorch, I added decorations in the other historic metals… silver, copper, and bronze. Beautifying things of everyday, ordinary utility is a pleasure and a joy unto itself.

It is a little larger than a US Silver Dollar, and my thumb grips it perfectly against my index finger at the copper wrapping and open end. The striking surface is at around 7-8 o’clock,  just below the silver decorations.

Now I have to go out and find a new piece of flint. That’ll sure to be a piece of cake with about 2 feet of snow on the ground here. When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, it was everywhere. They even named a city for it… Here in Maine, I haven’t got a clue as to where to look. It sort of makes me sorry that I did the law abiding thing when I visited the National Park site at Alibates Flint Quarries down outside of Amarillo a few years ago. The First Peoples used those quarries for 13,000 years. The sign said that you shouldn’t take away pieces of the flint, so I didn’t. I struck a couple of sparks off of a piece, and put it back down.

And it looks like I ought to get out some of my metalworking gear and repair of that attachment ring. I like this too much to let it languish in a drawer.