Let It Burn!

A post from earlier this spring…
It’s springtime in the Midwest, and you know what that means. Old piles of brown snow mixed with Wendy’s wrappers, sand, and road salt.  Brown, matted grass, flooded muddy streams, and unsettled weather means the impending end to the gray midwestern winter.  But look on the bright side; unlike the higher altitudes of the west, you KNOW the weather is going to warm and summer is just around the corner.  A few more sunny days in a row has the winter depression lifting, you are hitting the trails, and dreaming of jeep rides, single track biking and maybe some backpacking.
This is a perfect time to hone some of your outdoor skills.  One of the most crucial skills for the outdoors is the ability to make a fire under any circumstance. Wind, rain, wet, hot, dry, snow, thaw, you name it, and you should have the skills to find fuel to make it burn.  What better time to practice than in the early, soggy, days of spring. Saturated grasses, damp sticks, little tinder, and damp air stack the deck against you.  But these are a few things that can help you make a warming fire under any circumstance.
10 Steps style!

C'mon Baby Light My Fire

         1.  Start small!  A little cotton smeared in petroleum jelly, or just a handful of dry pine needles stuffed with dry twigs will ignite.
         2.  Need dry tinder?  Look for areas that have been sheltered from storms and snow pack.  The grasses around the base of a tree, or twigs and branches underneath a fallen log are usually dry, and even if they are damp, we can split them to find a dry core. (See step 3)
         3.  If your kindling is a bit damp on the outside, use your knife or multi-tool to split it with a rock.  Usually the center meat of the stick will be dry, and will ignite.  Eventually drying out the rest of the kindling.
         4.  Use dry fuel.  It goes without saying, but a dry CRACK is a good noise.  Any green color or bending and twisting?  You’ve got the wrong stick.
         5.  Dig a small trench (about a hand width) in the dirt. Put some dry leaves, and your tinder wad in this trench, then gently cover with your smaller sticks stacked JENGA style (crisscross). Light the fire from underneath.  This will allow the fire to BREATH, and we all know the best fuel for fire is AIR!
         6.  Start with tiny dry twigs, then graduate to sticks about the width of your finger.  Once those are blazing, move on to sticks about an inch or two across.
         7.  Purse your lips, and blow HARD at the base of the fire.  Then turn your head away to suck in a breath, and repeat. Be careful with this step, as I have heard of people who have accidentally inhaled a batch of black fire smoke and immediately passed out INTO the fire.  That’s bad, don’t do that.
         8.   Once you have a nice bed of hot coals, and a good open flame, you can start to use larger logs, but don’t smother your fire!  Many times I have gotten anxious and plopped a log on top only to snuff my little creation.  Stack the larger wood in a tee-pee fashion around your flame.
         9.  For a fire to last awhile, you need way more wood than you think.  Wood heat is one of the most inefficient ways to warm up, but in the woods it’s really your only option. Stack wood at least waist high, and make sure it’s able to stay dry.
         10.  Once it’s crackling sit back and enjoy!  While backpacking, a fire can be a crucial source of boosted morale, or a simple recharge!

Forecast on my mind…

With Hurricane Irene making an exit from the east coast, it seems everyone was a “weather geek” this weekend.  While her damage is staggering, her bark was louder than her predicted bite as she dragged herself slowly across 65 million people like a sopping wet rag.  Weather often plays a role in our daily lives, not to mention your outdoor plans.  A little prep work, and the right resources can keep you prepared.

Yearly tragedies on Mt. Hood, Denali, and Mt. Washington spotlight the importance of understanding weather, forecasts, and proper weather prep work to avoid lethal severe storms.  Be prepared by getting pinpoint forecasts on your routes from NOAA’s WEATHER.GOV. Find your location and predicted route, and click to find elevation, forecasts, and warnings.  (Since frontcountry forecasts don’t apply to the backcountry, or elevation gains)

Key note:  Temps drop 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain!

A pin-point NOAA forecast


Clouds are your tell-tale.  Watch for simple clues like wind pick up, rapid cloud cover, and barometric pressure plummets (get a SUUNTO watch).  When it gets bad, go DOWN in elevation, find shelter areas (lightning likes isolated, pointy objects like lone trees, ridges, summits, and open fields)

Sundown, you better take care…

Nobody wants to be caught in the dark.  Nighttime means a drop in temps and trouble finding your routes, not to mention seeing risks or upcoming dangers.  Before it’s too late make sure you keep your eyes to the horizon.

An hour and fifteen left...

Estimate how much daylight you have left by: 

  • Holding your hand at arm’s length and count how many fingers between the bottom of the sun and the horizon
  • Each finger will represent 15 minutes (unless you have sausage fingers, then it’s 25)
  • The above image represents one hour, 15 minutes until darkness sets in
  • In the Midwest, give yourself a little cushion…
    • …The dense woods of the Midwest make it seem a bit darker, earlier
  • If it goes dark too fast, make sure you pack a headlamp!