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Fire may well be the most important and versatile element of survival. Sure, it might not be your first priority, especially if you find yourself in an emergency survival situation as seeking water and shelter can be more crucial.
But having a fire in a survival situation comes with a soiree of added benefits. It will purify your water, cook your food, warm you, allow you to signal for help, craft tools, cut wood, keep away mosquitoes and act as a source of light when you are in a thick, dark jungle environment. But there might be a reason that you don’t want to signal for help and you would rather stay hidden.
Whether you are planning on staying concealed or are conscious of preserving your supply of fuel and limiting the impact on your surroundings, being able to make a stealth fire that is low impact is an essential survival skill.
Some of these methods will not only provide lower impact and ease of concealment but may even provide a more efficient fire than you would have with a fire built straight on the ground. One of the main tasks is creating a smokeless fire pit. With that, we won’t have that signaling smoke cloud giving away our position. So let’s look at what we need to make a smokeless fire, and how we construct it.
When it comes to making a fire in the wilderness, there are three essential elements that we need to make the fire:
Without these three things, you will not get a fire going no matter how hard you try. The first one, heat, can be easily produced by the flame of a lighter or match, a ferrocerium rod also known commonly as a fire steel, by the combination of certain chemicals such as glycerol and potassium permanganate, or perhaps by friction.
A skilled survivalist or bushcrafter might be able to wander into the wilderness with nothing but their knife and make fire by friction but that fire making skill and the knowledge of the appropriate materials takes a long time to master. So for the purpose of this article, we will assume you are lighting a fire with that staple piece of kit for all bushcrafters, survivalists, and preppers, the mighty fire steel.
There are definitely a lot of ways to start a fire in the wilderness and a lot of them don’t include matches. In fact, we’ve found that there are 11 other ways to light a fire, and they are just the ones we know about. But what we have found is that the most reliable method of lighting a fire is using fire steel (flint and steel). It’s easy, reusable, waterproof and able to be used in damp and wet conditions.
Using fire steel – A modern fire steel is an alloy of many metals, normally including approximately 20.8% iron, 41.8% cerium, about 4.4% each of praseodymium, neodymium, and magnesium, plus 24.2% lanthanum. They are so easy to use as well, and if used in the right way should only take two or three strikes before you have a sufficient spark.
How does a fire steel work? The spark is caused when the fire steel struck against a sharp edge. These fire steels will produce a burst of hot sparks capable of igniting fine tinders. An old-fashioned flint and steel isn’t quite as effective as its modern counterparts but is a very satisfying way of making a fire which will appeal to those who have an interest in primitive or traditional survival skills. The sparks created by striking a flint against a piece of steel are much smaller and cooler than the sparks from a modern fire steel so you will need well-prepared highly flammable tinder such as char cloth or shredded tinder fungus.
We believe fire steel is a much better resource than a lighter as fire steel and ferro rods have the advantage of being totally impervious to water, unlike matches, lighters, and chemicals. Even after capsizing from a canoe or falling into water during a river crossing, fire steels will still be perfectly functional. I personally use the light my fire brand, and have bought it as a present for a lot of friends that are interested in the outdoors.
Once you have your firesteel you will need to collect your fuel, this is where our stealth fire starts – long before we actually strike a spark or coax our first flame into life, and we can reduce our impact by carefully selecting appropriate firewood for a concealed fire.
Think about what you need your fire for – To reduce your impact as you collect firewood, decide beforehand what you want your fire for, unless you have inadequate shelter or sleeping arrangements you won’t need the fire to warm you at night so you will probably just be purifying water or cooking. These kinds of jobs don’t take long so there is no need to spend hours collecting fuel and stacking it up ready for your fire. If you do it’s a sure sign that you have been there and might be planning to return.
Boiling (if you can) is better than flame cooking – Also remember that boiling food is quick, especially if you cut what you are cooking small, and this means you only need to use one cooking pot rather than having to spend time whittling a cooking spit and other camp kitchen items. Boiled food also retains all the fat and juices rather than it dripping into the fire so you will get a lot more goodness from a boiled squirrel or rabbit than you might from one which you have roasted on the fire. Remember the time and effort it has taken to catch your game in the wild and this will be an important consideration.
Boil over flame, not embers – Picking your cooking method carefully relates to fuel. To boil something over the campfire, the quickest way is to suspend your cooking pot over the flames, not in the embers. It sounds obvious but so many people are used to cooking on a barbeque nowadays that flames are often overlooked as the stage of the fire that we want to get past to produce embers. Yes, cooking on embers is great and if you don’t have a cooking pot you might have no choice but to roast something on the fire on a spit or produce a bed of embers which you can lay food directly on, or bury it in embers to cook it. However to get a decent bed of embers your fire needs to burn for quite some time and you will need a lot of fuel, also there is a lot more to clean away from a large bed of embers than there is from a small twig fire.
The type of firewood for a stealth fire – Small twigs and sticks are the best type of fuel for what you want for a quick, low impact, fire. Find large bundles of dry twigs, snap them off as you go rather than collecting them all in the same place, especially if you are trying to remain unnoticed, as a single tree with all the low hanging dead twigs broken off is a sure sign that someone has been gathering fire wood. The finest of these twigs should be no thicker than a matchstick and will be the best fuel that will catch the flame from your tinder, which might be dry grass or birch bark. Collect twigs up to the size of a pencil or as thick as your little finger. A good armful of twigs this size will easily boil a liter pot of water very quickly.
Don’t balance your cooking pot on rocks or logs around the fire as this will leave tell-tale and unsightly scorch marks on them. Instead, drive a forked stick into the ground and loop the handle of your cook pot over the end of a longer stick that rests on the fork. The opposite end of the stick can be pushed into the ground or weighted with a log or rock. Once you are done with your improvised camp kitchen you can burn the sticks, take them with you, or scatter them in the woods and the ten to twenty minutes it takes you to boil up your rabbit and wild vegetables will not have marked the ground enough to leave a lasting scar after you scrub out the char marks with your foot and scatter some dirt and leaves around. This can leave very little sign of any campfire being made which is great for concealment practices.
If you are concerned about the amount of smoke your fire produces, make sure you are collecting and burning only the very driest of fuel and remove the bark from the larger twigs. Moisture gets trapped in the bark and bark smokes much more than wood. This will now produce less smoke as you burn it and a hotter fire as the heat will not be used to boil off the remaining moisture in the bark.
(Oxygen) Making sure your fire gets air – As for the oxygen, it is a no-brainer that fires need it to burn properly. However, when a fire does not have enough air getting to it, it will cause the fire to create more smoke. Usually, this is fine for a fire, but because we are trying to make a concealed fire, we need it to have plenty of circulation to eradicate that smoke cloud. If the fire starts to die out and smolder it will begin to smoke more so when you want flames keep the fire stoked up with fuel and blow on it or waft it with your hat to keep the air moving to it and keep it hot.
One of the most important things to remember about having a smokeless fire is that you need to keep the fire burning properly. Smoke is the product of incomplete combustion.
These three methods each use the must-haves for survival fire making that we mentioned above. They rely on optimal oxygen feeds and they use very small sticks and fuel to ensure that they burn quickly and with little or no smoke. When we are making a fire, the way we design it is called a ‘fire lay’. A lay is the way we arrange our fire, each fire lay is unique and may serve different purposes.
1. The ‘upside down’ fire method – To ensure complete combustion and reduce smoke something else you can do is build an ‘upside down fire’ where you arrange your main fuel and then build your fire on top of it, you will need a lot of fine tinder and kindling to get a fire like this to catch the main fuel but once it does the hot fire burning down through the fuel will burn off the smoke produced as the smoke will have to pass up through the flames.
2. A small teepee of twigs – This is by far the most common approach to campfires and survival fires that we see. If you have ever made a fire, it is more likely you would have used this method than any other. The tepee method is a great way to start a fire and also an excellent way to quickly boil your water or food.
As these small twig tepee fires burn quickly and hot it is easy to hide their remnants and they don’t leave much of an obvious sign after you are finished with them. There are other fire lays which you might need to be aware of which may not be as easy to hide but which might be vital in very cold conditions or if you need to make use of very large timber without having an axe or saw to process your fuel. Long log fires and star fire lays are where larger logs are arranged in a star shape and slowly pushed into a central fire as they burn. This saves the energy of processing wood that is relatively large and couldn’t be dismantled quickly, or if you don’t have an axe and want to essentially ‘cut’ the log in half by burning through it.
3. Dakota fire hole – The Dakota fire hole is a very important type of survival fire. It is one that is regularly taught in military survival schools across the world and in my opinion, is the best smokeless fire you can make. Not only is the Dakota fire hole a good way to produce a hidden fire that doesn’t cast too much light or smoke, but it is simple to construct and as the name suggests it requires a bit of digging which keeps its remains hidden.
How to make a Dakota fire hole – In a survival scenario with limited equipment, making a Dakota fire hole is very straightforward. You simply need to dig a pit with a sharpened stick. You will need to dig two holes about a foot apart and then carefully tunnel between them. In one pit, which you should make slightly larger; two feet deep and large enough across to build a fire that will suit your cooking pot, you will build your fire, the other doesn’t need to be quite as big and will provide the air supply to your fire. As the fire burns, air will be sucked through the other hole you have made and will keep the fire burning hot. Not only are these fires very efficient but they are very easy to conceal once you are finished as they can just be filled in again.
Below is a video from one of our favorite Youtube survivalists Alfie, on the Dakota fire hole, and is a great instructional.
There is an inherent danger in making fire, handling knives and axes and many other survival tasks, but another danger to be aware of is the danger of wildfire if you do not manage your fire responsibly.
Make sure that your fire is built away from other fire risks such as dead dry trees, or on beds of pine needles or on peat soil. From an environmental perspective fires created by your carelessness can have a devastating impact on the wildlife and ecosystem of an area, not to mention the irony of making your survival situation worse if you manage to destroy all your equipment or are killed in a wild fire of your own making.
This is also another reason why low impact fires are great, especially the in-ground Dakota fire hole, as they are not open fires and are small and underground, so are less likely to catch onto any neighboring shrub or bush. Just make sure that you are in a clear or clear as possible area.
Once you are finished with your fire remember that you will need to dispose of the ashes and unburned material to reduce your impact on the environment as to reduce the signs you leave behind for any possible followers. If stealth and evasion is a goal, to make sure putting out your fire is as discreet as possible your first aim should be to burn the fire out completely if you have time. If you do need to quickly extinguish it remember that dumping water on it will cause a big rush or steam and smoke. To avoid that, dump soil on it instead or as your fire is probably small scrub it out with your foot or a stick and move the smoldering remnants away from each other, small fuel like the twigs you are using will cool very quickly and you can then dispose of the scorched twigs and ash.
Once your fire is extinguished and well concealed, you can move on safe in the knowledge that only the most skilled of trackers will be able to tell you have been there and that you were not spotted by using one of these smokeless fire making methods.