Monthly Archives: October 2014

Starting a Fire

Photo by Peter Reft

Photo by Peter Reft

  • Start a fire using each of the following methods with dry tinder and fuel: lighter, match, convex lens, flint and steel, bow/drill.
  • Start a fire using each of the following methods with wet fuel: Lighter, match, flint and steel.
  • Start a fire and boil water in a tactical scenario without being detected.

Starting a Fire

Security first: weigh hazards and risks of detection against the need for a fire. In an evasion scenario:

  • Use trees or other masking sources to dissipate smoke.
  • Use the Dakota Hole method if possible.
  • Use very dry wood to minimize smoke (green wood/plants will generate thick white smoke).
  • Use fires at dusk, dawn, or during inclement weather.
  • Use fires at times when the local populace is cooking.
  • Use only natural materials. Black smoke generated by man-made materials is a massive target indicator.

Fire building

The three essential elements for starting a fire are heat (ignition), fuel (tinder, etc.), and oxygen (supplied by proper fire building techniques). Starting a fire is done by a source of ignition and falls into two categories; modern and primitive.

Modern Methods. Modern ignition uses devices widely available and are what is typically used to start a fire. Reliance upon these methods may result in failure during a survival situation either through non-availability of the item, or failure of the item in extreme circumstances. Always carry more than you think you need. Two is one, one is none.

  • Matches and Lighters. Always carry if possible, even in urban areas. Ensure you waterproof these items.
  • Convex Lens. Binocular, camera, telescopic sights, or magnifying lens are used on bright, sunny days to ignite tinder.
  • Flint and Steel. Sometimes known as metal matches or “Mag Block”. Scrape your knife or carbon steel against the flint to produce a spark onto the tinder. Some types of flint & steel designs will have a block of magnesium attached to the device which can be shaved onto the tinder prior to igniting. Other designs may have magnesium mixed into the flint to produce a higher quality of spark.
  • Sparks from batteries (i.e., batteries and steel wool).
  • Pyrotechnics, such as flares (last resort), etc.

Primitive Methods. Primitive fire methods are those developed by early man. There are numerous techniques that fall into this category and without significant prior training, these method are difficult to master and require time to find the proper materials and build the device. One of the more effective methods is the friction method using a bow & drill. The technique of starting a fire with a bow & drill is a true field expedient fire starting method which requires a piece of cord and knife from your survival kit to construct.

The components of the bow & drill are bow, drill, socket, fire board, ember patch, and birds nest:

  • Bow. The bow is a resilient, green stick about 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 30-36 inches in length. The bow string can be any type of cord, however, 550 cord works best. Tie the string from one end of the bow to the other, without any slack.
  • Drill. The drill should be a straight, seasoned hardwood stick about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 8 to 12 inches in length. The top end is tapered to a blunt point to reduce friction generated in the socket. The bottom end is slightly rounded to fit snugly into the depression on the fire board.
  • Socket. The socket is an easily grasped stone or piece of hardwood or bone with a slight depression on one side. Use it to hold the drill in place and to apply downward pressure.
  • Fire board. The fire board is a seasoned softwood board which should ideally be 3/4 of an inch thick, 2-4 inches wide, and 8-10 inches long. Cut a depression 3/4 of an inch from the edge on one side of the fire board. Cut a U-shape notch from the edge of the fire board into the depression. This notch is designed to collect and form an ember which will be used to ignite the tinder.
  • Ember Patch. The ember patch is made from any type of suitable material (i.e., leather, aluminum foil, bark). It is used to catch and transfer the ember from the fire board to the birds nest. Ideally, it should be roughly 4 inches by 4 inches in size.
  • Birds Nest. The birds nest is a double handful of tinder which will be made into the shape of a nest. Tinder must be dry and finely shredded material (i.e., outer bark from juniper/cedar/sage brush or inner bark from cottonwood/aspen or dry grass/moss). Lay your tinder out in two equal rows about 4 inches wide and 8-12 inches long. Loosely roll the first row into a ball and knead the tinder to further break down the fibers. Place this ball perpendicular onto the second row of tinder and wrap. Knead the tinder until all fibers of the ball are interwoven. Insert the drill half way into the ball to form a partial cylinder. This is where the ember will be placed.

Producing a fire using the bow & drill:

  1. Assemble the components.
  2. Place the ember patch under the U-shaped notch. Assume the kneeling position, with the left foot on the fire board near the depression. Load the bow with the drill. Ensure the drill is between the wood of the bow and bow string. Place the drill into the depression on the fire board. Place the socket on the tapered end of the drill.
  3. Use the left hand to hold the socket while applying downward pressure:


  • Use the right hand to grasp the bow. With a smooth sawing motion, move the bow back and forth to twirl the drill.
  • Once you have established a smooth motion, smoke will appear. Once smoke appears, apply more downward pressure and saw the bow faster.
  • When a thick layer of smoke has accumulated around the depression, stop all movement. Remove the bow, drill, and socket from the fire board, without moving the fire board. Carefully remove your left foot off the fire board.
  • Gently tap the fire board to ensure all of the ember has fallen out of the U-shaped notch and is lying on the ember patch. Remove the fire board.
  • Slowly fan the black powder to solidify it into a glowing ember. Grasping the ember patch, carefully drop the ember into the cylinder of the birds nest.
  • Grasp the birds nest with the cylinder facing towards you and parallel to the ground. Gently blow air into the cylinder. As smoke from the nest becomes thicker, continue to blow air into the cylinder until fire appears.

Trouble Shooting the Bow & Drill:

  • Drill will not stay in depression- Apply more downward pressure and/or increase width/depth of depression.
  • Drill will not twirl – Lessen the amount of downward pressure and/or tighten bow string.
  • Socket smoking- Lessen the amount of downward pressure. Wood too soft when compared to hardness of drill. Add some lubrication: animal fat, oil, or grease.
  • No smoke- Drill and fire board are the same wood. Wood may not be seasoned. Check drill to ensure that it is straight. Keep left hand locked against left shin while sawing.
  • Smoke but no ember- U-shaped notch not cut into center of the depression.
  • Bow string runs up and down drill- Use a locked right arm when sawing. Check drill to ensure that it is straight. Ensure bow string runs over the top of the left boot.
  • Birds nest will not ignite- Tinder not dry. Nest woven too tight. Tinder not kneaded enough. Blowing too hard (ember will fracture).

Extinguishing a Fire

All fire must be properly extinguished. This is accomplished by using the drown, stir, and feel method:

  • Drown the fire by pouring at water in the fire lay.
  • Stir the ember bed to ensure that the fire is completely out.
  • Check the bed of your fire by feeling for any hot spots.
  • If any hot spots are found, start the process all over again.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.


Photo by SSgt Stephen Linch

Photo by SSgt Stephen Linch

To Do Today:

  • PT – Cardio – 3 mile run // Strength – 3 sets of: squats x 1 min; step-ups x 1 min; squat Jumps x 20; row x 10 min.
  • Gather sufficient materials for starting a fire.

Fires fall into two main categories: those built for cooking and those built for warmth and signaling. There are differences in the type of construction, fuel, and location but the basic steps are the same for both: preparing the fire lay, gathering fuel, building the fire, and properly extinguishing the fire.

Preparing the fire lay. There are two types of fire lays: fire pit and Dakota hole. Fire pits are probably the most common. For the fire pit:

  • Create a windbreak to confine the heat and prevent the wind from scattering sparks.
  • Place rocks or logs used in constructing the fire lay parallel to the wind.
  • The prevailing downwind end should be narrower to create a chimney effect.
  • Avoid using wet rocks. Heat acting on the dampness in sandstone, shale, and stones from streams may cause them to explode.

Dakota Hole. The Dakota Hole is a tactical fire lay. Although no fire is 100% tactical, this fire lay will accomplish certain things:

  • Reduces the signature of the fire by placing it below ground.
  • Provides more of a concentrated heat source to boil and cook, thus preserving fuel and lessening the amount of burning time.
  • By creating a large air draft, the fire will burn with less smoke than the fire pit.
  • It is easier to light in high winds.


Steps to build the Dakota Hole:

  • Gather Fuel. Do not take shortcuts here. The type and amount of tinder and fuel will make the difference between success and failure. Taking a few extra minutes can mean the difference between ease and frustration when building a fire.
  • Tinder. Tinder is the initial fuel. It should be fine and dry and not larger than the diameter of a toothpick. Gather a double handful of tinder for the fire to be built and an extra double handful to be stored in a dry place for the following morning. Dew can moisten tinder enough to make lighting the fire difficult. Some examples of tinder are shredded cedar/juniper bark, pine needles, dry grass, slivers shaved from a dry stick, or natural fibers from equipment supplemented with pine pitch (i.e., cotton battle dressing). Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly or Char-cloth should always be carried in a survival kit.
  • Kindling. This is the material that is ignited by the tinder that will burn long enough to ignite the fuel. Small sticks/twigs pencil-thick up to the thickness of the thumb. Ensure that they are dry. Due to a typically large resin content, evergreen limbs often make the best kindling. They burn hot and fast, but typically do not last long.
  • Fuel Wood. Fuel Wood is used to keep the blaze going long enough to fulfill its purpose. Ideally, it should burn slow enough to conserve the wood pile, make plenty of heat, and leave an ample supply of long-lasting coals. Firewood broken from the dead limbs of standing trees or windfalls held off the ground will have absorbed less moisture and therefore should burn easily. Refrain from cutting down live, green trees.

Softwoods (evergreens and conifers) will burn hot and fast with lots of smoke and spark, leaving little in the way of coals. Hardwoods (broad leaf trees) will burn slower with less smoke and leave a good bed of coals.

Learn the woods indigenous to the area. Birch, dogwood, and maple are excellent fuels. Osage orange, ironwood, and manzanita, though difficult to break up, make terrific coals. Aspen and cottonwood burn clean but leave little coals.

Stack your wood supply close enough to be handy, but far enough from the flames to be safe. Protect your supply from additional precipitation.

If you happen to go down in an aircraft that has not burned, a mixture of gas and oil may be used. Use caution when igniting this mixture.

The type of fire built will be dependent upon its intended use; either cooking or heating and signaling. The teepee fire is good for cooking as it produces a concentrated heat source. Once a good supply of coals can be seen, collapse the teepee and push embers into a compact bed.

teepeefirePyramid fires are used to produce large amounts of light and heat. They will dry out wet wood or clothing and are also good for signalling and heating a shelter.


Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.

Expedient Shelters

Photo by Michael Curtis

Photo by Michael Curtis

To Do Today:

  • PT – Cardio – Interval sprint – 40m x 5, 100m x 5, 400m x 5, max 1 min rest between each sprint // Strength – 2 sets of strict pull-ups to max, dips max reps, sit-ups max reps in 2 min, push-ups max reps in 2 min, flutterkicks x 50, burpees x 25.

Basic Expedient Shelter Characteristics

Any type of shelter, whether it is a permanent building, tentage, or an expedient shelter must  meet six basic criteria to be safe and effective. The characteristics are:

  • Protection From the Elements. The shelter must provide protection from rain, snow,
    wind, sun, etc.
  • Heat Retention. It must have some type of insulation to retain heat; thus preventing
    the waste of fuel.
  • Ventilation. Ventilation must be tested, especially if burning fuel for heat. This prevents the accumulation of carbon monoxide. Ventilation is also needed for carbon dioxide given off when breathing.
  • Drying. A drying area must be constructed or available to dry wet clothes.
  • Free from Natural Hazards. Shelters should not be built in areas of avalanche hazards,  under rock fall or “standing dead” trees have the potential to fall on your shelter.
  • Stable. Shelters must be constructed to withstand the pressures exerted by severe

Also, in a tactical or SERE situation:

  • Does the shelter provide concealment from enemy observation?
  • Does the shelter location maintain camouflaged escape routes?
  • Do you meet the requirements of BLISS?:

B – Blend in with Surroundings
L – Low silhouette

I – Irregular shape
S – Small
S – Secluded located

Natural Shelters

Natural shelters are usually the preferred types because they take less time and materials to construct. The following are examples of natural shelters that may be used with some modification:

  • Caves or Rock Overhangs. Can be modified by placing rocks, logs or branches across open sides.
  • Hollow Logs. Can be cleaned or dug out, then enhanced with ponchos, tarps, or parachutes hung across the openings.
  • Buildings. If the security situation permits, structures found in urban or rural environments should be considered (i.e. houses, sheds, barns, vehicles) during SERE/survival.

Hazards of Natural Shelters:

  • Animals. Natural shelters may already be inhabited (i.e. bears, coyotes, lions, rats, snakes, etc.) or guarded/used by domestic animals that could alert unfriendly humans.
  • Disease. From scat or decaying carcasses.
  • Lack of Ventilation. Natural shelters may not have adequate ventilation. Fires may be built inside for heating or cooking but may be uncomfortable or even dangerous because of smoke build up.
  • Gas Pockets. Many caves in a mountainous region may have natural gas pockets in them.
  • Instability. Natural shelters may appear stable, but in reality may be a trap waiting to collapse.

Construction of Shelters

If a natural structure is not available, the fabrication of an expedient shelter is limited only to your imagination. To maximize the shelter’s effectiveness, take into consideration the following prior to construction:

  • Group size.
  • Low silhouette and reduced living area dimensions for improved heat conservation.
  • Avoid exposed hill tops, valley floors, moist ground, and avalanche paths.
  • Create a thermal shelter by applying snow or debris, if available, to roof and sides of shelter.
  • Location of site to fire wood, water, and signaling, if necessary.
  • How much time and effort needed to build the shelter.
  • Can the shelter adequately protect you from the elements (sun , wind, rain, and snow). Plan on worst case scenario.
  • Are the tools available to build it. If not, can you make improvised tools?
  • Type and amount of materials available to build it.

Expedient Shelters

You are limited only by your imagination and materials available. The following man-made shelters can be constructed in almost any situation:

  • Poncho Shelter
  • Sapling Shelter
  • Lean-To
  • Double Lean-To
  • A-frame Shelter
  • Fallen Tree Bivouac

Poncho Shelter. This is one of the easiest shelters to construct. Materials needed for construction are cord and any water-repellent material (i.e. poncho, parachute, tarp). It should be one of the first types of shelter considered if planning a short stay in any one place.

  • Find the center of the water-repellent material by folding it in half along its long axis.
  • Suspend the center points of the two ends using cordage.
  • Stake the four corners down, with sticks or rocks.

Sapling Shelter. This type of shelter is constructed in an area where an abundance of saplings are growing. It is an excellent evasion shelter.

  • Find or clear an area so that you have two parallel rows of saplings at least 4ft long and approximately 1 ½ft to 2ft apart.
  • Bend the saplings together and tie them to form several hoops which will form the framework of the shelter.
  • Cover the hoop with a water-repellent covering.
  • The shelter then may be insulated with leaves, brush, snow, or boughs.
  • Close one end with debris. Hang material over the other end to form a door.

Lean-To. A lean-to is built in heavily forested areas. It requires a limited amount of cordage to construct. The lean-to is an effective shelter but offers only a minimal degree of protection from the elements.


  • Select a site with two trees (4-12” in diameter), spaced far enough apart that a man can lay down between them. Two sturdy poles can be substituted by inserting them into the ground the proper distance apart.
  • Cut a pole to support the roof. It should be at least 3-4” in diameter and long enough to extend 4-6” past both trees. Tie the pole horizontally between the two trees, approximately 1 meter off the deck.
  • Cut several long poles to be used as stringers. They are placed along the horizontal support bar approximately every 1 ½’ and laid on the ground. All stringers may be tied to or laid on the horizontal support bar. A short wall or rocks or logs may be constructed on the ground to lift the stringers off the ground, creating additional height and living room dimensions.
  • Cut several saplings and weave them horizontally between the stringers. Cover the roof with water-repellent and insulating material.

Double Lean-To. The double lean-to shelter is constructed for 2-5 individuals. It is constructed by making two lean-to’s and placing them together.

expedientshelterdoubleleantoA-Frame Shelter. Also known as a debris hut/shelter. An A-Frame shelter is constructed for 1-3 individuals. After the frame work is constructed, bough/tentage is interwoven onto the frame and snow, if available, is packed onto the outside for insulation.

expedient shelter a frameFallen Tree Bivouac. The fallen tree bivouac is an excellent shelter because most of the work has already been done.

expedient shelter fallen tree

  • Ensure the tree is stable prior to constructing.
  • Branches on the underside are cut away making a hollow underneath.
  • Place additional insulating material to the top and sides of the tree.
  • A small fire can be built outside of the shelter.

Reflector Walls. Heating a shelter requires a slow fire that produces lots of steady heat over a long period of time. A reflector wall should be constructed for all open ended shelters. A reflector wall is constructed with a flat rock or a stack of green logs propped behind the fire. A surprising amount of heat will bounce back from the fire into the shelter.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.