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Starting a Fire With a Bow Drill Is Harder Than it Looks

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I’d argue that for many men (and more than a few women), there is no badge of merit, no boon of confidence more desirable than starting a fire without a match. “I can build fire from nothing” seems like a great way to win anything: cocktail-party chatter, free drinks, a date, your life on a frigid night.

Wilderness warriors might have access to mosquito-size blowtorches now, but knowing you can use the knowledge of your Cro-Magnon forebears to bring forth a blaze from nothing more than your hands, sweat, and a couple of sticks feels like the pinnacle of self-reliance. I hope never to find myself in a survival situation without a Bic, but if it happens, I won’t be the guy with hypothermia.

Admittedly, I’m a little obsessed with emergency fire making. I’ve sparked a flame from flint and knives, with cell-phone batteries and steel wool, and a spate of other improvised tools. During a survival course, I even used a fire bow employing friction to generate a glowing coal. But I cheated: The tools were built for me; all I had to do was saw like a maniac until my exhaustion birthed an ember. I’d never lit a fire using items procured in the field by myself.

So when it came time to zero in on a technique this time around, the choice was easy. I decided to return to the fire bow—partially out of pride (could I do it without help?), and also because it provides a natural mechanical advantage over simply rubbing two sticks together using only your hands. Plus: YouTube is littered with bushcraft survivalist tutorials that make it look easy.

On a dry afternoon (no sense battling rain on my first try), I headed into the Washington woods, vowing not to emerge until I’d warmed my hands over a matchless fire. Procuring raw materials from the forest floor proved easy: a flat, thin plank for a fireboard; an inch-thick, 8-inch long spindle; a palm-size chunk for the handhold; and a curved stick perfect for my bow. To mimic a survival situation, I used a bootlace for the bowstring.

I then used my knife to whittle and refine my tools: I cut inch-diameter divots in both handhold and fireboard to hold the spindle and a notch in the fireboard’s hole for the coal to fall out into my tinder bundle. I hacked at the ends of the spindle to create rounded points. I noticed my rough-hewn fire bow kit lacked the lacquer-smooth polish of the premade set I’d used years before; mine still had bark, and the fireboard, made of old spruce wood, seemed to crumble easily. But, in a nod to my Cro-Magnon ancestors, I hadn’t shaved in a while, which I thought might make up some of the difference.

bow drill
Making a fire with a bow drill. (Photo: Nicki1982 / iStock via Getty)

With set made, I recalled the position and form I’d learned in survival class—and which I’d seen repeated by the khaki-and-camo bushcraft gurus on YouTube. I placed my left foot on the board and right knee on the ground, with left wrist braced against my shin and my hand firmly gripping the handhold to press the drill into the board. I picked up the bow with my right hand and started sawing.

Immediately, the spindle popped out of the loop in the bowstring and clattered away. No problem—just use more pressure and loosen the bowstring. I returned, drawing the bow back and forth with speed, only to see the shoelace spinning around the spindle instead of turning it. Damn. Tighten the bowstring again, but not too much. Finally, a spinning spindle: But instead of producing a smooth, smoking coal factory, my spindle juddered and bounced in its notch. Sweat poured into my eyes and my back twitched. Keep at it, caveman, I thought. Life or death. You are the master of nature.

SH#$!

I spat and kicked at the grass after my drill blew open the notch, shredding the fireboard’s edge. After carving a new notch and applying another two hours of labor, I’d produced a pinch of tan sawdust—not the fine, black powder that precedes a life-giving ember. But the sawdust felt a little warm to the touch. Positive reinforcement. I got back to work on a fresh set of blisters.

As detailed as YouTube tutorials are, they can’t convey the interplay of wood and spindle—when to speed up, slow down, back off, or add pressure. One does not simply walk into the woods and conjure a fire without practice.

Over the course of another two hours, I received a lone, faint sign of encouragement: a wisp of smoke escaping my borehole like a strand of spider silk. I ignored the cramp in my forearm and sawed with renewed vigor…until the shoelace started sliding on the spindle again. I dropped to the ground, vowing now to trade in my fire bow and beard for hair gel and a martini.

In prehistoric Europe, early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both had access to fire, showed signs of intelligence, and competed for the same resources. We don’t entirely know why one species won out over the other. But I’d like to think that it was because if my Cro-Magnon cousin had access to a pocket blowtorch, he’d have been smart enough to use it.

The Verdict: FAIL

With better materials and more time, I’m sure a motivated hiker can conjure fire from nothing. But I think I’ll start packing three lighters.

Originally published in 2015; last updated February 2022

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Family

Teaching Kids About Wilderness Safety and Survival

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Exploring the great outdoors offers numerous benefits for children, from fostering a love of nature to promoting physical activity and learning valuable life skills. However, venturing into the wilderness also comes with inherent risks. Teaching kids about wilderness safety and survival not only empowers them to enjoy outdoor adventures responsibly but also prepares them to handle unexpected situations effectively.

Understanding the Environment

The first step in teaching kids about wilderness safety is helping them understand the environment they’ll be exploring. Discuss potential hazards such as uneven terrain, wildlife encounters, and changes in weather conditions. Encourage curiosity about nature while emphasizing the importance of respecting its power and unpredictability.

Hiking Essentials

Before setting out on a hike, ensure that your children are equipped with the essential gear and knowledge to stay safe. Teach them to dress appropriately for the weather, wear sturdy footwear, and carry essentials such as water, snacks, a map, and a whistle. Emphasize the importance of staying on marked trails and never wandering off alone.

Navigation Skills

Teach children basic navigation skills to help them stay oriented in the wilderness. Show them how to read a map and use a compass, pointing out landmarks and trail markers along the way. Encourage them to pay attention to their surroundings and make mental notes of key features to aid in navigation.

Emergency Procedures

Prepare children for emergencies by teaching them essential survival skills and emergency procedures. Demonstrate how to signal for help using a whistle or mirror, build a shelter using natural materials, and start a fire safely. Discuss what to do in case they become lost or separated from the group, emphasizing the importance of staying calm and staying put to make rescue easier.

Wildlife Safety

Educate children about the wildlife they may encounter in the wilderness and how to coexist safely. Teach them to observe animals from a distance and never approach or attempt to feed them. Discuss how to react in the event of a wildlife encounter, such as backing away slowly from bears or standing tall and making noise to deter smaller animals.

Water Safety

If your outdoor adventures include activities near water, such as swimming or boating, it’s crucial to teach children about water safety. Emphasize the importance of wearing a life jacket, swimming with a buddy, and avoiding strong currents or dangerous water conditions. Teach them how to recognize signs of drowning and how to perform basic water rescue techniques if necessary.

Leave No Trace Principles

Instill in children the importance of practicing Leave No Trace principles to minimize their impact on the environment. Teach them to pack out their trash, stay on designated trails, and avoid disturbing wildlife or natural habitats. Encourage them to appreciate the beauty of nature while also being responsible stewards of the land.

Teaching kids about wilderness safety and survival empowers them to enjoy outdoor adventures responsibly while equipping them with valuable life skills. By helping children understand the environment, providing essential gear and knowledge, and emphasizing the importance of safety and respect for nature, parents can foster a love of the outdoors that lasts a lifetime. Encourage curiosity, exploration, and a sense of adventure, while always prioritizing safety above all else.

How do you teach children about wilderness safety? Leave your tips for other parents in the comments below.

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Family

Family-Friendly Wilderness Survival Skills: Navigating Nature Together

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When it comes to venturing into the wilderness as a family, being equipped with essential survival skills can turn what might seem like a daunting prospect into a thrilling adventure. From navigating rugged terrain to building shelters and finding sustenance, knowing how to handle various wilderness scenarios not only ensures safety but also fosters a deeper connection with nature. Here, we’ll delve into some family-friendly wilderness survival skills that are both practical and empowering for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages.

Navigating Nature’s Maze: The Art of Orientation

Wilderness navigation skills are absolutely necessary for survival. Teach your family members how to read a map and use a compass. Turn it into a game, plotting imaginary routes or exploring nearby trails. Understanding how to interpret natural landmarks, such as mountains or rivers, can serve as invaluable guideposts when technology fails or trails grow faint.

Shelter from the Storm: Building Safe Havens

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Constructing a shelter in the wilderness isn’t just about protection from the elements; it’s also an opportunity to foster teamwork and resourcefulness. Encourage your family to work together to build a shelter using readily available materials like branches, leaves, and logs. Even practicing with a simple tarp or emergency blanket in the backyard can instill confidence and prepare everyone for unexpected situations.

Quenching Thirst: Finding and Purifying Water Sources

woman taking water from forest spring

Water is essential for survival, but finding safe sources in the wilderness can be challenging. Teach your family how to locate water sources such as streams or springs, and emphasize the importance of purifying water before drinking. Show them how to boil water over a campfire or use portable water filtration systems. It’s not just about quenching thirst; it’s about ensuring hydration without compromising health.

Mastering the Flames: The Art of Fire Building

Building a fire in the wilderness is not only a practical skill but also a primal experience that connects us to our ancestors. Teach your family the basics of fire building: selecting dry tinder, arranging kindling, and patiently nurturing the flames. Show them how to practice fire safety, such as keeping a safe distance from combustible materials and extinguishing fires completely before leaving a campsite.

Harmonizing with Wildlife: Respectful Coexistence

Encounters with wildlife are part of the allure of wilderness exploration, but they also require caution and respect. Educate your family about local wildlife, teaching them to recognize signs of activity and respond appropriately. Instill in them a sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world while emphasizing the importance of maintaining a safe distance and avoiding confrontations.

Equipping your family with wilderness survival skills is not just about preparing for the worst-case scenario; it’s about empowering them to explore and thrive in the great outdoors. By teaching navigation techniques, shelter-building skills, water purification methods, fire-building basics, and wildlife awareness, you’re not only ensuring their safety but also nurturing a lifelong love for nature and adventure. So, gather your loved ones, pack your gear, and embark on unforgettable journeys into the heart of the wilderness, where every challenge becomes an opportunity to learn and grow together.

Do you practice wilderness survival with your family? What do you do? Leave your pointers in the comments below.

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Outdoor Survival Skills

Banding Together In Times Of Crisis: The Important of Survival Communities

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In times of crisis, whether natural disasters, economic downturns, or other emergencies, fostering community resilience is paramount for families to navigate challenges successfully. Building strong bonds and collaborating with neighbors can provide essential support networks and resources. In this article, we’ll explore strategies for families to work together and contribute to community resilience during times of crisis.

Establish Communication Channels

Clear and reliable communication channels are essential for coordinating efforts and sharing critical information within the community. Establish methods such as neighborhood watch groups, social media networks, or communication apps to stay connected with neighbors. Create contact lists with essential contact information for each household and designate emergency communication protocols.

Collaborate on Emergency Preparedness

Encourage collaboration among families in preparing for potential emergencies. Organize community-wide preparedness events or workshops to share knowledge, resources, and skills. Pooling resources such as emergency supplies, tools, and equipment can enhance the collective readiness of the community. Develop evacuation plans and designate meeting points in case of evacuation orders.

Share Skills and Resources

Identify the skills, expertise, and resources available within the community and leverage them to support one another. Encourage neighbors to share their knowledge of gardening, first aid, construction, or other relevant skills. Create a network for exchanging goods and services, such as food, water, tools, and shelter materials. By collaborating and supporting each other, families can address challenges more effectively.

Establish Mutual Aid Networks

Establish mutual aid networks to provide assistance and support to vulnerable members of the community during times of crisis. Identify individuals or families who may need extra help, such as elderly residents, people with disabilities, or single parents. Coordinate efforts to check on their well-being, provide assistance with essential tasks, or evacuate them safely if necessary.

Organize Community Resilience Projects

Prepper Community

Engage in community resilience projects that enhance the overall preparedness and resilience of the neighborhood. Examples include community gardens, rainwater harvesting systems, emergency shelters, and neighborhood watch programs. Work together on initiatives that promote self-sufficiency, sustainability, and disaster resilience.

Foster Social Connections

Building strong social connections within the community fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity, which is crucial during times of crisis. Organize regular neighborhood gatherings, potlucks, or block parties to strengthen relationships and build trust among neighbors. Encourage open communication, empathy, and mutual support to create a resilient community fabric.

Participate in Training and Exercises

Participate in training sessions and emergency preparedness exercises as a community to enhance readiness and coordination. Practice scenarios such as earthquake drills, fire evacuation drills, or first aid training exercises. Evaluate and refine emergency plans based on lessons learned from simulations and real-life experiences.

Engage with Local Authorities and Organizations

Collaborate with local authorities, emergency responders, and community organizations to enhance resilience efforts. Stay informed about emergency protocols, evacuation routes, and available resources in your area. Advocate for community resilience initiatives and participate in local planning committees or advisory boards.

By working together and building strong community connections, families can significantly enhance their resilience and ability to withstand crises. By establishing communication channels, collaborating on preparedness efforts, sharing skills and resources, and fostering social connections, families can contribute to building a resilient community that supports its members in times of need. Remember, resilience is built through collective action and mutual support.

Are you a part of a bigger survival community? If not, do you plan on changing that? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

 

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