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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Greetings all.
Well, I got inspired to take a short little jaunt out into the woods today after reading some posts by a few of you on testing equipment.

I woke up this morning and it was about 50 degrees and I was in a cloud. Where I am currently staying in Tennessee is on the southern-most extension of the Appalachians on top of a plateau, so we get alot of fogs in the winter that severely reduce visibility. Luckily, I have been roaming the woods around the area for 3 years now and have a very intricate knowledge of about 100 miles or so of trails that zig zag accross about 10,000 acres of upland mixed oak/hickory forest. Being on a plateau, not only do I have access to lakes and streams on top of the plateau, but the coves and plateau hill sides offer old-growth forests that have never been logged and contain some of the largest and oldest trees in the Appalachians. If any of you have been in an old-growth forest, you'll know what I'm talking about. Dense, tall canopy, lots of huge fallen logs, mosses and ferns, lots of dead leaves, and almost no underbrush. Additionally, since the plateau is formed of sandstone on top (sandy soil) and limestone underneath (clay soil), when you travel down these steep, moist coves and hill sides, the vegetation changes as well as the geology.
I headed out to the edge of the plateau and down the south-facing side. Getting down the first 100 or 200 feet is the most difficult, as it consists of exposed rock faces and cliffs and steep boulder fields at the bottom. The boulders vary in size from rocks the size of cats and dogs to the size of houses. The geometry of all these boulders lying around in the forest is very cool, especially with the tall trees growing all around them. You can climb on top of some of these boulders, which have broken off of the cliff face and rolled down the hill, and suddenly be 50 feet off of the forest floor. It's like a natural deer-stand with a little grassy garden at the top.
Anyway, the Native Americans used to stay all in this area because of the plentiful water, game and shelter. The cliff face has a multitude of overhangs, and the limestone results in many caves formations, some of which still have Indian artifacts in them, wall paintings/scratchings and even stone walls that were built up as fire reflectors. Some times you can even see the smoke marks on the roofs of these overhangs.

Walking around the edge of the plateau is beautiful. The slopes are fairly steep and as they go down, they periodically levels out, then drop again, meaning you can only look downhill so far before it appears that the ground drops away. You feel very little in this big forest with its huge boulders, ancient trees and cave-dwellings.

Anyway, I woke up today to fog and rain and 50 degrees. Visibility was poor because we were inside a cloud. What better way to spend the day than to go outside and climb down the edge of the plateau and lurk around the cliff faces, climbing on boulders and exploring? I set out properly equipped with wool socks, a pair of running shoes, a poly-pro sweater, wool long-john bottoms, a dense-weave fleece jacket, a rain-jacket, fleece gloves, gore windstopper mountaineering cap and normal green carhart-style pants. I was carrying my Lowe Alpine butt-pack with about 1L of water, a tube of petroleum jelly, a magnesium fire-starting stick with attached striker, waterproof matches and a cheap folding knife to use as the steel. All of this was inside a plastic bag inside the butt-pack. I always carry my victorianox pocket knife and leatherman wave on my person. I probably coudl've taken my Imperial stainless steel carbon-fiber handled sheath knife, but I forgot it.

Anyway, I scrambled very cautiously down the south facing side of the plateau following a deer trail. Progress was painfully slow because of all of the boulders, which were covered in a dense layer of leaves that concealed all of the holes and ankle-breaking places. Additionally, since it had been raining on and off, everything was wet and every rock had lichens that were very slick when wet. I finally got down to some more level ground and proceeded north at the base of the cliffs. Soon I stumbled upon an old Native American camp. The was a rock wall up to my knees that was overgrown that extended out from the cliff face about 20-30 feet. Closer to the cliff face was a taller overhang, but I still had to crouch to get into it. Another rock wall ran the length of the overhang and had some small "pocket" areas in it. More importantly, I found dry firewood lying around. Some sour-wood, hickory branches and cut grape vines were just sort of scattered in a pile. The squirrels had been storing walnuts on the rock shelves underneath and a bird had build its nest in a crack in the ceiling. It was all very dry and probably had not been wet for several hundred years. I didn't find any other artifacts other than smoke marks on the ceiling, a large rock that looked like it had been systematically chipped away at, and an etching on a stone on the stone wall that spelled something I couldn't read. It looked sort of new and the fact that it was on a flat stone on the wall led me to believe that someone else had found this old dwelling anywhere from a few months to a decade or two earlier and decided to etch their initials or something.
Anyway, the whole camp area looked like it was build for defense. It was located on a small rise, was in the middle of a boulder field with horrible footing and at the base of a cliff. The exterior wall encompassed the whole camp-area and then some, while the reflector wall ran the entire length of the overhang and seemed to delineate the cooking/sleeping areas from the rest of the camp. There have been dwellings like this discovered in the area that have had arrowheads from the great-lakes regions and shells from the coast...native american's had quite a trade network.

Anyway, it was comforting to know that several hundred years earlier, people had lived in this area, taking refuge from the elements and large wild predators that roamed these forests before the Europeans came. These dwellings are scattered all over the edge of the plateau and I can see why the native Americans used them. A water-proof ceiling is provided by the overhang, and the areas can be easily defended from predators by the use of rock walls and rough, steeply sloping terrain. These dwellings are also located close to water sources, or in this case, a long dry stream-bed that is beginning to be filled in with leaves. The edge habitat afforded by the cliffs means that more sunlight reaches the forest floor, there is a junction of different habitats (based on the change in topography and geology), which results in a greater diversity of plants and consequently, the animals that eat them. Additionally, these cliffs are all south-facing, to achieve the maximum amount of light and heat from the sun. Just by studying these cliff-dwellings one can realize that the best place to build a shelter is next to running water (but not so close that mosquitoes would be a problem), on a south facing slope, in an edge-type habitat, making full use of any natural features of the landscape to minimize building efforts and maximize security. I certainly enjoy the edge habitats more than being in the middle of a forest. There is often more game, sunlight and warmth at the edge of a forest where it meets a field or lake than in the center of the forest.

After exploring the area for about an hour, I went back out into the foggy, wet and drippy forest to build a fire. Leaves, Leaves everywhere, all of them wet. Dead wood on the ground...useless. Soaking wet. Dead standing wood...also wet.
I chose a site next to a dead log and started gathering wood.

Here is what I learned today about building fires in wet, foggy forest conditions using some dry jute-string in my fire-starting kit, a magnesium striker, and kindling, squaw-wood, bark and leaves gathered from the area.

Rule #1. Chose a fire site with a natural reflecting surface that will reflect heat back to you. That way you make the most of the thermal energy of your fire and if you position yourself correctly, you won't have to do the "cold back, hot face" rotisserie dance all night long.

Rule #2. If the forest floor is wet (very wet in my case...every oak leaf had a pool of water in it), you need to build a dry surface upon which to construct your fire. Tinder quickly becomes un-lightable if it gets damp or wet.
I stripped bark from live, standing shag-bark hickory trees (Carya ovata, in the Juglandacea. Don't worry, this particular tree has "shaggy" bark that falls off on its own accord; judiciously selecting a few slabs to peel off will not harm the tree. I tried to chose slanting trees, that way at least one side would have dry bark. I pulled off a few slats of shag-bark and made a layer of bark on top of the leaves. This got my fire out of the wet leaves.

Rule #3 Pre-position all of your firewood next to your fire. Build your fire before you light your tinder. Gathering your wood before you light the tinder is very important. Once you get the fire started, you need to keep it burning long enough so that it can sustain itself while you go off to get more wood. Often times, you may think your fire is going and in the 1 or two minutes you are away breaking more sticks and gathering wood, it can go out.
Of course, the million dollar question is "How can you find dry wood when it's been raining for several days?" Well, I could've just gone back to the cliff edge and picked up some of that dry firewood and dry leaves that I found, but that would be cheating. What i did instead was roamed around a bit and broke of small, teeny-tiny twigs from small trees. Often times in the winter, small trees will experience a small die-off at the tips of their branches when the frosts come, leaving a few inches of dead, dry wood of just the right size to place in the next layer above your tinder. This wood is almost as important as the tinder, because it has to be able to catch the flame and transfer it to larger pieces effectively.
The reason I chose standing trees and saplings was because they were far away from the moist ground and their twigs are so small that the surface-area to volume ratio of the small twigs allows them to dry out much faster than larger twigs. In fact, it had stopped raining an hour earlier and most of these twigs were dry. Next I broke off larger pieces of wood, slowly increasing in diameter, chosing dead trees that were still standing. While wet or damp on the outside, the core of the wood was still dry, and when I cut into it with my knife, the dryness soon revealed itself.

Rule #4: fire architecture: make it a tee-pi. Why the tee-pi structure? The tee-pi structure, with tinder in the middle and then slowly increasing the diameter of the sticks in consecutive layers as you go out, provides the perfect balance between heat retention for the tinder, ample oxygen flow, and quick fire-catchability of larger pieces. Additionally, as the fire moves from the center upwards and out, igniting the layers as it goes, it dries out the larger pieces with the rising heat before the flames actually reach the larger sticks. The tee-pi structure is the fastest starting fire architecture I have ever used. I can only theorize and conjecture as to why this is, but it would be much easier if you just tried it out yourself.

Rule #5: Keep your tinder dry. Don't set it down on the ground. You've worked so hard to select dry twigs and get the least damp wood it would be a shame to have tinder that wouldnt take a spark. I lit my tinder in a little altoid-type can with a flint striker attached to my magnesium fire-stick. If you're going to be flint-striking a fire, your tinder needs to be fluffy and very fine, like a cotton ball. Rough-stuff won't catch. You also need to leave ample room in your fire structure, once it's built, to shove your tinder into without knocking down the whole fire and smothering the tinder. The "tinder space" should be large enough to fit the flaming tinder without having to compress it. You want to maintain the flow of oxygen to the burning tinder.

Rule#6: If your fire smolders, don't worry.
Today, the tinder burned great, the twigs caught, but the larger sticks were just too damp on the surface to catch quick enough before the tinder and twigs went out. I was left with a few small and quickly fading coals and alot of smoke. Not to worry. Wet leaves are your freinds sometimes.
I put more dry twigs on top of the coals, blew hard enough until I had a flame again, the covered my fire structure with wet leaves. WHAT? Well, the outermost sticks were wet anyway, I just decided to insulate my fire. Now, the smoke and heat that was escaping out of the top of the fire became more trapped inside and began to dry out the sticks that wouldn't ignite previously. There was alot of smoke, but I kept blowing on the center of the fire and slowly, but surely, the sticks began to ignite. Soon, the inner layers of wet leaves were dry enough to burn too and by the time they caught on fire, I could through almost anything on the fire and over time, it would dry out and burn. Using the bark of the shag-bark hickory as a floor for the fire was a great idea because the bark is so dense and hard that it takes a while to catch on fire, but when it does, it gives that extra kick to the fire to get it into high-gear. Soon I had a nice-sized fire with a pile of hard-wood coals that were pumping out heat like only hickory wood can.

Some tips to remember: bark on vertical and slanting trees can often be dry, or at least less damp than anything you'll find horizontal on a log.
Dry twigs can be had from small trees that have lost their leaves. The tips of their branches often break off easily. Remember, if it doesn't snap, it isn't dry and it won't catch fire quickly. Carry plenty of fine tinder in waterproof containers. Only take it out when you will be using it immediately.
In rainy country/rainy season, you might even consider carrying a small bundle of kindling with you in addition to tinder. It will make your fire-wood gathering that much easier and your fire-lighting that much quicker.
Practice making fires using as many natural materials as you can...in less than ideal conditions. Challenge yourself. The skill will come in handy.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
yes. Sometimes we get so caught up in all of our gadgets and gizmos and night vision goggles that we forget that the basics of warm feet, full stomach and dry clothing are what make or break us, not our fancy tech toys. I find it useful to practice the basics to keep from getting rusty.
It's all sort of second nature to me, but when I stop and think about what I'm doing, I realize that there may be people who could benefit from what I just take for granted.
 

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The Bad guy
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i agree completely. i base all my "survivalism", if you will, on the basics and unequiped training. often times, people will prepare for things by collecting things-guns, tools, etc.

words i live by- if you are good with nothing, you can be great with anything.

if you can start a fire, build shelter, collect food and water, move undetected, and defend yourself in any environment with nothing but that which you can find or improvise, you will find yourself to be the greatest tool of all. throw in something as simple as a lighter or a blade, and youre unstoppable!
 

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Ecellent. I was thinking about what you said, and it is true, rarely do I see people that actually use a tee-pi structure for a fire, and build the fire before placing the tinder in it. I guess the Boy Scouts taught me more than just a bunch of knots.
 

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Shuriken snowflake
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When I was a kid I was able to join the wildlife "scouts", and I learned stuff about camping, cooking out and making a fire. I always took those skills for granted, but now I realize where they come from. I'm very happy now I don't have to learn as an adult, because that probably would be harder. I feel sorry for the kids that never have this in their lives.
 

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I've started fires up in the Rockies using pretty much the same method, the only difference was the temp was around 0 and all the wood was frozen.
Excellent post CM, sounds beautiful out there.
 

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This is great info, starting a fire is often portrayed as something you do in dry weather. but even I can start a fire in dry weather.
IT is all about doing IT in wet weather!
as a general fall back; I prefer to rely on Mautz Fire Ribbon in wet weather
Excelent post, PLZ INSERT PICS
 
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