Life-Saving Flames

Follow these steps to make the most of a survival fire.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Given the importance of fire in a survival situation, you should never find yourself unable to make one or have to struggle to build one. Always keep fire-starting equipment both in your pockets and in your survival kit (see "Save Your Butt," April). Time wasted rubbing dry sticks and moss together is crucial survival time-so use your matches and get on with the tasks at hand. Once the fire is burning, there are a number of things you will use it for. Here are some of them.

Signaling
If you can create a successful signal fire (bright blaze by night; smoke by day) when searchers are in the area, the whole situation may be over before it gets really serious. Build the fire where it is most visible over a long distance-a hilltop or wide-open clearing. Three fires arranged in a triangle or straight line is a recognized distress signal.

Make smoke by adding small clumps of green or somewhat damp foliage to the blaze. More foliage, more smoke. The pitch in pine branches tends to explode in fire, but if there's nothing else around, use what you can. Just watch for flying sparks.

**Direct Warmth **
If you know you're going to be out in the cold, dressing for the weather is your first step toward surviving. But in a jam, your ability to make fire can be the difference between life and death. If you're around boulders or rock formations, build the fire several feet away from the base of a flat boulder or cliff so you get a full reflection of the fire's heat. If you don't have such rocks, arrange multiple fires so you can stand, sit or lie down between them. Three fires in a triangle will keep you warm on all sides and function as a signal at the same time.

Hot-Rock Bed
To build a hot-rock bed, dig a shallow trench slightly longer than the length of your body and about three feet wide. Dig in the driest ground you can find to avoid "steaming" yourself over a damp bed. Line the trench with stones (avoid river rocks, which might be moist inside, because they can explode when heated). Then line the trench with kindling and firewood. Start the blaze and allow it to burn for an hour to heat the rocks thoroughly. After an hour or so, move the remaining fire and coals to your campfire and cover the trench with about three inches of the driest sand or soil available. Allow the heat from the rocks to "cook" out any moisture in the soil covering before lying atop the bed. The warmth from the rocks will rise through the soil and keep you warm as you sleep.

Health and Security
With a waterproof and fireproof container, you can purify water for drinking by boiling it. Boil for five minutes at sea level and increase boiling time by one minute for each thousand feet of elevation above sea level. Drinking warm water in a cold situation will help you to fight the cold and also to fight dehydration, which can easily occur in dry-cold conditions.

Being able to see everything in the immediate vicinity of your camp can lift your spirits, dispel fear and, of more practical importance, keep you from stumbling over something and injuring yourself. Fire wards off most beasts. Building a ring of fires can help keep larger predators at bay.

Fire is a survival partner that you put to work for you. Out of control, it's destructive. Under your control, it's a sentinel and provider.