Knowing how to build a fire is an important skill — but Cheetos can help

A fire getting started

Jack London wrote the short story “To Build a Fire” more than 100 years ago. People read the story and take it as the gospel as where and how to build a fire in the winter woods. Before listening to Jack London, take into account that London spent only six weeks in the Klondike and had no previous experience in the North country. Why should we listen to a greenhorn?

Very few of the Klondikes had any experience in northern climates. The guys who stayed learned as they went. Some found it too tough and headed back for the comforts of home. Others stayed and became “sourdoughs.” Sourdoughs were so named because of the fermenting dough many of them carried in place of yeast. Fermented dough, usually from a potato starter, could be used to make pancakes and bread — as long as it was kept from freezing.

The sourdoughs, many times, were prospectors who only had a single winter in the north. They knew little themselves. Certainly a single winter does not provide one with all of the knowledge necessary to survive the varying conditions one encounters in the Alaska Bush. To build a fire under adverse conditions is one of the more important skills necessary for survival.

Anyone can get a fire started in the house wood stove. The trapper in his cabin sometimes had sawdust saturated with kerosene in a can near the stove. The cold cabin could be toasty in very short order with that type of fire starter. Trapping from a tent camp taught me how important it was to have instant fire-starting materials at hands’ reach. The cold tent stove was reachable from my sleeping bag. A fire was going in minutes and the 8-by-8-foot tent was warm enough to rise and dress in in very short order.

This is well and good, but building an outside fire with cold hands and a shivering body is quite different. The other important consideration for those who are traveling in today’s world is this: Do you really need a fire? Years ago, on my trapline, I dropped a snowmachine through the ice. I received a thorough soaking. The temperature was 20 below zero; there were 6 miles to walk to reach my truck.

My matches were dry and spruce trees were available. My snow suit instantly froze on the surface. I opted to walk.

A fire would have taken time. The cold would have crept in by the time the fire was going. Walking kept me warm enough — try struggling along with extremely heavy wet gear for a few miles. That was the right decision under the circumstances, but each happenstance will vary with the conditions and the individual.

The dude in Jack London’s story needed a fire. London has the guy building a fire under a tree loaded with snow that slides off from the heat of the fire and douses his fire. Good story. Not reality. The message is totally wrong and is not backed by knowledge or experience. The place to build a fire in the woods, summer or winter, is indeed under a tree. A fire built under a spruce tree provides protection from rain. It also allows for some heat to be retained by canopy branches. Snow cannot slide onto your fire if the fire is inside the outer canopy.

The other thought that comes to mind is that a fire large enough to provide enough heat to cause snow to slide is a large one. The traveler should have been fairly warm by then. He was also quite experienced to be traveling alone and also had enough expertise to start a fire when very cold.

Preparing to build a fire

Fires can be started with a single match. Preparation is the key. Birch bark is, of course, the starting fuel of choice. In Alaska birch is scarce in may areas. Spruce and willow abound. Should you need a fire, gather small, dry twigs from under spruces, right next to the trunk. Even in coastal areas under very wet conditions there will be a few dry branches. Your fire-starting materials should be of a smaller diameter than a match. Gather enough for a decent handful. Break off another good handful about half the diameter of a pencil. Have also at hand slightly larger stuff that will be the basis of your warming blaze.

The key is not to get in a hurry. A fire needs air and fuel. The best way is to put a small bed of branches on the ground and construct the fire on top of the bed. This is of utmost importance in the snow. Leave enough space to hold a match under the tiny stack of spruce, or dry willow twigs, for the match to catch. Patience. Don’t add heavier fuel until you have a small blaze going.

When traveling above the timberline, I cheat a little. Carry Cheetos or Fritos. Both are super fire starters. Three Cheetos will give you a fire under the wettest of conditions. Unlike the fancy fire-starting gels, you can eat them when you get back to the truck. Jack didn’t have those amenities, and while he knew very little about the North, he did bring our attention on the importance of building a great fire.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.