Nowadays, when I ask someone to produce the best thing they have for emergencies while out in a wilderness situation and they produce their smartphone. GROAN!
What is the #1 most required thing that you need when you are stuck in the woods? To pick nits, it is actually a hierarchy of needs based on you current situation, so, granted, it’s a whole bunch of basic items. It goes without saying (well, it does to people with a brain) that “skill” is first and foremost above “tools”. If you don’t have basic skills, common sense, and a the ability to “foward-think”, your situation may go from bad to worse in a short amount of time barring that other facet of all emergencies: luck.
The first thing you need with your emergency gear is the ability to produce a fire. Along with that are the basic skills for fire building, of course. First, you need a reliable way to make a flame after the unthinkable happens. The unthinkable in canoe country is very thinkable and has remained as such forever. You could roll your canoe. You could roll it because you didn’t forward-think about the consequences that sudden weather can reign down upon you. You could roll it because you did something stupid like try to run the rapids instead of taking that 10,000 year old established portage. You could hit an unseen obstacle or have your less-experienced bow person do some unpredicted flopping around. There are so many things that can go wrong SO quickly in wilderness and you are sitting there with no solution in hand for your most immediate problem. Everybody is cold and wet.
Everything is much harder to do when you are shivering and the wind is blowing. The first thing you need is a fire and preferably against a big rock, out of the wind so you can get some reflection of all that infrared radiation that it throws off in all directions. Just the psychological benefit of a fire does wonders to uplift spirits in dire situations. First off, a flickering fire means that you still have some ability left in you to solve your problem. It is not as dire as it seemed prior to the flames. You still hold a little bit of control and that confidence, despite your shivering, will drive you into all the other necessities of survival, primarily in planning. Are you staying here? Do you have to stay? Will you need shelter? Will you need a way for someone to notice you? Are your food and water resources sufficient to stay put until help arrives and for how long? These are all the things that you need to think about and can do so in front of the proof that you can survive: the fire.
Without going into a dissertation on ALL the other survival factors, I’m going to address the basic need for a fire. Whatever you have to light a flame, should be on you and not wet. Water is the opposite of fire. Having your stuff buried in a pack that just blew downstream in raging rapids is also a problem. You may or may not find your pack. So having a pocket that has a little ziplock bag in it with a lighter inside will do wonders. Butane lighters are OK but they are cheap and can fail when it’s cold out. Plus that irritating “child-safety” crap can really dampen a windy situation so you know that the government failed us mightily in forcing safety crap upon us that actually interferes with our safety. Teach your children well. The government is a deadbeat parent at very best. Nuff said.
A better lighter is one that is refillable and maintains a flame without your thumb pressure. They made it all through World War II and remain today as a very popular simple lighter. They are easier on the environment, don’t lay around in drawers, and don’t end up in landfills. They are collectible. They also hold a fuel source that in emergencies could be accessed easily. You can’t crack open a butane lighter and light the liquid. The next thought is regards matches. Why not include matches? Well, you can. But, unlike a Zippo that is maintained, humidity in the air alone, affects matches. Matches require a certain skill level to operate and you always end up with that last match in a wind. I taught myself to treat every match like it is my last one, but even that can fail. Zippos are pretty reliable in the rain and snow. It wouldn’t hurt to have matches in a waterproof match holder, but a Zippo backup in a ziplock bag is really nice, too.
Zippo makes an affordable emergency fire start for those who want some extra security. This is a case with four “tinder sticks” inside. You pull one out, fuzz it up on the end and spark it to a flame with the sparker AKA flint-wheel-ignition. The case is water resistant, floats and is colored orange so you can see it. Put that in a small ziplock and tuck it in a pocket if you don’t need the more constant use of a handy flame. If you are only building a fire in non-emergency times, maybe hauling around a lighter is not for you unless you smoke. I only smoke when my pants are on fire.
In years of guiding, I made a lot of shore lunches using resources out in the woods. Sometimes you can’t find loose birch back because it is either picked clean or just not there. In the presence of birch trees, we were taught at young age to never to the “stupid tourist thing” of peeling a birch tree down to its private parts. You see them all over the Boundary Waters and where the Forest Service painted them white again to maybe help the tree to survive. Some actually do. You can tell a small percentage of tourists not to do this until you are blue in the face and some will never get it. Others simply don’t care. Nonetheless, there may not be any birch bark laying around to use. As a result, I got into a habit of carrying these specific firestarters below. As far as I’m concerned, day to day use, they save time and effort. You can wet them and remove from the water and then crack two sticks in half. Light the broken end immediately with your Zippo. They burn about 8 minutes each and give you ample time to dry out tinder and then small to larger branches or whatever is laying around. Am I able to build a fire in a rainstorm without them? Yes. But why? These are reliable, inexpensive, lightweight, and get the job done well.
So, regarding fires, that’s my recommendation. Have something that lights reliably (on your person) and something that you can light either on you or in your pack. Without fire, you are sunk. This applies to all the times that you can find yourself in trouble, particularly in cold, high waters at spring time, and in the fall. But that doesn’t mean you leave your emergency stuff on the kitchen table during July. Part of being prepared is to realize that “you just never know….”.