“Reality TV is anything but”

There appears to be an insatiable appetite for TV survival shows these days.   When it comes to friction fire methods, even the better shows don’t show the process in its entirety and leave out (often essential) details that you need to know if you want it to work.  I don’t blame them for doing this; you could easily do a whole show on just the basics of the bow drill – but I doubt they’d get much of an audience for this (and the producers are well aware of the fact) – so they’re forced to edit it down for a mass audience.

bamboo_bowdrillHowever, the more (lack of) ‘reality’ based TV survival shows film some techniques which are so poorly executed and unlikely to work that I am truly astonished (and more than a little suspicious) when an ember miraculously appears (often off camera) and lights a tinder bundle with such ferocity that you’d imagine it was doused with some sort of accelerant.

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone with half a brain and a soupçon of healthy cynicism when it comes to reality TV as these shows are made to entertain rather than inform.  In contrast, Youtube offers a massive selection of videos on bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques showing real people who are trying their level best to inform…it’s a great resource for those of us interested in actually learning new techniques.

In a recent reality show two self-proclaimed survival experts, who happened to be naked (why?  I mean, really, why?) in the jungle were struggling with the bow drill. Their problem, they explained, was that the materials weren’t  ‘what they were used to’ (and appeared to be both half rotten and damp).   This is the true reality of friction fire (and fire building itself) – that preparation and the right selection of wood is as critical as technique.

In damp conditions (and you can assume that the jungle is going to be damp) knowing how to select the right woods can be a bit tricky and is, to some extent, counter intuitive:

bamboo_tinderThe softer woods (which work best for the bow drill when dry) are the ones that seem to absorb water more easily and rot fastest.  As such it is often hard to find dead wood of these softer species in a condition suitable for the bow drill.  An option here is to cut the green wood, carve out a bow drill set and let it dry.  This isn’t that hard if you can find a sunny spot (which sometimes is easy to do and sometimes isn’t)…but it can be done and the tropical sun beats down hard (when it’s not raining!).  In an earlier video I show how you can do this (from green wood) that was dried for about 6 hours (in the shade).

A better option is to find slightly harder wood that is less porous and therefore doesn’t absorb as much of the damp and is less prone to rot.  Wood from the fig tree is great for this and it’s a tree that is easy to identify in the jungle.  Of course, as the wood is harder, you need to put more effort into producing the ember than you would with a softer wood.  In another video I show how to do this from scratch in the jungle.

Which brings us to bamboo: a favourite for any would-be fire starter in the jungle as its waterproof skin keeps the worst of the damp out.   The bamboo fire saw is the method most commonly associated with friction fire using bamboo but it is a difficult technique to master and works best with certain types of bamboo and is very sensitive to the damp.  It is also a method that requires a lot of physical exertion and can tire you out quite quickly if you fail to get an ember on the first few attempts.  However, the advantage of this technique is that everything you need comes from a single stem of bamboo and there is no need for cordage.

The harder (and thicker walled) bamboo species that are more difficult to use with the fire saw can be used to create a bow drill set instead.  I would be lying if I said that bamboo is an easy material to use with the bow drill; the reality is that it needs quite a lot of power, good technique and a lot of care in getting all the components of the bow drill right.  However, if you do get it right, it works and, unlike working with wood, the bow drill set from bamboo doesn’t require a lot of carving (bamboo is already shaped the way we want).

In this video I collect some bamboo directly from the (damp) jungle and take you through the process of building the set from scratch, getting the ember and lighting a tinder bundle.  If it was for a TV survival programme the whole video would be edited down to less than a minute, but the purpose of this video is not to show-off the bamboo bow drill  in action, but to show you how to do it….

…also, if it were for a TV survival programme, they’d probably insist I take all my clothes off and that, you’ll be glad to know, simply isn’t going to happen.