” A mind is like a parachute; it doesn’t work if it isn’t open” (Frank Zappa)

Imagine you go for a day hike and get lost in the jungle.  By early afternoon you accept that you aren’t getting home that day and prepare for an unplanned night in the jungle.  As you look for a stream to camp by, the afternoon rains give you a soaking.  Maybe you didn’t bring a pack with you but you do have your trusty parang, knife and firesteel hanging from your belt.  You rig-up a makeshift shelter and prepare yourself for a night in the jungle.

As the daylight fades, what frame of mind would you be in?  Frustrated? –  Miserable? – Worried? –  Scared?

Something that is guaranteed to lift your spirits is a fire, so you pull out your firesteel and…

…and what?  There’s no easy to find dry tinder – the rain and humidity keep everything moist – maybe you fire showers of sparks onto some dead, wet leaves, or damp bark scrapings to absolutely no avail whilst cursing those TV commercials that promised a firesteel “lights a fire every time, no matter what the conditions” and wishing you had a lighter instead.

Many people overrate firesteels – with very dry tinder or any of the (many) possible artificial tinders, firesteels work like magic.  Almost anyone can pick up a firesteel and quickly produce lots of hot sparks …“and if I can get sparks I can get fire, right?”

The answer to that is ‘it depends’: it depends on your technique, your knowledge of where to find good tinder material and your skill at preparing the tinder.  This is the heart of the problem – the firesteel is a deceptive tool that appears to need almost no skill or training to use whereas (in difficult conditions at least) that’s exactly what’s required.

For a long time I decided it wasn’t even worth carrying a firesteel as a secondary firestarting tool (preferring a back-up lighter instead).  It was a reluctant decision as the firesteel has one key advantage that I really appreciate – it is robust: you can attach it to your parang sheath and more-or-less forget about it until it’s needed.  The other reason this was a reluctant decision was that, and let’s be honest here, firesteels are a satisfying and fun way of lighting a fire. I enjoy using them.

What changed my mind?  Well, as it happens, making this video was the catalyst as I set four tests that, if the firesteel could pass, would justify re-evaluating it as a jungle survival tool.

The thinking behind the tests was this:

Rubber inner tube test:  Inner tube is something I always carry, it burns when wet and has a good burn time (but is very smelly!).

But what if, for whatever reason, I didn’t have any inner tube?  The first thing I would look for is bamboo.

Bamboo shavings test:  Dead bamboo keeps (relatively) dry thanks to its outer skin.  Lighting up shavings is reasonably easy as long as you prepare them properly. You might think I am overstating the need for preparation of this tinder but all I can say is that I have watched many, many people fail to light up bamboo shavings and that there is a big difference between sun-dried bamboo that you find in clearings and the more damp bamboo you find in the jungle.

What if there is no bamboo around?

Feather stick test: At the the core of large enough branches you should find dry wood (unless the whole branch has started to rot) so here is a potential source of dry tinder in wet conditions.  I decided not to use ‘ideal’ wood but rather pick a branch more-or-less at random and use that for the test.

Charred materials test: if you were in a real survival situation and managed to light your first fire with one of the methods above, the rest should be plain sailing.  Why?  Simply because you now have the ability to make charred materials: charcloth willl light up with a single spark and old firedogs can be restarted with a bit of effort (and a lot of blowing!)

The revelation for me was to discover that firesteels can light up inner tube.  I had dismissed the possibility of this after a few earlier attempts but was galvanized into retrying the method after hearing of Jim’s (a Canadian friend who was in Malaysia for while….thanks Jim!)  success with this tinder.  After a bit of experimenting I found a method that worked for me and happily accepted that the firesteel had now passed all four tests and promptly attached one to my parang sheath.

If you think you may, one day, have to rely on a firesteel in a jungle survival situation, then I would encourage you to try these tests for yourself (or devise your own tests).  Even if you fail, at least you will know in advance… rather than it being an unpleasant discovery on a rainy night somewhere deep in the jungle…and remember that, with practice, what you can’t do today you will be able to do in time.