The fire wick fire starter
By Len McDougall
When my hunting buddy Dar met me for lunch at our rendezvous point, he
said he doubted we could make a small cookfire on the wet, snow-covered
ground. After a hot meal of canned pork-and-beans and instant coffee, our
innards were rewarmed, and he was very interested in the tinder I'd pulled
from my daypack.
Shown here burning atop hardpack snow, fire wicks might be the best
fire-starting tinder available—but you have to make them yourself.
In a wilderness environment, no ability is more likely to save your life
than fire-making, regardless of latitude or season. Air temperatures below
98.6° F steal body heat, especially with the added cooling effects of wind
and rain; smoke repels insects, and can be seen from a long distance;
flames are a fearsome thing to most animals; and the ability to cook wild
flesh (never eat raw fish) insures that any parasites are dead. In one
respect or another, fire is vital to human survival, and when not being
able to make one might equal dying, every trick in the proverbial book is
The fire starter my friend had been impressed by employed the simplest
technology to create a cheap, waterproof, easily-lighted tinder that has
been part of every survival kit I've owned for the past two decades. In my
youth I'd employed the classic woodsman's trick of using a candle to
ignite damp tinder materials, but while the technique worked as well for
me as it had for Kit Carson, it became evident that an entire candle was
overkill. All that was really needed to get even wet tinder flaming was a
candle wick saturated with enough paraffin to make it burn hotly for the
minute or two needed to create a self-sustaining fire.
The most basic type of "fire wick" consists of nothing more than thick
cotton laundry or packaging string that has been saturated with molten
paraffin, allowed to cool and harden, then cut to the desired lengths. The
string used must be cotton, never nylon or any other type of synthetic,
because these not only don't burn well, but emit noxious fumes while
burning. Cotton string is usually found in the housewares aisle, priced at
about two dollars for one hundred yards.
In the simplest process, a ten-foot length of cotton string is lowered
carefully into an old saucepan containing a pound of paraffin (canning
wax) that has been heated to a liquid by a camp stove or hotplate.
Paraffin is sold in supermarkets for about one dollar per pound. Or you
can melt down the stubs from used candles, which works just as well for
making fire wicks, but imparts to them whatever scents or dyes were in the
The Strike Force flint-and-steel, a butane lighter, and fire wicks kept
together in a container; throw in a little fire-making know-how, and this
pocket-size kit virtually guarantees fire in any weather.
Always take sensible precautions when melting paraffin; do the job in a
well-ventilated place where there is little risk of fire and plenty of
fresh air. Wear heavy gloves (not latex or rubber) when handling molten
wax, and never allow the paraffin to get hot enough to smoke, because this
is a warning that it is about to catch fire. If the melting pot does burst
into flames, don't panic; the flaming wax is still safely contained.
Simply cover the pot with a loose-fitting lid, which will smother the
fire, and turn off the heat. Even with the heat off, the wax will remain
liquid for a half hour or so.
The next step is to pluck one end of the string from the melting pot using
pliers (wear your gloves, too)—always do this in a place where you won't
mind a few wax drippings. Pull the string outward in a straight line,
allowing it to drag over the rim of the pot, until the entire length has
been extracted. Hang the wax-soaked string over a convenient nail or rail
until it cools and hardens—usually about 15 minutes. The cooled strings
will be stiff enough to lay across a cutting board and cut into sections
using a sharp knife, or with sharp scissors. I package the completed fire
wicks into "tinder bottles" adapted from pill bottles, 35mm film
canisters, or just zip-lock bags, and scatter the hundreds I generally
make at a time throughout my gear. My backpack and survival knife sheaths
carry fire wicks, but you'll also find them in my kayak, my vehicle's
glove box, and next to my wood-fired smoker grill. I even carry them in
the toolbox, where they've come in handy for re-lighting gas furnaces and
other pilot lights.
In most instances, a single-strand fire wick is all that's needed, but
sometimes I prefer a thicker, longer-burning tinder. To accomplish this, I
use a twist-lock doubling technique that has been used to make rope from
plant fibers since primitive humans discovered that skill. Just twist the
string in a single direction until tension causes it to coil around itself
when pull from either end is relaxed. Hold the twisted string taut while
folding it in half to bring the two ends together. Slowly ease tension on
the doubled string, allowing it to wrap evenly around itself like a small
rope. This doubled (or quadrupled if you repeat the twisting process
again) cord can then be dipped into molten paraffin, cooled, and sectioned
to make thicker fire wicks that burn twice as long.
Demonstrating how well fire wicks work, this one continues to flame hotly
while melting a hole into hardpack snow.
A good alternative to cotton string is wool felt weatherstripping, or old
felt pac-boot liners cut into sections. Fire wicks made from felt produce
longer-burning fire because they absorb more paraffin, and ignite nearly
as well as those made from cotton string. Again, use only felt made from
pure wool, because some is comprised of synthetic fibers that not only
don't burn well, but emit soot and toxic gases.
To use a fire wick, you'll need an initial source of combustion. A butane
or liquid-fuel lighter is recommended survival gear at all times, but I've
had little trouble igniting a well-frayed fire wick using only sparks from
the Strike Force flint-and-steel in my knife sheath. The trick is to fray
one end of the fire wick into a small airy mass that flames at the touch
of a lighted match. Lay the lighted fire wick onto a small platform of
sticks to keep it from being hampered by evaporating ground moisture, add
more fire wicks as needed, and slowly build a tepee of pencil-thick dead
twigs around its perimeter. Add larger sticks as the fledgling fire grows,
until you've achieved a crackling blaze.
Considering the value this simple yet very effective fire starter has had
for me through many years of survival classes in pouring rains and heavy
snowstorms, when not having fire is simply not an option, I'm surprised
that no company is manufacturing fire wicks. Until someone does, I'll keep
making and using my own because the fire wick has earned a place as a
must-have item in my own never-fail fire making kit.