Wood, tinder and kindling tend to be very damp in the rainforest and hence difficult to ignite. The easiest way to obtain some wood dry enough for fire is to collect it somewhere with much direct sunlight like banks of larger rivers and in forest gaps, ideally not from the ground but hanging somewhere. And even then: you collect it, bring it to your campsite and tomorrow the wood has absorbed the humidity. One nice trick is to use thicker logs and split them later longitudinally. Usually outer layers are moist or even wet but the core remains dry. So this explains why Wito needed almost an hour on his first solo trip to the Río Napo, Ecuador, to make a decent fire even with the help of 90% ethanol (no, not to get drunk). What he did not know back then is to simply split the logs (see below).
In total the success of fire making depends on the preparation:
- enough dry tinder forming a tinder bundle: very fine material like cotton wool, paper, grass inflorescences, abraded fine bark, preferably containing raisin which burns good, scrunched up dry leaves
- kindling of varying thickness: dry grass stalks, very thin sticks, split branches
- wood of varying thickness: sticks and branches, split logs, entire logs
Make sure there is enough wood aside to add to the fire later as the wood is being consumed by the flames constantly. Begin the fire with driest wood you have and put damp or wet wood close to the fire so it can be dried in the meantime.
Then the wood can be piled up in three layers:
- four or five thicker branches on the ground
- crossing them thinner wood (split logs, branches)
- pyramided above them even thinner wood, feather sticks and kindling with an opening to put the burning tinder bundle
As soon as the pyramid is burning, burning items fall also down to the thicker layers below and ignite them.
Now we have practiced to split logs here in Germany in order to make it a habit. At first we used only a knife and self-made wooden wedges. It was an arduous task mainly due to the structure of the wood that was not straight but somewhat twisted along its longitudinal axis. Thus splitting was not straight forward. The basic procedure is to make two or three wedges and to have a hard branch or stone to drive them into the log after having cut with the knife a notch into one end of the log. As soon as one wedge is driven into the wood the next wedge can be driven further down the fissure and so on. Alternatively it is possible to use only the knife and the baton beginning at one end of the log and driving the knife downward. However, the knife can get damaged. The inner parts of the knife used here became slightly loose inside of the handle. Thus, unless not really necessary, we won’t use our knives in that way anymore. Additionally, cutting long hardwood logs into shorter transportable ones took ages. In total it took more than 1,5 hours to prepare all wood, kidling and tinder and only 5 to 10 minutes to start the fire using a fire steel and the knife (the fire steel usually would not be used in the jungle).
Although nice to know how to do it only with a knife and batons this method does not match the criterion of “avoiding energy waste” and it took too long. Together with the risk of damaging the knife we regard it a precious lesson but there must be a better way.
For the next training session we wanted to see whether a good machete of parang style is better. In Latin America you can buy inexpensive machetes almost everywhere. But their blades are mostly very soft and wobbly and although they are good for clearing trails, they are not suited for splitting wood with a baton. Parangs from South-East Asia have relatively firm blades and the curved handles are designed to save energy while working with them. Since it is not easy to get a real Asian parang in Germany at a reasonable price we purchased the NATA Machete 210 that is basically similar to parangs and later a Condor Village Parang Machete. Chopping and splitting wood was way easier and faster than with the above mentioned knife method. Machetes are basically versatile tools suitable for chopping and splitting wood as well as for clearing the trail.