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Make a Fire

Five tips to make a better feather stick for firemaking

Five tips to make a better feather stick for firemaking

Suppose you need to start a fire, it’s been raining, and all the sticks are wet. Here’s how to make dry firestarting materials.

by Leon Pantenburg

It had rained hard all afternoon. I was in my tent, field testing a sleeping bag, when I was awakened by the rain stopping. The rain was part of a nine-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, with a bunch of Boy Scouts.

Outside, one of the scouts was tasked with starting the evening campfire. But the rules were that he had to use a traditional flint-and-steel kit, and only natural materials found in the surrounding area. He walked out into the dripping forest, and picked the driest sticks he could find.

There weren’t many. But several feather sticks were made, and very quickly, a blazing campfire was going.

Making a feather stick is a survival firemaking skill that goes back to pre-history. The concept is simple: Whittle shavings off a stick, but leave them attached. The shaving stay dry, and ignite easily. The whole concept is easy.

But like everything, there is usually a more efficient way of doing things.

Here are five tips for making better feather sticks.

Find a soft wood, if possible: Pine, willow, aspen and other softwoods are easier to whittle, and ignite easily. Hard woods are more difficult to carve, and take more effort. You’ll have to use what you can find, but in a mixed tree forest, go for the softest wood.

Pitchwood can usually be found at the base of a dead stick on a live tree.

Pitchwood can usually be found at the base of a dead stick on a live tree.

Get a dead twig off a tree: If a stick is growing, it is going to be too green to use as an ignition material. In wet areas, the only dry wood may on a standing tree. Locate the dry side of the tree, and only pick sticks that snap crisply when broken. Sticks on the ground will absorb moisture, making them damp.

A bonus with pine trees is that the inch or so of the dead stick next to the living tree may be pitchwood. This is highly flammable and also waterproof. (Here’s how to find pitchwood.)

Whittle long, thin shavings: The thinner the better. remember, a feather stick is supposed to take your fire from the first ignition to a blaze. Don’t carve thick shavings.

Use a sharp knife: This sounds like one of those “well, duh…” pieces of advice. But until you’ve tried it, you can’t appreciate how hard it is to shave wood strips with a dull knife. Ditto with a serrated blade. If you’re going to get a knife that will be used for a lot of bushcraft and woodworking, get a blade with a scandi or convex grind. IMHO, these are the best edges for woodworking.

Make several feather sticks before trying to start the fire.

This fire starting technique is hardly rocket science, and anyone can do it with just about any knife. Incidentally, making feather sticks is a great way for younger kids to get started wood carving. Once the youngster learns safe knife handling, put him/her to making a bunch of feather sticks, and then let them start the campfire.

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Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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