If one were to ask any citizen of the modern world what preparation for the next fire means, few would have any concept of what this idea is. Typically when one needs a fire it is within an environment that is less than desirable for making a fire. The concept of the next fire reaches far beyond bic lighters or ferro rods. You are creating a viable ignition source which can be utilized in making your next fire as fool proof as possible. In the event of adverse weather or light conditions your life will depend upon it.
Modern convenience has allowed for us today to take for granted the preparation necessary for tomorrow. Once upon a time frontiersmen would mend their moccasins in the evening so they would have shoes the next day. Likewise the fire they started that night was because of preparation that was made for that fire the previous night. In the wild we must think beyond our immediate need and the moment we are within and into the next moments that will come. If you are not preparing for your next fire, then the fire you have may be your last.
Preparing for your next fire requires a few resources. Essentially you are creating a charcoal material. The material of choice can be any material that is 100 percent natural. Some are familiar with the term char-cloth, yet using cloth from whatever you may have on hand is taking away from a resource which is in your possession. Natural materials such as the fluff from a cattail, the pith from plants such as a Mullen stalk or Hibiscus will work well. Materials that can be used are typically the same materials which are used in starting any fire with “birds nest” materials.
These natural materials are a renewable resource which does not require you to sacrifice resources that you have on hand. Additionally if you come across man made waste materials while in the wild as long as they are 100 percent natural this too can be used. Natural rope and cloth will be the most common but clothing today is often a hybrid of natural and synthetic materials. Synthetics will melt rather than turn to carbon.
After you have acquired the materials you wish to use break the material down into pieces small enough to fit into your tin. The tin that you will need can range from an Altoids tin to a coffee can or your water bottle. In order to carbonize your material you place the materials into the tin and then place the tin into the fire. You can leave the tin in the fire for as long as you need. You cannot overdo this part of the process. The key to this process is that once the tin is removed from the fire it must be cooled before you open it. If it is not cool, set it aside and wait until it is.
The material that is within the tin will now be charred and once a spark hits the material it will catch the spark and build an ember. This charred material requires far less heat from a spark than other materials. Also it is more resistant to damp air or colder conditions. Another benefit is that it will hold the ember and while it burns, and will burn slowly. There is no need to rush risking the loss of the ember.
Allow me to remove some common misconceptions pertaining to the making of char-cloth or charred materials. When using a tin such as an Altoids tin you may commonly see or hear people speak of putting a hole into the tin allowing gasses to escape. This is not necessary for tins of this nature. The hinges on the tin allow for more than enough gas to escape so that the tin will not pop open.
Having too large of a hole in the tin could prove to be counter productive. If the hole is too large oxygen mixing with the gas and heat could cause a flame. Likewise when cooling after gasses have been expelled the introduction of oxygen through the larger hole could also ruin the process. The intended purpose of a hole within a tin is to release gas pressure that builds from the charring material. A sealed airtight container would definitely need a hole to allow for this.
When using a stainless steel water bottle with no lid one must simply place the material within the bottle and then bank the opening. Whether this is done with the earth itself or another non flammable object is immaterial as long as it is covered and semi air tight. I prefer to place enough dirt to cover the opening so that it is sealed. Know that this does not mean it is air tight. Gas must escape, and it will escape, but there will not be enough oxygen to spoil the results when heated and also when cooling.
It is nice to have a container which is large enough to create a good amount of charred material. Overkill in producing this means an easier fire the next night. Be aware that when making charred material it is best that the material be loose and not tightly packed. The more surface area that is allowed to be exposed to the heat the better. In other words taking a stack of neatly cut square cloths and placing it into a tin will give poor results. Typically this results in a few pieces of the outer layers of cloth being charred while the inner pieces are untouched by the process.
It is important to experiment with what material works best for you in your region where you live. Dryer climates are more forgiving than humid or wet climates. At times multiple factors can play a role into how effective a specific material will perform over others. Some of these factors may be a combination such as elevation, winter cold, and damp air from rain or snow. This example combination deprives oxygen while introducing moisture thus influencing the materials state and the temperature required from a spark. Experimentation is required for surefire results.
In addition to charred material a good old fashioned tinder bundle in your pocket or pack is required. Do not wait for the last moment when the fire is needed to collect this. When you need it then it may already be too late. One does not want to go through a process of finding less than desirable ignition sources in adverse conditions or in the fading of the days light.
While the common hiker may not have extenders with them such as animal fat or pine pitch, other extenders may be at hand. Fire extenders to aid you in fire building are critical to your success. Unlikely sources few may think of can be found in things such as Fritos corn chips, yes they burn slowly. Duct tape which can be a common item for many will also do the same. Essentially many oil based products can be optimal resources for this use. Materials such as these can be utilized to aid you along the path to the next fire.