A Good Fire: The Best Tools For The Job

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An aerial photo of a barrier island.

What would you do if you found yourself cold and alone on this desolate stretch of beach overnight? Lighting a fire is a good place to start. 

During a first-light search we found the overturned hull on the beach with its owner sitting beside it, but from the air we couldn’t tell if he was moving. His wife reported him overdue the night before. He had been on Hog Island, an uninhabited barrier island near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, all night.

The helicopter crew lowered me to the beach, just far enough away to keep the rotor wash off of him. He didn’t look at me until I yelled, “Sir!” He was alive, shivering (a good sign, really) and huddled over a half-burned pile of cash. It was then that I decided I should carry a fire-starting kit in my life jacket.

When a boat is overdue and is expected to be anywhere near land, the search usually begins along the shoreline. That’s because boaters in trouble head towards shore if they can — or may drift that way if they can’t — and may even swim there if the vessel is no longer with them. Rivers, bays, sounds, barrier islands — the places recreational boaters go are often surrounded by remote tracts of land.

A photo illustrating how to start a fire.

Cottonballs impregnated with petroleum jelly and a fire-starting device are two things you can carry in your life jacket to start a fire and keep yourself warm while waiting for help.

Having a reliable way to start a fire is not the worst idea, even though you expect to be surrounded by water. You don’t always get what you expect, and even though fire and boats don’t mix, staying warm and being alive do. If you find yourself ashore, without shelter and feeling cold, you will want to know how to start a fire. The videos below explain my favorite tactics and tools for staying warm when your plans go sideways.

First you’ll need to assemble your fire-starting kit. You’ll need a fire-starting device and a waterproof match case full of homemade fire fuel, which I demonstrate how to make in this video:

I recommend keeping the fire-starter and fire fuel in a pocket in your life jacket. When you’re in a bad situation and need to make a fire, the first thing you’ll want to do is gather kindling and fire wood. This video shows different types of materials you’ll likely find on land that work well for building a fire:

Once you’ve gathered all the materials you need, it’s time to actually build a fire. In this video I explain some of my thoughts on why having fire-starting materials in your lifejacket is a smart move, as well as how to put the fire-starting kit in your lifejacket to work.

There you have it. While packing fire-starting materials in your life jacket might seem counterintuitive on the water, having this gear with you on land could save your life.