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Survival: In The Wild with…Only a Knife

Long before satellite beacons, humans thrived in the wild with the best technology available: a knife. And with that one tool and some basic knowledge, they fulfilled all life-sustaining needs.

Light a Fire
For thousands of years, humans made fire by rubbing two sticks together (aka the hand drill). Here’s how to make one:

1. For the spindle and fireboard, find some dry, soft, and non-resinous (no sap) wood—like yucca, cottonwood, poplar, cedar, cypress, or elm—which are easier to create friction with. The spindle stick should be about 16 inches long, ¾-inch thick, and fairly straight. Sharpen the bottom end like a pencil tip, and whittle away any jagged or rough spots on the shaft so you can easily run your hands along it.

2. The fireboard should be about six inches by one inch wide, and ¾-inch thick. Carve this rectangular piece so it lies flat on the ground. Cut a V-shaped notch, half as deep as the board, into the edge. Next, carve out a pencil-eraser-size depression at the base of the V, where you will place the spindle tip.

3. Position a leaf, piece of thin bark, or your knife blade (anything as thick as an index card) under the board to catch the coal that will fall out of the board’s notch.

4. For the tinder bundle, gather dry and pithy materials (cattails, mullein, grass, bark, moss), and shape them into a bird’s nest. Place it within arm’s reach.

5. Get in a stable kneeling or sitting position, with one foot on the edge of the fireboard to steady it. Put the tip of the spindle in the board’s depression, and place your hands at the top. Using significant downward pressure, roll your hands back and forth, up and down the spindle. Go slowly at first to deepen the board’s notch. Then go faster (a lot faster), bearing down on the spindle with your body weight as you roll it in your hands. Hot dust will be generated first, then smoke, and as the spindle glows red from the friction, a tiny ember will appear in the notch. If the ember doesn’t automatically fall into your catching device, gingerly tap the board.

6. Transfer the ember to the center of the tinder, blow gently until you have flames, then erect small sticks around it, tepee-style.

Survival Secret
Always carry a reliable firestarter. Nester favors a magnesium spark rod and Vaseline-coated cotton balls, which burn even in rain. Rub one teaspoon of Vaseline into a cotton ball; pack a few loosely in a film canister. Also good: butane lighters.

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  1. danschwemin

    I think Tony Nester needs to look up the definition of “full-tang” because Mora knives are NOT full tang. They have a rat tail tang. The 3 7/8″ bladed Mora knife that this article is referring to is most likely the Mora 511 which has a very thin, weak rat-tail tang (I would know; I’ve broken one) and is not a very strong knife. Either way, Mora’s are not full tang knives and are not regarded as being very strong knives in general. This article should be revised so misinformation is not being spread to people who don’t know very much about knives yet.

    Profile photo of danschwemin

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