Old-School Firestarting Contest picture

Old-School Firestarting Contest

Firestarting is an essential skill in bushcraft and survival and most of you reading this blog likely already have a very strong skillset. Primitive, traditional and modern methods can be practiced on your own or in a class and if one is able to build a fire under all conditions, we call it “owning the skill.” No matter how many fires you light though, there is always a way to introduce a challenge that will get your heart pumping and make your palms sweaty. Modifying your training is sometimes referred to as vertical training. That is, increasing the intensity of the training without expanding on new material. There is an old-school firestarting contest that is simple to set up with nothing more than a length of cordage and an area with firestarting resources. From novice to expert, this challenge pits man against man physically and man against self mentally. 

The Set Up:

You should never start a fire that can’t be put out. So, for good reason, make sure you clear the area of excess debris where contestants are going to make fires on the ground. This fire challenge is fun until you burn down the backyard. If you are running multiple waves or heats, make sure you don’t dowse the ground in between rounds. Having too much moisture on the ground will make it difficult for the next competitor. Then again, maybe you want to add a handicap for the next person. Think about having a bucket of water or a hose nearby just in case as well as some burn cream for the competitors if they get a little too close to the fire. If you don’t have trees nearby, simply drive a couple stakes into the ground and run a length of jute twine in between them. If you have a lot of competitors, think about setting up the line in a “L” shape between three poles and in a way where the two lines can see one another to add more stress. It is up to you to decide how much room you want between competitors. Sometimes too much room and the line will droop. Too little room and you’ll see competitors steal tinder from one another. 

Tips and Tricks:

To win the fire challenge, all you have to do is burn through a thin strand of jute twine. You don’t need to build a long-lasting fire so as you gather materials, look for those that will burn tall and hot. Leaves are what most competitors will use but any tinder will work fine. You cannot have enough tinder and just when you think you have enough to reach the cordage, you run short. A common problem competitors encounter is when they attempt to add fuel to their fire is snuffing out the flame by adding too much. You’ll find your flame will nurse into a larger more powerful heat source if you add just enough a little at a time. If you think about it, the flame you snuffed out didn’t have enough oxygen to burn. Some competitors will go right to making the flame and others will break out knives to carve feather sticks quickly. Going big early never seems to fail and those who get a flame quickly have an advantage. Another really important trick  to creating a winning flame is blowing air onto it. This is what separates the winners and the losers. Well, I guess you could also what separates the winners from the losers is the lack of eyebrows as getting that close to a flame WILL singe the hair on your face. Guys that want to game the contest will also choose the spot in the center of the cord as it may droop a little more than the ends where it is tied to the posts. 

The Takeaway:

In all my years of teaching various skills, from outdoor survival to martial arts and everywhere in between, I’ve learned stress can make solid practitioners fall apart. Add a little stress and you’ll induce failures. By pitting man against the clock or against another man, training can be taken to a level that can’t be achieved casually. You never know when you’ll need to make a fire quickly. Imagine falling through the ice and having to warm yourself before the cold settles in. Imagine needing to get a signal fire lit quickly. This fire challenge reinforces what is necessary for a good fire. The winners are usually those who take the time to pick out the driest leaves and tinder instead of grabbing anything at hand. This challenge shows the difference between a small ferro rod vs a large ferro rod. Techniques are easily deconstructed and a formula can be developed for success. What is interesting to note is how those who are successful in their methodology, become the model for all others in the competition. All the plans people think they have are quickly discarded if someone does something outside the box. Just when you think you know who will win, you get surprised by the outlier. Next thing you know, the rest of the competitors down the line are copying the guy with the tallest flame. 

Special Thanks:

Special thanks to Scott Gossman for hosting GOSSTOBERFEST in Whiteford, MD as well as the folks over at Exotac for providing the prizes for the winner. It is events like this one that like-minded folks can get together and learn from one another. Look for this fire-starting challenge at the next Fiddleback Forge User Weekend in 2018. 

Congratulations to Ed Arnold for being the first to make fire and the winner of the challenge in just over 5 minutes. We laughed as the jute twine we used seemed impervious to the flame and everyone thought I swapped it out last minute for Kevlar cord. Maybe I did! The challenge can always be made more difficult! Give this old-school firestarting contest a try and test your skill in a relevant and timeless fashion. 


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