Chapter 7: Fire and Water

In any real apocalypse, fire and water will be essential, as in, “without them, you will essentially die quicker than the box office of ISHTAR.”

Without a way to make fire, you can’t keep warm at night or cook your food to make sure each bite of bunny or muskrat isn’t full of nasty germs and parasites.

Without a way to find, purify and carry water, you’ll dehydrate and become human jerky for the zombies.

Yet many of the standard ways of making fire and purifying water make absolutely no sense during an apocalypse of whatever flavor, and yes, that includes climate-change causing WATERWORLD, because salt water isn’t what scientists call “potable” and civilians call “drinkable.”

Previous posts:

Firemaking Method Number 1: Flick your Bic

Lighters are built to do this, right? This is their job.

Except lighters run on fuel. I don’t care if you buy the fanciest Zippo in the world or stockpile a case of cheap plastic Bics: you will run out of fuel.

And yes, a Bic + hairspray = a tiny flamethrower, but such a thing is only good against hornet nests and such, and completely useless against zombies, aliens and scavengers.

Verdict: Ixnay on the ighter-lays, for they are unsustainable.

Firemaking Method Number 2: Waterproof matches

These are a staple for hikers and campers. Even if you fall into the river and get them soaked, these reliable suckers will still create a spark, light a campfire and keep you warm at night.

Matches of any sort have the same fatal flaw as lighters: nobody will be making them anymore. It’s not a long-term choice.

Even if you’re tempted to put some in your One Backpack of the Apocalypse and switch to a different method later, this is a bad idea. Practice that other, sustainable method instead.

Verdict: Nopity nope.

Firemaking Method Number 3: The famous fire drill

This is the famous method of making fire when you don’t have a Zippo in your back pocket or a box of matches: You spin a stick really fast, or take off your shoelaces and make this complicated thing to spin a stick even faster while the bottom of the stick sits in a notch of wood.

TV and movies have shown this so often that unless you grew up in an ice cave, you’ve seen it 100 times. Here’s a smart man doing it from scratch, and even he takes a long time just to get the right materials.

There are other ways of making fire that are far easier.

Verdict: Maybe, if you’re desperate and easier methods didn’t work.

Firemaking Method Number 4: Nine volt magic

Bear Grylls uses this. You take a nine-volt battery and touch the working bits to some steel wool and BAM, there’s fire.

There’s a lot going for this method. Unlike other techniques, it’s pretty foolproof. I can’t think of a way to screw this up. And the material needs are small and light. I like it.

Verdict: Even though this is definitely unsustainable over the long haul, this method is so fast, surefooted and easy, it’s worth including as part of a first phase sort of plan, where you need to do things quick and easy before switching to more long-term options. This one is like picking Batman in a fight against Superman, when every ounce of logic says Supes wins, but your heart says nah, Batman is too smart and Superman is too lame.

Firemaking Method Number 5: Flint and steel

Now we’re talking. There are a hundred variations on this, and other metals involved aside from steel, like magnesium, and don’t ask me how all this works except magnesium = fire, which is Good.

Flint and steel is completely portable, reliable and sustainable. You’ll have a knife, so the steel part is taken care of, meaning all you really need to carry around is the flint or some fancy magnesium-type alternative.

Verdict: This is your go-to firemaking method. Learn it, practice it, embrace it.

Firemaking Method Number 6: End the perpetual Quest for Fire with a char box

If you burn some wood, paper, cotton or other burnable shebang, then put it in tiny metal box and screw the lid on, Sir Fire gets separated from one true love, Princess Oxygen, and his little heart is broken. Sir Fire falls into a deep, dark depression—actually, a coma—and goes dormant.

You can put that metal tin in your pack or pocket all day. Once the sun says goodnight and you need a campfire, pull out the tin, open the lid to re-introduce Princess Oxygen to Sir Fire and watch the embers spark as they embrace.

Here’s the thing: keep a healthy char box going and you never have to make fire again. You own it. You control it like the Fremen controlled the galaxy’s supply of spice, and when you control a thing, you can make really bad movies about starring Kyle MacLachlan.

Verdict: Char boxes are the best thing ever. This is your apocalyptic jam.

Protips for moving from “I got a spark” to “I’ve got a roaring fire that will cook our food, boil water and keep us warm all night”

Protip A: Tinder

  • You need tinder, which is not a dating app in the age of evil alien overlords, hungry zombies or Mad Max nuclear wastelands. Tinder is the fluffy, easily flammable stuff that helps transmogrify those first few sparks into a real fire.
  • For tinder that’s absolutely reliable and absolutely free, start collecting dryer lint. I kid you not. It’ll work great.
  • For slightly more advanced tinder that burns better, take cotton balls and dip them in Vaseline.
  • There are other sources of tinder, like dry moss, dry leaves, dry anything.

Protip B: Kindling

  • Kindling is not an app that finds you the best private kindergartens in Manhattan, where tuition costs more than Harvard.
  • Kindling is one step up from tinder. You got a spark, the spark got the tinder hot and bothered, now you need to kick it up a notch with kindling before logs and such will hop on your Fire Train.
  • A great natural answer? Fire sticks. Take a stick and your trusty knife. Carve curls of wood from the stick without separating those curls from the stick. Basically, make yourself a funky Christmas-tree looking thing with all sorts of wood curls. Surface area is your friend.
  • Newspaper and the pages of books are both highly flammable. Nobody will have a use for 10-year-old editions of The New York Times or first editions of TWILIGHT, so this will be a source of kindling for a long, long time.
  • The sap of trees makes great fuel. There are bits on a tree where sap tends to collect, like the intersection of the trunk and branches. Use those bits. GET SAPPY.

Water is life

You can survive without food for weeks. Without clean water, it’s game over, man.

The emphasis is on clean. Unless you’re in a desert, water itself will be pretty easy to get. Drinking it, though, will make you sick.

And there are different kinds of sick, many of which will kill you, some of them involving plain old germs and others involving parasites that make the chest burster from aliens seem like a friendly doggo.

So: purifying water will be a huge deal.

Water Purifying Method Number 1: Purifying tablets

This is the standard method and it’s proven to work. Pop a couple of pills in your dirty water, wait for the pills to work their magic, then drink.

This is a good method if you’re camping or able to stop by REI to pick up more tablets.

During any sort of apocalypse, water purifying tablets will run out about as fast as .22 LR rounds.

Verdict: Unsustainable.

Water Purifying Method Number 2: Filter straws

These are cheap, light and re-usable, the three Holy Grails of this series.

You can throw a dozen of these in your pack to trade with people who ran out of water tablets or didn’t think about water as they went full Rambo.

The only trouble with these filter straws is volume.

Verdict: Definitely put water filter straws in your One Backpack of the Apocalypse.

Water Purifying Method Number 3: Boil away

Boiling water kills all germs and parasites. It also has side benefits, like the option of cooking food.

If you make a campfire every night and boil water, you’d have enough for days. You need a suitable container for boiling water, which means a bush pot.

Verdict: Boiling water whenever you make fire is smart and completely sustainable.

Water Purifying Method Number 4: Natural filters

Say you’re absolutely without gear. No water tablets, no filter straws or pump and can’t make fire.

Natural filters are a good last-ditch option.

Here’s what you do: make layers of straw, grass, sand, charcoal and anything else that might filter out germs or parasitic nonsense. Pour water on the top of your contraption and let it drip through at the bottom.

Verdict: This is slow and imperfect, but a lot better than nothing. You can improve this sort of thing with bits of cloth in between layers.

Water Purifying Method Number 5: Filter pumps

This is a filter straw on steroids: bigger, faster, stronger.

It solves the problem of volume with straws and creates all kinds of safe, filtered water in a hurry.

Verdict: A great, sustainable option. Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.

Next week: Chapter 8—Blades, Bludgeons and Bad Ideas

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