“If I was lost in the wilderness I’d just take my shoelaces and make a bow drill and start a fire.” I’ve heard people say it time and again and I roll my eyes every time I hear it. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard someone say it who could actually back it up with a fire. Most folks have just watched a video or two and think it would be easy to make a bow drill and get a fire going if they got lost. Easy to say when you’re sitting at your desk or standing around the water cooler with your hands in your pockets trying to impress your coworkers. Much more difficult when you’re actually in the woods with just a pocket knife and your shoelaces on you to hopefully make a fire.
After listening to a blowhard at work expound on how he’d do just that I decided to give it a go to see how hard it would be. Here’s what I learned.
First of all, I can start a fire with a bow drill. Here’s a video from an earlier post:
I’ve done it a fair bit and understand the principles, but with something like this you really need to practice a lot in order to become proficient at it. Check out how I do it in the video. That fire was accomplished with a set made from dry cedar, which is fairly easy to get a coal from as long as you’ve done everything right. I’d also like to clarify something else; for every coal I get I usually wind up making three or four attempts with the bow drill before I get it right. I’ve practiced enough, but things happen. Maybe the string is too loose, or too tight. The notch might not be deep enough, the lubrication might not be right, or any number of things could be just a little off.
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It takes a lot of persistence and trial and error when conditions are good before you have a chance at doing them when condition are bad. As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect!”
The first thing you need to do is find the right materials you’ll need for your drill set. The tools I used were my Camillus folding knife and my bootlaces. I was able to whittle the materials I needed from a standing dead tree I found sticking out of the ground. Pretty much anything lying on the ground up here Maine is going to be useless given the dampness in the ground. Ideally a small standing dead cedar or fir tree is a good source of materials you’ll need to build your bow drill kit with.
You need to make the following pieces: spindle, fireboard, bow (which can be a small sapling), and then use your shoelace. If you really want to try it the hard core way you can make your own cordage rather than using a shoelace. The next thing you’ll need is a “bird’s nest” of tinder to start your fire.
Spindle and Fireboard
I found a small standing (leaning in this case) dead fir tree that suited my needs perfectly. I broke it to a manageable size and trimmed it by hand as best I could. The spindle needs to be as straight as possible, which is why a standing fir tree is perfect. The very top of the tree is ideal for making a spindle as it’s usually very straight. The piece right underneath it can be whittled into the fireboard.
After I found the right tree I harvested the parts I wanted and took it back to camp where I started working on it with my EDC knife. First I shaped the spindle to where I could use it then I shaved down the fireboard to where it should work. I made the bearing block out of a piece of oak and used a branch from the same oak to make the bow. Then I pulled out my shoelace and attached it to my bow and I was ready to start.
Using the Set
Here’s something I noticed when working with this set. The smaller the knife the more natural your set becomes. For example, instead of making the bearing block a perfect hand-held size chunk of wood I broke it off as close as I could get it and called it good. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked great. You’ll be surprised at how close to it’s natural form you can leave some of this equipment and still have it work.
I tied my bootlace to the bow and hoped it didn’t snap before I could form the coal. If doing something like this is really a part of your survival strategy I’d highly suggest replacing your bootlaces with paracord. It’s much tougher and more versatile than regular bootlaces. Mine did work, but if I’d had to depend on them in a real survival situation I’d have been worried.
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The first task is to “burn in” the set, which means to make guidelines on the bowdrill set and then use it so that all the pieces fit together properly. After I got it burned in I cut the notches in the fireboard and got ready to do it for real.
As mentioned above it can sometimes take several tries before everything comes together and you get a fire. In this case it took about six attempts before I got a good coal. Like I said before, in order to get a coal you need to be persistent and don’t give up.
I feel that I answered the question posed at the beginning, “Is it possible to start a fire with your EDC and a shoelace?” Yes, it is. The caveat is that before you do it you need to have the skills already in place. If you’ve never started a fire with a bowdrill before and think you can walk into the bush with a knife and get a fire going you are deluding yourself. It takes a fair amount of skill and knowledge of the right kinds of wood, how to cut the notches, where to get lubrication, how much pressure to use, and a dozen other factors that need to line up before you’ll get it right.
The one thing I’m going to change is the knife I carry for an EDC. While I don’t usually care for serrated edges, it would have made life a little easier when cutting my notches and cutting some of the smaller limbs off. If not something with a serrated edge a good multi-tool will do the trick. In my case I’ve stated carrying the Leatherman Skeletool because it’s small enough to fit in your pants pocket and comes with a pocket clip like many pocket knives today.
Starting a fire with what nature provides is a great feeling and a good skill to have, but if you’re seriously planning on going out in the wilderness take a small survival kit with a lighter and/or matches with a wax coating. A small survival kit can make the difference between an unexpected night out camping when you get lost or injured compared to a survival trip where you might not live.
It was a fun experiment and I’ll do it again in the future using natural cordage next time. That will add a new level of complexity to the mix. If any of you woodsmen out there have done something similar I’d love to hear about it.
All Photos & Video by Jarhead Survivor
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