Light my Fire: using fire starters

All of us need to be able to quickly light a fire with some confidence when bushwalking, whether that be a campfire or a stove.

In the mid-eighties, I only took a gas stove for emergencies, assuming that we would always be able to get a campfire going except in the foulest of weather.  Nowadays of course, having a wood fire is a luxury or as some would say an environmental disaster, that few of us experience on a regular basis.

WWII match holder and compass

A good example from the match era is  the waterproof bakelite match holder with compass in the lid and striker on the inside which were used by soldiers during WWII.

Over the years, the type of fire starter has diversified so that new alternatives to the waterproof match have appeared.

I could never get the waterproof match to work especially in the wet and always found that I wore out of the “striker” surface before I finished my last match. So it was not long before I migrated to a cigarette lighter, initially a gold one belonging to my aunt which had the benefit of an adjustable flame with renewable flint and the ability to refill. However I always managed to misplace it!

Disposable cigarette lighters were readily available and cheap so I usually took a couple of these with me. Over time I accumulated quite a few of these but they often seemed to stop working from one walk to the next, either the flint wore out or the gas seemed to escape.

I never found them very effective on a cold morning, especially if they had been left out over night next to your stove and got wet. I always burnt my thumb when lighting my MSR Whisperlite although some of my younger bushwalking friends taught me how to manipulate the flame on a disposable lighter so you could get a jet about 4 cm long. This certainly helped. One tip that I have been told for keeping your lighter dry is to put it on a string around your neck.

When air safety regulations were introduced which prevented you from carrying disposable lighters on board a flight, I changed over to “fire steels”.  By then I was using a MSR Whisperlite, and the sparks were all that was needed to light the Shellite primer (white gas).

Some tips I’ve learnt to help start a fire using a steel are

  • keep the steel in contact with the tinder *
  • pull the the steel up at the same time as you push the striker down.* 
  • use Vaseline** on cotton wool balls as fire starters (waterproof)
  • tampons make great “tinder”

*     Hard to see how you can do both at once!
 ** Vaseline® Petroleum Jelly is a mixture of mineral oils, paraffin and microcrystalline waxes

Light My Fire Firesteel

Some interesting facts about the flints (ferrocerium alloy) in cigarette and gas lighters  and in firesteels can be read at

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Risk Management on a Bushwalk

The biggest risk on a bushwalk is a mismatch between the leader’s skill level, the participant’s past experience and the difficulty of the walk.

The leader’s skill level must match closely the terrain, degree of isolation and the weather expected. That is why most leadership courses are tiered:

  • Day walk leader
  • Bushwalk leader
  • Advanced bushwalk leader

The Adventure Activity Standards [AAS] has a good outline of the differences in skill level required at each tier and distinguishes three levels of difficulty

1. Bushwalking Leader on Tracked or Easy Untracked (Easy)

Tracked or easy untracked areas are reliably marked on maps and are obvious on the
ground. Tracks are inspected on a regular basis and road or other safe catching features
are easily reached within 2 hours by applying elementary navigation principles.

2. Bushwalking Leader on Difficult and Trackless (Intermediate)

Difficult or trackless areas are where there are limited modifications to the natural
surface so that track alignment is indistinct in places; there is minimal clearance along
the track; signage is minimal and only for management purposes; there are terrain and
man-made hazards (such as cliff lines or dense forests); the possibility for changes in
weather and visibility exists.

3. Bushwalking Leader on Unmodified landscapes (Advanced)

Unmodified landscapes are those which are totally natural where there are no
modifications to the natural surface so that track alignment is indistinct and no clearance
along the track; there is no signage; the track is not managed for public risk and where
the onset of extreme environmental conditions has a significant adverse impact upon the

Few Clubs have a formal structure to match the difficulty of the walk with the skills of the leader. Often this “approval” is an ad hoc process which involves the Club’s Walk’s Secretary, but without a formal structure it can fail eg when a there is a changeover of personnel or when the Walks Secretary has not actually walked the area himself/herself. There is a vast difference in being able to lead a walk along the Heysen trail and leading one into untracked and isolated areas such as the Mawson Plateau in SA or the Western Arthurs in Tasmania

Matching the experience of the participants with the difficulty of the walk is usually much better handled. Usually Club walks are coded according to difficulty, duration, and terrain so in theory the participants should self-select for the walks and there should be no problem.

Problems arise when the intended participant has no experience in the area to be walked and does not appreciate the difference between walking with a day pack in sunny weather along a well marked trail and carrying a 25 kg pack through mountainous terrain with a howling wind and sleet or snow. If the leader does not know the intended walker then there is the potential for this mismatch to be overlooked until it is too late, hence the need for a vetting system.

One way this problem can be overcome is for all walks to logged on the walker’s profile, along with the name of each leader, so that checks can easily be made of the walkers experience. Without a walker’s log, it is difficult to either locate relevant leaders, or to determine walker’s experience.

One alternative, is to take the group for a preparatory walk over some hilly terrain with a 25 kg bag of “lawn fertiliser” in each pack and satisfy yourself as leader that they are fit enough. Of course there is more than just physical fitness; mental fitness for a demanding walk is probably more important as is group compatibility.

Meet with your intended participants and chat about their past experience. Clubs which insist on face-to-face meeting between leaders and potential walkers as a pre-requisite for participation are “on the right track”.

See also:

Outdoor Recreation Industry Training Package

A Risk Management Framework (download pdf) (The Confederation of Bushwalking Clubs NSW, 2004)
RISK MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES for BUSHWALKING CLUBS  Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs (VicWalk 2004) Inc. (pdf format)
Guidelines for Leaders and Coordinators (pdf format) Canberra Bushwalking Club (June 2009)
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Why use navigation software with your GPS?

MacGPS Pro screen capture

Navigation software has many advantages over using a map, compass and measuring device to plan a route. Two of the best are the time savings and the increased accuracy.

For many people a key advantage will be the ability to zoom in and enlarge what you see, making it easier to count contours and recognise symbols. For others it will be the ability to position the cursor on the map at a point of interest and read the grid reference with high accuracy, without any need to physically measure.

For most, it will be to plan a route, by clicking a series of carefully selected waypoints, naming them and then exporting the waypoints to a  kml file, which can be viewed in Google Earth. If like me, you have a lightweight small screen GPS eg Garmin Geko 201,  then the time saving is enormous, compared to having to enter each waypoint manually using the rocker button, to repetitiously scroll through the alphabet.

Garmin Geko 201

Want to get a bearing between two points? Simply click your cursor at the first point and drag to the second and read the result.

Want to measure the distance along a route? Simply click a series of points along the route, the closer together the more accurate,  and then read the result.

Want to see how your actual route compared with that planned? Simply import your GPS data back into your computer and look at the points on your map.

Your mapping software is your interface between your map and your GPS and as such, the quality of your map is critical, but that’s another story for later.


For Mac users:

Navigation software: MacGPS Pro
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Who cares if you enjoy your Club walk?

Bushwalking Group

Have you ever struggled unnoticed at the back of a walking group? Did you ever wish the leader would stop for a break?

Perhaps this was you first walk with a heavy pack, you’ve had a late night, have sore feet, new boots, pack not adjusted correctly or that old knee problem has come back to haunt you.

Did anyone ask you how you were going or offer to help? Did anyone walk with you so you weren’t on your own? Did anyone offer to lighten your load? Did the leader ask you to move to the front of the group where your progress could be watched?

Well if they did, you had a good leader and /or a compassionate ” tail-end-charlie” or “whip”.  In my opinion, one of the roles of the leader is to ensure that everyone enjoys themselves and finishes the walk having achieved some of their goals.This may require that the leader, or someone who has been delegated, takes an interest in your welfare.

Most walking clubs want to increase membership, yet some leaders treat their new members with a complete lack of interest.  You are old enough to look after yourself they say.

But are you really able to look after yourself? Do they really care that you are enjoying your walk or are they really there only for themselves?

Sometimes I think it’s the latter and this is reinforced when they surge to the front,  leaving the rest of the group spread out over hundreds of metres.  If they do stop for the group to catch up, do they move off again as soon as you arrive, leaving you no opportunity to rest? Sometimes they even forget to reestablish the group at each intersection, before moving on; quite an dangerous mistake.

How do they know that everyone is with the group? Can they see or hear those at the back of the group? Do they really care?

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Bushwalking Workflow | Planning a Bushwalk

You may have heard the saying that 80 % of the fun of a bushwalk is in the planning, 60% talking about it afterwards and – 40% doing the walk! It’s not quite like that for me, but certainly the planning and the challenge of a new location are the most important components for me.

I spend hours checking out maps, reading the bushwalking blogs of those who have done the walk before me, talking to people in the outdoors shops that I know, perusing the  walking guides, using Google Earth to see the route in 3D, plotting waypoints using my mapping software and checking out the picture galleries of those who have already done the walk. I like to have the complete picture before I do the walk so there are no surprises. This increases my anticipation and enjoyment.

Thorough planning enables me to enjoy the scenery, wildlife and plants while I walk, listen to others in my group without having to concentrate on my map too intensely, take lots of photos and generally relax. I could not do this if I hadn’t planned carefully in advance and didn’t have the whole route in my head.

The first step for me is to choose a new area where I haven’t been before or perhaps an area where I have been before but to which I would like to introduce some friends or extend the walk with a new challenge. I rarely go to the same area twice.

Steps to planning a successful group walk

  • Decide on the region and time of year, based on your experience as a leader and the weather conditions
  • Gain approval for walk, if necessary
  • Identify relevant maps, walk guides, blogs and review these
  • Prepare a tentative route (use a route card) including escape routes and alternatives in case of unforeseen circumstances
  • Pre-walk the route if possible, entering waypoints as you go into your GPS 
  • Advertise the walk or invite friends, including information such as
    • difficulty level (hazards, weather)
    • duration
    • dates
    • whether it is a qualifying walk for full membership
Sample Medical Information Sheet
  • Appoint an Assistant Walk Leader, who is compatible with your personality and who complements your skills.
  • Collect information:
    • Medical, contact details, NOK information
    •  Experience levels of potential walkers
    • Special skills of participants (first aid, navigation, photography, plants, history) ?
    • Obtain access permissions, and any Parks permits needed
    • Have a Risk waiver signed by each participant
  • Determine maximum size of group and how you will restrict group size 
  • Review list of possible participants and decide how you will eliminate those with insufficient experience.
  • Arrange Transport and Accommodation
  • Appoint an Emergency Contact person and determine the trigger for contacting police.NB: Some clubs have a designated person.
  • Obtain permits and get access permissions
  • Advise Trip Intentions to relevant authorities
  • Distribute an Information Sheet to participants including
    • Objectives of walk
    • Route card
    • Escape routes (to seek help or cut walk short)
    • Maps
    • Access, permits, hazards, water supplies
    • Transport
    • A few days before, check transport details, weather conditions, park closures, flooded access routes, bushfires in area, water availability and make adjustments, including cancellation if necessary.
    Bushwalking Leadership [SA]

    • Runs comprehensive bushwalk leadership courses from Day Walk to Advanced.
    Let us know before you go (pdf) (Parks and Wildlife SA)
    Trip Intention Form pdf (NSW Police)
    Medical Emergency Information
    A Guide to Better Bushwalking (pdf)  Bushwalking Leadership SA

    • Contains Sample Medical Information Form and Route Card

    A Risk Management Framework (pdf) (The Confederation of Bushwalking Clubs NSW, 2004)

    • Contains Incident Report Form, Risk Waiver Form

    Before You Walk – Essential Bushwalking Guide (Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania 2009) as pdf

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      How to eat well with little effort, saving weight and time.


      I have always admired those walkers who are so devoted to their food that they will spend 15 minutes carefully preparing their meal from the basic ingredients and then another 15 mins slowly simmering in a pot producing mouth watering aromas for all those around to enjoy. Afterwards they spend another 15 minutes washing and cleaning their utensils, with their tiny squares of ScotchBrite, surely the most unhygienic thing in their packs.

      They provide me with endless entertainment around the campfire, for which I am very appreciative. Despite this, I occasionally feel sorry for the “gourmets” when it starts to rain and they are still preparing their meal or cleaning up, while I have finished and can head back to my tent.

      I frequently recount the tale of one walker who I saw make a pizza in his Trangia pan, beginning with the flour and yeast, kneading to a dough, letting it rise and then adding  the finely sliced vegetables and sausage to the tomato paste base, before baking slowly in his covered frying pan.  Luckily the weather was fine and warm and we got into camp early!

      I’m afraid I don’t have the patience. Meal time is not high on my priority list. In fact, I  go to great lengths to reduce the time spent preparing a meal and the cleaning up afterwards.

      What could be simpler than boiling some water and adding it to a packet?

      Over the years I have gradually become minimalist. Rather than preparing a dessert, I usually have a twin serve of the main course and then perhaps some chocolate, if I want something sweet, followed by a hot drink. I simply add the water to my dehydrated meal, leave it to stand for 10 mins with a stir midway, and eat it out of the packet with my single eating utensil…. my spoon. No plates or bowls to wash and only a spoon to lick and a foil packet to roll up! I have even given up milk and sugar in my tea, so I have less to carry. Its amazing what you can do without and not miss!

      I have recently started to boil extra water with my evening meal and keep it in a small insulated flask (Thermos) overnight, inside my sleeping bag, which saves me having to light my stove in the morning and conserves both my time and a little fuel. Sure it cools down a little, but it still is about as hot in the morning as my espresso coffee would be. Preheating helps a little. It weighs a little more than a standard water bottle, but is a lifesaver when its wet and you can’t get out of your tent to light the stove.

      What is the ideal stove for boiling 1.5L of water quickly?

      Quick boiling white spirits stove

       While my companions around the campfire laugh at my noisy MSR Whisperlite with its dramatic pre-ignition flames, they are amazed at the speed that its super hot flame can boil a litre of water. Along with its compact size and low weight, it burns Shellite (white spirits) which is very efficient, using about half the amount of methylated spirits you would need with a Trangia. Fuel efficiency means less weight to carry, something I value highly. In addition to the stove I take a single MSR titanium 1.25 L bowl with lid, inside which the stove, my lighter and grippers all fit inside. That leaves the fuel bottle, the size of which I select depending on the length of the trip and the number of people sharing the stove and my MSR maintenance and spares kit. I know what your saying…. my Trangia doesn’t need a maintenance kit!

      Breakfast well that’s easy. A couple of substantial health food bars from the health food section of the supermarket, not those foil wrapped sickly sweet mini- breakfast bars that come by the “dozen” in cardboard boxes

      I used to prepare snaplock bags of pre-weighed muesli with powdered milk premixed to which I had to just add hot water and then eat out of the bag. But why, when for less effort, I could eat an equally nutritious muesli bar pre-packaged in a waterproof packet, inside my tent, without the need to light my stove. I usually start eating breakfast while still in my sleeping bag.

      Lunch: foil packet of flavoured tuna, half a block of hard strongly flavoured parmesan cheese, some dry biscuits, a couple of mini- metwursts and some dried fruit and nuts. High energy food, which can survive warm temperatures. Hardly what the doctor ordered!

      On arrival in camp, perhaps a hot drink with some Sustagen, and a few snakes, M&Ms and jelly babies, which are guaranteed to put some energy back in most people.

      To which camp do you belong?  The “minimalists” or the “gourmets”or somewhere in between?


      Cartridge vs Liquid Fuel Stoves
      Ethanol vs shellite vs gas: Tony’s Bushwalking Blog
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      My "Personal Survival Kit" (PSK)

      Survival Kit in a Sardine Can
      Its amazing how many different “personal” or “minimum”,”emergency” or “survival” kits (PSK) lists there are in existence. Every bushwalking book seems to have a different one. Try A Google search…. I found hundreds of thousands of references. Try searching YouTube and you get 68 videos showing how to put one together.

      Why are there so many when they all aim to provide water, fire, food, shelter in an emergency?

      Of course, many of these references are not entirely relevant to bushwalkers, who have to carry whatever is in their kit and therefore must make savings in both weight and volume. 

      So why is there no universal list for bushwalkers?

      Well some items do seem to appear in all lists, in one form or another, but the inclusion of others depends on the priority you give to provision of water, shelter and food or whether your focus is upon thermal regulation, hydration, and signaling.

      Perusing an equipment list from the 1965 edition of ‘Equipment for Mountaineering’ published by the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club we find a whole lot of items that the modern  lightweight and minimal impact walker would never carry or which have been replaced by better alternatives.

      tomahawk, machete, handkerchieves, tin opener, cigarettes, Dubbin, song book, sharpening stone, boots with nails  …..

      Another list from the mid eighties

      • water 1L 
      • whistle on a string around neck  
      • pencil and paper 
      • waterproof matches or cigarette lighter  
      • woollen jumper 
      • hat 
      • first aid (personal) (FAK)
      • waterproof jacket 
      • cord 
      What changes are needed after all these years?
      Well I think I would add at least four items which have become readily available since then: 

       I would then add some of the following or replace items in the list above with

      • micro-compass (if your not confident to use the sun or don’t have an iPhone or a GPS with an digital compass in built or if you don’t trust the batteries)
      • magnesium flint lighter as an alternative to a cigarette lighter
      • emergency blanket 
      • water purification tablets or water purifying straw
      • signaling mirror
      • flexible wire saw (to make tent pegs and poles)
      • fire lighters or solid fuel tablets
      • candle
      • collapsible water containers eg condoms hold 1L and can be protected by a spare sock
      • needles and thread
      • safety pins
      • scalpel blade(s)
      • length of plastic tubing for siphoning or to reach inside rock cavities or “yabbie” holes
      • cable ties
      Often it is possible to combine some of the items eg a whistle, compass, thermometer, magnifying lens, signalling mirror, torch (Coghlan 6 in 1)

      Now you have the kit, what sort of container should you keep it in?

      A lightweight waterproof bag or perhaps a light weight metal container that can also serve to heat water in? Perhaps you could combine your PSK with your personal first aid kit.

      Where will you keep it? 

      On your person at all times! Ever fallen down into a creek going for water or got lost going to the loo…. some people do? This kit is designed to be carried on you at all times and to supplement things that you would normally carry in your clothing or on your belt.

      The PSK should supplement what is being carried in you pack ( see later blog) and this in turn will be determined by
      • weather (storms, season, heavy rain, cold, sun)
      • terrain (river crossings, snow, mud)
      • vegetation (prickly)
      Some additional reading:

      Want a “real” wilderness survival kit? 

      The quest for perfect PSK is never ending

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      Bushwalk Leadership | Is It Important To A Walking Club?

      Few bushwalking groups contain people of truly equal ability (peers) and therefore to make a walk enjoyable for everyone requires a balancing act between varying needs.

      This can be especially difficult in an organization like a bushwalking club, where members have widely different levels of experience and physical capabilities,  and are often reticent to express their innermost fears and needs to others in the group whom they don’t know well.

      Those joining an advertised walk may have had a lot of experience carrying day packs but have had little overnight experience or have never carried a heavy pack. Some who were once able to scale peaks  with great ease are now aging. Some may have done all their walks in the Adelaide Hills or Flinders but have never experience alpine conditions such as those in Tasmania.

      New walkers may have real fears but will not want to express them to complete strangers, especially during their “trial membership” period, when they have to “prove” themselves. If they don’t enjoy themselves, then they won’t remain members!

      Someone in the group must take responsibility for needs of the group members. This person is traditionally referred to as the “Leader” but in many walking clubs this person doesn’t have the skills or even see it as their responsibility. To some “leader” means “organiser” and the role does not extend past that.

      What a pity, as the members of a well led group will want to continue their membership of the club and promote it to their friends.

      Further reading
      Bushwalking Resources: a selection of articles listed in the right hand column of this page.

      Leadership skills
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