To Build a Fire … When Carrying the Ten Essentials Isn’t Enough by Tamia Nelson

Veteran paddlers bring the Ten Essentials along on every outing. So do climbers, hunters, and a lot of other folks who often stray far from the beaten track. Yet carrying the Ten Essentials isn’t enough. The stuff has to work, too. Tamia came face to face with this backcountry gotcha just last month. She wanted to build a fire, and she assumed she had the makings. But she was wrong. And what happened next?

Between trips, my getaway pack lives on a shelf right next to my desk. I don’t empty it when I come back from a jaunt or a paddle, so it always holds the Ten Essentials, along with extra clothing suited to the season (a head net in summer, for example; mittens and a balaclava in winter). Then, any time I see a chance to make my escape, all I have to do is stow my camera kit, fill a water bottle, shoulder the pack, and head for the door. I don’t lose any time looking around for critical items, and I can be sure that nothing important has been forgotten. I’m ready for anything.

Or am I?

A month ago I was more than an hour down a little‑used trail along The River when I got an urge for a hot cup of coffee. Until recently, I’d have shrugged off this sort of craving, at least on a short outing, but my new Java Press is so light and compact that it now has a permanent berth in my getaway pack. Just in case. So I didn’t hesitate. I picked a sheltered spot to serve as my kitchen, dug the little Trangia burner out of my pack, dipped a small pot into The River’s icy flow, and assembled the Press. My mouth watered in anticipation.

Only one step remained. I extracted a strike‑anywhere match from my brass match safe, screwed the gasketed top down, and gave the match a quick flick along the ‘safe’s knurled side. But nothing happened. The match didn’t burst into flame with the usual sulfurous reek. It didn’t even fizzle. It just left a greasy black streak on the match safe. That was all. Thinking I’d simply used too light a touch, I scraped the head of the match against the ‘safe again. Still nothing. Hmm… I tried striking the match on a rough slab of riverbank gneiss next. Ditto.

OK, I thought. I’ve got a dud match. No big deal. There are plenty more where that one came from. So I opened the ‘safe and pulled out another match. But it, too, failed to light. I tried another. No go. And another. And…

Not a single match flared up into flame. Well, I said to myself, that’s one for the record‑book. I wasn’t about to give up, though, and I fished a butane lighter from the bowels of my pack. I spun the wheel on the striker. It threw off plenty of sparks. But no flame appeared. I checked the lighter’s translucent reservoir. It was full. I spun the striker again. Sparks aplenty, but nothing else. And again. No joy. Then I woke to the obvious. It was a chilly day—well below freezing, in fact. No problem, I thought. And I warmed the lighter in my armpit. Then I tried it once more.


I was beginning to feel a little like that hapless man in Jack London’s famous short story. Of course, all I faced was a small disappointment. A lost opportunity for a cup of coffee. My life didn’t hang in the balance. But then the freezing mist riding the back of the strengthening breeze forcibly reminded me of the fine line that divides annoyance from catastrophe once you leave home and hearth behind. Colin Fletcher, who probably forgot more about backcountry travel than most of us will ever know, was fond of quoting a Persian proverb to the effect that “Fortune is infatuated with the efficient.” That being the case, I figured I had only myself to blame if Fortune turned her back on me.

So I decided there and then that something had to be done. And this meant looking…


It’s not enough to have the right gear. You also need to know how to use it. And you have to make sure it’s in good condition, ready to do the job it’s meant to do, whenever it’s called upon. Case in point: I’ve carried the same nickeled brass match safe for two decades or more, but I don’t often use the matches. The match safe is my fail‑safe, in other words. It’s my emergency backup. That said, the last time I put the contents to the test—more than a year ago now—the first match out of the ‘safe lit on the first strike. But, as I discovered, a year can be a long time.

The same uncertainties dog butane lighters. I use them often to light stoves and start kindling, and so long as there’s butane left in the reservoir, they’ve never let me down. But butane gets torpid as the temperature drops. This doesn’t matter if you keep your lighter in an inside pocket, but you can’t count on a lighter stored in your pack to give you a flame in sub‑freezing weather. I knew this, but I assumed that a few minutes tucked in my sweaty armpit would reawaken my chilled lighter to its duty. Not true. Perhaps I didn’t leave it long enough. Or maybe my armpit wasn’t quite as cozy as I thought. In any event, my lighter stubbornly refused to light on that day by The River. It worked fine when I got back home, however.

I assumed… Well, most folks have heard the one about assume making an ass out of u and me. And no one much fancies being mistaken for an ass, does he? The only safe rule? That’s easy—


Frequent, thorough inspections offer the only real assurance that your gear will work as it’s supposed to. This is the idea behind prefloat checklists, after all. But even inspection isn’t enough by itself. You also have to …


And do it on a regular schedule. You don’t have to worry much about the stores you use every day. They’re not likely to last long enough to deteriorate. But what about the things you use once in a blue moon? Like, say, the matches in my backup match safe. A lot can happen in a year’s time. Which is why I’m going to do more than just check to see that all my essential gear is in my pack in future. I’m going to make sure it works, too.

With that end in mind, here’s my new inspection checklist:

  1. Map(s)  Are the maps in the map case the right maps at the right scale (large scale for hill‑walking, intermediate scale for paddling, small scale for cycling)? Is the map case intact, with no tears or pinholes?
  2. Compass  Does the needle pivot freely? Is the capsule free of bubbles? (Farwell’s old USMC‑issue lensatic compass relies on induction damping. The downside? The needle’s a little slow to settle. But it never suffers from bubble trouble, either.) Is the declination offset correct? Is the lanyard intact, and are the securing knots sound?
  3. First‑Aid Kit  Are the plastic bags free from pinholes and tears? Does the tape stick? Are the emergency water‑purification tablets, aspirin, ibuprofen, and antacids still good? (It pays to write the pull date on the bags or bottles. Better yet, buy meds in dated blister packs. And plan on replacing gauze pads and other sterile dressings every year—or immediately, if the sealed packets become soiled or damp.) Has the ACE wrap lost its stretch? Replace it.
  4. Knife  Is it sharp? It should be. A dull knife is a dangerous thing. Is it free from rust? (Even stainless steel rusts, and rust will destroy a blade over time.) Is the sheath in good condition? Does it hold the knife securely? Will it protect the blade from nicks—and you from the blade?
  5. Food and Water  Is the food packaging intact, with no pinholes or tears? Check the pull dates, too. Food that’s past its sell‑by date is usually safe to eat, but why take chances? Is your water bottle or bladder clean and free from mold? No? Scrub it out or replace it.
  6. Matches and fire starter  Ah, yes. Matches. Do they light first time, every time? You can’t test ’em all, but you can (and should) test a representative sample every month or so. Is your fire starter dry? (I carry a plastic bag of tinder as well as a few petrolatum‑impregnated cotton balls.) Is the reservoir in your backup butane lighter full? Does the striker spark?
  7. Flashlight or Headlamp  Are the batteries good? (An inexpensive multimeter really earns its keep here.) No? Then did the light turn itself on in your pack? If it did, tape the switch or immobilize it in some other way, so that your light lights up only when you want it to. Do you have spare bulbs for any light that needs them? (One of the great advantages of LED lights is their longevity. You can’t replace the LED “bulb,” of course, but you’ll probably never need to.) Has the strap on your headlamp lost its elasticity? Replace it now.
  8. Sunglasses and Spare Eyeglasses  Are the tiny screws that hold the bows secure? Do you have a protective case for each pair? Are your spare eyeglasses from your latest prescription? Do you have reading glasses? (If you need them to read a book, you’ll need them to read a map.) Are the lenses suited to the environment, e.g., amber in low light, full mirror or dark gray in strong sun, and total UV block anywhere and everywhere? (Polycarbonate lenses give your eyes better protection from impacts than glass can. That’s worth thinking about if you’re a whitewater boater, hunter, or cyclist.)
  9. Sunscreen  Check the pull date. Is it stored in a plastic bag? (Few things can make as much mess in a pack as a burst tube of sunscreen.) And if you use lip balm (I do), check to see how much is left in the tube.
  10. Extra Clothing  The list changes with the season. Make sure you’ve packed what you’ll need—and that it’s free from tears and holes. You’ll probably want a head net and tight‑weave pants in summer (biting flies and ticks); heavy socks, balaclava, and wool mitts in winter; a fleece jacket or down vest and an anorak in all seasons.

That takes care of the Essentials, but most of us have other, almost‑Essential items that require regular inspection, too. Here’s my list:

  • Poncho or Tarp  If you have one or the other, you’ll never be without a roof over your head. Check grommets, ties, and seams—and make sure you also bring stakes and guys.
  • Rope  A 25‑ to 50‑foot length of 11 mm braided polypropylene or 3/8‑inch laid nylon is a very useful thing to have in your pack. You could call it a lifesaver, in fact. So inspect it inch by inch along its entire length. If it’s cut or worn anywhere, retire it. And if it gets wet, be sure to dry it thoroughly first chance you get.
  • NEOS Overshoes  These can serve as both cold‑weather mukluks and warm‑weather wellies. But they won’t be waterproof if they have holes in them. Check for cuts and tears. And check the plastic bag that they’re stored in, too. Overshoes get dirty, and you’ll want to keep the other things in your pack as clean as possible.

    Yaktrax  Unless you grow your toenails really long—and walk barefoot in all weathers—you’ll need these handy gadgets, or something like them, to help you keep on your feet when all around you are falling down. Make sure the rubber retainers haven’t been torn, that the wire traction coils haven’t rusted through, and that the storage bag hasn’t sprung a leak.

OK. That’s my list of almost‑Essential items. Yours will probably be a little different. No matter. True Essentials aside, the things you carry in your pack are less important than what you carry in your head. But if something is worth carrying, it’s important that it works. That’s why I lost no time in replacing the matches in my match safe. I’ve also got a firesteel on order as a backup for the unreliable butane lighter. After all, to paraphrase a notorious indoorsman, allowing myself to caught out in the cold once can be excused as a misfortune. If it were to happen twice, however, that would be nothing less than carelessness. Fortune is infatuated with the efficient, after all, and I want to keep Lady Luck on my side.


Veteran paddlers bring the Ten Essentials along on every outing. So do climbers, hunters, and a lot of other folks who often stray far from the beaten track. Yet it’s not enough to carry these vital items. The stuff has to do the job it’s intended to do, each and every time it’s needed. But you can’t simply assume that something that worked last month—or last year—will work tomorrow. It’s like they say: Assume makes an ass of “u” and me. And no one I know likes being taken for an ass. So why wait to make mistakes of your own when you can learn from mine, instead? Check your emergency gear regularly. After all, it’s essential, isn’t it? Sure it is.

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This entry was posted in Bike Touring, Bikes & Cycling, In the Same Boat: Canoeing & Kayaking, Out Afoot: Stroll, Ski, Scramble, Snowshoe on by .


For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.