Depending on your measurement criteria, I have come close to solo-camping twice before. Once was a few weeks ago in preparation for this trip. However it was on my parents’ lawn, I had plenty of company (though by my request I had no help), and I didn’t have to start a fire. There was one other time when I went to Mt Rainier with my sister and her boyfriend, but they arrived much later than I did, so most of the camp setup and fire-starting fell to me. Still, I had other people eventually. So as far as I’m concerned my first true solo-camping experience was at Humbug Mountain State Park.
Humbug Mountain sits right on the edge of the Oregon coast. The campground for the park is in the shadow of the mountain, just a few minutes walk from the beach. As far as I could tell, the campground offered the only access to this particular beach. It was, of course, quite windy out by the water.
Being my first night camping, I was anxious to try my fire-starting skills. I have started and maintained my fair share of fires in the past of course, but usually not alone and usually using a match. A few years ago I started to get very interested in survival skills (though often more in thought than in practice), and I felt a summer full of solo-camping would be an excellent chance to practice starting a fire using a flint and steel.
I purchased some firewood from the camp host and took it back to my site. I was never officially taught or trained on how to start a fire. I learned by watching my father do it, and by observing how campfires work. I’d always heard the terms “tepee” and “log cabin” used to describe ways in which a person should start a fire, and generally understood the concepts. However I’d never used either setup. My method was more freeform, and usually based on the logs at hand, the purpose of the fire, and me treating it like an animate object with desires. “I want this log here now,” says the Fire. “I need more kindling,” it demands. Still, I felt like maybe it was time to try it the “right” way, so I began building my tepee.
Now, despite what most movies would have you believe, you can’t just strike a flint and steel above something reasonably flammable and have it burst into flames. You need your sparks to fall on something especially flammable. Newspaper, the most common campfire starting material, is reasonably flammable, but not especially flammable. That’s why I saved up the last several loads worth of dryer lint from home to bring with me on the trip. The sparks catch on the lint, which catches on the newspaper, which catches on the kindling, which catches on the logs. And you have a fire. In theory.
The flint & steel part wasn’t too difficult. It certainly takes some elbow grease, and my calves got tired of squatting down next to the fire ring for so long, but eventually the sparks caught and I was on my way. Sort of. My tepee wasn’t doing so great. The flames looked fine, but the logs just weren’t having it. After spending too much time waving away smoke and trying to get the thing going, I gave up on the traditional wisdom and went back to my old, haphazard style of arranging logs the way I think the Fire will find most appealing. It worked instantly, and the fire needed almost no maintenance the rest of the evening. In fact, it was a little too hardy, and I ended staying up late waiting for the fire to die.
In the end, I did eventually start a successful fire using a flint and steel, and as a bonus I cooked my dinner over it. I suppose sometimes life is about trying new things, and sometimes new things are there to explain why you always did it the old way. As for me and my flint, we will stick with the old way.