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Do I need to bother with bow drill?

Bow Drill Skills: Are they worth learning?

One of the skills most associated with the world of ‘bushcraft’ is that of making fire by friction. The image that normally accompanies that description is somebody crouching over a contraption that looks like a fiddle crossed with a rolling pin, furiously sawing back and forth with (ideally) smoke billowing from the base of the device.
This is the ‘bow-drill’ (Bow Drill, Bowdrill, Firedrill, Fire Fiddle etc etc) method and has become inextricably linked with the popular image of bushcraft and survival skills.

We teach this method on our bushcraft courses, and it is often something that clients look forward to and specifically request when we have a free moment in the itinerary and ask them “what next?”.

So we break out some pre-prepared bow drill sets and get down to making some embers…

bow drill bushcraft

Richard Prideaux demonstrating bow drill technique

I’ve found over the years that the course participants normally pick up three very important things from seeing the demonstrations then having a go for themselves:
– It’s a lot harder than it looks to get a consistent rotation of the drill without something going awry
– It’s physically demanding and needs patience
– Success is not guaranteed

With skill, patience and the right materials an experienced user can normally get an ember with less than a minute of actual ‘drilling’ action but it is dependent on several variables all lining up correctly to achieve that.

Why do people want to learn how to do it?

Here are 3 direct quotes about fire by friction/bow-drill from instructors that I have heard over the years:

“This is the most important outdoor skill you can learn”

“If you lose all of your equipment this will save your life”

“If you can’t do this then you are not a real outdoorsman”

A quick trawl through the various bushcraft/wilderness skills Facebook groups, forums, YouTube channels and magazines will come up with statements and comments that might not be as succinct as those above but are along the same lines. Then there are the hundreds of articles, blog posts and videos offering tips and techniques that will improve your chances of success. “Bow Drill” is now one of the keywords of bushcraft, along with “knife”, “axe” and “Ray Mears”. You can even purchase knives with divots in the handle so that you can use it as a bearing block (the top of the ‘drill’) in a dire survival situation.

There is undoubtedly some merit to the bow drill firelighting technique:

– It mostly makes use of materials from the environment, not items carried
– Components can be replaced as they wear out or are damaged
– Does not require electricity, flammable liquids/gas or metal components to use

It is also a truly ‘primitive skill’ and would have been understood by our paleolithic ancestors (or indeed indigenous people around the world today). In a world before lighters, ferrocerium rods or even steel then fire by friction would have been a skill passed down throughout a community and as important as making a blade or finding edible plants.

For the modern outdoorsperson and enthusiast it is touted as being an “essential bushcraft skill” (see instructor quotes above) and it is both expected by bushcraft course participants and a requisite for all good bushcraft and wilderness skills course providers.

Are Bow Drill skills that useful?

Yes.

No.

Maybe.

It depends.

Deciding if something is actually useful is of course dependent on the intended use. In a world where we do have lighters, matches, ferrocerium rods, chemical firelighting, electronic firelighting (you can have a lot of flammable fun with wire wool and a battery) and dozens of ways of keeping them dry the Bowdrill set becomes a little redundant.

But what if you lose all of your other gear?

There is another quote from an eminent instructor that I think answers this quite eloquently:

“If you are stupid enough to lose your lighter and firestriker and get all of your matches wet then you are probably too stupid to learn how to bow drill”

A real survival situation is something you try to avoid by making good decisions and with careful preparation. If you lose your lighter your fallback shouldn’t be to rip the laces out of your boots and start whittling a drill – it should be to call yourself an idiot and then go get the other lighter from your pack. Or the firesteel on your belt or clipped to your pocket. Because you brought multiple firelighting methods, right?
If you are travelling somewhere that it is quite possible that you will find yourself in a situation where lighting a fire will make a big difference to your immediate health or safety then you need to carry a way of making fire.

If you are travelling somewhere that you will have to light a fire to cook on, purify water or perform other basic tasks then you will need to carry MULTIPLE methods of making fire.

Accidents happen. Kit is lost on river crossings or can fall overboard. You might be separated from your pack or kit due to unforeseen circumstances. Things break or get lost due to carelessness. We’re human and things happen. But in the modern age we have so many cheap, lightweight and reliable firelighting methods that there aren’t many reasons not to carry more than one way of making a spark, a flame or an ember.

If I am hiking, canoeing or otherwise moving or working in an environment where fire is either required or desireable I will have on my person or in my kit:

1. Ferrocerium rod and striker (clipped to trouser pocket loop or belt)
2. Disposable lighter with ferro (‘flint’) striker (normally in pouch on belt or in pocket of PFD if canoeing)
3. Lifeboat/windproof matches (2 or 3 packs in various places in rucksack)

I also normally carry some prepared tinder or similar either in waterproof plastic bags or in a waterproof form (such as strips of bicycle innertube).

So if I lose my firesteel or it breaks in two then I can use my lighter. If I lose that too then I can still light a fire using the matches and warm myself whilst simultaneously deciding if I need to re-examine the decision-making process that led to me losing all of my other kit…

But what if it’s unplanned?

There are of course situations where you can find yourself thrust unexpectedly into a genuine survival situation. However, outside of contrived and survival TV shows like Naked and Afraid or Alone the number of possible scenarios where you will need to make a fire and you have arrived there with no other equipment whatsoever are pretty slim:

The Plane Crash

If you were a passenger on the plane then chances are that you hit the ground somewhere close to, if not actually inside, the aircraft itself. A big pile of jagged metal, flammable liquids and materials and batteries, electrical components and probably SOME survival equipment like flares etc. You have plenty of options to explore before you need to start trying fire by friction.

The Stranded Vehicle

In this scenario it is a broken or stuck car or truck somewhere far from external help. It might be deep in winter or high summer in the desert, but as with the downed aircraft scenario you are basically sat in a big shelter/survival kit. It is powered by flammable liquid and needs a battery to keep the engine and ancillary components running. Also – if you are for some reason travelling through such a remote area why haven’t you thrown in a few emergency items for just this scenario?

The River/The Sea

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility for even an experienced kayaker or canoeist to find themselves washed on a beach or riverbank watching their very expensive canoe or kayak, stuffed with their camping and safety kit, drifting away downstream or on a current. Dressed only in a drysuit (at best), some kind of footwear and a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) what are they going to do? Well, if you have decided that yes, a fire is the thing that you need then you should just grab the small firelighting kit from the pocket of your PFD or belt and get cracking on looking for some dry kindling. You didn’t think of this possibility and have found yourself far from help, paddling alone with no provision for possibly falling out of the canoe? Well, natural selection is still in effect, and your corpse might provide food for another creature at least.

The scenarios could continue, but they all come down to either:

1. You will rarely travel without there being SOME other way of making fire around you
2. If you are travelling in a way that you won’t have other items around you – carry fire WITH you.

The root of all of this is that fire by friction and making a bow drill set should be a long way down your list of solutions when the need for a fire arises. It is fiddly and time consuming to make (especially if you need to make natural cordage), requires a lot of skill to use and success is NOT GUARANTEED. It is also quite wasteful of calories and can be very demoralising if not successful. It can be hard enough to get right when well-fed in ideal conditions under a parachute shelter in some pleasant woodland. There are normally aggravating factors in a survival situation, such as injury, lack of food/water and (if fire is required) the risk of hypothermia. Would you be better off building a simple shelter and getting out of the wind, off the cold ground and conserving body heat and energy?

What if I just want to learn how to do it?

That’s fine. It is very rewarding the first time you get an ember, and I admit that I really enjoy watching someone battle through the multiple failures to get to their first glowing coal in the notch of the hearth board. The point of this post is to highlight the difference between an IMPORTANT SKILL and one that is fun to learn and achieve, not to put you off learning how to do it for yourself.

It is also good to learn a skill that connects us with our ancestors and to start off with a pile of wood and maybe some cord and end with a roaring fire. The first time you see it it looks like a magic trick, and I suspect that is part of the reason that so many are interested in learning how to do it for themselves. The first time I saw it I immediately wanted to try for myself – a very similar thing happened the first time I saw someone turn a bowl on a lathe, shoot a bow or play Tomb Raider (a good indicator of my age/generation!).

So, should I bother to learn how to make and use a bow drill set?

This is normally where the demonstration of the bow drill comes to on our courses. After watching several people fail, succeed, get frustrated and learn patience with the technique the mood of the group can be a little less enthusiastic than it was. At this point I go through the points above – where are you going to use this technique? Is it as easy as you thought it would be? Are other methods easier/more reliable? What is your motivation for learning this skill?

The final decision is of course down to the individual user and it is up to you to form your opinions. I’ll leave you with a few things to consider:

  • Are your fireskills good enough to reliably make a fire from a bow-drill ember every time?
  • If you’re travelling somewhere you will need to light a fire are you carrying enough backup methods?
  • If you lose your kit will you still have a firelighting method on your person?
  • What’s your motivation for learning this technique?
  • Do you need to improve your skills elsewhere too?
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