Firewalking is the act of walking on hot coals. It has been traced back to 1200 BCE and still serves social or religious functions in many societies today, for example as an initiation ritual or test of faith. Some of my colleagues in anthropology study firewalking rituals, and they sometimes show videos of them at meetings that I attend. I’ve been curious to know what it’s like to walk on coals for a while.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that a local group called Room to Grow offered firewalking training near my hometown of St. Pete. Naturally I had to try it. Somehow I convinced two of my friends to join me, Kira Barrera and Alita Kane, who are environmental scientists working in the Tampa Bay area.
These are not the best quality images but the story is worthwhile.
Upon arrival, we had to sign a safety waiver. We sat and watched while a fire reduced logs to coals.
The organizers psychologically prepared us for firewalking by first having us walk across a pile of large shards of glass. The glass pieces were too big to actually cut into our feet, but it’s still unnerving at first. You can hear the glass crunching under our weight in these videos.
As the logs reduced to coals, they taught us some chants and had us walk in a circle around the fire, which seemed to help everybody focus. They beat the coals with shovels to pack them tightly together. It looked like there was a deliberate technique behind how they were beating them, which probably helped minimize the risk of injuries.
Once the coals were ready, we were told that we could break the circle and cross the coals whenever we felt ready. At this point, a few people dropped out.
I was simultaneously nervous and determined, so I was among the first to cross. In the initial images, the coals don’t look very hot, but they felt VERY hot! I felt like I could singe my skin if I stepped on the coals at the wrong angle. I could tell that they were much hotter on their sides and bottoms than they were on top. So, my strategy was to put my foot down on them firmly and squarely and to quickly keep walking.
Usually, you won’t burn yourself (or at least not badly) because your feet don’t touch the embers for very long, and coal isn’t a particularly good conductor of heat. But it’s still physically uncomfortable to step on hot coals and it’s not completely risk-free. If the person building the coal bed doesn’t do it correctly or if you’re not walking with care. It’s hard to tell in the pictures, but there was a mound of cool sand at the end of the coals, which had a soothing effect on my feet. They also kept a bucket of water nearby, just in case.
Once everyone was used to walking on the coals, the organizers stoked them and created a perimeter of flames by putting lighter fluid around the edges of the coal bed.
This looks more intense, and it was. The flames sometimes hit my legs and the heat was uncomfortable. Nonetheless, we walked. You can hear the chant in this video. (I’m not usually one for chanting but it was a helpful distraction.)
I didn’t get visibly burned, but one of my big toes and the heel of my other foot felt noticeably warm and uncomfortable the next day. It was a cool (hot?) experience though and I would probably do it again.