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Fire starting is one of the very basic needs of survival. In fact, it was the first thing I learned when I was a boy scout many years ago. Since then I have trialed a number of ways on how to make a fire, but the fun part isn’t the actual building of the fire, it is knowing how to light a fire, of which there are a number of ways of which some are much easier than others.
When I am outdoors, it might seem like an easy venture to light a fire with matches or a lighter, but for me, I enjoy trying to light a campfire without matches, as not only is it fun to attempt, but if you were ever without matches, it would be nice to have been through the process of starting a fire before, rather than just relying on what actors do in Hollywood movies.
There are a number of reasons we need to know how to make a fire, and how to light a fire. Primarily, with a fire, you can have warmth, boiled and clean water, cooked food, light and signal for help. These are just some of the reasons why the fire making skill is on the top list of things you need to know to survive in the wild.
For preppers, outdoor survival is an important skill as you never know when you are in an emergency and need to survive outdoors and in the wild. In that ideal scenario, a box of waterproof matches, some nice dry wood and a bit of dry grass would make the perfect fire, but we don’t always have that, especially the first bit, matches. And what if you were in a damp environment like the jungle floor, or wintery snow-covered landscape? Your wood will be wet, you might be without matches, and you’re probably going to freeze to death.
It is in survival circumstances like these that we need to know how to start a fire with:
But first, let’s take a look at what we need and how we can construct the fire so that once we have our initial spark from one of the above methods, we can light our bigger fire.
Before we look at the 11 ways of how to start a fire, we need to know how to make a fire by selecting the right fuel, such as wood or anything else we can get our cold hands on. In an urban environment where there’s not so many trees we could use a lot of other accelerants for a roaring fire, but in the woods we need three types of materials:
Tinder – Tinder is a dry material that ignites with very little heat. When tinder is dry, all it takes is a spark to catch it alight.We use the tinder in a fire as a fuel to ignite less flammable material like wood. You can’t just hold a log up to a match and expect it to catch alight, the fire needs the tinder to substantiate the intensity and effect of the fire.
So how do you make tinder for a fire? There are a number of sources of tinder such as:
Kindling – Kindling is what we add to the tinder to give a fire a more solid form. Because kindling is such an accelerant, it will only last for a short amount of time. Essentially tinder is the initial start and then kindling is the next necessary ingredient.
It is very easy to gather as it is small sticks and twigs. These need to be dry. Any wood the same thickness as a finger is suitable for tinder. An effective way to make tinder if you are in a damp area is to find a larger piece of wood and break it with rocks or larger pieces of wood. The inside of this wood is dry and will be suitable if turned towards the inside facing the tinder of your fire.
Fuel – Once we have started a fire, we need fuel to keep the fire going. Basically, everything much thicker than tinder or kindling that burns for longer is a good source of fuel. Often fuel is in the form of thick logs. If you don’t have an axe to cut these down try looking for a dead or fallen log and dragging it over your fire. Once you have enough kindling you can effectively use your fire to cut the longer piece of wood into multiple pieces giving yourself more fuel.
Whichever method we choose to use, these three ingredients are necessary in the formation of a good fire. Dry tinder much always be used in all of these circumstances to catch the initial spark and form into a fuel for the kindling to catch alight.
Now that we have our essentials for what we need to make a fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel, we need to know how to build the fire so that it is able to turn into a self-sustaining campfire without us having to blow on it. After it’s done, all we have to do is fuel it up.
Start with the bird’s nest – For every one of the ways below on how to start a fire, you need to make sure that your tinder is in a bird’s nest shape (featured image) and catch any spark in the concave part of the nest. There is no point going to all of the effort of rubbing two sticks together if you’re not going to catch the little ember or spark that it causes.
Blowing the spark into a flame – Once the spark is in there you need to blow gently onto the ember and it will create a flame in the tinder. You now have fire. Before you start any fire making method you should have your kindling set up in a tee-pee (tent) method with a small opening for your bird’s nest. Once the bird’s nest has a sustainable flame, you should be putting it straight into the kindling with the fuel logs on standby.
Damp or wet areas – If you are doing this in a damp, jungle-like area, or you are working in a snow-covered environment you should keep the bird’s nest suspended in your hands while you are working on creating a fire. Once you have bird’s nest alight I would call this a sustainable flame as it is one that will last on a damp flooring. Once you have that bird’s nest alight, you can then use it in the main fire tee-pee.
Now that we know what we need to make a fire with the type of wood we need, and a great way to build the base for a good fire, let’s look at some alternative ways to start a fire without using matches or a lighter. This list is broken down into three main sections, which include the traditional primitive fire-making methods, using sunlight to make a fire, and then some of the more interesting ways to start a fire that you might not have heard of.
Flint is a family of stone. A flintstone is not a cartoon, it’s either quartz, chert, obsidian, agate, jasper and a few other less common ones. Essentially, what you want is a stone that is harder than steel. If you’re in upper Canada you’re in luck as they are very common in those areas, but for everywhere else it shouldn’t be too hard to find.
If you can’t identify any of those types of rock, just grab some of the different variations around you and try them out against the metal you have or a steel knife.
Step 1: Move the stone against the knife in a shaving motion – it will cause sparks. These sparks are small splinters of steel being ‘shaved’ off and are heated by the friction of the shave. If you have a piece of dry fabric dry wrapping it around the stone, it will catch the spark and start warming. Having rotten wood is also a great way to catch the spark that comes from the steel.
Step 2: Shave the sparks into the rotten wood, fabric or tinder bird’s nest.
Step 3: Place the wool, wood in the bird’s nest and gently blow until you have a sustainable flame.
Step 4: Place nest in the kindling tee-pee, you have fire.
You have probably always wanted to know how to start a fire with sticks? It’s an essential survival skill known as a fire plough. Fire ploughs are manually hard work but are a very simple and thorough way of fire starting. The fire here is originating from the friction caused between two bits of wood. The primary concern here is having dry wood, without it you’re going to be stuffed as the friction between the wood is meant to light the wooden dust particles that gather in the plow.
Step 1: Get a large piece of wood as a plow board. Ideally this would be a log that has been split longways down the middle. If you are in damp environments a fresh piece of wood split in the middle can also be used as it will be dry.
Step 2: Make a divit in the middle of the wood longways down the plow. This will be the path that your stick will run on.
Step 3: Get a firm stick and run it repeatedly through the groove made in step 2. Make sure the stick has a blunt end which you can make by using a rock to blunten the tip of the stick.
Step 4: Once you have ran this enough tilt the plow so that the wooden dust is at the end of your divit, the friction you make from the stick running along the divit will hit the wooden dust causing an ember.
Step 5: once you see a little ember or two, blow gently to get the dust alight and place some tinder on it as well.
Step 6: Once you have a sustainable flame place nest in the kindling tee-pee, you have fire.
This method is another way to start a fire with sticks and quite similar to the last, however a little more bush engineering goes into the formation of this contraption. This method is a level above the last one because it involves a piece of string, twine, or other naturally forming rope to make the bow. Shoelaces could be used for this too.
Step 1: Make a bow – it should be 30 inches or 60-70cm long. It should have a little bit of flexibility but it should not be pulled like a bow. It should be more of a slight flex in the wood. Notch your string/cord onto the bow but loose enough so that you can wrap the excess in the middle around your drill.
Step 2: Get a drill – it should be thumb thickness of a soft wood like cedar. Make sure the drill wood is dry. The drill should be about 8 inches long and should be blunt round on one end and blunt on the other.
Step 3: Get a fire plank. This would be the same as the one used in the fire plow above. Make a V shape notch in the middle of the plank. At the tip of the V make a small hole for the drill. The pointy end of the drill should sit in the hole, not go through to the other side. This is where the drill will sit and the wood dust will catch around it.
Step 4: Find a rock to hold on top of the drill. Ideally it would be a stone with a concave cup-like section to hold the drill in place as it drills the plank. You could also use the knot of a branch or bone to hold it in place.
Step 5: Place bird’s nest of tinder under the plank to catch the ember when it forms.
Step 6: wrap the cord around the drill once and start moving the bow left and right while holding the top. Use a small bit of pressure on the top while doing this. There should eventually be some smoke coming from the dust collected.
Step 7: When the sawdust pile is smoking, gently lift the drill out place and put a light amount of tinder on the dust and gently blow into a flame. Add the sustainable flame to the bird’s nest. You have a fire.
For the bow drill, two people are better than one. Team up with someone and do the same but easier.
Step 1: instead of using a bow wrap the cord once around the drill and pull left side first the right. The drill should rotate.
Step 2: have your partner apply downward pressure to the top of the drill.
Step 3: When the sawdust pile is smoking, gently lift the drill out place and put a light amount of tinder on the dust and gently blow into a flame. Add the sustainable flame to the bird’s nest. You have a fire.
Sunlight is one of the alternative ways to make a fire without a lighter or matches that has been around for a long time. It can only be done in areas that have a strong amount of sunlight and essentially works to start a fire with a magnifying item, whether that be glass, a plastic bag with water, or a way to concentrate the sunlight, such as a soda can. If you are in an area with strong sunlight, this is the best way to start a fire.
I haven’t personally tried this but I like the idea of it.
Step 1: shine smoothen then underside of a can with clay
Step 2: The bottom of the can directly towards the sun
Step 3: Place your kindling cloth, rotten wood or charcoal cloth on the point where the sun is reflecting at its strongest from the can. This should be the smallest point of light.
Step 4: Gently blow into a flame. Add the sustainable flame to the bird’s nest. You have a fire.
You might have done this as a kid with a magnifying glass, it’s quite easy to do and is has been a cause of some bushfires from broken glass on the side of the road.
Step 1: get flashlight lens or other clear glass
Step 2: concentrate the sun’s power onto your tinder, charcoal cloth or other starter.
Step 3: Once you see smoke, gently blow into a flame. Add the sustainable flame to the bird’s nest. You have a fire.
These are some of the more innovative ways of fire making that some of you might not know about. Some of these I only just found out about while writing this post, and am happy to say that I have them in my repertoire of survival knowledge. I hope you enjoy them just as much.
Easy. The exact same as above but you want to make sure the bottle is clean and the water is clear. Repeat the steps above.
You have a fire.
This one is the same idea as the bottle – but it looks a little bit cooler and sometimes you just don’t have a water bottle with you.
Repeat the steps from the magnifying, but with water in the bag.
You have a fire.
With old phones that have a removable battery you can use the battery’s electrical charge on steel wool to cause embers.
Step 1: Remove battery from the phone
Step2: Gently rub the battery against steel wool until red embers appear in the wool
Step 3: apply tinder, blow gently, you now have a fire.
This is a pretty neat hack to know and became popular in an American women’s prison Netflix series called Orange Is The New Black. It was a regular activity for the women of the show to light their cigarettes with a piece of chewing gum wrapper and a battery. I tried it, and yes, it works.
Step 1: The chewing gum wrapper has to be a foil metallic one. Cut it so it makes the figure 8 almost, with both ends being bigger than the middle section.
Step 2: Attach the ends of the wrapper to each end of the battery.
Step 3: The joining of the paper will create a circuit between the two.
Step 4: The paper will set alight. You have a fire.
This is very similar to the phone battery method except it saves you the loss of a mobile phone battery.
The best thing about this type of fire is that you can do this in wet conditions with wet steel wool.
Step 1: Get steel wool and 9v battery
Step 2: Rub steel wool onto ends of 9v battery
Step 3: Place steel wool in bird’s nest. You have fire.
I had a lot of fun putting this list together and trying out some of these just at home. Give them a go and let me know if you found them difficult. While this was more of a fun post, there is a serious side to this, and that is that there are obviously various ways you can provide yourself with the necessary warmth of a fire when it comes to survival as well as signalling for help.
In most occasions you would have your bug-out bag or a survival kit with the necessities. In that kit you should have some sort of fire starter. While there are these various ways you should have a fire flint stick like this. They are cheap, useful and in one strike your bird’s nest alight and you have fire.
When you are in a survival mode, your body needs to conserve energy as you are on foot with low foods and energy and a lot of these methods (except for the makeshift lighter electrical ones or sun-powered ways) use quite some energy. This is why it is imperative to have a back-up fire starter in your kit.