A guide on how to start a fire using several primitive methods in a survival situation
when matches, lighters and conventional sources are less likely to be unavailable.
Updated: August 14th, 2020
Starting a fire with any "Plan A" fire sources such as a lighter, matches or fire piston, is relatively easy. We are going to cover the “Plan B" fire sources that are much more difficult, yet much more practical in a survival emergency. The warmth, ability to cook and emotional uplift of fire could end up saving your life.
*Warning: practice at your own risk. Suggested to only to be practiced by an adult, in a safe area away from potential fuel sources and with a large water supply nearby.
Plan A Fire Sources = Primary: "Plan A" fire sources produce a flame or burning coal for you. These primary sources can also be thought of as "at-home fire sources" that are commercially produced and are available for purchase. Examples: lighters, matches, fire pistons. You only need to supply the materials that will catch on fire. It takes some time to find dry, burnable materials in the woods and some skill to build a fire with proper airflow to keep it burning, but the bulk of the fire-starting work is done for you.
Plan B Fire Sources = Last Resort: "Plan B" fire sources require you to create a flame using less conventional methods, some patience and ingenuity. These are often extremely difficult to utilize and sometimes, might be more theoretical than practical. However, with some practice, these can become much easier.
The goal is to generate sufficient heat or sparks which will create a small smoking ember or coal. This can then be dropped into a dry tinder bundle to light a fire. There are 4 primary ways to start a fire without matches:
1. Friction: Friction is the most common way of creating fire and requires you to rub wood together using a bow, plow or a hand drill.
2. Sparks: Using materials like rocks, flint, and a battery with wool is a standard way to create sparks that will start a fire.
3. Sun: Concentrating the sunlight to generate enough heat to make a fire is a less conventional method, but it can work if you have the right materials and weather conditions.
4. Chemicals: You can carry select chemicals that will combust when they are mixed. This is the least common method because of the hazards of having to take potentially combustible materials on the trail.
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Preparation is everything. As a general rule of them, expect to spend 80% of your time preparing the fire and only 20% actually trying to light it.
PHASE 1: GATHER TINDER
By far the most crucial phase of fuel preparation. This is all about gathering "tinder", or extremely dry pieces of fuel that will be responsible for the early ignition. In other words, you can't light a log from a spark - you need this much smaller piece of fuel to ignite first and then transition into the larger sources. Make sure you have, at minimum, a good handful or two of easy-to-light tinder before you ever start trying to make the fire
You'll never have a successful backcountry fire without gathering and preparing the right materials. Here are some options:
Option A: Manmade fibers: You can search through your pack looking for dryer lint in the pockets of your pants, a fibrous rope that can be unraveled or even tampons or maxi pads.
Option B: Fluffy grasses: You can harvest natural items like dry grass, milkweed seed fluff, cattail fluff, abandoned bird nests or fibrous/resinous bark. Whatever you use it needs to be dry, usually dead, and it helps if it is fluffy. Gather the tinder and form it into a birds nest that you can use to hold an ember.
Option C: Tiny sticks: Think of these like small stems or infant dead branches the size of a needle. Again, the deader and drier, the better. Note, contrary to popular belief, pine straw does not make great tinder. It is often filled with saps that prevent it from igniting quickly. If a knife is available, tiny wood shavings make great tinder.
*A Note on Making Char Cloth: If you have already made some fire, a good way to "store the flame" and ensure that the fire can be started up again easily is to make some char cloth. Char cloth is a piece of fabric that has been partially burned. The resulting material ignites easily because it has a low ignition temperature. Take a part of a bandanna or t-shirt and place it inside an Altoids can with a small hole. You also can use a canteen, aluminum foil pouch or similar metal container. Put the cloth and the Altoids tin into a fire and let it cook for approximately 10 minutes. The resulting cloth should be charred black and ready for storage in your backpack. If you don't want to tear your clothing, you also can char natural materials such as punk wood, cattail, and lichen.
PHASE 2: GATHER KINDLING
Once you have your tinder source ready, you need to gather a couple handfuls of kindling. Kindling is small pieces of dry sticks (pencil size) that will catch fire easy from a smoldering tinder bundle. The wood you choose is important - try to find dead standing softwood for your fire-making supplies and kindling. Remove the outer layers to get to the innermost part which is often the driest.
PHASE 3: GATHER WOOD
Keep in mind that the tinder will ignite first, then the kindling and then this larger tier of medium size sticks and wood (finger to wrist thick). People often forget this phase and scramble to gather larger sticks while their delicate flame dies out. You want a stock pile of dry wood and sticks ready to go once the flame has started.
Once you have these three tiers of fuel ready, it is time to look at some different methods to make the actual flame of the fire.
© Archives Of Ontario (CC BY 2.0)
How to Make Fire: Create a "burn-in hole" using a knife to make a small hole in the fireboard that'll fit the spindle for drilling. Carve a V-shaped notch in the fireboard where you drill to collect the coal and hot dust that is formed. Place the fireboard on top of a leaf or piece of bark to collect the ember.
Wrap the bowstring around the spindle, put the spindle on the fireboard, and place the socket on top of the spindle to hold it in place. Apply downward pressure on the socket and move the bow back and forth until it starts smoking. Continue moving the bow quickly for another minute or so until an ember is formed. Use the leaf or bark to transfer the burning ember to your tinder bundle.
credit: youtube / swenetteee
How to Make Fire: Make a plow with an angled head that fits into a 6 to 8-inch groove on the outside of the fireboard wood. Hold plow at a 45-degree angle to the base piece of wood and begin moving the plow up and down along the groove quickly until a burning coal is formed.
How to Make Fire: Same idea as the fire bow... except using your hands to generate the spin motion. Create a burn-in hole using a knife to make a small indentation that'll fit the spindle. Carve a V-shaped notch in the fireboard where you drill to collect the coal and hot dust that is formed. Place the fireboard on top of a leaf or piece of bark to collect the ember. Fit the spindle into the burn-in hole and place your hands on either side of the spindle. Rub your hands back forth to move the spindle and press downward to generate friction.
How to Make Fire: Find a small piece of quartz or break up a larger piece, so you get a piece of quartz that fit in your hand and has sharp edges. Using a carbon steel knife, strike the sharp edges of quartz at a 30-degree angle to produce sparks. Hold a small piece of tinder on top of the rock as you hit it so it will catch a spark and catch on fire. If you cannot find quartz, then look for a similar hard-to-break, smooth rock that breaks with sharp edges and facets. Try different types of stones until you find one that sparks.
credit: youtube / CrazyRussianHacker
How to Make Fire: Find a piece of clear ice and mold it into a lens using your hands (you don't want the heat from your hands to melt it). Hold the ice lens, so it concentrates a beam of sunlight onto your char cloth or tinder much like a magnifying glass. Hold the ice steady until the tinder starts to smoke and eventually ignites.
credit: youtube / The King of Random
How to Make Fire: Fill the Ziploc bag or a clear water balloon half-full with water (or urine) and twist the bag until it forms a liquid sphere, but does not break. Hold the bag into the sun, so it concentrates the sunlight into a beam like a magnifying glass. Place the tinder underneath the beam and hold it steady until it starts to smoke and ignite. You also can use the top concave part of a clear water bottle with water if you don't have a plastic bag lying around.
© Dave Gough (CC BY 2.0)
How to Make Fire: The key to any of these methods is concentrating the sunlight into a beam that is hot enough to start a fire. A piece of glass, the bottom of a soda can that has been polished to a shine with toothpaste or clay, or a mirror can be used to concentrate the sunlight into a white-hot beam. Direct the glass, soda can or mirror into the sun. Place your tinder or char cloth into the brightest part of the beam and wait for it to ignite.
How to Make Fire: Place a small piece of char cloth or tinder on top of the piece of flint and hold the two together in one hand. Strike down at a 30-degree angle using the steel striker to produce sparks. The spark should land on the char cloth or tinder and begin to smolder. Carefully transfer this ember to your tinder and blow gently until it catches on fire.
credit: youtube / RealWorldSurvivor.com
How to Make Fire: Put a small amount of steel wool into a bundle of tinder and place the 9-volt battery onto the steel wool. The wool should immediately ignite. You also can use two AA or AAA batteries, but you need to tape them, so they line up in series. You then will need to pull off a piece of steel wool that will extend from the positive end of the first battery to the negative end of the second battery to create a circuit. This circuit will create sparks that will ignite the steel wool.
How to Make Fire: Put the firesteel directly into the tinder and scrape down the firesteel at a 30-45 degree angle. This scraping will produce sparks that are concentrated directly into the tinder, increasing your chances of starting the fire.
credit: youtube / Peter Ramsay
How to Make Fire: Unlikely to have chemicals available. However, it is worth mentioning this method. Pour some of the Potassium Permanganate onto a piece of rock and create a small well in the middle of the pile. Add some glycerin to the potassium permanganate and wait a few minutes for the mixture to burst into flames. Be careful to store the Potassium Permanganate away from the glycerin while you are hiking. You also can use sugar instead of glycerin. Just add equal amounts of Potassium Permanganate and sugar and use the blunt end of a stick to crush them together to start a fire.
credit: youtube / C for Chemistry
How to Make Fire: Mix together approximately four grams of ammonium nitrate and one gram of sodium chloride (table salt) and thoroughly grind with a rock. Then mix in 10 grams of zinc powder. Add a few drops of water to start an exothermic reaction that’ll produce a flame. Be careful when carrying these chemicals in your pack. You do not want them to mix accidentally and combust while hiking.
And, there you have it! You've just learned 11 proven ways to make a fire without matches. Leave us a comment if you've tried any of these and let us know how it went.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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