How to Start a Fire Without a Lighter (or Matches) | 12 Methods

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 available.

Updated on June 13th, 2022

Warning: To be practiced at your own risk by an adult, in a safe area away from potential fuel sources and with a large water supply nearby.

Starting a fire with any "Plan A" fire sources such as a lighter, matches or fire piston, is relatively easy and while you still have to find the burnable materials in the woods and know how to keep the fire burning, the bulk of the work is done for you. In this post, we are going to cover the “Plan B" fire sources that are much more difficult, but necessary in an emergency.

“Plan B” fire sources require you to create the flame. 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. These are often extremely difficult to utilize and sometimes, might be more theoretical than practical. However, with some practice, these can become much easier.

  1. Friction (the most common way): It 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.

Starting a Fire Using Friction

1. Fire Bow Method

Items Needed:

  • Bow wood- a sturdy piece of wood with a slight curve that extends from your arm to your fingertip
  • Bowstring - Paracord or another type of rope to create a string for the bow
  • Top piece or socket - a piece of rock, bone, shell, or hardwood that fits comfortably in your hand and has a notch to hold the spindle. Also can use household items like a rollerblade wheel. If you use wood, place some leaves into the groove to prevent the socket from producing embers while bowing.
  • Fireboard - about a half-inch thick flat piece of dry, dead, softwood
  • Spindle - a piece of dry, dead, softwood about 8-inches long and an inch in diameter. The spindle should be whittled into blunt points on both ends.
How to Make Fire with Fire Bow
© Archives Of Ontario (CC BY 2.0)

How to Make Fire:

Step 1: Create a "burn-in hole" using a knife to make a small hole in the fireboard that'll fit the spindle for drilling.

Step 2: 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.

Step 3: 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.

Step 4: 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.

Step 5: Use the leaf or bark to transfer the burning ember to your tinder bundle.


2. Fire Plow Method

Items Needed:

  • Fireboard - a flat piece of sotol wood (or hibiscus, cedar, juniper, and other softwood) with a 6 to 8-inch groove.
  • Plow - flat piece of wood, 2 to 3-inches wide with an angled head that fits into the groove of the fireboard.
How to Make Fire with Fire Plow
© YouTube / swenetteee

How to Make Fire:

Step 1: Make a plow with an angled head that fits into a 6 to 8-inch groove on the outside of the fireboard wood.

Step 2: Hold the 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 burning coal is formed.

@dalemgumino5 Fire Plough #primitivefiremaking #firemaking #frictionfire #fireplow #primitivetechnology #fireskill ♬ suara asli - dalemgumino5 - Dewa Gde TikaWisnu

3. Hand Drill Method

Items Needed:

  • Fireboard - a flat, half-inch thick piece of dry, dead, softwood
  • Spindle - made of softwood or pithy wood about 18 to 24-inches long about the width of your pinky.  The spindle should be sharpened only slightly on the ends.
How to Make Fire with Hand Drill
© littleecofootprints.com

How to Make Fire: Same idea as the fire bow... except using your hands to generate the spin motion.

Step 1: Create a burn-in hole using a knife to make a small indentation that'll fit the spindle.

Step 2: 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.

Step 3: Fit the spindle into the burn-in hole and place your hands on either side of the spindle.

Step 4: Rub your hands back and forth to move the spindle and press downward to generate friction.


4. Rocks Method

Items Needed:

  • Rocks - Quartz or similar hard rock; Carbon steel knife or striker if available
How to Make Fire with Rocks
© creativejewishmom.com

How to Make Fire:

Step 1: Find a small piece of quartz or break up a larger piece, so you get a piece of quartz that fits in your hand and has sharp edges.

Step 2: Using a carbon steel knife, strike the sharp edges of quartz at a 30-degree angle to produce sparks.

Step 3: 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.


Starting a Fire Using the Sun

5. Ice Method

Items Needed: 

  • Ice
  • Sunlight
How to Make Fire with Ice
© YouTube / CrazyRussianHacker

How to Make Fire:

Step 1: 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).

Step 2: Hold the ice lens, so it concentrates a beam of sunlight onto your char cloth or tinder much like a magnifying glass.

Step 3: Hold the ice steady until the tinder starts to smoke and eventually ignites.


6. Plastic or Balloon Method

Items Needed: 

  • Plastic - plastic bag, water bottle or balloon with liquid
  • Sunlight
How to Make Fire with Plastic Bottle
© YouTube / The King of Random

How to Make Fire:

Step 1: 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.

Step 2: Hold the bag into the sun, so it concentrates the sunlight into a beam like a magnifying glass.

Step 3: 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.


7. Glass Lens or Metal Method

Items Needed: 

  • Glass Lens or Metal - magnifying glass, pair of glasses, soda can or mirror
  • Sunlight 
How to Make Fire with Glass
© 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.

Step 1: Direct the glass, soda can, or mirror into the sun.

Step 2: Place your tinder or char cloth into the brightest part of the beam and wait for it to ignite.

@ismar_sedic837 Another way to light a fire in the nature🔥🔥 #Wildlife #fyp #Fyp #Nature #Fire #MagnifyingGlass #CottonBall ♬ originalljud - Gaming Squad

Starting a Fire Using Sparks

8. Flint and Steel Method

Items Needed: 

  • Flint rock
  • Steel striker
How to Make Fire with Flint and Steel
© shareaword.com.au

How to Make Fire: 

Step 1: Place a small piece of char cloth or tinder on top of the piece of flint and hold the two together in one hand.

Step 2: 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.

Step 3: Carefully transfer this ember to your tinder and blow gently until it catches on fire.


9. Battery and Steel Wool Method

Items Needed: 

  • Battery: 9-volt battery or two AA batteries
  • Steel wool
How to Make Fire with Battery and Wool
© YouTube / RealWorldSurvivor.com

How to Make Fire: 

Step 1: Put a small amount of steel wool into a bundle of tinder.

Step 2: 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.

Will dead batteries work for the battery and steel wool method?

Dead batteries at your house may not power your device but there is usually enough to power to create a spark on the steel wool.


10. Firesteel Method

Items Needed: 

  • Firesteel - Magnesium-coated firesteel with a metal scraper
How to Make Fire with Firesteel
© lightmyfire.com

How to Make Fire: 

Step 1: Put the firesteel directly into the tinder.

Step 2: 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.


Starting a Fire Using Chemicals

Warning: Dangerous. Only to be practiced in a life-and-death emergency situation.

11. Chemicals Method A

Items Needed: 

  • Potassium Permanganate
  • Glycerin
How to Make Fire with Potassium Permanganate
© YouTube / Peter Ramsay

How to Make Fire: Unlikely to have chemicals available. However, it is worth mentioning this method. 

Step 1: Pour some of the Potassium Permanganate onto a piece of rock and create a small well in the middle of the pile.

Step 2: 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.

@franklinchemistry Spontaneous combustion. #chemistry #reaction #experiment #science #fyp ♬ Majesty (Instrumental Mix) - Apashe

12. Chemicals Method B

Items Needed: 

  • Ammonium nitrate
  • Salt
  • Zinc powder
How to Make Fire with Ammonium Nitrate and Zinc
© YouTube / C for Chemistry

How to Make Fire:

Step 1: Mix together approximately four grams of ammonium nitrate and one gram of sodium chloride (table salt) and thoroughly grind with a rock.

Step 2: Then, mix in 10 grams of zinc powder.

Step 3: 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.


Prep for Easy Ignition

To easily start a fire, 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.

how to start a fire with tinder bundle
© Archives Of Ontario (CC BY 2.0)

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 bird's 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.

kindling a fire

PHASE 2: GATHER KINDLING

Once you have your tinder source ready, you need to gather a couple of handfuls of kindling. Kindling is small pieces of dry sticks (pencil size) that will catch fire easily 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.

kindling a fire

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 stockpile 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.


FAQs

How to start a fire in the snow?

To start a fire in the snow, it’s important to have a dry base. Find a dry area without snow or use a rock as a base. For tinder, Witch’s Beard is a green lichen that hangs from trees and is exceptionally flammable. For kindling, search around the base of dead trees or under-covered areas for wood that may have been sheltered.

starting a fired in the snow

How to start a fire when it’s wet?

To start a fire when it's wet, look under any big trees or rocks for areas that are more protected from rain, even partially protected is a huge help. Then use a knife to shave away the wet bark until you reach dry wood.

Create shavings of the dry wood for kindling and then do the same procedure of shaving away the wet wood for your kindling and larger pieces of wood, it may be helpful to use an ax to break up larger pieces of wood. Lastly, start your fire in a protected area from water and excessive wind.

camp fire

How long do the different methods take?

Using friction methods like the bow, plow, or hand drill can take over 20 minutes. Using rocks to create a spark takes around 5 minutes but may take much longer to find the right rocks. Ice, plastic, glass, or anything using the sun to focus will usually only take around a minute or two but may take a while to learn the best way to focus it. Flint, batteries, and firesteel will immediately create a spark but you may need to create a few sparks to get the fire going. Chemicals will usually react in under 2 minutes.

camp fire in snow

What if I don't have anything with me?

If you don't have anything with you, creating a hand drill is possible without any preparation but will be substantially harder. Find a fireboard with a natural indentation and then search for a spindle that will fit this indentation.

You can use a rock or other sharp object to create a smooth end so they nest together properly.

And, there you have it! You've just learned 12 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. 

Austin Hager photo

About Austin Hager

Austin Hager is a B.C. based thru-hiker, mountain explorer and advocate for mental health awareness. You can find him hiking, climbing or snowboarding throughout the mountains of Western Canada. He is currently working to become a Registered Nurse.

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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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