Fire can be used for many different reasons, including warmth, preparing food, boiling water and can even be used to assist in entertainment when bored of an evening around a campsite. Being able to make and maintain a fire is an important skill to have when venturing on a camping or survival holiday, and it’s even more useful to know how to start a fire without matches or lighter available at your disposal, as not having access to a fire can really cause a damper on your getaway and ruin the whole experience.
There are a few methods which can be used to start a fire. Friction, Sparks and Sun are the most reliable ways to start a fire whilst out in the wilderness and there are plenty of makeshift techniques in which these can be utilized.
Quickest Way to Start a Fire Without Matches or Lighter
The quickest way to start a fire without matches or lighter is by using flint and steel. Whilst these fire starter kits need to be purchased beforehand, they’re incredibly useful to keep in a camping kit in case of emergency.
The process of creating fire with a flint and steel kit is fast and easy, and only requires what is provided in the kit along with some charcloth or other kindling to catch onto.
Understanding What Keeps a Fire Going
In order to build a successful fire, there are three components that are needed to keep it going. These three components are fuel, oxygen and heat. Without these three ingredients, fires can’t burn efficiently.
This is why damp or otherwise wet tinder cannot be used on a fire, as it stifles the oxygen which is needed for it to burn. Whilst a slightly damp twig might seem dry to you- any trapped moisture can become a problem.
If you’re concerned that the area you’re camping or visiting will be damp, it’s important to pack backup materials for both tinder and kindling.
Three Things to Keep a Fire Burning
To make your fire as successful and self-sustaining as possible, you need a mixture of tinder, kindling and wood to serve as fuel.
1. About Tinder
Tinder is what is used to start the fire and keep it going steady. It gives the kindling something to latch onto and ignite. Tinder is one of the fuels that the fire needs to keep burning, and without it, it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself.
What can be used as Tinder?
There are a bunch of different things that can be used as tinder for a fire. Some of these things can be store-bought, but others can be gathered from natural surroundings (providing it’s dry!).
- Small Sticks – Small sticks make a good option for tinder, as they catch fire easily and are usually abundant in camping areas. Ensuring they are dry can be a hassle, but if you have a knife or pencil sharpener, these small sticks can be shaved which can remove any hidden moisture from the outside.
- Fluffy Grass – Fluffy grass makes useful tinder, as does anything that’s dry, natural and fluffy. To effectively use these materials, make them into a bowl shape and light an ember in the middle. This will lead to a slow burn and the opportunity for the fire to spread.
- Man Made Materials – You may be carrying materials which make excellent tinder without even knowing it! Following on from the advice to use anything fluffy and dry, tampons make a great tinder as they can also be pulled apart. Additionally, pocket lint, frayed ropes, or scrap fabric also make for substantial tinder.
Most, if not all, of these materials can be harvested using a survival knife.
2. About Kindling
Kindling can be made of anything dry and non-toxic when burned. Traditionally, kindling is made from shaved,dry wood which is placed within a bundle of smoldering sticks and logs to catch onto and expand the fire. The choice in wood that you use for your kindling is important, as softwood is easier to burn and lasts longer than some other hardwoods.
Ways to Make Kindling
Carrying an old pencil sharpener to make shavings of twigs is an excellent way to make your own kindling to ignite. This is also useful if the area is a little damp, as the twig shavings will gradually become drier the more they are shaved.
Oftentimes, some resources that you’ve brought can be repurposed and reused as kindling. An example of this is any scrap tissue, paper or cardboard which would be recycled regardless. Small strips of tissue makes for good kindling, although it burns up very quickly. Cardboard, on the other hand, is fairly robust and can keep a fire going for a while if rationed. It’s useful to keep ahold of the cardboard from packets of cans for this reason.
- Dried leaves and grass also make for a decent kindling material, but hidden moisture can do more bad than good.
Always make sure that the materials you plan on using as kindling are safe to burn and don’t produce any dangerous gasses. Even some trees aren’t safe to burn!
The wood is usually the last part of a fire to start burning. Usually the tinder is ignited, then the kindling catches fire and carries the flame over to the wood. The wood is what keeps the fire sustained and at a reasonable size whilst it’s burning, so it’s important to consider how much wood you’ll be needing for your fire. The wood you use is important, as different types of woods burn differently. Also ensure that the density of the wood you are burning is different, as using similar sized logs can minimize the flame and suffocate it. Wood which is from the size of a finger to a wrist is a good guideline to follow, and to have a mixture of different sizes is ideal to ensure your fire has the best chance it can get.
Ways to Start a Fire
Once you’ve got your materials, it’s time to think about how you’ll be starting your fire.
Just like having different types of materials for kindling and maintaining the fire, it’s necessary to have different ways to actually start the fire, in case one method fails. Whilst matches and lighters are reliable, they don’t last forever and accidents can happen. Imagine if your matches got wet or your lighter ran out whilst you were camping!
1. How to Start a Fire Using A Hand Drill
This method may be the first one to come to mind when someone mentions making a fire without matches or a lighter. The hand drill is what’s commonly thought of as being one of the first ways humans learned to make fire.
All that’s needed to start a fire using the hand drill method is a fireboard and a spindle. The fireboard is laid flat and is a long, flat piece of dead and dry softwood. The spindle is a piece of softwood no thicker than your little finger, that is sharpened very slightly on each end.
- A fire is made by pressing the spindle against the fireboard and rubbing your hands together with the spindle between them.
- By continuing to press down against the fireboard with the spindle, the friction will be great enough to start a spark. The fireboard should be placed on top of something which can catch the ember and can be transferred to the timber and kindling in the campfire.
2. How to Start a Fire Using a Fire Bow
The fire bow is a more advanced version of the hand drill method. This method also uses a fireboard and spindle, but also includes a bow.
The fireboard is a half inch thick piece of dry softwood, and the spindle is long, one-inch thick and whittled into a blunt point on each end. There should also be a top piece which fits comfortably over the top end of the spindle which can be used to help it pivot.
The bow is a sturdy piece of wood which should be at least 12 inches long, and should have a piece of bowstring tied to each end to complete the look.
A fire is made in a similar manner that the hand drill uses, but with extra instruments.
- Before using a fire bow, make a small “drill hole” in the fireboard which is where the spindle fits. The drill hole should only be shallow and is usually dug out with a knife.
- Then place the spindle in the hole, and put the top piece on the top end of the spindle to hold onto. Wrap the bowstring around the spindle, and begin moving the bow back and forth whilst applying pressure downwards against the spindle. Moving the bow quickly will see greater results.
- Ensure there is a leaf or similar material available to move the ember to the campfire site once it lights up.
3. How to Start a Fire Using Rocks
Rocks can provide enough friction to produce an ember if used in a specific way. This method requires a carbon steel knife.
The best kinds of rocks for fire starting are ones which are hard and bumpy. The most preferable are quartz rocks.
- To start a fire using rocks, break a small quartz rock up so it’s small enough to hold in your palm and has a sharp edge.
- Then begin striking at the sharp edge of the rock with your carbon steel knife at a 30 degree angle until it produces an ember. This method requires a lot of trial and error, as it depends entirely on the rock, and you might need to try out different rocks to get one that works as intended.
4. How to Start a Fire Using a Fire Plow
The fire plow is another widely known method of fire starting, using a fireboard and a plow. It relies yet again on friction for ignition. The fireboard is made of a large, flat piece of sotol wood (softwood, such as juniper or cedar) with a groove down the middle with a length of at least six inches. The plow is a long, flat piece of wood which is two to three inches wide. The end should be angled in a way that it fits inside the fireboard. This can be achieved by whittling it slightly.
- Holding the plow at a 45 degree angle, place it in the fireboard’s groove and press down. Begin moving the plow up and down against the fireboard, to create friction.
5. How to Start a Fire Using Glass or Metal
Rather than relying on friction, this method uses the heat from the sun to produce a flame. Most glass should be able to work for this technique, however the most effective is glass that is shaped to magnify, such as a magnifying glass or even a pair of glasses. Mirrors are also proven to work, with their reflective surfaces.
- Putting the glass or metallic surface upwards towards the sun and directing the hot white beam of line through it should be enough to concentrate the sun’s energy and produce a flame. Make sure you have kindling or tinder material close by to push under the beam of light so that when it does ignite, you’ll be able to move it over to the actual campfire site.
People have also found that using plastic bottles filled with water and water-filled balloons in a similar way can yield results, albeit with a little more difficulty.
6. How to Start a Fire Using Ice
Ice is definitely one of the more finicky materials to use to try and start a fire, but it uses the same logic as the previous method.
- By polishing a ball of ice into a perfect, transparent lens, it can be used to catch the sun and direct it towards a piece of kindling or tinder to help it catch fire. This method requires a lot of trial and error, and there are no tips that can help speed the process up.
7. How to Start a Fire Using Batteries and Steel Wool
This technique can be quite dangerous so needs to be used with caution.
Another way to start a fire quickly is by using batteries and steel wool.
- First, make a nest shape using kindling such as shaved wood, and place some steel wool inside it, lining the nest.
- With those steps complete, use either a 9 volt battery or two AA batteries taped at their corresponding ends to hold next to the steel wool.
- Take a piece of the steel wool and take it to the back of the batteries to create a circuit.
- This circuit should create sparks which will then be able to be used as ignition.
8. How to Start a Fire Using Firesteel
Firesteel is a must-have for camping or survival kits. It’s a short, magnesium-coated stick which, when scraped with a metal scraper, will produce sparks which can be used to start a fire. Just make sure to scrape downwards with the metal scraper, and have it at a 30 degree angle to make sure your chances for causing a spark are higher.
9. How to Start a Fire Using Flint and Steel Striker
Flint and steel follow the same logic that the firesteel and rock method use. Using a steel striker at a 30 degree angle, strike down at the flint until the tinder beneath it begins to smolder.