Despite all the planning in the world, stuff happens. You may have a bug out bag packed with matches, a lighter and all kinds of good stuff, but what if you can’t get to it, lost it or it was destroyed? Or maybe your pack was soaked and the matches are destroyed. Then you are left to fight to survive on your own with what you have on you and that probably isn’t going to include matches.
Before we move to how to start a fire, it is important you understand that a fire can’t be started without tinder. You need to collect dry tinder and have it ready to catch the spark. You also want to collect some twigs that will be added to the tinder once it starts to burn. The tinder can go up in just a few seconds. You don’t have time to run around looking for dry fuel. Don’t waste the spark you generate by not being prepared.
These are 5 ways you can start a fire in a survival situation, even if you don’t have matches. These ways are a little tougher and they do require more patience and effort, but a fire is well worth the energy you will expend putting into getting that first spark. The easiest way is to have an EDC lighter or a windproof one, but here go the hard ways.
1. A bow drill is an enhanced version of rubbing two sticks together. It consists of 4 pieces; the spindle, the bow, the hearth or fire board and the handhold. The hearth should be a hard wood. The spindle needs to be a medium wood. The hand hold can be a rock or a piece of hard wood and the bow needs to be a somewhat soft wood or a nice green branch. You also need cordage, like paracord or a shoestring. Cut a small hole in the hearth. This is where the spindle is going to stand in. If you are using wood for your handhold, it helps to create a small dimple in the wood for the top of the spindle to sit in. Your bow will need to be notched at each end so the cordage can be fastened to create an actual bow. Stand the spindle in the hearth, put the cordage of the bow against the spindle, put your other hand on the handhold at the top of the spindle and move the bow back and forth. The spindle should spin somewhat freely. This takes some skill to get used to how much pressure you need to apply and how fast you need to move that bow, but it will work with some time and patience. You can also use sander tool’s dust for starting fire without matches.
2. A water bottle filled with water can be used to direct the sunlight into a tinder bundle. This way is virtually hands free. Prop the full water bottle up on a rock and place the tinder bundle in front of the bottle, far enough away that the sunlight streams through the bottle and hits the tinder. In time, the heat of the sun refracting through the water will create a spark. Make sure you keep a close eye on the sun’s position in the sky. You may need to move your water bottle to make sure the same spot is being focused on.
3. A 9-volt battery and a little steel wool will get you a quick spark. Now, you may not be able to find this in the wild, but if you do, this is a quick way to get a spark. Rub the battery terminals over the steel wool and tiny sparks will start to fly. Have a tinder bundle ready to catch the sparks. You could also use two AA batteries. Put the batteries end to end with a positive terminal on one end and a negative on the other. One D battery has enough juice to produce a spark by stretching the steel wool so a single pieces touches each terminal.
4. 2 sticks or what is known as the hand drill method. Yes, this is primitive, time consuming and your hands may end up bleeding before you can get a fire, but it will work. This method is what you have probably seen on television. Survivor rubs a couple of sticks together and boom, there is fire. It actually takes a bit more effort than that. You need to rub the two sticks together fast enough to create friction. Tiny sparks will occur at the point of friction and that is where you need to have your dry tinder ready to catch the sparks. It works best if you hold one stick with your feet while you roll the other stick between your palms into the bottom stick. This method is similar to the bow drill, but without the extra perks of a bow and handle. Choose a hardwood for the bottom stick and a medium wood for the spindle. Cut a small hole or notch in the bottom stick for the spindle to spin into. Place a few bits of tinder, like dried grass or dried moss in the notch. This notch should be on the outside of the stick in order to allow a little air into the space. Keep spinning until you see a bit of smoke. Do yourself a favor and wrap your hands with some cloth or leaves before you start spinning.
5. A mirror or piece of clear glass can be used to direct the sun’s rays into a tinder bundle. This method is effective, but you will need to have patience. Hold the mirror or glass at an angle so the sun hits the glass and reflects onto the dry tinder. In time, the spot will become heated and a small flame will erupt. You will need to stay fairly steady to keep the sunlight focused in the same area. You could use a lens from a pair of binoculars or reading glasses if you don’t have a glass bottle.
Fire is a crucial element to survival. Ideally, you should always have at least two methods to start a fire with you at all times. A box of matches is great, but have a magnesium stick or flintsteel as back up. These can be reused and can tolerate getting wet. Toss one into the glovebox of your car, your purse, your desk at work and of course, your bug out bag.
Since lighting fires in the open or forests can turn into wildfires, it may be a good idea to follow some health and safety training.
- Making a fire—a detailed approach
- How do you prepare for the ignition?
- Interested in unusual methods to light a fire with no matches?
- The don’ts when making a campfire
Making a fire—a detailed approach
If you have to start a fire in the woods, you have to care for many things. There are many elements to care for with fire, from finding your fire sources to extinguishing the fire when you’re done. Keep reading for the details.
Know your fire source options
Plan A fire sources- primary
“plan A” fire sources generate a flame/burning coal and can be seen as the “at-home fire sources” that are found in stores for buying. Lighters, matches, and fire pistons. You only need to buy them to make a fire. When you’re in the woods, it might take a while until you find dry and easy-to-burn materials. You will also need some skills to light a fire with consistent airflow and keep it burning. However, you will need to do all the fire-starting work.
Plan B fire sources- secondary options
With “Plan B” fire sources, you will have to make a flame with less conventional methods, a lot of patience, and even creativity. These are methods for the avid outdoorsy people who are ready for the challenge to light a fire most unusually. Practice makes perfect so that you can give it a try.
With “plan B” sources, you need to produce enough heat/sparks to create a small smoking ember/coal. You will drop it into a small tinder bundle and light your fire afterward. There are four main methods to start a fire when you don’t have matches:
It’s the most common method to make fire and you need to rub wood together with a bow, hand drill, or a plow.
Flint, ricks, batteries, and wool are materials you use to make sparks that start your fire.
With this method, you will focus the sunlight to produce enough heat and fire. It’s not the most common method, but it’s productive when you have the proper weather conditions and materials.
It’s not a method since it requires you to carry the chemicals that will combust when mixed. The risks are high with this method due to the combustible materials you take on the trail.
How do you prepare for the ignition?
Preparation is crucial for starting a fire. Be ready to spend 80% of your time preparing the fire and only 20% trying to light the fire.
Collect the tinder
This is definitely an essential phase of fuel preparation. It’s all about finding and collecting the “tinder” or dry pieces of fuel that will help with the early ignition. You won’t be able to light a log with just one spark—you will need a small piece of fuel to ignite it first and then take it to the larger source. You will need at least a handful of tinder to start making your fire.
Remember that you cannot have a good fire in the backcountry if you don’t gather and prepare the proper materials. Here are your main options:
Look in your backpack for some dryer lint; you can also find it in the pockets of your pants. A fibrous rope that you can unravel, tampons, and maxi pads are also excellent options.
Take a look around and find milkweed seed fluff, cattail fluff, dry grass, some resinous/fibrous barks, and even abandoned bird nests. As long it’s dead, dry, and fluffy, you can use it to light your fire. Collect your tinder and create a small bird’s nest to hold the ember.
Infant dead branches and small stems, the size of a needle, are excellent for early ignition. The drier they are, the better they will be for your fire. We don’t know what you might have heard, but pine straw doesn’t make an excellent choice for tinder. It’s often filled with saps to prevent it from igniting quickly. If this isn’t your first outdoor adventure, you most likely have a knife on you. If so, use it to make tiny wood shavings for tinder.
Planning to make char cloth?
People who already know how to start a fire without matches are familiar with storing the flame by making char cloth. It’s basically a tiny piece of fabric that you have partially burned. Therefore, it has a low ignition temperature and will ignite easily.
You can take a piece of t-shirt/bandanna and put it in a can with a small hole in it. A metal container, aluminum pouch, or a canteen can work too. Place the cloth and the tin into a fire and allow them to cool for ten minutes. You will get a charred black cloth that you can store in your backpack. Use char natural materials such as lichen, cattail, or punk wood if you don’t want to tear your shirt/bandanna.
Now that your tinder source is ready, you have to collect a couple of handfuls of kindling. Kindling refers to small dry sticks that catch fire only from smoldering tinder bundles. It’s crucial that you select the proper wood, though. Look for dead-standing softwood when you gather your fire supplies and kindling. You only need to use the innermost part (it’s the driest part) so remove all the outer layers.
Don’t forget that the tinder will ignite first, then the kindling, and then the large tier of sticks and wood. Many inexperienced people focus on collecting large sticks instead of finger to wrist-thick pieces; it’s why the flame dies out. You should have a stockpile of dry wood and sticks ready to use once you get the flame started.
Interested in unusual methods to light a fire with no matches?
As we’ve mentioned, it takes a lot of patience and ingeniously to light a fire. If you don’t have the materials or means to try any previous methods, here are more ways to light a fire without matches.
Balloons and condoms
You can turn balloons/condoms into fire-creating lenses by filling them with water. Continue with tying off the end and make it as spherical as possible. It doesn’t have to be very big as it will distort the sunlight’s focal point. Use your patience and squeeze the balloon into a shape that gives a sharp circle of light. Try to press the balloon in the middle to get two small lenses.
The focal length of balloons and condoms is shorter than that of an ordinary lens. Hold the squeezed balloon 1-2 inches from the tinder and see what happens.
Since we use water to put down fire, it’s odd to think that you can use ice to make a fire. Actually, you have to turn the ice into a lens shape and use it like starting a fire with lens/mirrors. Ice is an excellent material to start a fire if you go winter camping.
Make sure that the water is clear so that the ice works. Ice with impurities or cloudy ice won’t give results. Fill up a bowl, cup, recipient made out of foil with clear pond/lake water or some melted snow. Wait until it becomes ice. You need two thick blocks of ice to light a fire.
Use your knife to turn the ice into a lens—keep in mind that the lens is thick in the middle and narrow towards the edges. Continue polishing the lens with your hands until you get a smooth surface. Angle the ice lens towards the sun, the same way you would do with a regular lens. Focus the light on the tinder nest and see how it turns into fire.
Soda Can and Chocolate Bar
This is a weird and fun method to make a fire without matches. Open up a bar of chocolate and rub the bottom of the soda can with the chocolate. The chocolate works as a polish and makes the bottom of the can lustrous. You can also use toothpaste instead of chocolate. After you polish the bottom of the can, you obtain a parabolic mirror. You pretty much know what happens next. The sunlight will reflect off the can’s bottom and create a single focal point. It’s the same working principle for the mirror telescope.
Orientate the bottom of the can towards the sun. Now you have a highly focused ray of light that you can aim right at your tinder. Place it around an inch from the reflecting light’s focal point. You will have a flame in a few seconds.
Flint and steel
If you go camping, you should have some flint and steel set in your pack. When your matches get wet and useless, you can always get a spark by putting steel into a nice piece of flint. Even if you forget your flint and steel set at home, you can still light a fire with the steel blade of your knife, a char cloth, and quartzite. If you don’t have a char cloth, use a piece of birch or fungus instead.
Hold a rock between your forefinger and your thumb so that an edge hangs out around 2-3 inches. Grasp the char between the flint and your thumb. Now grasp the back of the knife blade/steel striker against the flint a few times. Sparks from the steel will fly off and get to the char cloth and cause a glow. Fold the char cloth into the tinder nest and carefully blow on it to start the flame.
Look for quartz or similar hard rocks and use your striker or carbon steel knife as well. You need tiny pieces of quartz so break up a large piece, if available. Use your knife and strike the quartz’s sharp edges at a 30-degree angle to obtain sparks. While you hit, hold a tiny piece of tinder on top of the rock, so it catches a spark and lights a fire. You can also use a rock that is difficult to break—look for a smooth rock that breaks with facets and sharp edges. You might have to go through some trial and error until you find a rock that sparks.
You need a firesteel with a metal scraper. Put the firesteel right into the tinder and scrape down the firesteel at a 30-45 degree angle. The scraping will create sparks that are focused right into the tinder so that you have a better chance of starting a fire.
Glycerin and potassium permanganate
As long as you know your way around chemicals, using this safely would help. Pour potassium permanganate onto a piece of rock and make a small well in the middle of a pile. Add some glycerin and wait until the mixture bursts into flames.
We care to remind you to permanently store the potassium permanganate away from the glycerin when hiking. If you don’t have glycerin, sugar will work too. Add equal amounts of sugar and potassium permanganate and use a blunt end of a stick to crush them together. It’s how you will create fire.
Ammonium nitrate, salt, and zinc powder
Add one gram of sodium chloride (table salt) and four grams of ammonium nitrate and use a rock to grind them very well. Continue adding 10 grams of zinc powder and a few drops of water to produce an exothermic reaction to obtain a flame. Always carry these items separate from each other, so they don’t mix by accident and combust while you’re hiking.
Always stay safe when making a fire
It takes just one spark to cause an accident when making a fire in the woods. When you make a campfire without safe clearance or carelessly abandon the campfire, a small fire can quickly become a fast-moving blaze. Please stay safe and follow the campfire safety tips:
- Make sure that the fire doesn’t endanger people and the surrounding forest
- Check out the local authorities about the open-air burning restrictions and follow local burning regulations. See if there are any fire bans in the area.
- Examine the wind direction to ensure that no sparks travel to flammable materials. If the wind changes worry you, you should put the fire out.
- Never build a fire on a windy day. Embers or sparks from the fire might travel far and cause a fire.
- Make sure to have 6-10 ft clearance around the campfire.
- Set up your tent at least 12ft apart and away from parked cars
- Don’t use oil-burning appliances, candles, lanterns inside and near the tent. Use a torch instead.
- Put cooking appliances in place with a small risk of being knocked over
- Keep lighters and flammable liquids out of reach of children
- Place your cooking area away from the tent
- Don’t smoke inside the tent
- Always have an escape plan and be ready to leave the tent in case of a fire
- Build a campfire in current firepits; build it in sand or bare rock if you cannot find a fire pit.
- Surround the campfire with rocks to contain the fire. Don’t use rocks from the river because they’re moist and might explode when you overheat.
- Make sure that your campfire won’t spread. Place it away from trailers, tents, leaves, dry grass, overhanging tree branches, and anything that might catch on fire.
- Use crumpled kindling/paper to light a fire instead of flammable liquids.
- Keep the campfire to an easy to manage the size
- Don’t put garbage in the campfire because wild animals might find the smell appealing.
- Always keep any combustible materials (lighting fluids, propane cylinders, etc.) away from the campfire.
- Don’t leave campfires unattended and watch the fire at all times. Don’t let the children get too close to fire nor play around it.
- Place the extra wood upwind and away from the fire. This way, the sparks won’t travel and ignite the woodpile.
- Pay attention when roasting treats over the campfire. A flaming marshmallow can easily ignite the clothes. A heated metal skewer can cause a burn and a puncture as well.
- Never get close to a campfire if you wear loose clothing, as they will easily catch fire.
- Have enough water and a shovel nearby to stop the fire when you’re done. Carefully throw the water over the fire, stir the dampened coals and douse it with water. Stay on the safe side and shovel some sand/dirt to cover the dampened coals to smother all remaining embers.
Don’t use gasoline to start a campfire, only a proper lighting fluid. Use the lighting fluid sparingly. Never place it on an open flame because the fire might ignite the liquid stream. The flame will ignite the container in your hand and injure you.
Facts about risks you take with a campfire
If you think that your campfire cannot be that dangerous because it’s small, here are some facts to help you comprehend the risks you take:
- It only takes 1-second contact with a 158F degree campfire to end up with a 3rd-degree burn
- Most children are burned in the morning when they touch the hot ashes or embers
- An average campfire can get as hot as 932F degrees in just 3 hours.
- If you let the campfire burn itself on its own, or if you only put it out with sand, the campfire will remain around 212 F degrees for eight hours. It’s because the buried embers and coals will retain the heat similar to an oven.
- The risk for a fire to re-ignite on its own is never null. The temperature below the surface of the dirt/sand can get as high as 527F degrees and cause a burn to a child playing with the sand/dirt.
The don’ts when making a campfire
When it comes to safety rules, knowing what not to do can also help. Here’s our list of don’ts when it comes to making a campfire:
Don’t make a new fire ring if they already exist
If it’s legal to make a campfire, you should opt for a fire ring because it’s safe and you can control the flames. Existing fire rings are essential for safety because they reduce the impact on the land when the fire goes out of control. The campfire ring should be designated and declared safe by park rangers. It’s not a good idea to make a new fire ring. Parks can get quite busy so imagine what would happen if any camper would make his fire pit! The area will be damaged in no time.
Don’t use firewood from out of town
If you bring firewood from your local area, you risk introducing invasive species to the camp area. We talk about invasive critters that can live in the wood and even be transported to new habitats where they can wreak havoc.
If possible, buy firewood from the camping area or close by. Should it be legal to collect firewood, make sure that you remember the 4D’s of responsible firewood:
- Dead- use only dead wood
- Down- use only downed wood on the ground. Never cut off tree branches.
- Dinky- use wood that is the size of your forearm
- Distant- find wood a reasonable distance from camp
Don’t throw trash/food in the fire
You might find it harmless to throw food, leftovers, and trash into the fire. However, burning trash and food in the campfire is never wise or safe. First of all, the smell is unpleasant for you and other campers. We breathe what we burn and plastic containers, baggies, etc. generate dangerous carcinogens and various toxins. It doesn’t seem like a severe issue, but respect the health of other campers and never burn trash in the campfire.
Additionally, burning single-use plastics will leave a trace behind. Even if you cannot see it, burnt plastic leaves residues that can be poisonous. On a side note, you shouldn’t go hiking or camping with single-use/disposable plastic bottles/recipients. I
On top of everything else, burning food waste can attract wildlife, critters, and scavengers who will come and see what’s happening. Since the fire pit/ash might contain lead, plastics, and various toxins, you put wild animals at risk.
Never leave your food waste and trash in the fire pit because it shows a lack of respect for nature. Future campers might do the same, thinking that it’s okay. Never forget about the Leave No Trace principle when hiking/camping and take back home whatever you brought with you.
How to safely put out a campfire
Safely putting out the fire is just as important as safely building it. You want to reduce the risk of unintentional wildfires to a minimum. Please don’t leave the fire unsupervised and always put it out COMPLETELY before you go home. Here are the steps to take when extinguishing a campfire:
- Have enough water to put out the campfire.
- Let the wood burn entirely into ash; ash cannot hold internal heat
- Use water to drench the fire and pour it until you cover all ashes and embers. Make sure that all hissing stops.
- Use a stick/shovel to stir the ashes around and leave them in the fire
- Hover your hand over the fire to see if there’s any heat left. If you still feel it’s hot, go over the previous steps once more until all heat is gone.
What do you do if there’s an unintended fire while you’re camping?
Two things are crucial to do in case of a fire:
- Make sure that everyone goes away from the fire. Fire in tens spread very quickly.
- Call the Fire and Rescue Service and provide a landmark (farm) to help them spot you.
How do you prevent wildfire?
Even if the risk of fire starting is high in the summer, you should be careful with a campfire all year round. Here are some times to lower the risk of wildfire in the countryside:
- Avoid using an open fire
- Don’t throw cigarette ends out of the car window
- Properly extinguish cigarettes and don’t throw the ends on the ground. Bring the litter back home.
- Call the Fire and Rescue Service if you notice a fire in the countryside
- Don’t try to put a fire out on your own if the fire is extensive. Leave the area as quickly as you can.