In a sense, fire is essential to survival. It means light, warmth, the ability to cook food, and even keeping away predators in the wilderness. For our ancestors, harnessing fire was a turning point that shaped the future of humanity.
Nowadays, we come by fire pretty easily with matches and lighters, but what if you find yourself stuck without these items? Knowing how to get a flame going without those common tools is a critical skill for any outdoor enthusiast.
Here are the top 5 methods for starting a fire without matches or a lighter:
This is basically the classic “rub two sticks together” method, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You need two essential items: a fireboard and a spindle. Your fireboard is the item you start your fire on, ideally a flatter piece of wood, and your spindle is the stick you will use to create friction. By cutting a V-shaped notch into your fireboard, you create a bed to create friction with the spindle. A small split in the end of the fireboard will also help oxygen reach the embers you create.
Create friction with the spindle against the fireboard. You’re looking to create enough heat from friction to ignite kindling. The trick is getting the fireboard warm enough for embers to form.
Pros: No high-tech equipment required, finding materials for this technique is virtually limitless.
Cons: Requires extremely dry wood, is the most difficult and labor intensive method, requires much practice to master.
2. Bow Drill
This is similar to the friction method above, with slightly more sophisticated equipment. In addition to a fireboard and spindle, you also need a bow to rotate the spindle and a socket (also called a “hand piece”) to put downward pressure on the spindle.
Make a guide notch in your fireboard for the spindle, use your bow’s cord wrapped around the spindle to create a drilling motion, and apply downward pressure on the spindle with your socket. With practice, this is an extremely effective method when your supplies are limited.
See a detailed demonstration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F95akZGZB18
Pros: Requires only low-tech materials, works almost anywhere.
Cons: Requires dry wood, requires some materials (like cord for your bow), difficult to achieve without significant practice, conditions can drastically affect success.
3. Water Bottle
Yes, you can actually use water to start a fire! This works with a water bottle or a clear plastic bag filled with water. You are essentially using your water container as a magnifying glass to harness the sun’s heat as a fire starter. You will need a clear water bottle, paper, bright sun, and tinder.
Place your water bottle over the paper, moving it around until you have a nice concentrated beam of sunlight magnified on the paper. The paper will start to burn. Once you’ve got a quarter-sized burn, add another piece of paper over the hole and gently wave the papers until they are both burning. You can then transfer these embers to your tinder bundle.
Pros: Low-tech supplies, water bottles and plastic bags are easy to come by (though we encourage reusable water bottles), relatively easy to execute.
Cons: Requires some practice to master, is dependent on bright sun.
4. Batteries and Steel Wool
Using steel wool and common batteries – 9-volts work best – stretch the steel wool to approximately six inches long and half an inch wide. Press the steel wool against the battery’s contact points. This will cause the steel wool to glow and smolder, and these embers can be transferred to your tinder!
Pros: Steel wool and batteries are common items that are easy to carry, this method is relatively easy to master, one of the least labor intensive.
Cons: The burning steel wool goes out fast so you need to be quick, not many people carry steel wool in normal camping and backpacking scenarios.
5. Fire Starter Kits
There are many different products available for starting fires without matches or lighters, most of which focus on repeatable, low-labor methods of making a spark. Common types include flint and steel, reflectors (that operate like the water bottle method), magnesium shavings (which flare up easily with a small spark), or continual striking matches.
Unlike some of the other methods on this list, fire starter kits are designed for multiple attempts without a great deal of additional labor.
Pros: Low-tech, repeatable, higher chance of success.
Cons: Still requires practice to master, you have to own and carry one for it to be effective.
You never know when you may find yourself in dire need of a fire, especially if your adventures span several days or weeks. Having a working knowledge of these methods is only the first step, though. Practice starting fires before you hit the trail, and if the time comes, you’ll know exactly what needs to be done.