The link between man and fire is primordial. Since before history remembers fire was used by early humans for preparing food, to keep them warm, and for protection.
You never know what could happen so you should always have a fire starter in your emergency kit. In the dark, when it’s cold and scary, even a small fire can lift your spirits, and make a difference.
In case lighter, matches, or other conventional fire starters aren’t available there are other primitive ways of building a fire. So how to start a fire without anything but what you can find in the wild?
The location you choose should be away from any bushes, trees, dry leaves, or anything that can cause bushfires. The distance between the fire and any plants should be at least 6 feet. Also, don’t start a fire on the grass. If there isn’t any bare ground, dig a hole and remove any vegetation and dry leaves.
Every fire is made out of 3 components: oxygen, fuel, and spark/heat. Before you begin, gather enough wood for fuel, and also some tinder. You won’t be able to ignite bigger pieces of wood without enough burning tinder.
How to start a fire with firestarters and tinder
If you are preparing for camping you can buy some commercial firestarters, or you can bring some old newspapers, pieces of cardboard or a couple of cotton balls. You can also try making your own firestarter. Melt some candle wax and mix it with dryer lint then cover some pine cones with it. Pine cones will burn pretty good on their own but covered in wax will quickly catch fire.
However, if previous options are unavailable there are still plenty of things found in nature you could use. Spruce sap is a great natural firestarter, it will not catch flame so easily but once lit it will burn for a couple of minutes. You can use resin from any type of tree, but spruce is the best one.
Some of the things that can be used as tinder are dry leaves and grass, small twigs, wood shavings, and pine needles. Birch bark also makes great tinder, it contains natural oil so it will burn even if it gets wet. If you decide to collect it, try finding some that have already fallen off the trees.
How to start a fire with friction? We already said that every fire is made out of three components- oxygen, fuel, and heat. Friction is the one providing needed heat. To create fire this way will take a lot of practice and patience, but on the other hand, it is a really useful survival hack.
image source; Author: Steve Sanford
This is the most primitive and most difficult method so strengthen yourself with patience before you begin. You will need:
- Dry piece of wood (about ½ to ¾ of an inch thick)
- Another piece of wood for a spindle (about 2-foot long, the thickness of a finger)
- Tinder nest
- Piece of bark.
Begin by cutting a v-shaped notch on your wood board and making a small depression near the notch, this will allow oxygen to reach your ember. Put the piece of bark underneath the notch, it is used to collect an ember from the friction between spindle and fireboard.
The last thing to prepare is tinder, gather it into a nest, and have it at hand. You will use it to create a flame once you build an ember.
Position yourself on the ground on one knee behind you, then place your other foot in front of you and use it to fix the fireboard to the ground. Place a spindle in a small depression you made and hold the other end between your hands.
Start rolling the spindle between your palms. Do it as fast as you can, and keep applying pressure with the spindle to the fireboard. The friction between two pieces of wood caused by downward pressure will produce the heat needed to create an ember.
Keep the momentum going and after some time a smoke will start to appear. It is critical that you don’t stop rolling the spindle when you see the first bits of smoke. Continue twirling until the tip of your spindle begins to glow red.
When you create an ember, tap the board to drop it on a piece of bark underneath it. Transfer it to a nest of tinder and slowly start blowing until you create a flame.
image source; Author: Steve Sanford
Similar to hand drill this method also uses friction to create heat, but instead of spinning motion, it relies on back and forth motion down the fireboard. You will need:
- Fireboard (same as in the previous method)
- Piece of wood for plow (about one foot long, thickness of a thumb)
- Tinder nest
Start with cutting the groove down the fireboard, it should be about 1 inch wide and 6 to 8 inches long. Raise one end of the board on top of your knee, and place a tinder nest on the other end.
Place the plow in a groove you made at an angle of 45° and start rubbing it up and down the fireboard. This should create small bits of dust that will collect at the bottom of the fireboard. Increase the motion and after a while, dust should start to smolder. Transfer it to the previously prepared tinder nest and gently blow until it ignites.
image source; Author: Steve Sanford
The bow drill is probably the most efficient method since it is easiest to maintain the speed and pressure needed to create enough friction. However, experienced bushcrafters will tell you that it takes a lot of practice to perfect this technique.
As usual, we advise you to prepare all the material in advance. You will need:
- Fireboard (about a foot long and 6 inches wide)
- Spindle/drill (about a foot long and 1 to 2 inches in diameter)
- Bow with cord
- Socket/cap – a piece of flat rock or wood with depression on one side (should fit in your hand)
- Tinder nest
How to make a bow drill?
Bow drill should be about the size of your arm. First, choose a proper wood, it should be softwood such as birch, pine, willow, maple, or spruce. Avoid hardwood because your bow needs to be flexible. When you find a proper branch cut a 2-inch notch on each end of it.
The string should be 1 ½ the length of a branch. You can use cordage, leather belt, even hiking boot laces will do. Another option is to find some tough flexible vines, or you can tear a long strip from your clothing. Tie the string to a notch on branch ends and your bow is finished.
Bow drill fire – how it’s done
Place a fireboard on the ground and fix it with your foot or knee. Wrap the cordage of your bow around the spindle. Place one end of the spindle on your firewood and hold the other end with a socket.
With one hand begin pulling the bow by doing a sawing-like motion, and with the other hand hold the top of the spindle and keep applying the pressure. Repeat the motion as fast as you can until smoke appears and an ember is formed. Same as in previous methods, transfer the ember to a tinder nest and slowly blow until it catches fire.
Pro tip: There will be some friction between the spindle and the stone cap that will work against your twirling. To decrease it you will need some sort of lubricant. You can use some fresh leaves, crushed worms, or a slug, or you can rub the top of the spindle against your forehead to oil it.
Bamboo fire saw
Bamboo is excellent for friction fire making because of its low ignition temperature. For this technique, you will need only a knife and a relatively long piece of bamboo (about a yard).
Begin with splitting your piece of bamboo lengthwise then scrape the shavings from its outside. You will use shavings later as a tinder bundle so make sure you have enough of it. Make a small hole in the middle of one of the bamboo halves, and make a small canal. Put your shavings in the canal from the inside of the bamboo. This piece will be your top board.
Place the other piece of bamboo, with its hollow side up, against the tree and fix it on the other end with your hip. Then take the top board with your both hands, also turn the hollow side up, and hold the tinder inside with your palms. Start moving top board against bottom until smoke appears, then fasten your pace and increase the pressure. Ember that forms should move up the hole you made and ignite the tinder.
Fire Starting Tools
There are so many types of bushcraft firestarters around and a lot of mix-ups come up with their names. The ferro rods and magnesium bars are usually confused with flint and steel, but they are completely different things.
How to start a fire with firestarters? Same as in previous methods, prepare everything before starting. Collect enough wood and prepare a good tinder nest you will light with sparks coming from your fire lighting tool.
Flint and steel
image source; Author: Steve Sanford
This is one of the most common techniques and you can see people using it at campsites. Because matches can get wet and lighters get empty it is generally a smart idea to carry flint and steel on outdoor trips, plus, it is also one of the easiest fire-making techniques.
The “rock” part of the kit is made of a hard type of stone like flint, quartz, or chert. The ideal flint should have a sharp acute edge, round piece won’t do the work. The steel striker is made of high-carbon tool steel and can be “U” shaped or “C” shaped.
When you strike a rock with steel, the edged rock slices small bits of metal that ignite when exposed to oxygen. The flaw of the technique is that sparks are dull and require charred cloth to catch that spark.
You can buy charred cloth or you can make one yourself, it’s quite simple. Get some airtight tin and poke a really small hole on top of it, then pack it with linen or cotton patches (about 2 inches square). Place the tin in a fire for about 20 minutes or until smoke stops coming out of the hole on top. Let it cool completely and don’t open it for several hours.
Ferro rod is shorter for ferrocerium rod, it is also called firesteel, Swedish firesteel, fireflash, or metal match because it is made of different metals. Every brand has a different composition of metals and there are softer and harder ferro rods. Softer ones won’t last as long as hard ones but the metal is more easily scraped so there are potentially more sparks.
Tip: ferro rod and scarpers are usually connected with a small lanyard, replace it with a longer one, it will be easier to maneuver it that way. Also, it is a small piece of tool that can easily get lost. Wrap one end of your ferro rod with a small, bright-colored piece of duct tape, that way it will be easier to spot it in the grass.
Magnesium bars, or mag bars, for shorter, usually come with a small ferrocerium rod and sometimes with a striker.
How to use it? You start by scraping some bits of magnesium metal with the back of your knife (don’t use the blade, you will blunt it), then light the shaving with a ferro rod. Slices of magnesium will burn really hot and help light tinder nest and kindling.
Using lenses for starting a fire is probably the most familiar method. A magnifying glass is ideal, but you can also use eyeglasses, binoculars, or even a bottle of water to focus sunbeams on a specific spot. Angle the lens toward the tinder and soon you will have a fire. The only flaw to this method is that it only works when there’s sun, so if it’s night or its cloudy lens won’t help you much.
Yes, you can make a fire from ice, you just have to shape it in the form of a lens. For this to work, the ice must be clear, without any particles in it. The best way to achieve this is to freeze melted snow or clear lake/river water in any container you have. Once the ice is formed, carve the block with a knife in the shape of a lens and finish polishing it with your hands.
Cotton fire roll
This is a less known way to start a fire, but it is pretty simple and easy to learn. You will need:
- At least one roll of 100% cotton
- 2 long flat pieces of wood or boards
- Some cold fire ashes
Unroll one cotton ball so it is long and flat, and sprinkle ashes on top of it. Then roll it back together between your palms, and make sure that cotton and ashes are well mixed together. When done it should be tightly rolled in a cylindrical shape.
Place a cotton roll between two boards and run the top board up and down the bottom one while applying pressure. Once you slightly tear your cotton roll apart flames should start to appear. Place your roll in a tinder nest and gently blow to get the flame going.
Steel wool and batteries
Another unconventional method for lighting a fire is with steel wool and batteries. Start with stretching wool until it is about 6 inches long and an inch wide then rub the batteries against wool, the 9-volts are recommended. Once the wool starts to blaze transfer it to a tinder nest, it will burn fast so you will have to be quick.
Types of campfires
Now that we gave you so many options on how to start a fire, we’d like to mention some of the types of campfires, and what they are best for:
- Swedish fire – also great if you don’t have too much wood. You will actually just need one log and a chainsaw to cut it. Easy for cooking and portable.
- Teepee fire – Simple yet effective, this style is great for beginners.
- Star fire – If you are low on firewood this is a great type of campfire. Instead of burning all your wood at once, your logs will burn bit by bit without the need to add more wood. Creates a big surface area for cooking.
- Lean-to fire – Same as the lean-to shelter, this is a great campfire when the weather is rainy or windy.
- Criss-Cross (Platform) fire -This type is great if you need fire for warmth, but don’t want to keep stocking the campfire. Easy maintenance.
- Log Cabin fire – Stable and easy to set up. It might be difficult to light but it’s perfect for maintaining the shape and lasts a long time.