Ingenuity is what separates us from the animals, first and foremost. And that started thousands and thousands of years ago when, in our species’ infancy, we discovered that we could create and use tools. That meant turning sticks into weapons and turning rocks into smashing and cutting tools. But there is one tool we discovered that really got the ball rolling on civilization: fire.
A superb tool to be used in cooking, creating warmth, sanitizing water, and other survival skill applications – fire is an indispensable thing to have in your arsenal. But, starting a fire isn’t always as simple as just turning on your oven or flicking a lighter – especially if you find yourself away from civilization. So, it’s a good idea to know a few different methods for creating mankind’s most useful tool. That way, even if you’re lost in the woods, you’ll have a major leg-up survival-wise. With that in mind, the following are 10 helpful methods for starting a fire without matches.
Rub the Right Way
Often the most accessible way to start a fire, especially out in the wilderness, is via friction. Friction, as you may know, is the term for the resistance between two items that are rubbed together. In this case, that’s going to be either wood rubbed against other wood or flint being scraped by metal – more specifically, carbon steel. Whichever method you choose, remember to be patient with it. Even if you don’t get a spark on your first try, these methods are tried and true and just require a bit of focus and determination to get the job done. Just remember, for these methods to work properly, your environment and your tools need to be as dry as possible. The same goes for the wood involved – a freshly cut branch from a tree will have far too much moisture in it to start a fire, so go for sticks and slabs that are already long dead and dried out.
1. Flint & Steel
The biggest problem with this method is that, like keeping a lighter or matches in a waterproof case in your pocket, it requires you to carry something around with you at all times. Still, this was a long-time method both for creating fire and for use in firearms back when bullets were little more than metal pellets. Flint is a hard gray rock capable of creating a spark when friction is applied to it with a piece of steel. Also known as chert, it is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock that can be found both set into larger stones and loose on the ground out in the wild – especially in areas of the United States once populated by indigenous tribes. Alternatively, modern fire starting kits use a magnesium or ferrocerium rod in place of simple flint, but the method is the same. All you have to do is strike the flint with a piece of steel – typically by drawing the piece of steel across the surface rapidly – and it should create sparks that can be fed to some tinder and/or kindling. Alternatively, you can use a char cloth to hold your embers for transfer to tinder and kindling.
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2. Hand Drill
Probably the method most commonly depicted in popular culture, a hand drill consists of two parts – a flat(ish) piece of wood with a small groove or indentation in it and a long thin straight stick with a pointed or rounded tip. In wooded areas, it’s fairly easy to make such an apparatus yourself, but you may need to shape the stick a bit. It helps if you have an outdoor pocket knife, but you can also grind it against a rock to round the end of the stick. Once you have a rounded stick, take a bit of tinder (dry moss or crabgrass works well) and surround the groove in the flat board as close as you can get. Then, take the stick and set the rounded end into the groove, place both hands flat against one another on either side of the stick (like a prayer or clap), and rub your hands quickly back and forth – pushing them down to get more friction between the stick and the flat board. It may take a while (20+ minutes) to get a fire going, but with enough friction and repetition, you should be able to get some of that tinder burning.
3. Bow Drill
This method is sort of like the evolution of a hand drill. The principle is the same, but the method is less strenuous. A bow drill requires both a flat board with a groove or notch in it and a straight long rounded-end stick, but it also necessitates two more parts: a bow and another piece of wood or rock to put pressure on the end of the drill. And yes, we mean bow like the arrow shooting kind – well, sort of. The structure is the same, a curved piece of wood with a piece of rope or cable attached to either end (survival paracord works great), but the purpose is distinctly different. The bow used in a bow drill is actually used to spin the stick part of the apparatus (the drill) faster and with more ease. The steps you should follow are the same as for a hand drill, but – instead of using your hands to spin the drill – you loop the bow’s line around the stick and move it back and forth, sort of like you’re playing the cello and press down on the end of the drill with the second piece of wood or rock for added pressure.
4. Fire Plough
Though not entirely dissimilar to the above methods, a fire plough does away with the need to rotate a stick entirely. Instead, into the flat board portion of the apparatus a long groove should be carved and then the drill stick is rubbed back and forth rapidly in said groove. For this method, you’ll want to place your tinder at the end of the groove that’s furthest from you. That way you “plough” the embers you create into the tinder sitting at the end. This method is less precise and could end up taking longer, but it’s also more easily managed and produces greater friction. Alternatively, this can also be accomplished by rubbing a horizontally held stick against the vertical shaft of another – though this method is less precise and can sometimes require more physical exertion.
Focus Your Energy
Although the sun can be your enemy in some emergency survival situations (like if you’re lost in the desert), it can also be your savior in others. Not only does it help illuminate the world, make your environment far more navigable, and provide some necessary warmth – it also produces energy that can be used to your advantage, especially if you have something with which to focus it. Because, with a steady hand and a little patience, that focused energy can be made into fire.
5. Magnifying Glass
If, as a child, you watched Bill Nye or had the fortune of an enthusiastic science teacher, you’ve probably already seen this method. It’s also made an appearance in popular culture – you might remember Bart Simpson melting a toy soldier or Sid (the baddie from ’90s film Toy Story) burning Woody’s forehead. Whatever the case, it only requires two things: a magnifying glass and the unobstructed midday sun. To do this, all you have to do is place the magnifying glass between whatever it is you are trying to ignite and the sun. Then, tilt and aim the magnifying glass until the sun’s light is focused into as small a point as possible. Following that, you simply have to wait. If you keep the focus point in the same place for long enough, you should start to see your kindling begin to smoke and then, eventually, catch fire.
6. Optical Lens
Unless you’re an old-timey detective, you’re probably not hauling around a big magnifying glass with you everywhere that you go. The good news is, that’s not the only way to focus the sun’s light into a fire-starting beam. In fact, there are a number of more common tools you can use in the same manner. For instance, a pair of glasses (reading, prescription, or even some sunnies) can generally focus light enough to create a spark or two. Though it is more difficult, this can also be managed with a disposable plastic water bottle. And, since you should be taking water with you every time you head out into the great outdoors, you might already have one handy. If you happen to be needing fire and you’re out and about in the middle of winter, an especially clear piece of ice (like an icicle) functions similarly – although it will melt after a time and runs the risk of getting your dry fuel wet. And, in the off chance that you have a balloon (or condom) handy, you can fill it with water and use it similarly to a water bottle.
7. Flashlight Reflector
If you’ve ever looked into the housing of an EDC flashlight, you may have noticed that there’s almost always a silver reflective parabolic dish surrounding the emitter. That’s there to reflect the light that comes out into a forward facing beam. Without it, the light wouldn’t be focused forward and the effectiveness of the flashlight – both in regards to brightness and directionality – would be severely limited. Interestingly enough, you can take that piece, face it toward the sun, and reflect the light into a focal point in front of the dish. Then, if you hold a bit of tinder in the spot where the light focuses, you can catch it on fire. This is useful because, like having a water bottle with you on a hike, we believe you should always have a flashlight on hand as a part of your everyday carry. After all, it can become incredibly indispensable in an emergency.
8. The Soda Can Method
The next time you’ve got a hankering for a soda pop (or a cold beer), take a moment to have a gander at the bottom of the can. Looks an awful lot like the parabolic dish you might see inside of a flashlight’s housing, no? Well, as it turns out, it also functions in much the same way. Although, you can’t just use it on its own. Because beverage cans have a satin finish to them, they are not as reflective as they could be. So, in order to use a drink can to reflect light into a functional fire-starting focal point, it needs to be polished. There are a few different ways this can be done – including by rubbing motor grease, chocolate, toothpaste, or petroleum jelly (and we’re sure some other substances) onto its surface. Just make sure that this layer of polish is extremely thin on the surface of the can or else it can muddy the light reflecting potential and, in turn, might stop it from working properly as a fire making tool.
Electronic & Chemical
In the case that the power goes out, you’ve exhausted your other options, and – perhaps – civilization has fallen, you can still sometimes depend on the remnants of society to get you by. That is, to say, you can jerry-rig a fire using things commonly found in both suburban and urban areas – so long as you know what to look for. Just use caution when resorting to these methods, as you’ll see that they aren’t always the safest route to take.
9. Batteries & Steel Wool
As you might imagine, for this method you only need some steel wool and a battery. While you can theoretically start a steel wool fire with just about any disposable battery (AA, AAA, C, etc.), it’s far easier to manage it with a 9v or any other varieties that have contact points close together on the same side. All you have to do is take a bit of steel wool, stretch it out somewhat, and then – either in your own hand or on a flat surface – rub the contact points of the battery against the steel wool. You’ll be able to see the wool heat red and begin to spark as it works and, once you’ve got some embers burning, you can feed them to your kindling and get a larger wood fire going. This can also be accomplished with a metal gum wrapper, though it will burn much quicker, so your window for getting tinder lit is smaller.
10. Brake Fluid & Chlorine
While, in all likelihood, you’ll never have to resort to this method to create fire – the fact remains that it is possible and can be done if absolutely necessary. All you need are some chlorine tablets (the kind that people use in their pools) and brake fluid for a motor vehicle. Simply crush the chlorine tablets into a powder and sprinkle them in a central space away from anything flammable (other than perhaps the kindling you’re trying to ignite). Then, pour some lighter fluid onto the powder and step back. The chemical combination will combust – violently if you’ve made enough of it – and create something between a roaring flame and an explosion. Again, we can’t stress enough how dangerous this can be, but it can be done if you have no other options. As a side note: this can also be done with potassium permanganate crystals and glycerin, although you’d likely have to have purchased both items at some point prior to their necessity.
Survival EDC Essentials
While any of these methods will work in a pinch, it’s always better to be fully prepared so you won’t have to resort to MacGyvering your survival. Get yourself ready by picking up these survival EDC essentials.
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