How to start a fire when you don’t have a lighter or any matches on you? If you’re in the woods, you certainly won’t lack fuel. The problem is, not just any wood is the right fuel for starting a fire.
The bad news is, lighting a fire is never easy without a lighter and/or matches. The good news is, it’s nowhere near as hard as you think, and there are several ways to get the job done.
If you know what you’re doing, you can even light a fire using wine corks and dryer lint. Combustion requires three things—oxygen, fuel, and spark. Armed with that knowledge, you have all you need to start a fire in a lot of ways.
How to Start a Fire: The Basics
The most common method for starting a fire (outside of lighters and matches) is friction. There are several ways to build up enough friction or use friction to create a flame/spark.
1. Hand drill
The first one—the one you’ve probably seen in countless movies—is the hand drill method. You’ll need a platform that’s very thin and semi-soft. The best way to create a platform is to peel the bark off a tree branch. This will be what is called a “fire board.”
You’ll also need the drill, which should be about as thick as your index finger, sturdy, and between 18” and 24” long.
- Use a pocket knife to create a hole in the fireboard, roughly the diameter of your drill
- Carve a notch, V-shaped, next to the hole
- Surround your drill hole with tiny shreds of dry bark, wood, leaves, or any other dry, flammable material
- Fit your drill into the hole you made
- Place your hands, palms flat, on either side of your drill, at the top
- Use your hands to rub the drill back and forth pushing down as you work
Continue doing this, over and over, until you create enough friction to ignite the dry materials you placed around your hole.
2. Striking a rock
Quartz is the best material for this situation. Fortunately, you can usually find quartz quickly, especially in a hilly or mountainous region. You need a good size piece, roughly the size of a baseball or larger.
You also need a carbon-steel knife to serve as your flint. Hold the quartz close to a mound of gathered, dry materials. Strike the rock with the back of your knife at a 30° angle. Be sure to strike the rock’s edges, hard enough to create and send sparks into your fuel.
3. Fire Plow
If you’ve ever seen the movie Cast Away, you’ve seen this method. You’ll need a flat wood surface, a sturdy stick that’s as thick as your thumb, and a carved-out hollow in the flat surface of your wood, about 8” to 10” long
- Use your knife to carve a hole through the center of your flat wood, right at the end of the channel you carved
- Place your kindling near the hole or directly over it
- Hold your flat board at a 45° angle
- Hold your plow at a 30° angle, and start sliding the end up and down the channel, ending at the kindling each time
- Keep rubbing, creating a downward force until you build up enough friction to light the kindling
How to start a fire with wet wood
If you ever get caught out in the open, and it’s raining, starting a fire becomes more difficult. If you live in the south, look around for what is called a “lighter knot” or “fatwood.” These are naturally flammable pieces of wood from long pine trees. It will help you get your fire started much faster.
If you can, peel off a tiny piece of the fatwood to form a kindling pile. Build yourself a fire pit on a small hill or a point of elevation. Creating sparks with a flint and rock is very difficult in wet weather but try to find yourself some cover to work without getting rained on.
You can use any of the above methods for starting a fire to light your kindling. If you don’t have lighter knots to take shavings from, your best bet is to gather as many dry, dead leaves as you can find. If it’s raining, try to find piles of leave, where you can pull drier leaves out a couple of layers down.
Look under trees, bushes, and leaf beds. Once you have a pile of very fine kindling, build larger twigs around it and go to work on the kindling, using any of the above methods. Friction often works best in wet situations.
Once you have it going, slowly but surely add larger twigs and branches to the pile. Gather larger wood and place it in a circle around the fire. The heat of the flames will dry it out for later use. Avoid green wood at all costs. Green wood will only smoke, is heavier, and is full of moisture.
Human beings have been able to start fires without the use of lighters and matches for millennia. It’s nowhere near as hard as you might think. Once you get used to a certain method, you’ll get much faster, with the process becoming more familiar and ritualistic over time.
If you’re hiking or primitive camping or if you just want the challenge of starting a fire without lighters and matches, always bring along the right gear for the job, including lint from your dryer, a magnifying glass, wine corks soaked in 100-proof alcohol, cotton balls soaked in alcohol, rubbing alcohol, fire starter sticks, and a rock/flint.
Adequate preparation will make primitive fire-starting methods far easier, especially if you get caught out in the rain. The easier you have it, the faster you will find yourself in front of a roaring fire, with plenty of heat for the night.
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