9 Ways To Start a Fire Without Matches

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 29, 2008 · 130 comments

in Manly Skills

Tom Hanks Starting a Fire Without Matches

There is a primal link between man and fire. Every man should know how to start one. A manly man knows how to start one without matches. It’s an essential survival skill. You never know when you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’ll need a fire, but you don’t have matches. Maybe your single engine plane goes down while you’re flying over the Alaskan wilderness, like the kid in Hatchet. Or perhaps you’re out camping and you lose your backpack in a tussle with a bear. It need not be something as dramatic at these situations — even extremely windy or wet conditions can render matches virtually uselessly. And whether or not you ever need to call upon these skills, it’s just damn cool to know you can start a fire, whenever and wherever you are.

Friction-Based Fire Making

Friction-based fire making is not for the faint of heart. It’s probably the most difficult of all the non-match methods. There are different techniques you can use to make a fire with friction, but the most important aspect is the type of wood you use for the fire board and spindle.

The spindle is the stick you’ll use to spin in order to create the friction between it and the fireboard. If you create enough friction between the spindle and the fireboard, you can create an ember that can be used to create a fire. Cottonwood, juniper, aspen, willow, cedar, cypress, and walnut make the best fire board and spindle sets.

Before you can use wood to start a friction based fire, the wood must be bone dry. If the wood isn’t dry, you’ll have to dry it out first.

The Hand Drill

The hand drill method is the most primitive, the most primal, and the most difficult to do All you need is wood, tireless hands, and some gritty determination. Therefore, it’ll put more hair on your chest than any other method. Here’s how it’s done:

Build a tinder nest. Your tinder nest will be used to create the flame you get from the spark you’re about to create. Make a tinder nest out of anything that catches fire easily, like dry grass, leaves, and bark.

Make your notch. Cut a v-shaped notch into your fire board and make a small depression adjacent to it.

Place bark underneath the notch. The bark will be used to catch an ember from the friction between the spindle and fireboard.

Start spinning. Place the spindle into the depression on your fire board. Your spindle should be about 2 feet long for this to work properly. Maintain pressure on the board and start rolling the spindle between your hands, running them quickly down the spindle. Keep doing this until an ember is formed on the fireboard.

Start a fire! Once you see a glowing ember, tap the fire board to drop you ember onto the piece of bark. Transfer the bark to your nest of tinder. Gently blow on it to start your flame.

Fire Plough

Prepare your fireboard. Cut a groove in the fireboard. This will be your track for the spindle.

Rub! Take the tip of your spindle and place it in the groove of your fireboard. Start rubbing the tip of the spindle up and down the groove.

Start a fire. Have your tinder nest at the end of the fireboard, so that you’ll plow embers into as you’re rubbing. Once you catch one, blow the nest gently and get that fire going.

Bow Drill

Starting a fire with a bow drill

The bow drill is probably the most effective friction based method to use because it’s easier to maintain the speed and pressure you need to create enough friction to start a fire. In addition to the spindle and fireboard, you’ll also need a socket and a bow.

Get a socket. The socket is used to put pressure on the other end of the spindle as you’re rotating it with the bow. The socket can be a stone or another piece of wood. If you use another piece of wood, try to find a harder piece than what you’re using for the spindle. Wood with sap and oil are good as it creates a lubricant between the spindle and the socket.

Make your bow. The bow should be about as long as your arm. Use a flexible piece of wood that has a slight curve. The string of the bow can be anything. A shoelace, rope, or strip of rawhide works great. Just find something that won’t break. String up your bow and you’re ready to go.

Prepare the fireboard. Cut a v-shaped notch and create a depression adjacent to it in the fireboard. Underneath the notch, place your tinder.

String up the spindle. Catch the spindle in a loop of the bow string. Place one end of the spindle in the fireboard and apply pressure on the other end with your socket.

Start sawing. Using your bow, start sawing back and forth. You’ve basically created a rudimentary mechanical drill. The spindle should be rotating quickly. Keep sawing until you create an ember.

Make you fire. Drop the ember into the tinder nest and blow on it gently. You got yourself a fire.

Flint and Steel

Flint and Steel

This is an old standby. It’s always a good idea to carry around a good flint and steel set with you on a camping trip. Matches can get wet and be become pretty much useless, but you can still get a spark from putting steel to a good piece of flint. Sweedish Firesteel-Army model is a good set to use.

If you’re caught without a flint and steel set, you can always improvise by using quartzite and the steel blade of your pocket knife (you are carrying your pocket knife, aren’t you?). You’ll also need char. Char is cloth that has been turned into charcoal. Char catches a spark and keeps it smoldering without bursting into flames. If you don’t’ have char, a piece of fungus or birch will do.

Grip the rock and char cloth. Take hold of the piece of rock between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure an edge is hanging out about 2 or 3 inches. Grasp the char between your thumb and the flint.

Strike! Grasp the back of the steel striker or use the back of your knife blade. Strike the steel against the flint several times. Sparks from the steel will fly off and land on the char cloth, causing a glow.

Start a fire. Fold up your char cloth into the tinder nest and gently blow on it to start a flame.

Lens-Based Methods

Fire from a mangnifying glass

Using a lens to start a fire is an easy matchless method. Any boy who has melted green plastic army men with a magnifying glass will know how to do this. If you have by chance never melted green plastic army men, here’s how to do it.

Traditional Lenses

To create a fire, all you need is some sort of lens in order to focus sunlight on a specific spot. A magnifying glass, eyeglasses, or binocular lenses all work. If you add some water to the lens, you can intensify the beam. Angle the lens towards the sun in order to focus the beam into as small an area as possible. Put your tinder nest under this spot and you’ll soon have yourself a fire.

The only drawback to the lens based method is that it only works when you have sun. So if it’s night time or overcast, you won’t have any luck.

In addition to the typical lens method, there are three odd, but effective, lens-based methods to start a fire as well.

Balloons and Condoms

By filling a balloon or condom with water, you can transform these ordinary objects into fire creating lenses.

Fill the condom or balloon with water and tie off the end. You’ll want to make it as spherical as possible. Don’t make the inflated balloon or condom too big or it will distort the sunlight’s focal point. Squeeze the balloon to find a shape that gives you a sharp circle of light. Try squeezing the condom in the middle to form two smaller lenses.

Condoms and balloons both have a shorter focal length than an ordinary lens. Hold them 1 to 2 inches from your tinder.

Fire From Ice

Fire from ice isn’t just some dumb cliché used for high school prom themes. You can actually make fire from a piece of ice. All you need to do is form the ice into a lens shape and then use it as you would when starting a fire with any other lens. This method can be particularly handy for wintertime camping.

Get clear water. For this to work, the ice must be clear. If it’s cloudy or has other impurities, it’s not going to work. The best way to get a clear ice block is to fill up a bowl, cup, or a container made out of foil with clear lake or pond water or melted snow. Let it freeze until it forms ice. Your block should be about 2 inches thick for this to work.

Form your lens. Use your knife to shape the ice into a lens. Remember a lens shape is thicker in the middle and narrower near the edges.

Polish your lens. After you get the rough shape of a lens, finish the shaping of it by polishing it with your hands. The heat from your hands will melt the ice enough so you get a nice smooth surface.

Start a fire. Angle your ice lens towards the sun just as you would any other lens. Focus the light on your tinder nest and watch as you make a once stupid cliché come to life.

The Coke Can and Chocolate Bar

I saw this method in a YouTube video a while back ago and thought it was pretty damn cool. All you need is a soda can, a bar of chocolate, and a sunny day.

Polish the bottom of the soda can with the chocolate. Open up your bar of chocolate and start rubbing it on the bottom of the soda can. The chocolate acts as a polish and will make the bottom of the can shine like a mirror. If you don’t have chocolate with you, toothpaste also works.

Make your fire. After polishing the bottom of your can, what you have is essentially a parabolic mirror. Sunlight will reflect off the bottom of the can, forming a single focal point. It’s kind of like how a mirror telescope works.

Point the bottom of the can towards the sun. You’ll have created a highly focused ray of light aimed directly at your tinder. Place the tinder about an inch from the reflecting light’s focal point. In a few seconds you should have a flame.

While I can’t think of any time that I would be in the middle of nowhere with a can of Coke and chocolate bar, this method is still pretty cool.

Batteries and Steel Wool

Fire from steel wool and a battery

Like the chocolate and soda can method, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you won’t have matches, but you will have some batteries and some steel wool. But hey, you never know. And it’s quite easy and fun to try at home.

Stretch out the Steel Wool. You want it to be about 6 inches long and a ½ inch wide.

Rub the battery on the steel wool. Hold the steel wool in one hand and the battery in the other. Any battery will do, but 9 volt batteries work best. Rub the side of the battery with the “contacts” on the wool. The wool will begin to glow and burn. Gently blow on it.

Transfer the burning wool to your tinder nest. The wool’s flame will extinguish quickly, so don’t waste any time.


Field and Stream

Primitive Ways

{ 129 comments… read them below or add one }

101 . August 10, 2013 at 10:47 pm

There’s also a method where you use a water bottle as the lens; much more convenient, as you do not often carry a magnifying glass or a soda can and chocolate.

102 bgarrett August 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Dryer lint is the best tinder

103 Bike Mann August 17, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Wasp nest work really well and pack well too. When u find any or even at home pack a few in even a ziploc baggie or an upper chest/shirt pocket to use later. Spider webbing will also work but it just takes much more of the stuff to amount to enough. Cigarette paper found inside their own packs when torn into small, quarter inch strips long enough to reach both ends of the battery, even a small AAA or AA battery will ignite and give u the flame u need.

104 Christy August 23, 2013 at 9:30 am

I have used small wood chips, or left over saw dust, and then putting them into a paper egg carton. Then melt paraffin wax into sections in the carton. Once the wax is set, you can pull off individual “egg sections” or wax balls stuffed with wood, set it ablaze under your kindling.

105 FLAMEY September 9, 2013 at 1:08 am

super glue and cottone balls

106 stevo September 10, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Frayed denim off your jeans works well as tinder, if its raining you get dry wood from dead branches up in trees and split and shave it, it will only be wet on the outside

107 Irish-7 September 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm

My wife actually took the time to soak some cotton balls in Vaseline. I just save some drier lint for survival kits that I build. Unlikely that I would use any of these methods, though. As a smoker, I carry 2 lighters and 2 packs of matches every single day. Just a small part of my EDC!

108 Silas Longshot October 4, 2013 at 10:56 am

Couple of other ‘odd things’ to use for kindling or fire starter:
Typical hand sanitizer, with at least 65% alcohol content. Works great with sparks or match. Also, greasy snack foods like Frito’s corn chips. Notice how your fingers are all greasy after munching a few of these? Well, after you get them lit with a match or the hand sanitizer, they will act like little candles, holding a flame for a couple of minutes.

109 Scott October 6, 2013 at 5:03 am

I often see people on these posts say things like “Use dryer lint for tinder” without clarifying. In today’s polypro and nylon world, a LOT of your lint from a mixed load ISN’T suitable for tinder. Those materials just melt rather than catch fire. If you are trying for firestarter material, do a load of JUST COTTON and pull out the lint. Keep this lint separate from any other lint, which is mixed and can be thrown out normally. ALL COTTON lint will catch a spark almost as well as charcloth or steel wool because the fibers are broken down and will allow oxygen to get to the nascent flame as it gets going. Separate out your laundry before collecting your lint and your firemaking will go easier on you when it counts.

110 wingedshadowwolf October 8, 2013 at 2:04 am

I saw on a youtube video how to start a fire using a AA and a gum wrapper(the metallic kind).
Cut or tear the gum wrapper in to thin strips. fold one of them in half, then at the fold carefully cut it at an angle to form a point but still leaving you with an intact strip. Now put the ends of the strip on each terminal of the battery, shiny side facing the battery. At the part where the strip was narrowed down it should catch on fire!

111 Taylor October 16, 2013 at 9:37 am

Great advice!

112 Kyle October 22, 2013 at 6:32 am

Good information, but the article is severely lacking in a few areas:

1) It says make sure that the wood is dry. Well what if you have to start a fire completely from scratch and the wood isn’t dry? The times when you most need a fire (freezing cold, rain storm, etc…) will be the most difficult conditions to start one.

2) It’s hard to envision what the instructions are saying without some good pictures or drawings.

113 Alison November 5, 2013 at 6:08 pm

What is a fire board and spindle

114 Geordin November 15, 2013 at 4:55 pm

A fireboard is essentially a log split in half the long way. You will want to flatten out the bottom so it does not roll. Pretty much a 2X4. You put a notch on the edge. and a small hole near the notch (farther from edge). The spindle is a dry stick, slightly sharpened at the end that meets the fireboard. You hold the fireboard with your foot while spinning the spindle. The point is for the spindle to dig into the hole, create dust and that dust will fall through the notch. eventually you get coal dust falling through the notch and thats when you can make it into a fire.

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Definitely youtube this. It can take days of practice especially if you are experimenting with materials but you can buy kits online if you don’t want to put in the work.

115 milan_avvakumov November 17, 2013 at 11:02 am

Wow! Never knew the method of battery and steel wool. Thanks a lot for sharing!

116 Cody December 5, 2013 at 4:42 pm

The ends of Typha (cattails) make good tinder.

117 World of Warplanes Hack December 8, 2013 at 5:35 am

Incredible! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a
entirely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design.
Great choice of colors!

118 Lance December 24, 2013 at 5:38 am

Likewise, a man should always be prepared outdoors. Carrying a good pocketknife and a bic lighter goes a LONG WAY in forming the basis of ANY survival pack. WIth these, you get rid of having to make a dozen other tools that sound cool to make and use, until you are cold, freezing, being rained on, etc. and can’t make that neat thing you saw on YouTube as fast as you needed it. Just imagine how great Tom Hanks would have had it, if he had only found a Bic Lighter instead of a soccer ball, in all that wreckage. See my point?

119 Rodger January 1, 2014 at 5:54 am

If he’d found a Bic lighter he would’nt have had anyone to talk to.

120 FEW January 2, 2014 at 10:36 am

I am a BSA Eagle and Ranger Scout, thought i would add a few tips for this blog.

First, fire needs three things to be created and sustained in any form: (1) Air, (2) Fuel (drier the better), and (3) (spark, heat, or ignition).
The rule of 5 p’s Perfect Planning Prevents Poor Performance or poor planning promotes poor performance.

I have personally started campfires using Friction, Ignition, lens, Flint, and Chemical methods and here are a few pointers from my experience: The Friction method is extremely difficult for any beginner to achieve fire in their first attempts it requires ideal conditions, hard dry woods, adept setup to create fire with this method it needs to be practiced and even then is considered a final resort!
Lenses are great ways to start fire (if and only if you have good sunlight exposure) so again 5 p’s there are some places on the earth that may totally exclude lens fire creation, Creating fire using light is based on the refraction and diffraction of sunlight, a magnifying glass refracts all the light it gathers into a focal point, Water and Ice have a different focal length of refraction but ice actually focuses light better than glass, that being said i have never started fire with a condom and water or a soda can and toothpaste or chocolate bar yet but I plan on learning and practicing these techniques too.
Flint and Steel are the most reliable type of ignition and this article did not mention some key pointers here, If I could only plan to carry one ignition source it would be a small MAGNESIUM BLOCK W/ ATTACHED FLINT STRIKER, because they will never fail even a novice in starting a fire, Simply carve some of the magnesium block into your kindling nest and strike the striker directly above the magnesium with any type of metal, a knife, key, tin can lid, any metal object and you will have fire!
Ignition types of fire can be very dangerous and should be used with caution, other than that they are usually pretty dependable types of fire, it only takes a small pinch of steel wool spread across the tongues of a 9 volt battery to create a fire, so don’t waste the entire steel wool or burn yourself with it.
Chemical Ignition is also dangerous but can be achieved using hand sanitizers, bug sprays, and any flammable chemical NOTE: MANY HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS WILL SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST IF GIVEN PROPER BREATHING CONDITIONS! Calcium carbide for example was used to create a troop bonfire in a snowbank!
Finally Lighters: if your in a survival situation you should plan to carry as many redundant sources of fire as you possibly can. One simple example is a Bic lighter and a Zippo lighter, these offer separate advantages and disadvantages.

Planning and Preparation are the only two real survival tools!

121 Lucious January 4, 2014 at 9:28 am

@ Rodger: don’t be preposterous… he would have carved an itsy bitsy face on it, named it Bic Tracy and gotten the same emotional fulfillment. Sure, he couldn’t make eye contact at distances greater than a foot, but I think my point is made.

122 Jon January 7, 2014 at 10:45 am

Potassium permanganate and glycerin in anti freeze create a chemical reaction that can be used to start a fire

123 John Chapman January 17, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Dandelion and thistle clocks make great tinder which is fairly easy to find.

Aluminium powder and iodine crystals mixed together need just a single drop of water to burst into flame in a most spectacular way. DON’T mix aluminium and iodine in advance!

124 Gyang January 31, 2014 at 10:00 am

Starting a fire first on track better think ahead of time!

125 Quinn February 17, 2014 at 8:46 pm

I saw on a TV show where they took the bulb out of a flashlight and carefully broke the glass without breaking the filament. They then replaced the bulb in the flashlight and turned it on, creating a spark. However, the filament can break easily and you only have one shot to turn the flashlight on, and for a short time only.

126 Rick from Bensonhurst February 19, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Cooking and illumination are nice, but fire is often a necessary for surviving cold winter nights. (Especially if you’re wet!) Not only will it keep you warm, but the smoke can help locate you, and it will show-up bright as a road flare, to any FLIR-equipped helicopter sent to search for you.
I’ve used the Bow Drill method. It works, but it’s not easy. Especially if you have to make everything from scratch. Even if you’re Johnny Woodsguy, you’ll probably die of hypothermia before you succeed.
None of these sunlight-based techniques tend to work well on short winter days, when the sun is low in the sky. That said…
Magnifying glasses can be very carefully obtained from binocular lenses.
Soda/Beer Can bottoms can also be polished with wet clay, fine wet sand, or wet dirt. However, I’ve found that even ones made with commercial polishing compounds, only work under ideal circumstances.
Making a water lens means waiting hours for the water to freeze, then skill you probably don’t have, and then hoping there’s enough sunlight left to make it work. Good luck with that.
A Magnesium block, with an attached flint strip, never fails. A “must have” item. Use your knife to fray-up a piece of your shirt tail of kindling, if necessary. Shredded dollar bills also work well, if they’re dry. They burn longer and hotter than regular paper.
Gunpowder, obtained from a rifle or pistol cartridge, by carefully prying off the bullet, (easy on most rifle cartridges,) will easily start dry kindling, with just a few sparks. It doesn’t explode, but burns long enough to ignite dry leaves, pine needles, and such.
Of course, nothing will save your life more surely, than a Bic Lighter. (There’s one in the inside pocket of all my coats and jackets.) They have 100′s of lights in them, never break, and are completely waterproof.
A small can of Zippo Lighter Fluid, “3 in 1″ brand light lubricating oil, or a can of “WD-40″, will also provide you with an accelerant that can get even damp tinder burning.
Above all remember; if there’s even the slightest chance you’ll have to spend a cold winter’s night outside, have a $1.29 Bic Lighter WILL save your life.
Another unrelated survival tip: If you’re lost in the wilderness: Follow water.
Little water, like streams and brooks, always leads to bigger water, like creeks and rivers. And big water, always leads to people. Usually, you’re better-off building a fire and shelter, and awaiting rescue. But if you have to move, remember: Little water leads to big water – big water leads to people.

127 Cobus de Beer March 2, 2014 at 3:04 am

Look through your medicine chest. If you have rubbing alcohol, permanganate of potash crystals and glycerine you’re sorted. Grind the crystals to a fine powder, pour into a mound with an indentation on top. Soak dry kindling in alcohol and place around the mound. Now drip 3 or 4 drops of glycerin into the mound. After a couple of seconds the glycerin/crystal mix will spontaneously combust and ignite the alcohol.

128 bassin'Bill March 2, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Carefully use old oil soaked into a roll of toilet paper rolled down to just small enough to fit into a 1 pound coffee can. Tape the lid down with duct tape. This isn’t about starting a fire but rather maintaining it for a long time if either there isn’t much fuel (wood, etc.) around, fuel is too wet, or you need to get warm quick with constant heat. Light it carefully with something long to not get burned. Obviously, using oil get to the side where you don’t breathe pure oil smoke. Other fuels can be used such as alcohol (Please not the good Vodka or Cognac!… although they will make you think you’re warm). The plastic lid can be put back on the sooty can after it cools off. If alcohol is used, the can could be buried to be digested in the ground but not so with the oil. In both cases the lid should be retained for proper disposal. Well, some thoughts here to help with survival. I’m of the opinion that human life comes first and dealing with environmental needs second. Too much said here but preparation is great if it is possible, however, the definition of accident is lack of advanced preparedness. If done right, most of these items could be carried safely in a car or backpack. Me, I carry a couple of hooks and some line to fish with (okay a little more than that) because I like to eat! Be safe.

129 Maddog March 16, 2014 at 6:10 pm

I do long duration solo kayak expeditions every few years. While I take lighters with me on every trip, I seldom use them. Instead I use a flint and steel sparker for my ignition source and vaseline cotton balls as the accelerant. The cotton balls only need a fairly small amount of vaseline and burn for 2-4 minutes which is plenty of time to start a fire in all but the most trying conditions.

I pack the sparker and cotton balls in my car and carry them with me in a small emergency case/med case when out of the city.

Plastic garbage is nearly ubiquitous and tends to burn hot. If available use it.

Mark Sherman

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