When going camping or on a hiking trip, there are several valuable items you should carry with you. Among them are food, water, sometimes a portable shelter, a multi-tool and, of course, matches or a lighter. The last two are necessary in case you need to start a fire to warm up or to signal for help.
Whether you are a survivalist or a camping enthusiast, it is highly recommended that you know how to start a fire without matches or a lighter. In this article, I will share with you some of the best ways to do so, even if you are not an expert.
There are 4 primary ways you can use in order to start a fire if you don’t have any matches or a lighter:
- Friction: This is probably the most common method to use in order to create fire. A common example is rubbing wood together using a plow, bow or hand drill.
- Sparks: You can start a fire by creating sparks using rocks, flint, or a battery with wool.
- Sun: This method is done by concentrating the sunbeam. It usually works only with the right materials and clear weather.
- Chemicals: There are several chemicals that will combust when they are mixed. This method is not very recommended, since you don’t want to carry potentially dangerous materials.
I will now list all methods of starting fire without matches or lighter. I will also remind why we need fire in the first place, as well as refresh very important fire safety rules.
Start a Fire Using Flint and Steel
Using flint and steel is probably one of the easiest methods you can use in order to start a fire in the wilderness when you don’t have any matches.
You can purchase flint and steel kits (which are not too expensive) and do the following 3 steps to start your fire:
- Create a spark
- Catch the spark
- Turn that spark into a flame
Steps one and two can be accomplished by taking some charcloth and laying it down against the flint. Then, you will need to use a metal striker and strike that flint. At this point, once you strike the flint at the correct angle, you will start seeing sparks that will catch the charcloth. When that charcloth begins to glow, transfer it to the tinder nest, and gently wrap the charcloth into the tinder nest. Don’t forget to blow on it.
You should see smoke right away from the tinder nest. To make the flame grow, consider adding dry grass, twigs, and pine straw. Then, in order to set your logs on fire, you should use the more stable flame.
Naturally, you will need a high quality flint that will never let you down. The Friendly Swede Magnesium Alloy Fire Starter is just what you need. This Amazon’s Choice product has over 1,200 5 star reviews. It’s extremely durable and guarantees a hot spark under any weather conditions (wind, snow, high altitude, rain). The flint rod resists corrosion and will be your trusty companion for many years to come. You should definitely try it out!
Use a Glass Lens
When you were a child, you might have used a magnifying glass to burn toys or other things you found around you. So, you may get the idea where I’m going from here with this particular fire-starting method.
If you have a clear view of the sun, you can use a magnifying glass to start a fire. It is best to use a magnifying glass that you can rotate and not the classic magnifying glass with a handle.
Starting a fire with this method is extremely easy. Simply place the tinder on the ground and direct the sun’s beam at the tinder nest until you start seeing smoke coming out of it. When smoke starts to rise, it is time to blow onto the tinder nest until a flame emerges.
Like I’ve said above, this is a very easy method to use in order to start a fire, but you are very much dependent on the sun. When it is dark or in places where you don’t have a clear view of the sun, this method becomes unusable. So, let’s move on to the next method that you should know.
Here is a video that clearly demonstrates this method:
Start a Fire With A Mirror or a Water Balloon
Starting a fire is also possible with alternatives to glass lens, such as a mirror or a balloon filled with water. When you use a balloon that is filled with water, shape it in a form of a sphere. This way, it will successfully focus the sun rays. You can also use a condom for the same purpose.
Remember not to make the balloon or condom too big, since it may distort the focal point of the sunlight. It is best to squeeze the balloon and find the shape that will give you a sharp circle of light. As for the condom, squeeze it in the middle and this way you will form two smaller lenses.
You can also use a mirror to start a fire. If you don’t have a mirror with you, simply polish the bottom of a beer bottle or a soda can using toothpaste or chocolate. It will be just as effective as a regular mirror.
Use Tinder to Start a Fire
It’s not that easy to start a fire in the wilderness even using matches, so imagine how difficult it can be when you don’t have matches with you. In order to ease things up, you can bring with you a tinder kit.
Why would you need such a kit? A tinder kit consists of dry material which is very easy to use and start a fire with. You can make a tinder kit yourself using cotton balls that are soaked in Vaseline, pull thin fiber threads from a rope or purchase ready-to-use tinder kits.
In any case where you don’t have any tinder material nearby, or in case the material is no longer dry and has gotten wet, then try looking for birch or cedar trees. You can shred their bark and thus quickly create some tinder. Cattails can also be used as tinder material.
Use Friction to Start a Fire Without Matches
When thinking about starting a fire without using matches or a lighter, this method is probably the first that comes into mind, and it’s also the most difficult one of them all.
In order to start a fire using friction, you need to make a notch in the shape of V on a log or board, and use a spindle to create that friction. Next, you should rub the spindle between your hands. Make sure you rub it as fast as possible and move your hands up and down rapidly.
When you see that the log or board begins to make smoke, it’s time to catch the produced glowing spark using the tinder nest.
Another option is to make a bow drill, which is easier than the method described above. However, you will first need to make a proper bow, and that is much more challenging.
Here is an excellent video that shows how to make a bow drill and start a fire with it:
Use Steel Wool and Batteries
If you have batteries and steel wool, you can make fire as well.
- First, you need to stretch out the steel wool to 6-inch long and 1/2 inch wide.
- Next, rub the batteries on the steel wool by holding the steel wool in one hand and the battery in your other hand. Any battery should do the trick, but it seems that 9-volt batteries are the best for this method to succeed. Next, you should rub the side of your battery with the wool, and if everything is right, you would start to see the wool glowing and then catching fire. Once it starts to burn, blow on it to keep the fire going.
- Now, take the burning wool into the tinder nest and enjoy your fire. Remember that the flame of the wool may burn down quickly, so once it caught fire, move it fast into the tinder nest.
Start Fire Using Rocks
In order to start a fire using rocks, it is best to use a rock such as quartz or a similarly hard rock. You will also need a carbon steel knife or a striker.
Get a small piece of quartz rock or break a large piece into small pieces. The reason you want a small piece is because it has to fit in your hand and have sharp edges.
Next, with the carbon steel knife in your hand, strike it at the sharp edges of the rock at a 30-degree angle and the result will be sparks. Now, take a small piece of tinder and hold it on top of rock the moment you hit it, so the tinder catches a spark and thus starts to burn.
In case you can’t find quartz anywhere, you can use other rocks that are available around you, but make sure they are smooth and have sharp edges and facets after they are broken.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t succeed at first, keep trying with different rocks until you find the stone or rock that will generate a spark.
Here is a demonstration of how this method works:
Use Ice to Start a Fire Without Lighter
It is possible to make fire from ice. You’ll need to form the piece of ice into the shape of a lens and then use it the same way you would start fire with any other lens, as mentioned earlier. This method can come in handy during the winter time.
So, how do you do this?
First, find clear water. The ice has to be clear for the sun to go through it. If it’s not clear and has impurities, the sunbeam will have difficulties going through the ice.
- In order to get clear ice, fill up a cup, a bowl or a container that is made of foil with water from a clear lake, melted snow or pond water. You should let the water freeze until it turns into ice, and it is recommended that the ice will be 2 inches thick.
- Now, it is time to form your lens. You can use a survival knife to form a lens from the ice, and remember that in order for it to work, it should be narrower near the edges and thicker in the middle.
- Then, you should polish the lens you’ve just made. Now that you have a rough shape of a lens, finish shaping the ice by polishing it with your hands. The heat generated from your hands should melt the ice and give you a smooth surface.
- You are all set to start your fire. Place the ice lens you made towards the sun just like any other lens, and then focus the beam of sunlight on the tinder nest. What you should see next is fire made of ice. Enjoy!
Start Fire Using Wood in a Wet Weather
Let’s imagine the worst case scenario, shall we? You went on a hiking trip or camping, and were responsible enough to take with you matches, a lighter, or even tinder kit with some flint and steel. But, all of this has gotten wet. If that’s not enough, think of a situation where you are caught in rain, and therefore everything around you is also wet. This means no dry logs or kindling. So, what should you do next in order to start a fire?
Your first move will be to look for some dry tinder. Birch or cedar bark could work as well in this case, but bear in mind that you will need to peel a few layers of bark off in order to reach the dry bark.
Believe it or not, but finding dry wood is quite possible. Just look for a standing dead tree, because a standing dead tree (as opposed to a dead tree lying on the forest floor) is actually dry inside. So, your next move will be to peel away that wet and rotted outer section of the dead tree and get to the dry section inside the wood. This dry wood can now be used as your kindling.
When you get a big enough flame, consider using twigs and damp limbs in the fire, as the heat will now be strong to catch it.
Uses of Fire in the Wild
From the dawn of history, mankind has used fire to make food, keep warm, scare animals and more. Here are 7 uses of fire in the wild.
- Fire provides heat and warmth: If you decide to camp, go on a hike or find yourself in the wild during the winter for some other reason, fire will be your source of heat and warmth. There are some places where even during the summer you will still need fire to get warm.
- Fire provides comfort: Fire in your camp provides calmness, comfort and also a sense of assurance that you and everyone around you are safe from harm, while animals and other predators are kept away from the fire.
- Fire keeps animal intruders away: The wild is a home to many animals. In order for them and you to be safe, it’s best not to meet face to face and keep them away from your area. Animals will stay away from fire, since they are afraid of it and instinctually see it as dangerous.
- Fire keeps insects away: It is no secret that all kind of bugs thrive in the wild, but fortunately they tend to stay away from smoke. Your fire will produce this insect-repelling smoke. No mosquito, fly, gnat or any other pesky insect will even dare to get near your campsite. Furthermore, whatever bugs are already near you, the smoke will successfully drive them away.
- Fire helps you purify water: One of the ways to purify water (that you may collect from outdoor water sources such as a lake, pond or stream) is to heat it to a boiling point for 3-5 minutes. Fire helps you get the water to that boiling point, purify it and eliminate any parasites or bacteria that might be present in the water.
- You need fire to cook: The campsite fire acts as your microwave or stove. So whenever you want to cook while camping, fire is your reliable source of heat.
- Fire burns unneeded material and debris: This may sound confusing, but here’s an example. Say on your way you pick up a log or a dead branch, yet they have small twigs and brush attached to them. For your fire to keep burning, you mainly need the big log as your main wood. Therefore, by using fire, you can quickly get rid of the twigs and other natural debris.
Campfire Rules and Safety Tips
If you are not careful and don’t follow the rules, you may cause a wildfire that can lead to serious injuries and even a catastrophe. That is the case in the U.S., where 9 out of 10 wildfires happen because people neglect to follow the campfire safety regulations.
So, please be responsible and follow these safety rules and tips that even a beginner backpacker should know by heart:
- When starting a fire, make sure there isn’t a strong wind and that there are no burn bans declared in the local area.
- Dig a fire pit as far as possible from overhanging tree branches.
- You should encircle the pit you’ve made with rocks.
- Keep a shovel as well as a bucket of water near the fire.
- Your fire feed should consist only of wood.
- Remove anything around the area of the fire, so it won’t catch and spread it.
- Fire should never be left unattended. It is recommended to always supervise the fire you have started, at all times.
- When putting the fire out, pour a lot of water on it, stir with your shovel and then pour some more water on it. Before you leave the campsite, make sure that the fire spot is cold. If it’s too hot to touch, you should not leave it this way.
Can I use rubbing alcohol to start a fire? Your first aid kit probably contains rubbing alcohol, which is also flammable. You can soak a cotton ball or a pine cone in it. Then place the ball or the cone on some dry twigs and leaves, and you will have a fire in no time.
How do you keep a fire on for a long time? Make sure you use dry firewood and that the fire pit is dry from the start as well. It’s also recommended that you use large pieces of wood. While they do not ignite that easily, they last long and keep you warm through the night. There should be some sort of a windbreak near the fire fit, to prevent the winds from putting it out. Additionally, fire needs constant supply of oxygen, so arrange the firewood in a teepee-like V shape. These methods will aid you in surviving the most extreme weather.
Besides starting a fire, what other survival skills are necessary to know? Whether you are a seasoned survivalist or a camping enthusiast, it is highly important that you know how to:
- Make a shelter
- Treat wounds and injuries
- Find water and purify it
- Forage for food and cook it
I go into more details in my post about basic survival skills.