5 Ways to Start a Fire Without Matches or Lighters

camp fire

So, you’re stranded somewhere and need fire to keep warm or you want to be more prepared in case that ever happens? Starting a fire without matches or lighters is a crazy idea to some people. But, sometimes it’s your only option. To be better prepared in survival situations, here are five ways to start a fire without lighters or matches!

The first thing you need before trying to start any fire is dry tinder. It’s the perfect fire starter, and it can be found about anywhere. However, the best option is to buy a tinder kit somewhere like Amazon, which usually consists of items like cotton balls and paracord. An alternative to a tinder kit is char cloth.

kindling and tinder

Gathering kindling and tinder is one of the most important parts of building a fire.

Although, natural tinder is everywhere; tinder could be dry grass, the fluff of cattails, and pieces of bark. Not only do you need tinder, but you also need kindling. The two aren’t very different, but kindling should be held onto so you can keep your fire going. You can use dry wood, dry leaves, and small twigs.

Kindling is just as important as tinder, so don’t go through the trouble of starting a fire if you haven’t gathered any kindling yet. Once you have plenty of tinder and kindling, go ahead and make your tinder nest. Fire starting can be relatively easy as long as you have patience. Plus, it’s a great survival skill to have under your belt. 

1. Flint and Steel

This version might be a little old-fashioned, but it helps out when you’re in a bind. You’ll need a flint rock and a steel striker for this method. First, you place your tinder or char cloth on top of your flint rock and hold them together in one of your hands. Using the steel striker, strike down at a 30-degree angle to create a spark. 

Once the sparks land on the char cloth or tinder, they will begin to smolder. Very carefully, transfer this ember to the rest of your tinder and blow gently until it catches on fire. If you’re really into hiking and camping, you should always carry flint and steel with you just in case. It’s a good option to have in case of emergencies. 

2. Glass or Plastic

Remember how you might’ve lit an ant or two on fire with a magnifying glass as a kid? It actually works well in survival situations. The most important thing in this method is the sun; it won’t work unless the sun is shining. For this method, you can use a magnifying glass, a pair of eyeglasses, binocular lenses, or a full plastic water bottle. You can also polish the bottom of a soda can with toothpaste to make it work. 

Once you pick your device, the rest is a waiting game. Line up your device with the sun so that it creates beams onto the ground. Once you’ve lined the device and sun up to where you want to build a fire, place your char cloth or tinder under the beam. Then, you wait. It’ll take a few minutes, but it’ll happen eventually. This method is good because it can be done by basically anyone anywhere. You don’t need special materials to start the flame; all you need is glass or plastic. 

Starting a fire with flint and steel

Starting a fire with flint and steel is probably the most popular way.

3. Friction

It’s a known fact: friction creates heat. And if it can create enough heat, it can start a fire. There are several ways to use friction to start a fire. There’s a bow drill, a hand drill, and a fire plow. 

For the bow drill, you’ll need:

  • A fireboard: a half-inch piece of flat, dry, and dead softwood
  • A bowstring: paracord, shoelaces, or any kind of rope
  • A top piece / Socket: a piece of rock, shell, or bone
  • A bow wood: a sturdy piece of wood with a curve that extends from your arm to fingertip
  • A spindle: a piece of dry, dead softwood that’s about eight inches in length and one inch in diameter and has blunt points on both of its ends

First, create a hole that will fit the spindle in the fireboard by using a pocket knife. Next, create a V-shaped notch where you drill in the fireboard; this collects the coal and hot dust. Place your fireboard on top of a leaf or piece of wood to collect the ember. 

Wrap the bowstring around the spindle, place the spindle in the hole in the fireboard, and put the socket on top of the spindle to hold it in place. Apply downward pressure to the socket and begin moving the bowstring back and forth until it starts to smoke. Continue moving the bowstring for a few more minutes so an ember can be formed. Then, use the bark or leaf to transfer the ember to your tinder or char cloth. 

The hand drill method is fairly similar to the bow drill method. For this method, you’ll need:

  • A spindle: a piece of softwood or pithy wood that has a length between 18 and 24 inches and the diameter of your pinky and has slightly pointy ends
  • A fireboard: a half-inch thick piece of dry, dead softwood

The main difference between the hand and bow drill methods is that you use your hands for this one. Create a hole in this fireboard with a pocketknife, and then create a V-shaped curve in the board to catch the coal and hot dust. Next, place the fireboard on top of a leaf or piece of bark to collect the ember.

Put the spindle in the hole, place your hands on both sides of the spindle, and rub your hands back and forth. After you create enough friction to create smoke, transfer the ember onto your char cloth or tinder. 

For a fire plow, or a fire plough, you’ll need:

  • A fireboard: a flat piece of wood (sotol, hibiscus, cedar, juniper, and other softwood) with a six or an eight-inch groove
  • A plow: a two to a three-inch piece of flat, wide wood that has an angled head that fits into the groove of the fireboard

First, hold your plow at a 45-degree angle to the piece of fireboard. Next, begin moving the plow up and down on the groove. Do this quickly, and a lump of burning coal will form. All of these friction methods work very well, and they can be done with resources you find in the woods. 

4. Batteries and Steel Wool

Because of the magnesium in batteries, it immediately catches fire when put against steel wool. You’ll need either a 9-volt battery or two AA/AAA batteries. For the 9-volt battery, simply set it in the bundle of steel wool. Then, a fire will start automatically. 

For the two AA/AAA batteries, you’ll need to tape them in a row so they don’t move. Then, pull off a piece of steel wool out of the pile and connect one of its ends to the positive side of the first battery. Next, take the opposite end of the steel wool and connect it to the negative side of the second battery. It’ll make a kind of circuit, and the circuit will create sparks to ignite your steel wool.  

This method can be very dangerous if you don’t take caution. You’ll need to keep a distance from the battery while it’s sparking and be extra careful. However, it’s an easy method that can be done very quickly. Just be aware of what you’re doing.

5. Chemicals

While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have chemicals on you, it’s still a method worth mentioning. These methods are very dangerous and should only be used in life and death emergency situations. For the first chemical method, you’ll need potassium permanganate and glycerin/sugar. 

First, pour some potassium permanganate onto a rock to create a small well on the rock. Next, add some glycerin to the potassium permanganate and wait for a few minutes. The mixture will catch on fire. As for sugar, use the blunt end of a stick to crush them together. Make sure to keep these chemicals apart when hiking.

The next mixture includes ammonium nitrate, table salt (sodium chloride), zinc powder, and water. First, mix four grams of ammonium nitrate and one gram of table salt, and grind them together with a rock. Next, mix ten grams of zinc powder into the mixture. Add a few drops of water, and wait for the mixture to catch fire. Again, keep these chemicals apart while hiking because they could combust if accidentally mixed. 

a camp fire with a mountain view

Starting a fire without matches or lighters is a great skill to have.

What if it’s Raining?

Another dilemma when you’re trying to start a fire is that it’s wet outside. Your tinder is wet, and there isn’t anything dry around you. Is all hope lost? No, you can still start a fire if you’re resourceful enough. Start by finding dry tinder.

It might seem impossible, but if you have a pocket knife, it’s very possible. Go to a birch or cedar tree and start to peel back layers of bark until you get to a spot that’s dry. Make sure you gather enough to keep as a backup. Next, find a standing dead tree.

Dead trees that are laying on the forest floor are often wet on the inside, but standing dead trees are dry on the inside. Peel away the wet, rotted outer section of the trunk and eventually, you’ll reach the dry wood. Use this wood as your kindling. 

The good news is that once the fire has caught and really started burning, you can feed it with damp twigs and limbs. The heat will be strong enough to catch the damp wood and burn it up. The hardest part is finding dry wood. However, it is possible. 

Best Types of Wood for Starting Fire

When you’re collecting wood for a fire, you might not know what works best for campfires. While all wood will burn, some wood is better than others. Your choice of wood is important because you’ll want wood that burns longer and hotter. The best kinds of wood are oak, hickory, ash, and cedar. 

Oak is arguably the best kind of wood to use in campfires. Oak burns slow and steady while producing substantial heat. Also, oak is one of the most common woods that is found in North America. Hickory wood is one of the best kinds of wood in terms of burning. It burns hotter than oak and maple. Hickory is a hardwood that’s very dense, so it can be hard to split. However, it burns very well and holds little moisture. 

Ash trees have about 50 different species and are known as some of the best firewood in the world. Ashwood doesn’t produce a lot of smoke and burns really well. It doesn’t retain water easily either! Ashwood will also burn when it’s green. 

Cedarwood doesn’t produce a big flame, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in heat. Cedarwood is ideal for chilly nights. Also, cedar smells very good! Some woods that you might want to avoid are poplar, spruce, willow, and alder. 

Fire Starting Techniques to Avoid

When building a fire, there are some things that you just shouldn’t do. First of all, don’t pick anything off the wet ground to feed your fire. It won’t burn. Next, don’t use rotten wood. Bacteria and fungi are the two main things that cause wood to rot, and they cause it to lose its fuel value. 

You also need to make sure that you use enough tinder. The best amount of tinder is two big handfuls to ensure that it creates a strong foundation. Another thing to avoid is lighting your fire into the wind. Fire can be blown out easily, so finding a place with little wind is key.

Ways to Put Out a Fire

Say your fire has gotten a little out of hand. What do you do? There are a couple of things you could do in these circumstances. Here are ten ways to put out a fire. Pour water on it. It might seem like the easiest thing to do, but some people do forget about water.

This is the quickest method and the best method in case of an emergency. Another thing you can do is douse the fire in dirt or sand. This method takes a little bit longer, so water is your best option. In case of an emergency, the first thing to do is not panic. Don’t throw the water down; you’ll want to spread it slowly so the smoke doesn’t spread.

Start by spreading the water around the outside of the fire to make it smaller in size. Walking in a spiral around the fire while pouring the water onto it is the best way to do this. Even if you think the fire is out, grab a stick and move the kindling around. If you see any red embers, pour more water on them. Stir the kindling and tinder until you don’t see any more red embers. 

Final Verdict

Flint and steel is the best way to start a fire if you don’t have matches or lighters. They’re lightweight, and they don’t require a long setup time. It only takes a couple of strikes to start a spark, and you’ll have a fire in no time! 

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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.