I have been a scoutmaster for 18 years. It is a lot of fun teaching scouts how to make fire using unorthodox methods. Seeing the look in their eyes as they get their first fire built in the outdoors using no matches is a great experience. As a matter of fact, in winter camps where the ground is not frozen I like to use a trench fire pit with rocks in it, then bury it and sleep on top for a very cozy and warm night. I too was bitten by the survival bug when I was a young scout, and the first priority in survival is ‘keeping your wits about you” so you can focus on what is important. One real force multiplier in helping to keep people calm is a fire. It can warm the heart as well as the body, but it doesn’t have to be a bonfire by any means. As a matter of fact a small fire using only sticks can do just about everything you need, and is much easier to leave no trace with when you are done. Here are a few simple methods anyone can use to get a nice little fire started. Please remember that little is the key word in a survival or bug out situation. Cowboys used to light a very small fire just big enough to put their coffee pot on, because they ate their food cold, and a hot drink was all they needed to warm their spirits. The methods below are simple and inexpensive methods of turning the first spark into a flame.
Before we start, I would like to say that I have no financial interest in any company or manufacturer that I list, and only do so out of my experiences over the years with them. No matter how much I would like to have them sponsor my scouts, the only thing I get from them is the potential opportunity to pay Uncle Sam his Tax.
Matches: enough said, unless it is windy in which case you may only have a 0.5 second flame. Let’s read on, shall we?
Lighter: ditto…but wait what if your lighter is out of fuel? Well if it still has a good flint, then you have a handy little spark generator. I prefer the older Zippo style lighters since I don’t have to worry about a seal drying out and I can store some lighter fluid for many refills. It also lets me have a refill of flints right in the bottom of the lighter. Zippo even now offers a small 4 oz. refill canister that you can place into your pack and will not spill. It will provide you enough fluid for one full refill of your lighter. If you are thinking longer term SHTF scenario then storing fluid or using disposable lighters would be wise. Then again if you keep reading I have some other ideas for you to consider as backups.
Permanent Matches: These are an interesting combination between a Lighter, and a “Ferrocerium bar” (below). It comes with a small reservoir which you fill with lighter fluid. The ‘cap’ has a magnesium striker it with a glass wick that is supposed to burn up to 15,000 times. The wick is in the screw top lid which extends down into the lighter fluid. You strike the magnesium stick on the side of the container to ignite.
Fire Piston: The fire piston uses the friction from compressing air to get an ember from tinder. You can buy them on amazon, but you can also find a variety of videos showing how to make your own, and how they work online. If you are at all skeptical try searching Charles’ Law or Boyle’s Law on the Internet regarding pressure and temperature effects on gases.
Flint and Steel: If you can find some flint, and you have a piece of high carbon steel then all you do is strike the two together and you get a spark. These are usually used with char-cloth (cloth which has been charred) to catch the spark, but you could use a number of items to catch them. To use it effectively you would hold the char-cloth just over the top of the flint and strike down onto the flint with a piece of steel, hoping to catch the spark on the cloth. Videos of making and using char-cloth are also available online.
Ferrocerium fire starters: Sometimes mistakenly referred to as “flint”, these come in many different styles from the straight bar you slide across a piece of steel to create a nice spark, to the Magnesium fire starter bars. These all will get you a great spark, but remember that you want to pull your Ferrocerium across a stationary piece of steel so you can put your spark where you want it. If you try to slide the steel down the bar you may ruin the tinder nest / pile you have created when you hit it. Used with Dryer Lint or Steel wool, you will have a fire the first time, every time. You can buy these inexpensively just about anywhere, but my personal favorite is the one made by Strike Force which has a small storage compartment in the handle.
Magnifying glass: Everyone remembers burning insects with a magnifying glass, and yes you can get things to smolder, but you really need a good amount of sun to get a magnifying glass to start a fire. To do it you need to focus the brightest part of the light coming through the glass into the smallest most compact point you can make it, and then hold it there. It will work on paper, and really dry small vegetation, but you do have to be patient. You could use a disassembled Camera Lens or Binoculars for the lens as well.
9V batter and fine steel wool: I find that the finer the steel wool (0000), the better it lights. Also spread it out just a little bit to get more air to the fire, and you don’t need a lot. Just rub the steel wool across the top of the battery and the electrical shorting sparks will ignite the oil on the steel wool. (The oil is what helps prevent rusting on the steel wool) DO NOT STORE THE TWO TOGETHER…it gets hot fast. You can also use a standard 1.5v AA, C, or even a D batter, but then you have to stretch the steel wool from one end of the battery to the other, and it gets a little awkward. A little goes a long way with this. Fine steel wool will also work very well with a Ferrocerium rod and will light right up.
Potassium Permanganate (a powder) and Glycerin (a viscous fluid): Potassium Permanganate is an oxidant which can be used to sterilize water, treat ulcers like canker sores, and a general topical disinfectant, but it will stain the affected area purple. It is used to treat candidiasis (superficial fungal infections like Oral Thrush and Vaginitis) and will neutralize Strychnine (poison). Glycerin, or Glycerol, may be used as a laxative (2-10 ml used as a suppository or enema), and has been used to treat psoriasis, burns, calluses, and other minor skin irritations. It works as a bacterial desiccant (it removes moisture through absorption) on contact so it can also help with periodontal diseases. Okay back to the point, when you create a small mound of Potassium Permanganate with a small depression in the top, and then place a few drops of Glycerin in the depression you get a very impressive exothermic reaction which will start a fire, or even can be used to initiate a thermite reaction. It takes a bit of time for it to occur but don’t put your hands over it to feel for heat. It happens very quickly and is very hot when it happens. I recommend testing this method, but don’t do it on your kitchen table with a thick folded up piece of heavy duty tinfoil. It will go through it and make your wife very unhappy with the black mark it leaves. Trust me on that one.
FRICTION FIRES: There are many different ways to start a fire using friction. The hand drill method, for example, where you spin a stick on a flatter piece of wood with a hole in the bottom and something to catch the ember below (blisters galore of you don’t wear gloves, and you will get tired very quickly). The old Bow drill method (below) which is better, to the fire plough where you create a long notch in a piece of wood and then slide a stick back and forth in the notch and push the ember out onto your tinder pile.
Hand Drill: You will need a straight stick with a narrowed end (Drill), a notched piece of wood with a depression for holding the narrowed end of the stick (the notch should extend into the bottom of the depression for air movement). You will also need a piece of Leather, or metal under the notch to catch the ember. The notched board goes on the ground and you hold it in place by putting your foot on it or kneeling on it. . The drill should be standing straight up out of the depression, and held in place by your two palms. By spinning the drill between your palms, and pressing down you will create friction and over time a smoking ember. You will continually have to move your hands back up to the top of the drill as they will move down as you continue to spin and push down on the drill. When you see some smoke coming from the depression then you can remove it to see if you have an ember. When you have an ember you will need to move it quickly to your tinder and begin the process of nurturing it into a flame.
Bow Drill: This one is probably the most complicated in that you must have: a straight piece of wood about 8-12 inches long which is narrowed on both ends (drill), a notched piece of wood with a depression for holding the narrowed end of the drill (the notch should extend into the bottom of the depression for air movement), a flexible but strong piece of wood about 16 to 24 inches long that has a slight natural curve to it (the bow) , a string (bow string) and a piece of something hard enough to withstand the heat from the drills friction with a depression to help control the top of the spinning drill. You will also need a piece of Leather, or metal under the notch to catch the ember. The notched board goes on the ground and you hold it in place by putting your foot on it or kneeling on it. Then you have the drill standing straight up out of the notch. The bow string goes around the drill (one wrap only) and then on the top of the drill is held by the hard small piece of wood and your hand (gloves are a good idea). The bow string should be tight enough that when you push the bow back and forth it will spin the drill but not bind on it. Once you have this balancing act in place, you move the bow back and forth until you see an appreciable amount of smoke coming from the notch then you look under it and see if you have an ember. If you do then transfer it to your tinder immediately and start the gentle blowing that will bring you a flame. If you don’t have any In-Laws that frustrate you, then this will help you understand what frustration is all about. If you can do this, you can do anything. This is a really primitive ‘art form’ method of making fire.
Getting that first spark to actually ignite your tinder is a little harder that it appears on the silver screen. I have had many scouts go grab a handful of what they think is dry bark, or weeds only to find that it is still too wet, or the oils in them only smoke no matter what they do. One of my favorite examples was an episode of a survival BASED reality television show where they gave the contestants a magnesium fire bar. They were holding the magnesium side, and striking the flint side with a machete. They were getting a pretty good spark too, but there was NO WAY they were getting a fire. My wife, whom I love dearly, was sitting there saying “Oh that was a good one”, for every spark they got. I on the other hand was sitting there thinking, “They would die in a real survival situation”. It wasn’t until I explained to her that you can scrape magnesium into a little pile, hold the fire starter right down on the pile, and scraping the blade (held at a slightly obtuse angle towards the pile ) down the ‘flint’ side so that the sparks land in the magnesium and “Heywhadoyaknow” you have fire.
Ethanol based hand cleansers: these come in pocket bottles or pumps and the 10% ethanol will burn for a short time. A spark can ignite this but the ethanol will evaporate quickly. I only list this because of the dual purpose this item has. I don’t recommend using any type of “Scout Water” (read: Flammable liquids) to start a fire due to the dangers involved.
Cotton balls and Vaseline: These will burn once ignited just like a candle will. If you spread out the cotton so it is not just a clump, you can light it with a good spark.
Paraffin and Cotton balls: Very similar to above, just different substance.
Sawdust and paraffin blocks: Fill the depressions in a paper based egg carton with a mixture of melted paraffin mixed with sawdust (from wood not particle board due to the glue). Let them cool, and cut or break apart the individual parts, with the cardboard attached and it can be lit with a lighter, or match and will burn like a candle.
Dryer Lint: This is my personal favorite. Simply take the lint out of your dryer and place it into a pill bottle, Ziploc baggie or other water resistant container and it can be started with the smallest spark. This will also win you points with the significant other by cleaning out the lint filter. With it being so flammable you may want to confirm that your dryer vent is clean and connected. This is especially important if you have a furnace, water heater, or if your dryer is heated by Natural Gas (flame) in the same room. Remember; safety first. Dryer Lint will also work very well with a Ferrocerium rod on the first strike.
Wax and newspaper: Dip pieces of newspaper in paraffin wax and it burns like a candle. This one is similar to the sawdust but you can leave some of the paper not covered in paraffin and it will ignite easier. You can do this with cardboard or any other paper product as well. The paraffin only makes it a little slower burning and a little more durable.
Gun powder: Yes you could remove a bullet from a cartridge with a pair of pliers and use some of the powder inside to catch your spark, but it is a violent reaction so if you are desperate enough to try this, PLEASE BE CAREFUL. (All the usual safety warnings and legal disclaimers apply.)
FIRE TYPES AND PURPOSES:
TeePee: This is your typical campfire where you have sticks in the shape of a TeePee over your tinder and kindling. It is great to keep warm, and puts out a lot of light. This would be fine if you are trying to be found, but not if you don’t want to give away your location.
Parallel Fire: This fire has two logs, one next to the other, and the fire burns starts at one end and burns towards the other. You need to have them slightly separated at one end and more so at the other. You build the fire at the wider end, and can put a pot right on top and air can still get to the fire to keep it going, and the log does provide a bit of light discipline, but there are better ways to achieve this. This one also provides some good heat.
Swedish Fire log: Take a log and quarter one end (only one end if possible, but if you go through then just bind the bottom back together). Into the end where you have partially split it, stuff some tinder down into the split and light it. This will burn for a long time, and can provide heat and light when needed. This is also be called the “Swedish Torch” so keep light discipline in mind.
Trench Fire: For a Trench fire, you will need to dig a trench and then build a long fire in it. The idea is that it can burn for a longer period of time as the fire moves through the trench from one end to the other. Depending on the depth, it can hide the light from the flame pretty well, and you can put a grate across it to cook on. You need to be sure it is not so deep though that air cannot get to it and put it out.
Reflector Fire: A reflector fire is basically any fire built next to a block to prevent heat or light to escape in a certain direction. These can reflect heat into a shelter, and help block light from moving, however the light can then again reflect off of whatever it hits and in the dark, the glow is enough.
Log Cabin: A log cabin fire is a fire where you stack the outer ‘walls’ as you would in a log cabin. It is great to cook over because the heat tends to leave the top, in the same manner as the chimney of a house. It too provides good heat, and light when wanted.
Dakota Fire: The Dakota fire [pit] is a convection fire, which provides a great fire with very little light. First check the direction of the wind if possible to help your fire burn better. Dig a hole in the ground about 1 foot wide at the top, 4 to 6 inches wider at the base on one side, and at least 1 foot deep. The wider part of the base should be on the downwind side of the hole. Then dig a second hole, with the closest part of the hole, about a foot away from the first one, on the upwind side of the first hole . The second hole should be six inches across, and dug at an angle towards the bottom of the first hole. In the first hole build your small fire and after you get it going you will see that air is moving from the second hole into the first one to keep the fire going, and it will become more efficient and put off less smoke due to the conductive air movement.
Fire stoves: These have been around for years, and have been made from everything from a number 10 can (Hobo Stoves) to some of the wood gas stoves like the Sierra Stove. I list these because they burn for heat, use the same materials that a campfire would, and last for a long time providing a stable cooking surface. There are videos on the web on how to make wood gas stoves that you can build and put in your B.O.B. or Get Home Bag (G.H.B.)
Well there it is. If you can’t get a fire started with the instructions above, then please be sure to live in the middle of a large population center so you don’t have to suffer to long in the event of a natural disaster or socioeconomic crisis. Don’t get me wrong, a fire is not difficult, but you should know how to do it before you need it. It is also very cool to be able to show your kids, friends, or others you want to impress how to make a fire without matches, or a lighter. For those who wish to be proficient at it a little bit of practice is all you need. Remember when you are cold, hungry, and out in the middle of nowhere, a fire can save your life. Just remember to think about what kind of fire you really need.
Keep your powder (and your tinder) dry!