Starting a Fire Without Matches
Whether you’re a hardcore outdoorsman or just a weekend warrior, knowing how to start a fire without matches is an essential skill to learn. You might never need it but having the knowledge to start a fire can give you peace of mind in the face of an emergency or at least make you the coolest guy at this year’s family barbeque.
There’s something so primal and satisfying about fire craft. The first evidence of humans making fire comes from around 200,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens used friction to generate a blaze. It wasn’t until the 19th century that matches came into use.
So, starting a fire without them harkens back to a primordial skillset that inspires you with power and purpose. When you produce fire, you can boil and purify water, create a rescue signal, cook food, and provide enough heat to keep you warm.
5 Cool Ways to Make Fire
There are nearly a dozen ways to make fire. Some methods are primitive and others more scientific. Once you learn the basics, you can play around with different materials and methods to discover new and innovative ways to start a fire. Essentially, there are 5 different ways to reliably make fire without a match or a lighter.
There’s the bow drill method, which requires some wood cutting and hard labor to generate that blaze.
There’s the fire plow, which also requires some wood cutting but replaces the drilling motion of the previously mentioned method with a methodical back and forth friction. It’s a no-brainer.
Focused sunlight can start a fire without a match. In ancient Greece, Archimedes turned this method into a deadly weapon. Another way to reliably start a fire is with a piece of steel-wool and a battery, although this method requires very little skill.
Lastly, there’s the chemical fire that can be produced when you mix glycerin and potassium permanganate. You can use a flint and steel. That was the ready-made solution for starting a fire for centuries before the invention of match sticks, but we won’t cover that in this topic. It’s just as easy as using a match or a lighter.
Where’s the fun in that?
Before You Begin
If you’re planning to start a fire, then your very first step should be planning on how to put out that fire. In 2017, the U.S. Fire Administration reported 14,670 fire-related injuries and 23 billion dollars in damages. So, be careful. A fire extinguisher is the easiest fix for putting out most fires, but you can keep a large bucket of water on hand, as well. Make sure your fire-making pit is dug out well and kept away from loose combustible material like paper, dry leaves and grass.
You should also gather a bucket of soil, sand or dirt. When your fire has been nearly extinguished with water or a fire extinguisher, cover the embers with sediment to cut off all oxygen. Remember, fires need oxygen to burn. Cut off the oxygen supply and you’ll successfully put out the fire. If you feel that the fire is getting out of hand, do not hesitate to call your local fire department.
T.K.F. stands for tinder, kindling, and fuel. This is an important acronym to remember because these are the basic items you’ll need to create and sustain a proper fire.
Tinder is the material that you use to start the initial spark of a fire. In essence, all fire making methods are used to create a spark. It’s the tinder that starts the actual fire. Even if you had matches, it would be very difficult to light a fire by holding a match next to a stack of logs. You need a dry, highly-combustible material such as cotton, paper, tampons, old leaves, wood shavings, or certain types of tree bark. What you need to do is make a small bundle of tinder materials that is loosely constructed so that air can easily pass through it. A great tinder bundle will look like a bird’s nest when constructed.
Kindling accelerates the fire once the tinder bundle lights up. Fire is hungry for material to burn. It helps to think of kindling as the appetizer for the fire. You can use small twigs, sticks or wood chips for kindling, but you should gather quite a lot of kindling in advance. It can get used fairly quickly and if you don’t have a good amount of kindling materials on hand, your fledgling fire could die down while you’re scrambling to find more items.
Fuel is what sustains a fire over a long period of time. It’s the main course, so to speak. There are various fuel sources that people have used to sustain their fires over the centuries. The obvious choice would be dry logs of wood, but a less obvious source of fuel is manure. Horse and cow manure have been used by primitive cultures as a fuel source for thousands of years. Other fuel sources include fabrics (curtains, tablecloths, and clothing).
Quick Safety Note:
You shouldn’t use accelerants when starting a fire under normal circumstances. Spraying lighter fluid over your barbeque charcoals gives a satisfying reaction, but if you’re trying to start a fire without a lighter or matches then accelerants are best to be avoided.
Related: How to build a campfire to survive
Don’t use gasoline, kerosene or other petroleum-based fuels because they can quickly get out of hand. You should also avoid using garbage and plastics as a fuel source because they can give off noxious fumes that can be hazardous to your health.
Now, let’s give these 5 methods a try.
1. Bow Drill
Playing card, business card, or ID card
The bow drill creates fire from friction. It requires a bit of bush engineering and works best when done by two people. You need a durable length of string or rope to operate the bow drill, about 2 ft. or more. Your shoestring works just as well as anything.
Then, you need a bow. Look for something about 30 inches in length with the width of a jumbo pencil – a stick works nicely but it should be a live stick cut from a tree, not just a dry piece lying on the ground.
It needs to have some flexibility. You can tie your string around the ends of the bow or cut notches in the wood and knot the string in place.
The string should be rather loose so that you can wrap the excess length around the middle of your drill.
Now, the drill should be a thick, dry wood that has a softness to it. Pine, cedar and spruce are softwoods. The drill should be about twice the thickness of your bow stick and roughly 8 to 10 inches in length. Pay close attention to the ends of the drill. Both ends should be blunted because you need a good, flat surface to apply downward pressure.
Next, you need a fire plank. It’s a long, flat piece of wood that serves as a base for the bow drill. Base boards, split log slices, and spare wood from old furniture works well. Now, cut a V-shaped notch from the center of the board extending all the way to the outside edge.
If you’re new to this method, then you might want to cut several V-shaped notches all along the length of the fire plank. The next step is to find a concave rock, piece of bone or even a large socket to help you apply downward pressure onto the bow drill.
You can use your hand if you like, but that drill can really cut into the flesh of your palm as the friction builds up.
Now that all the materials are assembled, dig out a small section of earth beneath your plankboard to catch the ember. Place some tinder under there, as well. You can use a playing card here. It’s small, durable and can easily be transported to your larger tinder bundle once your ember starts to catch on.
Now, place the drill head in the narrow end of the notch and firmly press down. With your other hand (or your buddy) start moving the bow back and forth in a deliberate sawing motion. You can place your foot on the plank board to keep it steady. Once you start seeing some smoke, increase your speed and pressure. Don’t stop.
Wait until you see sustained smoke for at least five seconds. Then, gently tilt the plank board away so that you can access the ember on your playing card.
2. Fire Plow
Medium-sized bush knife
The fire plow is another example of a friction fire. It’s one of the most straight-forward methods of starting a fire without a match. You need to find suitable materials from the environment and cut some wood with your knife. You can use a small pocket knife, but a larger bush knife will save you time and energy if you need to cut and shape a large piece of wood.
You’re going to need a fire board. This will be a dry split log with a long flat surface or a scrap piece of furniture. A broken baseboard or plank from a discarded mattress works really well. The length and width aren’t that important. Ideally, you would want something that is at least 9 to 12 inches long and half as wide.
Etch out a spine that runs along the length of the fire board. Be sure to leave about 3 to 4 inches of space before you reach the edge. This is where you’ll collect wood shavings and place extra tinder.
Next, you’ll need a spindle. Find or craft a smooth stick that’s easy to hold in your hands. In this case, you don’t need to necessarily cut away a live branch. Just find something hard and dry. The length should be about the same as your forearm. Shave both ends as blunt as possible.
Now, you should kneel down with the length of the fire board extending out before you. You can wedge the far end against a heavy rock for stability and put rocks beneath the near end to create a slight incline. This will help you put all your body weight down into the spindle.
Now, take a firm grip on the spindle. You can use a piece of cloth or some grass to shield your palms because this will take some time to generate an ember.
Move the spindle’s pointy end up and down along the spine of the board. Start slowly and then work up your speed. You should start to see shavings of the wood accumulate at the far end of the board. Make sure you stop your forward motion at that point so that the friction created from rubbing the wood will hit the pile of tinder.
After some hard labor, you’ll start to see some smoke. Don’t stop. Keep plowing away until you have at least two or three embers. Once you have some sustained smoke and multiple embers, then blow on those embers and gently move the fire plow over to your tinder bundle.
3. Focused Sunlight
Lens from a pair of eyeglasses
Starting a fire with focused sunlight is one of the coolest ways to create a blaze. It works by pulling all the available light into a single, focused point. That powerful, little beam of light will generate enough heat to catch a fire in the right circumstances. For this method, you need a clear, sunny day. It won’t work in cloudy, rainy or otherwise overcast conditions.
You can use several different items to focus the sunlight, but a lens from a pair of eyeglasses is one of the most readily available materials for this method. Other items that can focus sunlight include a polished soda can, reflector from a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and even a plastic bottle filled with water.
The first step is to assemble a tinder bundle. As mentioned earlier, this could be a pile of wood shavings, dry leaves or loose paper. The direction of sunlight changes so you need to work quickly once you have a window of opportunity. Place the tinder bundle on the ground, careful to avoid shadows from overhead trees.
Kneel down in front of the tinder bundle and hold the lens between your thumb and forefinger. You will need to adjust the angle and distance repeatedly. You want to look at the tinder bundle, not the lens.
Look for a small point of light that is roughly the size of a pea. When you have that pea-sized point of light hitting your tinder bundle, adjust the angle and distance of the lens as needed so that you can keep that focused beam of light directly shining on your tinder bundle. In ideal conditions, the tinder bundle should spark a fire in about 15 minutes.
4. Steel-Wool and a Battery
Mobile phone battery
Piece of steel-wool
This is one of the easiest ways to start a fire without matches. You can use a number of different items, but most people never go anywhere without their mobile phone. Small batteries also work just fine and so do chewing gum wrappers. If you are using your mobile phone battery, then it’s important to note that this method of fire-making will drain your battery.
So, you won’t be able to phone for help or use your mobile phone after starting this fire. You’ll need to recharge it.
So, the first step will be to open your phone casing and remove the lithium-ion battery. This is usually a small, rectangular-shaped block located in the back of your phone. Just a quick tap on the wrist and it should fall out.
Next, you will need a piece of steel wool. It’s good to keep one in your emergency preparedness kit or you could just swipe one from your kitchen sink.
Pull it apart a bit to create a puffy surface area that will take on oxygen once lit. You don’t want to have your hands anywhere near the steel wool once it catches on fire, so you should place the steel wool directly inside the tinder bundle. The fire will catch on fast, but it’s short-lived. You only get one shot at this one.
The next step is to carefully rub the positive and negative ends of the battery against the steel wool. Therefore, an AA or AAA battery won’t work well for this method. You need to make contact with both ends of the battery. By rubbing the mobile phone battery against the steel wool, a fire will rapidly begin to form. Close your tinder bundle around it and blow on it until a full-on blaze ignites.
5. Chemical Fire
Tin Can or aluminum can
The last fire-making method on the list takes you out of the world of physics and into the realm of chemistry. This is one of the most dangerous methods for making a fire without matches because it creates an explosive blast.
Once the glycerin and potassium permanganate combine, you’ll get a chemical reaction that can take you off-guard if you’re not careful.
Now, potassium permanganate can be found at the drug store and bought over-the-counter. You can get it in pill form or as a powder. It’s widely used to disinfect wounds and treat fungal infections, so you should consider adding this compound to your emergency preparedness kit.
Glycerin, also called glycerol, is a common liquid compound that is used in food sweeteners, hair gel, e-cigs, and cough syrups. You can also just buy glycerin in its purest form from the pharmacist.
Be sure to clear the area and have a tinder bundle ready before you begin. It might help to have two tinder bundles for this method – one to contain the initial spark and another to generate a more controlled fire. Place about a tablespoon of potassium permanganate on a crushed tin can or just use the top lid of the can.
Position it in the center of your tinder bundle. Using an eyedropper, put two drops of glycerin directly onto the potassium crystals. The eyedropper is optional here. It’s not necessary, but it can help you control the amount of glycerin you place inside the tinder bundle.
Now, this chemical process takes about 2 to 3 minutes to ignite. You will have time to back away to a minimum safe distance. Be sure to shield your eyes when you see the bundle being to bubble and smoke.
Then, it will immediately take on a fire. That fire will sustain itself for about a minute or two without any assistance, giving you loads of time to coax it with more tinder and kindling.
Starting a fire without matches (or a lighter) may be something you need to do one day for survival. If you are looking for more information on survival techniques, I highly recommend Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival. Check Amazon for pricing.
I hope the insight offer on this page has been helpful to you.