How to Start a Fire Without Matches

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Whether it’s a matter of survival or just for fun, everyone should know how to start a fire at any time and place.  If you’re caught out without matches on hand or your matches just got soaked, you might think you’re out of luck. But, there are still ways to start a fire without matches.  It just takes a bit of skill and practice to learn different methods to start a fire.

Often in life, you need to come up with a plan B.  It’s always good to be prepared for a worst-case scenario like needing heat and not having matches.  For emergencies, it’s a good idea to store dry tinder in a secure container like a dry sack or tin.  If you’re in a wet situation, dry tinder is going to be a lifesaver for starting a fire.

Putting a lighter in your pack is also a good idea because then you don’t have to attempt the more primitive ways to start a fire.  But if all else fails, fear not.  From ancient times, people frequently started a fire using ultra low-tech methods and you can learn these same methods.

Where to Start?

Step 1: Gather an Assortment of Dry, Combustible Materials

woman gathering wood for a fire

It’s a good idea to get all the elements for your fire ready before you create a spark.  You don’t want to go fumbling around for fuel once you get it going.

Ideally, you want three types of materials to burn; materials that are very easy to burn to start the fire, materials that are semi-easy to burn and build heat, and materials that take time to catch a flame for a long term, sustainable heat. These are:

  • Tinder
  • Kindling
  • Timber

Tinder: Tinder is very light and very easy to burn. Dry leaves, tiny shreds of bark and pine needles are common forms of tinder. In an emergency, some of the best tinder is going to be shredded polyester fibers. Beware of the smoke from polyester fibers as it is highly toxic.

Kindling: The best kindling is usually small dry sticks about the size of birthday candles. An old piece of particle board furniture can be smashed into kindling. An old shredded rag could fill the role of kindling. The important thing is that your kindling is there to carry an intermediate-sized flame to heat your timber enough to dry it and get it to catch a sustainable flame.

Timber: Timber is sizable to large pieces of wood that are dense enough to hold a flame once it catches fire but dry and airy enough to catch. It must be exposed to steady heat long enough to begin and continue to burn. As your fire burns, you will need to add additional kindling and additional timber to keep your fire going.

All of these materials must be dry. If your timber is wet, you may be able to dry it if you have enough tinder and kindling, but it can be tough. This is why we recommend keeping a tin box kit with emergency tinder and kindling. Keeping a supply of timber in a dry place is also a good idea.

Step 2:  Create a nest

Using tinder, create a nest of your smallest pieces so that when you get a spark, you’re ready to ignite and flame the fire.

Step 3: Create friction for a spark

Starting a fire with nothing is about creating a spark through friction.  The methods to create friction include the fire bow, fire plow, and hand fire drill.  These are all primitive devices meant to do one thing: create a depression in a piece of wood to heat to burning with friction. They each use a stick and a plank with different shapes and properties.

  • The Stick: a hard, cylindrical price of wood strong and hard enough to deliver friction and resist breaking during use.
  • The Plank: a relatively softer piece of flat wood, thin enough to burn and hard enough not to break apart, in which we create a small pit or slot where we concentrate the friction.

The Fire Bow

Fashion a strong stick one to two feet in length. Tie a piece of strong cord, (paracord is best), to each end. It should look like a badly made archery bow. Then take a second stick that is as straight as you can find and loop the cord around it. Now, you should be able to move the bow up and down to spin the stick very rapidly.

Create a small depression in your plank. Insert the end of the spinning stick in it, and using the bow, rotate the stick to create friction and heat inside the divot.

The Fire Plow

With the fire plow, take a strong stick and simply rub it in a line along the plank, ideally following the grain of the wood. The idea is to create a rut in which we can generate heat and friction. This is the simplest but most physically taxing to use.

The Hand Drill

This follows the same idea as the fire bow, but if you don’t have a cord to spin a second stick, you find another way to rotate it. You may hold the stick between your hands like you’re praying and rotate the stick by rubbing your hands back and forth.

The idea with each of these tools/methods is to get just a few or even one burning ember in the pit or rut on your plank. You must use these embers to light your tinder, which should light your kindling, and ultimately create a sustainable fire.

Magnesium Fire Starter

Flint and Steel
It’s a good idea to carry a flint and steel set which will make creating friction much easier.  If you dont’ have a kit handy, you can create your own by using quartzite and the steel blade of your pocketknife.  Check out this video for instructions on how to use the flint and steel method.

The most important ingredient in all of these methods is to practice your skills before you really need them. Don’t get caught in the wilderness with no skills and no backup plan.