Outdoors

7 Versatile Ways to Start a Fire Without Matches

by Carissa Stanz

Photo: Manuel Will

No matches? Don’t fret. A roaring campfire is still in the cards.

Learning how to start a fire without matches is an essential wilderness survival skill. Without it, you may easily find yourself up the proverbial creek without a paddle and no one around for miles to help.

While trying to get a fire started without a set of matches may seem damn near impossible, it’s not. After all, fire has been around a whole lot longer than modern matches. In the end, all you need is a solid method.

tom hanks fire

You don’t have to be a doomsday prepper or hardcore wilderness survivalist to master a match-free fire-starting method. With a little practice and some dedication, you’ll have a fire in no time.

Stop playing with matches and heat things up with one of these seven match-free fire-starting methods.

Flint and Steel

The next best method to lighting a fire with matches is with flint and steel. Compared to other friction-fire methods, using flint and steel requires very little energy and is relatively easy. With the flick of your wrist (and a little practice) you can use these two objects to light a fire pretty quickly.

If you’re new to this method, flint is a type of chert (microcrystalline quartz) that produces a spark when struck by steel. It’s best to use high-carbon steel, though any type of steel will do. Your trusty pocket-knife is a great source, or another object like a file will suffice.

There are also a variety of affordable pocket-sized flint and steel fire starter options on the market if you don’t want to go the DIY route. We highly recommend investing in one and packing it anytime you head out into nature, even if it’s just a backup measure for your matches.

Instructions:

  1. Pile a handful of dry tinder on the ground.
  2. Strike the steel with the flint in a downward motion towards the tinder.
  3. Once sparks form, gently blow to ignite the fire.

Fire Plough

Anyone who has ever tried to start a fire by haphazardly rubbing two sticks together can tell you there’s a little more to it than meets the eye. A better way to tackle this style would be the fire plough (or plow).

This primitive fire-starting method systematically uses the friction of two sticks rubbing together to generate heat. That, in turn, creates a spark for your campfire. In order for this method to work, you’ll need to keep your momentum going once you start.

While the fire plough is pretty basic, don’t expect to amaze your friends on your first try. It’s a skill that takes a bit of practice to master, but once you figure it out it’s pretty fun to show off.

Instructions:

  1. Make a fireboard by cutting a ¼-inch groove down the middle of a piece of softwood.
  2. Make the plough by rounding the end of a ½-inch thick stick.
  3. At a 45-degree angle, rub the plough along the fireboard groove until you create an ember.
  4. Place the ember in your tinder to build your fire.

Hand Drill

Another primitive friction-fire method is the hand drill. Like the fire plough, the concept here is relatively simple. It requires using a flat piece of wood as the fireboard and a longer piece as the drill (or spindle).

The trick is finding the right sized pieces of softwood (like yucca or cedar) for the job. As for the drill, you’ll want a clean, straight piece of wood measuring about two-feet long and a half-inch thick.

Meanwhile, your fireboard should be a flat piece of wood that’s at least double the width of the drill. Look for a piece of wood that’s at least a half-inch thick so you don’t drill through it.

While it’s simple to understand, this fire-starting method is one of the most difficult and labor-intensive methods. That said, it’ll be that much more rewarding when you have a roaring fire going.

Instructions:

  1. Use a pocket knife to make a notch in your fireboard about 1/2-inch from the edge.
  2. Place a thin piece of dry wood, bark, or leaf under the notch to catch the coal.
  3. Use your palms to quickly spin the drill in a back and forth motion while using downward force.
  4. Once you have smoke, tap out the ember.
  5. Place the ember in your tinder.
  6. Give it a gentle blow until flames appear.

Bow Drill

Similar to the hand drill, the bow drill requires the use of a fireboard and a drill to create heat. The main difference here is you’ll rely on a bow to spin the wooden drill, meaning you’ll have to get crafty.

Start by constructing a bow using a piece of paracord, twine, or even your shoelace. Since you’ll be spinning the drill with the bow and not your hands, you’ll need to create a handhold. This will keep the drill steady while protecting your hand.

The bow drill is by far one of the more complicated setups, requiring much more engineering on your part. It’s certainly effective, but there are easier match-free fire-starting methods at your disposal.

Instructions:

  1. Make the bow. Using a flexible stick about the length of your arm, knot a paracord on the bottom and top end with a tiny amount of slack to spin the drill.
  2. Make the spindle. Take a piece of softwood about 12-inches long and ½-inch wide and round off the bottom and top end with a pocket knife.
  3. Make the fireboard. Same as the hand drill method, take a flat piece of wood 3/4-inch thick and make a notch for the drill.
  4. Make the handhold. Take a piece of hardwood about 4-inches in length and make a notch. A flat rock can work for the handhold as well.
  5. Wrap your bow cord around the drill once.
  6. Place the drill in the notch on the fireboard and hold it steady with your handhold on the top.
  7. Begin moving the bow back and forth. Once you get your motion down, increase your speed and apply more pressure to the handhold. Once you achieve smoke you can add the tinder and build your fire.

Harnessing the Sun

At an early age, most of us learn the wonders (and dangers) of creating fire with a magnifying glass. This is all made possible thanks to the sun.

By directing sunlight through an optical lens or curved mirror, you can ignite flammable material. Of course, like all methods there’s a trick to the madness.

The key here is to focus the sunlight on the same spot. This concentrates the heat, increasing your chance of fire. Just be sure to concentrate it onto some dry tinder, or you’re just playing with a magnifying glass like you did as a kid.

Magnifying glasses aren’t the only object you can use. This fire-starting method also works with eyeglasses, binoculars, a flashlight, the bottom of a beer can, and plastic water bottles or ziplock bags filled with water.

Instructions:

  1. Place your tinder on the ground.
  2. Hover a magnifying glass or another object over the tinder until you see a white dot.
  3. Hold it steadily in place until you have smoke.
  4. Gently blow and build your fire.

Battery and Steel Wool

While steel wool probably isn’t the first item on your backcountry backpacking list, it’s an excellent resource for starting fires.  

Rubbing steel wool on a battery causes a chemical reaction to occur. This reaction massively heats up the wool, causing it to instantly burst into flames.

To achieve the best results with this method, it’s best to use a 9-volt battery since the terminals are close and it has a higher voltage. It’s also a good idea to use the finest steel wool you can find and fluff it up a bit to increase the oxygen flow.

Other than the fast ignition, what makes this method so handy is it can be used in any type of weather condition. Wet wool ignites just fine, so it’s great for camping and backpacking in wet weather.

Battery and Gum Wrapper

Plum out of steel wool? You can still MacGyver your battery by using a gum wrapper.

Like steel wool, the chemical reaction between a foil gum wrapper and a battery happens fast. You’ll want to have your kindling ready and close by to avoid wasting a gum wrapper. 

For this method to work best, it’s best to use a AA battery — though AAA, C, and D batteries will do the trick nicely, too. You’ll also need to cut the foil to create a thin bridge between the positive and negative terminals.

Instructions:

  1. Fold your wrapper in half and create a bridge by cutting out the center, keeping about 1/16-inches of the wrapper intact.
  2. Place one end of the gum wrapper on the positive terminal and one on the negative. Be sure you’re holding it right next to the tinder.
  3. Once the wrapper sparks, you can remove the battery and continue to build your fire.

A Word About Tinder

In order for these methods to work, you’re going to need proper tinder.

Tinder is the foundation of your fire. Not to be confused with kindling, tinder is a small, loose combustible material that creates a fast but short-lived flame when ignited.

Quality tinder can mean the difference between a roaring campfire and a smoldering mess. For the best results, the tinder you use should be bone dry.

As for the tinder itself, the natural world around you is filled with terrific options. You just need to know where to look. Some common natural tinder options include:

  • Pine needles
  • Cattail fluff
  • Dry grass
  • Birch bark
  • Cedar bark
  • Wood shavings
  • Old man’s beard (the lichen Usnea, not your grandpa’s facial hair)

Whichever type of tinder you go with, you’ll want it to be the heart of the fire with the kindling and wood stacked on top.

For more tips on building fires, check out the Best Firewood for Your Campfire Feast and the 7 Best Camping Hatchets.

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