These methods will help you make fire in the wild without a lighter or matches.
The ability to make fire is without a doubt one of the most important skills to master in the wild. Fire can sterilize water and make it safe to drink, it can help you prepare your food, it can keep you warm and it can help you signal rescuers in a survival situation. It can also give you light during the night which is a great moral booster. As with many things regarding wilderness living the rule of the five Ps apply particularly to primitive fire making: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.
In a survival situation you shouldn’t expect to be able to make fire right away unless you have a lighter, a match or a lot of experience in making fire with natural materials though. Even a fire steel can be difficult to master without a little experience.
Selecting a location
Before you build your fire you should find a suitable place for it. It’s not that hard, just make sure the surface doesn’t catch fire easily and that you don’t light it on rocky ground. Some rocks, especially layered types like flint and sandstone could explode in your face if you do.
Preparing the area
Before you build your fire be sure to make a safe zone around it where there are no flammable materials. You may even want to put stones around the edge of it in order to prevent your fire from spreading.
Collecting fire wood
As a rule of thumb you should collect about three times as much material than you think you will need. Many people have a tendency to underestimate how much material is needed to light a fire. You may also need it if your fire is hard to light. And it will give you more time to collect additional firewood later.
In the wet you can look for dry firewood under fallen trees. The branches at the bottom of spruce trees may also still be dry even if has been raining. You can also try splitting bigger logs into smaller sticks. Sometimes they will only be wet on the outside leaving the inside still dry. By carving thin slices into a branch you can make feather sticks to use as tinder (provided that you have a knife). In this way you get to the dry part of the wood while creating a fine material that will catch fire more easily. Be sure to always remove the bark from the wood as it will hold on to the water. Once you get your fire going you can use it to dry up additional firewood before use.
You can use dry grass, mosses, leaves, furry seeds, funghi and much more. Just make sure it is completely dry. Here are some examples of commonly used materials:
Birch bark: The papery outer bark of birch trees contains an oil which makes it easy to light. You should preferably collect it from dead trees since removing bark from a tree can cause great harm to it. On the other hand you don’t want to use bark from an old tree since it will hold less oil.
Fungus: There are two commonly used tinder fungi. Tinder fungus (Chaga) and False tinder fungus (Fomes Fomentarius). They will easily catch a spark and give you an ember to use for making fire. It is worth knowin however that you use the flesh for this. In the Chaga it is basically the whole fungus. In the Fomes fometarius it is located right underneath the hard outer layer at the bottom of the fungus – not the flat side. This part of the fungus is called the trama.
Cattail: The shoots are highly flammable when smothered. It only burns for a very short time so you want to make sure you have some other material to add quickly. You can also mix it with some fine wood shavings or dry rass to make it burn a little longer.
Pine and spruce: Dead branches at the bottom of pine and spruce trees work excellent to get your fire going. They produce a lot of heat which is good when starting your fire. They will burn out quickly however so make sure you have enough of them. Also be ready to add some bigger branches to build your fire.
Dry nettles: During winter and spring you can use the dry stems from nettles to get your fire going. Again make sure you have bigger branches to add to your fire.
Birch: Birch is a great wood for building your fire. It produces a lot of heat but it burns quickly.
Beech: It can be hard to split but it burns very well and produces a lot of heat. A great wood for a consistent and clean fire.
In general softer woods burn well but don’t last very long. If you’re building a fire to last through the night go for harder woods like beech and maple.
Organizing your materials
Keep your tinder in a dry place. The finer the material the easier it will catch fire. You can use dry grass, mosses, cattail, thistles, leaves and more. Make sure both your tinder and the small twigs are absolutely dry or you will have a hard time lighting your fire.
Divide the fire wood into piles by size. Start with a pile of small twigs. Then make a pile of smaller branches or logs split into smaller pieces and last make a pile of logs.
Preparing your fire
First of all you should make a bed for your fire by covering the ground with twigs or small branches. This separates your dry tinder from the wet or damp ground. It will also increase airflow and give you a stronger core of ember once your fire is lit.
Next you make a “birds nest” from the material you selected for tinder. Just mold it into a fluffy ball. If you are using cattail you may want to mix it with some dry grass or very fine wood shavings. Otherwise it will burn out before you have time to build your fire properly. Also make sure you don’t press your birds nest into a tight ball. It should to be fluffy and air filled.
Making a bowdrill
If you are making a bow drill you will need to collect and prepare the following materials first:
1. A block of wood or a stone with a hollow point in it for the handle.
2. A long and powerful stick for the bow. Preferably it should be a bit curved, but it’s not a must. The longer it is the less motion you will have to put into the drilling part. It shouldn’t be flexible like a bow for hunting.
3. A 2-4 cm thick and completely straight stick, about 20 – 30 cm long for the spindle. You will need to experiment with different types of wood to find out which works better together with your board.
4. A durable piece of cord. Many people will tell you that shoe laces can be used for this, but my experience is that they are often too fragile for this purpose. Unless of course you are the prepper like type who exchanged his shoe laces with paracord.
5. A piece of soft wood for the board. It needs to be about 2 cm thick after you split it. It should be about 20-30 cm long and wide enough to prevent it from rocking back and forth to the sides when you drill. Cut a depression into the board with your knife and start drilling. After you have “burnt in” the board (meaning that you have drilled a deeper depression into it with the drill), you cut a notch into the side of it at an angle of about 45° from the center and out.
6. Last but not least you will need a base or “ember pan” to catch your coal. It can be a piece of bark, paper, a flat piece of wood or even a big leaf.
Lighting your fire
If you brought a fire steel you should be well off. It takes some practice, but you will soon learn to master it. It works by scraping off fine pieces of your fire steel into your birds nest. By doing so you oxidize the metal creating up to 3000° C hot sparks. Strike you fire steel a few times (it may take several attempts) and you will have a fire going. If you’re using birch bark for tinder you may want to scrape the surface of it into a small pile of dust and aim at that. Or you should find a younger birch tree with loose and very fine papery bark to light. Take care that your hand doesn’t hit your tinder or you may destroy your bundle. A way of avoiding this is to pull the firesteel away from you rather than pushing your knife or striker into the pile.
Flint and steel:
The principle of this method is similar to the fire steel method only the sparks produced are not as powerful. The key to success using this method is really the tinder. Since the sparks produced are not as hot and powerful you will need some tinder that catches and holds a spark very easy. The tinder fungi described earlier are good choices. You can also use dried rotten pieces of wood. There are different ways to the technique. I normally place the flint on top of the tinder although the general recommendation is to put the tinder on top of the flint. This is because the sparks tend to jump upwards when you strike the flint with the steel. I’m not sure if my movement is different from other people’s but it works for me. I have also seen people strike the flint on the steel instead holding the steel over the tinder. The whole thing works by the flint scraping tiny pieces of material off the steel and onto the tinder. Most people don’t know this but when carbon steel gets in contact with air it ignites. After igniting your tinder place it in your bird’s nest and blow it into flames. Or you can place your birds nest on top of it and blow.
This technique is harder to master. You will need to practice in order to successfully make it work but don’t give up. Make sure you are in the right position before you start. Place the board under your foot and make sure it doesn’t move or tilt when you start drilling. Remember to put the ember pan under it. Twist the spindle into the string and place the blunt end in the board and the point end of it in the handle. Now put downwards pressure on the handle and start moving the bow back and forth. Start slowly and increase speed as you go. Once you see smoke coming you should start moving faster. You need to keep going to make sure you collect a proper pile of coal. Then carefully place the pile of coal in your birds nest and blow it into flames. Take care that your string doesn’t grind against itself on the spindle or it might break. Especially if you are using your shoe laces or other kinds of less durable string. In order to prevent this you can tilt the bow in a slight angle.
The method is similar to the bow drill method. Only it requires a thinner drill and even more endurance. The advantage of this method is that you don’t need to have any cordage at hand of course. It works by rotating the drill back and forth between your hands while putting downward pressure on it at the same time. Move your hands back up top as soon as they reach the bottom of the drill and keep going.
There are numerous ways of making fire from natural materials other than the ones described here. A few examples are the Fire Plough and the Fire Saw. You can even make fire from ice by turning it into a magnifying glass if you can find some ice without air bubbles in it and if the sun is shining. Often people develop their own fire making techniques and ways of combining materials. The above techniques are just the most commonly used.