Basics: How to Start a Fire Without Matches or a Lighter

Last Updated on 07/03/2022

how to start a fire without matches or a lighter

How to Start a Fire without Matches or A Lighter

For many people, learning how to start a fire without matches or a lighter is something they only ever see on TV, and while most survival experts make it look easy, it certainly is not. The reality is that it takes a lot of knowledgeskill, energy, and patience in order to even stand a fighting chance of starting a fire without a lighter or matches. If you are smart enough to always carry a ferrous rod, fire piston, or a lighter in your EDC kit then you won’t need to put this into practice very often, but better to know than not know!

Primitive fire starting is a subject that holds tremendous amounts of fascination for people of all ages and ties very deeply into any common survival strategy. Knowing that you have the skills to stay alive in the wild is a real confidence booster, and there is no greater encouragement that you have what it takes than knowing how to start a fire without matches or a lighter. Gaining the knowledge it takes to create an ember and turn it into a flame is an experience that will stay with you for life, but takes a LOT of patience.

Basic Guide: How To Start a Fire without Matches or A Lighter

There will be more information on the different methods for starting a fire in the wild further on in this post but here is a basic rundown of what you can expect:

  1. Gather a range of dry tinder materials.
  2. Gather a range of firewood from twigs to split logs.
  3. Prepare your tinder materials into a bundle or nest.
  4. Prepare your drill, lens or other fire starting tools.
  5. Prepare your fire pit with a circle of stones.
  6. Lens: Focus all of the sun’s energy on your tinder bundle.
  7. Friction: Create enough friction to draw an ember or create a spark.
  8. Transfer the ember into your tinder bundle.
  9. Provide oxygen to the ember until combustion takes place.
  10. Provide small sticks gradually to increase the height of the flame.
  11. Work your way up to thicker logs and maintain.
  12. Relax and if you are so lucky, cook some food.

Where to Start?

Learning the art of fire lighting takes a lot of trials, error, and practice, so to make things as easy as possible, it is always best to start with good preparation. The first issue you need to address is which materials you should use? A little knowledge about hard and soft wood will go a long way when you are gathering firewood.

Being able to identify the best and most common types of trees for friction fire is also a great advantage that will increase your overall odds. Identifying different species of trees can seem daunting at first but quite often there are some very easy ways to tell them apart.

Knowing where to find the different materials is your second task and can normally be solved by scouting around the area looking for something you recognize. If possible climb to higher ground and survey the landscape for any signs of a tree you recognize or mixed species and head in that direction.

Learning to identify different trees often means learning about the ideal habitats that certain species often thrive in. Understanding a bit about each species of tree can also help with things other than fire starting like foraging, navigation, or bow making for example, which in turn can lead you to better resources.

Your third task is to prepare the materials you have gathered and optimize them as much as possible to increase your chances of success. This can mean cleaning your lens, splitting wood, shaving off the bark, creating notches, and creating the all-important tinder bundle. The reason the tinder bundle is so important is that it is very hard to turn an ember into a flame without it. Once you have everything ready you are ready to go, make sure you have cleared a safe space for your fire, making a ring of stones is common practice.

Fire by Friction

Fire by friction is one of the most energy-intensive methods of starting a fire without matches or a lighter and requires a high level of commitment, perseverance, and patience to get going. Just like riding a bike, the first time is always the hardest which is why it is a good idea to practice with someone who has already done it before.

There are numerous techniques to create fire by friction but selecting the correct materials for the fireboard and spindle is often what makes or breaks you. Softwoods are far better than hardwoods for fire by friction in my experience. Cottonwood, Aspen, Elderberry, Saguaro, Willow, Cedar, Sotol, Basswood, bamboo, yucca stalks, and Cattail are all known to work very well when dry and not undecayed.

how to start a fire without a lighter or matches bow drill

Bow Drill

The bow drill method is probably the most effective way to start a fire with friction because it is easier to apply pressure and maintain a steady speed than other techniques. There are five main components to a bow drill set, all of which have specific roles to play, and need to be designed a certain way for them to work together.

The drill (or spindle) should be about the width of your middle finger, bone dry and straight – this may take some to dry, straighten, and remove any bark but is essential. The fireboard should lay flat on the ground and have a small notch and groove cut into it so that any dust can collect and form an ember. The idea is to create maximum friction between the spindle and fireboard so it is a good idea to experiment with different wood combinations and sizes.

The bow should be about the length of your arm, strong and flexible with an arched curve with a notch at each end to attach the cordage. The cordage should be tough enough to withstand heavy use but things like paracord, shoelaces, and natural materials will all work. The last piece of the setup is the socket, which is used to apply downward pressure to the spindle and should be made from hardwood or other material to have minimal friction.

Loop the cordage around the spindle and place one end of the spindle in the ember notch on the fireboard and the other end in the socket and apply enough pressure to support the drill upright. Once you have your weight centered above the drill you can start to pull the bow back and forth, forcing the spindle to rotate as you do so. Once the embers start to build up and you see some smoke, don’t stop and keep going a few more pulls before gently lifting the spindle away. Transfer the ember into your tinder bundle and bring to flame.

To learn more about bow drill fires check out “POCKET FIELD GUIDE: Master the Bow Drill” or get started with a bow drill starter kit like the one below.

Bow Drill Starter Kit
Bow Drill Starter Kit
Everything you need to practice the art of fire by friction using a ready made and easy to use bow drill.

Hand Drill

The hand drill is one of the most primitive methods of friction fire starting and is similar to the fire bow in that you still need a spindle and fireboard. The only adjustment you should make to the design is to make the spindle much longer and slightly thinner than you would with a fire bow. Something you should pay extra attention to is making the spindle as smooth as possible so that you don’t give yourself a nasty blister or worse.

With your hands at the top of the drill and one foot on the fireboard, you can begin rotating the spindle between the palms of your hands. It can take a bit of getting used to using the different muscles in your arms to apply the correct balance of downward pressure and spinning motion. When your hands get to the bottom of the drill, be very careful not to lift the spindle out of the ember notch before you are confident the ember can support itself. Transfer the ember into your tinder bundle and bring it to flame.

It takes a lot of practice to become consistent at hand drilling so be patient and experiment with different wood combinations to get the best results. For more information on making fire using a hand drill, check out the Practical Survivor: Guide to hand drills here.

Ancient fire making methods

Fire Plow and Hand Drill

Fire Plough

The fire plough (or plow) method is the simplest technique of primitive fire starting and in its most basic form, it is essentially rubbing two sticks together. Unlike the two previous methods of friction fire, the fire plow does not rotate, instead of creating a circular notch for the embers to collect, you must create a groove (or track) to push the embers off.

Create a dull-tipped spindle and begin to rub the tip up and down the track until you start to generate some heat. As the fine dust begins to collect along the groove you must try and work these into a small pile at the end of the track. As the pile builds and the smoke increases, continue through the strain until you are sure the ember can support itself. Transfer the ember to your tinder bundle and bring to flame.

Flint and Steel

The flint and steel method of lighting fires is slightly different from the previous methods of fire starting in that it does not require any wood tools. A traditional flint and steel involve taking a piece of steel and striking it against a piece of flint to create a spark which you can then direct onto some char cloth or into a tinder bundle. Char cloth is a cloth that has been partially combusted into charcoal and will catch a spark much easier than most other materials.

Grip the rock in one hand with the char cloth placed under your thumb and overhanging the point where you plan to strike the rock. With your other hand take your steel or use the back of a knife blade to strike the rock repeatedly until you catch a spark on the char cloth or tinder bundle. Sparks will fly in all directions and learning how to aim them into a tinder bundle can take a bit of practice.

Flint or quartzite are the natural options for getting a spark but having a good striker always helps. I love the ESEE Fire Steel Tool as it also features a handy socket for bow drill fire lighting, check it out below.

ESEE Fire Steel Tool with Fire Bow Socket
ESEE Fire Steel Tool with Fire Bow Socket
The ESEE KNIVES FIRE STEEL is built from 1095 Carbon Steel and heat-treated to be used as a steel striker fire lighting tool as well as having a center divot for a bow drill socket.

Lens Focus Methods

The lens focus method requires the least amount of skill but is utterly dependent on strong and direct sunlight which makes it less dependable than other techniques. A lens can be made from many different things but the most ideal type of lens is a magnifying glass. Magnifying lenses can be found in your spectacles, cameras, and flashlights as well as naturally occurring in the concaved glass.

Focusing direct sunlight through a lens will create an intense circle of light which can be controlled by moving the lens closer and further away from the tinder. It can often take a few moments to find the right distance and angle to hold your lens but once you do, it’s just a matter of holding it still.

Magnifying Glass

A pocket magnifying glass is always a good item to carry but even more so if you rely heavily on your contact lenses or glasses to see things close up. Check out the Silva Explorer Pro Compass with Magnifying Glass which is a really great item to always have you.

Silva Explorer Pro High Visibility Compass with Magnifying Glass
Silva Explorer Pro High Visibility Compass with Magnifying Glass
The Explorer Pro is the ultimate baseplate model compass for topographic map use as well as having a magnifying glass for starting a fire in an emergency.

Balloons and Condoms

Condoms are a great accessory to your first aid kit, they can hold up to 2 liters of water and can actually be used to create a magnifying lens. Fill the condom with clear water and squeeze it into a ball about the size of a tennis ball and use this as a lens to focus the sun’s light.

Fire From Ice

Undoubtedly one of the hardest methods of fire starting and for this to even stand a chance of working, the ice must be crystal clear and shaped into a concaved disc.

Aluminum Can

By using the polished base of a carbonated drinks can, it is possible to create a solar satellite and focus the sun’s rays into a concentrated point. To polish the base of a can you can use chocolate or toothpaste to rub the surface which will give you a much shinier satellite.

other ways to start a fire

Other ways to start a fire

There are literally hundreds of inventive ways to start a fire and the best resource for learning these techniques is youtube. Try searching for things like “how to start a fire without matches or a lighter” or “creative fire lighting” and you will see hundreds of results. You can also check out this in-depth post on fire starting for more information.

Batteries and Steel Wool

Using a regular battery and some steel wool, hold the steel wool to each end of the battery and the electrical current will ignite the steel wool and burn very quickly. This can also be done by using a gum wrapper instead of steel wool, and just about any type of battery can be used.

Bulb Filament

By carefully cracking open a bulb and keeping the filament intact, you get once chance to start a fire as the filament often burns out after the first attempt.

Chemical Combustion

Chemical combustion can be achieved using potassium permanganate (which also serves to purify water), and glycerin is a food additive which is an inactive ingredient in many liquid medications.

Place a small amount of potassium permanganate on a dry leaf inside your tinder bundle and add a few drops of glycerin to the pile. A small reaction will take place so don’t put your face too close, wrap the tinder bundle around the reaction and provide air until the ember takes hold and can be brought to flame.


There are of course many other ways to make a fire without matches or a lighter but they all take a lot of practice, trial, and error to get good at. Sometimes you may not be able to start a fire, no matter how hard you try, but all you can do in this situation is to try to understand why you were unsuccessful. Thanks for reading this basic guide on how to start a fire without matches or a lighter. Check out the pocket waterproof fire steel. extra large fire rod, and fire piston below for a reliable fire-starting tool.

EDC Alloy Fire Starter Waterproof Magnesium Flint
EDC Alloy Fire Starter Waterproof Magnesium Flint
EDC Alloy Fire Starter Waterproof Magnesium Flint Keyring is perfect for fastening to your backpack in case of emergency.
Large Firesteel Ferro Rod, 5 inch x 1/2 inch thick
Large Firesteel Ferro Rod, 5 inch x 1/2 inch thick
Handmade by US veterans in the USA! Each fire starter is as thick as a .50 cal. bullet and 5 inches long!
Campfirepiston Hickory Fire Piston
Campfirepiston Hickory Fire Piston
Campfirepiston Hickory Fire Piston is between 3 and 6 inches long and creates heat through rapid air compression.
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Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

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