Fire-starting is just like any other survival skill—if you don't have multiple methods to fall back on, you probably won't be able to make it happen reliably. Your lighter could break or run out of fuel, your matches could get soaking wet, and you could lose your ferrocerium rod. Given the essential nature of fire in survival situations, it's wise to have at least two or three fire-starting methods prepared ahead of time.

A modern aluminum fire piston from Sims Tactical Solutions. Photo: Dangerang / Wikipedia

A modern 6061-T6 aluminum fire piston manufactured by Sims Tactical Solutions. Photo: Dangerang / Wikipedia

One simple fire-starter that is often overlooked is the fire piston. This device uses a piston in a cylinder to compress air rapidly, creating heat as a byproduct. The tip of the piston is packed with a small amount of tinder material, such as char cloth, which ignites easily under pressure. The process works much like one of the cylinders in an engine, using the piston to quickly squeeze air into a tight space, creating the optimal conditions for combustion.

Fire piston DIY 2

The materials used in a DIY fire piston. Check the video below to see how it goes together.

You can purchase pre-made fire pistons from various retailers, or you can make your own with simple tools for only a few bucks. Here's a list of what you'll need, as well as how each item is used:

  • Wooden rod or dowel – This will form your piston. The video uses a 12mm-diameter rod.
  • Wooden knob and wood glue – Provides a handle for your piston.
  • Copper tube – This will form your cylinder, and should be slightly larger than the piston. The video uses a 15mm tube.
  • Copper tube end cap, soldering flux and tin, and blowtorch – To seal one end of your cylinder tube.
  • Small hacksaw – For cutting the tube and rod, as well as adding O-ring notches to the rod.
  • 2 rubber O-rings and petroleum jelly – These form the air-tight seal in your cylinder.
  • Tinder material – Stuffed into the end of your piston. Char cloth (aka carbonized cotton) works especially well.

Once you have the necessary materials, here's how it all goes together:

Should you carry a fire piston as your only source of ignition? Of course not. However, it does serve as an inexpensive tool to add to your survival tool kit or bug-out bag, and it can provide a much-needed fallback plan in case other fire-starting methods fail.

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