Disclaimer: This article is meant to be a quick overview and not a detailed guide. There are inherent risks when starting a fire — especially when doing so unconventionally. We encourage you to enroll in a course from a reputable instructor or agency and adhere to wildfire-prevention techniques at all times.

Fire — it can be both our salvation and our destroyer. As humans, we share a primal link with fire. Perhaps early man looked upon the smoldering aftermath of a lightning strike with rousing curiosity or ran away in sheer panic as a towering wall of flames swept across a forest. How many generations did it take for them to be able to replicate fire and then learn to control it, respect it, and finally benefit from its many qualities?

Half a million years or so later (depending on your math), the ability to start and maintain a fire, like our ancestors, is mostly lost on modern man — what with matches, lighters, flares, and ignition stoves. However, somewhere deep in the recesses of our brains remains our attraction to the magnetic powers of a campfire. Its flames can evoke haunting stories, deep discussions, and jocular camaraderie. Sitting around the fire, we get back to basics. No jobs, no smartphones, no office commute — just homo sapiens harkening back to a time when fear, hunger, and pain guided us to our most essential needs. That time could return more easily than you think. A massive solar flare, an electromagnetic pulse attack, or a nuclear holocaust could easily destroy our way of life and force us to live like cavemen.

Fortunately, there’s a big handful of ways to start a fire without matches, a lighter…or even a magnesium stick. Some methods described here are easy, while others take practice, patience, and perseverance. The materials used in these examples are not ideal, but instead are used to show how you’ll have to do your best MacGyver impersonation to adapt in a given survival situation. Because, after all, you’ll have to make do with what you packed in your go-bag or can scavenge around you, which is reason enough to learn more than one way to start a fire.

In general, fire needs air, fuel, and heat to start. However, since air and fuel are abundant in most situations, finding something that can translate a source of energy into roughly 450 degrees of heat can be a challenge. Fire-starters like these come in three basic categories: reflection/convection, combustion, and friction.

A small collection of common items one could employ to help start a fire.

A small collection of common items one could employ to help start a fire.

The Reflectors

Most of the easy ways to start a fire merely use the energy of the sun by focusing its light into a small pinpoint. If 4 or 5 square inches of the sun’s rays can be focused down to about an 1?8-inch diameter of white hot light, most anything will burn.

Method 1 Magnifying Glass
Difficulty Level Novice

fire-starting-methods-magnifying-glass

The convex lens has been used as a magnifier since at least the era of Aristophanes. And as any sociopathic delinquent knows, a magnifying glass is an easy way to roast ants on a hot summer’s day. Similar to the survivor’s friend, the Fresnel lens (originally designed to increase lighthouse efficiency), a magnifying glass concentrates light from the sun on a compact point, which easily ignites. Using a convex lens of any kind will start a fire with dry tinder in seconds. Simply point and light.

Method 2 Water Balloon/Water Bottle
Difficulty Level Advanced

fire-starting-methods-water-balloon-method

fire-starting-methods-water-bottle-method

In about 60 A.D., Pliny the Elder described how glass balls filled with water could set clothes on fire when placed in line with the sun. The concept of filling a water balloon or condom (finally you’ll have a use for one, right?) with water and holding it in the proper position to focus the sun’s beams onto some dry leaves is a skill reserved for the utterly patient. It took four days’ worth of attempts to get small wisps of smoke from either the bag of water or the water bottle, but fire was still illusive. Also consider using discarded beer bottles — the clearer and cleaner the glass and water, the better the results.

Method 3 Reading Glasses
Difficulty Level Novice

fire-starting-methods-reading-glasses-method

Are you farsighted? If so, you’re in luck, as your glasses can be used to start a fire; however, ironically, you’ll need some water to do so. The difference between a magnifying glass and your reading glasses is that the converging lenses of glasses for farsightedness bend the light toward a focal point — but only in one direction. A magnifying glass is biconvex, meaning it bends the light once it enters the lens and again when it leaves. Regular glasses aren’t powerful enough to start a fire on their own, so to increase the power of your glasses, add a drop of water to the inside of the lens. This will turn your regular glasses into a biconvex lens. Find the focal point similar to how you would with a magnifying glass. If your glasses are expendable, put both lenses together to create a compound lens — for twice the power!

Method 4 Soda Can and Chocolate Bar
Difficulty Level MacGyver

fire-starting-methods-soda-can-and-chocolate-bar-method

fire-starting-methods-soda-can-and-chocolate-bar-method

fire-starting-methods-soda-can-and-chocolate-bar-method

The worst thing about people is that they throw trash everywhere, but the best thing about people when you’re looking to make something out of nothing is that they throw trash everywhere. In this case, hopefully, you’ll come across an old soda can and some chocolate (even some melted to the wrapper will do), and you’re desperate enough to give it a try. It takes about an hour, but rub some chocolate on the bottom of the can (toothpaste works great, too, as does steel wool — see method 6) and use a rag or the candy wrapper to polish the can bottom to a mirror shine. You know you’re done when you can clearly see your face in the can. Aim the “bowl” toward the sun so that the focal point is directly on the tinder and after a few moments, you’ll have fire.

Method 5 Ice Disc
Difficulty Level MacGyver

fire-starting-methods-ice-disc-method

fire-starting-methods-ice-disc-method

The last thing you think you’re going to find in a frozen wasteland is something that can help start a fire, and in the middle of a summer Californian drought, a frozen wasteland is difficult to replicate on camera (as awesome as the editorial staff is). But if you happen to be in subzero conditions this fall or winter, look for a disc of ice approximately 3 or 4 inches in diameter and about 2 inches thick at the center — but it has to be crystal-clear ice, the kind of ice made from pure water, not fancy bottled water, not tap water, and not boiled water. You need frozen natural spring water. Despite our efforts, we could not replicate clear ice without contaminants frozen inside, which is why our ice discs were better sunglasses than convex lenses. That said, if you’re able to carve a suitable disc of clear ice into a convex shape (think flying saucer), you just might be able to use it to make fire. Many winter survival experts have.

The Combustors

Sometimes sunlight is a difficult thing to obtain, and you can’t very well sit around on a cloudy or rainy day and wait for the sun to show up. You’ll have to find another way to start a fire (after all, on cloudy and rainy days, you’ll need fire the most).

Method 6 Battery and Steel Wool
Difficulty Level Novice

fire-starting-methods-bettery-and-steel-wool-method

The principle applied here is electrical, as the energy stored in the battery (in this case, a 9-volt battery) is more than enough to start a fire when short circuited by the steel wool. The great thing about a 9-volt battery is that it’s compact, fairly powerful, and has adjacent terminals. Use fine steel wool, as the coarser wool requires more energy to get hot. Merely touch the steel wool to the battery terminals and it will spark immediately as the battery overloads the strands of wool. Have a bundle of tinder available to transfer that spark.

Method 7 Gun Powder
Difficulty Level Advanced

fire-starting-methods-gun-powder-method

fire-starting-methods-gun-powder-method

You’re never really without a way to start a fire if you have a live round in your pack. The ubiquitous Winchester .30-30, in this case, holds 1.9 grams of gun powder, which is easy to get to in a pinch (of course, you can use any unexpended cartridge). With a couple of pliers, pulling off the bullet is done easily, exposing a case full of combustible propellant. (Despite the popular misuse of the term, a “bullet” is just the projectile component of a round and not the entire round itself.) Pour out the powder and ignite it using almost all of the methods presented in this story. Make sure to bed your propellant in a pile of tinder, as it flares up quickly once ignited.

The Rubbers

The old adage is true: If you want to start a fire, just rub two sticks together. Heat leads to fire, and a great source of heat is friction, as first explained by Leonardo da Vinci. Of course, it’s more efficient to use more advanced methods if you have the means, but sometimes branches might be all you have access to.

Method 8 Rope Rubbing
Difficulty Level Advanced

fire-starting-methods-rope-rubbing-method

fire-starting-methods-rope-rubbing-method

If you’re feeling limber and you frequent the rowing machine at the gym, then getting over the painful awkwardness of this method will be easy for you. To add suspense in a pirate movie, there’s always a shot of a capstan where a length of smoking rope is frantically being pulled through. Aiming for similar results, wrap a piece of rope around a stick sitting in tinder and pull the rope back and forth like you’re trying to saw the stick in half. Use your feet as leverage and give yourself a solid 30 minutes to get enough heat built up to start to see some smoke. Soon enough you’ll have fire and a Hugh Jackman-like physique.

Method 9 Fire Plough
Difficulty Level Novice

fire-starting-methods-fire-plough-method

fire-starting-methods-fire-plough-method

fire-starting-methods-fire-plough-method

The concept of the fire plough is that by rubbing a stick back and forth along a cut grove in a piece of wood, small pieces of tinder are produced at the opposite end, which will help ignite a tinder bundle as the temperature increases. If you can’t find an ideal piece of wood as a base, use a knife and cut a groove wide enough to allow the point of your stick to slide back and forth. Start “plowing” by rubbing the tip of the stick up and down the grove. Once you see some embers, cultivate them with light blowing until they produce a flame.

Method 10 Bow Drill/Hand Drill
Difficulty Level Advanced

fire-starting-methods-bow-drill-hand-drill-method

fire-starting-methods-bow-drill-hand-drill-method

fire-starting-methods-bow-drill-hand-drill-method

fire-starting-methods-bow-drill-hand-drill-method

When one pictures a backwoods survivalist starting a fire without tools, this is the go-to method they think of. There are five parts to the bow-drill set, and each must be made carefully if you want a successful experience: The bow, string, drill, board, and handhold. The drill spins via the bow and string against the board on one end and is supported by the handhold at the other end. We notched out a space large enough for the drill’s end to fit snugly, and toward the end of the base we created a small triangular space to collect the embers we hoped to create. From there, it’s just a matter of sawing back and forth, keeping the drill squarely in the hole, watching for the slight embers to flame up.

Conventional Fire Starting

fire-starting-methods-flint-and-steel

Flint and Steel: This tried-and-true method dates back thousands of years, and if you know a little bit about geology, you might be able to find a piece of chert (AKA “flint”) in nature to use. Striking it with high-carbon steel (such as a bushcraft knife) onto a char cloth will provide the best and quickest results.

fire-starting-methods-magnesium-stick

Magnesium Stick: A mag stick with a ferro rod (which is just synthetic flint) fits easily into your pocket and is cheap and long lasting. Scrape some magnesium into a dime-sized pile, hold the ferro rod over the pile, and strike it with something steel.

fire-starting-methods-flares

Flares: An unconventional way using a conventional tool. As a multitasker, a road flare is great for signaling. But since it can be used in inclement weather (rain, snow, wind) and is self-lighting, it’s a great tool to ignite a fire with.

fire-starting-methods-matches-and-lighter

Matches/Lighter: Just pack these in waterproof containers and store them everywhere. Of course, matches are vulnerable to being damaged or dampened (especially in wet conditions), while lighters can break or run out of lighter fluid. But for the most part quality matches or lighters hold up, and they’re cheap, lightweight, and easy to carry. Snap, presto, flame on!

Only You Can Prevent Wildfires

Just because you’re lost and in a survival situation doesn’t mean you can accidentally burn down the whole forest. No, the authorities won’t understand, you will not pass Go, you will not collect $200, but you’ll go directly to jail. Don’t be that guy; listen to what Smokey the Bear always says.

fire-starting-methods-fire

– Pick a good spot to build your fire, clear of any dried leaves or dead trees. If it’s windy, build your fire in a protected place (between boulders or in an arroyo).
– Build your fire downwind of your campsite and at least 15 feet away.
– Build a fire ring of rocks to contain the coals.
– This is probably the most important tip: When you’re done with the fire, put it out.

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