Starting a Fire Without Matches or Other Modern Methods

If you have your Go Bag with you — as well you should — you should have several “modern methods” on-hand to start a fire including: water-proof matches, a lighter, and a magnesium striker. If for some reason you have been caught without these items, or they have been lost, or fail – here are some tried and true methods of starting a fire the “old-fashioned” way.

These techniques can and do work – but they are not as easy as you may have seen in the movies. Making fire without modern fire starters takes a lot of skill and patience, and can be physically demanding and frustrating. That is why it is so important that you carry more than one reliable method of starting a fire in your Go Bag.  

You should practice these methods in your backyard until you can do one, or more well, before you should have to do so in an emergency situation. All primitive fire-starting methods use heat generated by friction for ignition. The two most reliable “primitive” fire starting methods are:

The Fire-Plow

To use this method, cut a straight groove in a softwood base and plow the blunt tip of a hardwood shaft up and down the groove. The plowing action of the shaft pushes out small particles of wood fibers. Then, as you apply more pressure on each stroke, the friction ignites the wood particles.

The Bow and Drill

The technique of starting a fire with a bow and drill is practical, but it requires much effort and patience to produce a fire. You need the following items to use this method:

Socket. The socket is an easily grasped stone or piece of hardwood with a slight depression in one side. Use it to hold the drill in place and to apply downward pressure. This is also sometimes called a bearing block, or simply the “handpiece”

Drill. The drill should be a straight, seasoned hardwood stick about 3/4 inch in diameter and about 10 inches long. The top end should be round and the low end blunted (to produce more friction).

Fire board. Although any board may be used, a seasoned softwood board about an inch thick and 4 inches wide is preferable. Cut a depression about 3/4 inch from the edge on one side of the board, this is where teh drill will go. Make a V-shaped notch from the edge of the board toward the depression, cut as close to the center of the depression as you can. This will channel the black powder or “coal” you create with the drill.

Bow. The bow is a resilient, green stick about 3/4 inch in diameter with a bowstring. The type of wood is not important. The bowstring can be any type of cordage. Tie the bowstring from one end of the bow to the other, without any slack.

First prepare a place small amount of twigs and/or other kindling material in your fire pit.

Create a tinder nest of dry fibrous vegetation, such as dry grass or inner tree bark. Some people like to put the tinder nest directly under the V-notch, others suggest you make the tinder nest right by the fire board and use an ember pan made from a piece of bark, or place something like a leaf below the notch to catch and transfer the burning ember to the tinder nest.

Place one foot on the fire board. Loop the bowstring over the drill and place the drill in the precut depression on your fire board. Place the socket, held in one hand, on the top of the drill to hold it in position. Press down on the drill and saw the bow back and forth to twirl the drill.

Once you have established a smooth motion, do not stop as it begins to smoke, apply more downward pressure and work the bow faster. This action will grind hot black powder into the tinder below the V-notch, causing a spark to catch. Blow on the tinder until it ignites. Carefully move the burning tinder ball into your fire pit.

NOTE: Primitive fire-making methods are exhausting and require practice to ensure success. Take the time to practice at home and achieve success, before you need to use either method in the field.  If your survival situation requires the use of primitive methods, remember the following hints to help you construct and maintain the fire:

  • If possible, use nonaromatic seasoned hardwood for fuel.
  • Collect kindling and tinder along the trail.
  • Add insect repellent to the tinder.
  • Keep the firewood dry.
  • Dry damp firewood near the fire.
  • Bank the fire to keep the coals alive overnight.
  • Carry a lighted punk, when possible.
  • Be sure the fire is out before leaving camp.
  • Do not select wood lying on the ground. It may appear to be dry but generally doesn’t provide enough friction.

Final Thoughts

Survival in the Wilderness can be grueling and demanding. It can also be made much easier by becoming more familiar with the wild, and gaining additional outdoor skills, which can be fun while doing recreational activities like camping, hunting and fishing.

Take the time to get away from the TVs, computers, and all the technology you tend to rely on every day, and spend a few weekends a month out in the woods with your family. If you have been an “urbanite” your entire life, start slowly – go to a modern recreational camping facility, just to begin to get a feel for outdoor living without all the modern conveniences. Bring your Go Bags with you, of course. It’s a great way to get familiar with all of your gear, and to practice fire-making, shelter building, and navigation skills with and without a compass, in a safe environment.

Gradually build to some more challenging areas – as your skills grow, you will see your confidence and your family’s confidence grow, and you might very well get to the point where the next crisis – is just another “walk in the park!”