Outdoor Survival Skills: How to Start a Fire

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A comprehensive primer on self-sufficiency, “When Technology Fails” will give you the know-how you need to fend for yourself and your family in times of emergency or disaster.
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Fire is essential to numerous aspects of human survival — from keeping us warm to cooking our food — so knowing how to tap this invaluable natural force is an important country skill.

The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein (Chelsea Green, 2008). This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Emergency Measures for Survival.”

Your ability to start a fire is important for staying warm in cold climates, for cooking food and for sterilizing water. I’ll start with simple instructions for building a campfire with matches and paper, and then proceed through the more Spartan methods, ending with the difficult process of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Starting a Fire With Matches


I like to separate my materials into piles by size. Start by gathering a couple handfuls of tinder, about one-third of a shopping bag’s worth of kindling, at least half a shopping bag’s worth of small sticks (1/2 to 2 inches thick), and at least a shopping bag’s worth of thicker wood (2 to 12 inches thick).


Any kind of material that takes very little heat to start on fire can be used for tinder. Paper makes great tinder, if you have matches. If you don’t have matches and are attempting to build a fire with a spark (see “Starting a Fire with Flint and Steel,” below), you will need extra-fine dry tinder. Dry pine needles, fine dry grasses, shredded paper, birch bark, dried moss, bird down, mouse nests, cotton balls, wood shavings, pulverized dry pine cones and fibrous inner cedar bark all make good tinder.


Kindling must catch on fire within a few seconds from burning tinder, yet burns for only a few minutes to ignite the larger pieces of wood. Dry pine needles, still stuck to branches, are perfect. Small twigs, 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick, are also excellent. Test the sticks to see whether they are wet or dry. If the sticks can be bent and twisted without snapping, they are wet and will not do for kindling. If all available kindling is wet, you can still burn green pine needles, but otherwise you must find standing wood, which can be split with an axe or shaved down to find a dry core. You can make “feather sticks” for kindling from larger sticks of wood by carving many shallow cuts with a knife to create fine, curved shavings protruding from the side of the sticks.

Positioning the Fire

Build your fire in a protected spot, especially if the area is windy. If it is exceptionally windy, you may have to dig a trench for your fire or build it on the leeward side of a fallen tree or large rock. If the ground is swampy or the snow is deep, you may have to build your fire on a platform of green logs covered by dirt.

Caution: Do not use stones from a riverbed or porous stones around or under a fire. These stones can explode if heated because of internal steam pockets.

Building the Fire

If you have paper, crumple a couple of sheets, build a small pile of fine kindling on top of the paper, then light the paper in several places. If you don’t have paper, use two handfuls of extremely fine, dry tinder instead. Make sure you don’t smother the tiny flames of the beginning fire with a pile that’s too big or too tightly packed, or by stacking larger wood too quickly onto the fire. As the kindling catches on fire, pile on more kindling and gradually add thicker chunks of wood. Make sure the fire gets enough air circulating through it. Either build your fire in a crisscross fashion, or lean the wood against itself in a tipi-like cone shape, to ensure there are plenty of gaps between the wood for air circulation. A well-built fire, with dry wood and plenty of gaps for air circulation, will not smoke much.

Starting a Fire With Flint and Steel

Flint is a naturally occurring stone that yields heavy sparks if struck by a knife or other sharp stones. Artificial flints do the same thing and may come with a saw striker, which creates lots of good sparks. Starting a fire with the spark from the flint requires shelter from wind, patience and very fine, dry tinder. Strike sparks into your tinder, and gently blow on a spark resting in the tinder until it grows into flames. Continue building your fire following the previous set of instructions.

A modern improvement on the flint and steel is a commercial magnesium block with a flint. Using a knife, shave a pile of fine magnesium filings from the side of the block. If struck by a spark from a flint, magnesium filings rapidly burst into a hot flame, easily igniting kindling or tinder.

Starting a Fire With Bow and Drill

A fire can be started by rapidly spinning a wooden “drill” — under pressure — against a notch in a board until enough heat is generated to create a small coal, which can dropped into tinder and fanned into fire. This is not easy, but it’s about a hundred times easier than starting a fire with a hand-spun stick.


Use any stick, preferably curved and roughly 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick by 30 inches long. With your knife, make a shallow groove around each end (about an inch from the ends) to make a spot to tie your bowstring. Use a hefty, strong string or leather thong (not rope) to tie the bow. Braided leather thongs or 1/8- to 1/4-inch nylon cord work well as bowstring. Typically, plant fiber cordage must be doubled back on itself and corded a second time to make it strong enough for the bowstring on a fire drill bow. The string may stretch as you work the bow. Tie the bowstring with a little slack to allow for the string to wrap around the drill. Experiment with different string tensions and with using your fingers to tweak the string for more or less tension while using the bow.


Usually the drill and the fire board will be made from the same material, though the choice of wood for the fire board (also known as a “hearth board”) is most critical. For a fire drill and hearth board to make fire, they must be very dry and must generate an extremely fine powder when spun together. Try to pick free-standing wood with the bark weathered away, because wood lying on the ground usually picks up ground moisture. If your pieces of wood generate coarse, gritty wood shavings, you should find another chunk of wood. The best woods are usually softwoods that aren’t very resinous. Resins such as those found in most pines, spruce and firs tend to act like grease, making getting enough friction going to make a fire difficult. Some recommended varieties of wood are cottonwood, aspen, sagebrush, yucca, birch and poplar. Other woods that work, but not as easily, include box elder, elderberry and willow.

Note: Even pieces of the recommended varieties will not work well if they are moist or resinous or generate coarse shavings.

The drill should be about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter and about 6 to 10 inches long. The wood should dent somewhat under your thumbnail, being neither too hard nor extremely soft. Round the drill end for the fire board and trim the corners of the drill end for the bearing block at about 45 degrees.

Fire Board

The exact dimensions of the fire board are not important but, like the drill, the type and condition of the wood are critical. The fire board should be long enough to steady with your foot and significantly wider than the drill. About 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide by a couple of feet long works well. In a real-life situation, you will use a fire board many times, until its entire length has been used up.

Using your knife, split an appropriate branch for fabricating your fire board. Shave down the round side until it’s about 1/2 inch thick, and then square up the sides. By rotating your knife tip, make a shallow depression in the fire board just over half the diameter of the drill from the board edge. This depression must hold the drill as it spins. Cut a narrow V-notch from the edge of the board to the center of the depression you just gouged into the fire board. This V-notch will collect bits of wood shavings, which smolder as you work the drill.

Bearing Block

You can use many different materials for the bearing block. The main requirements are that the materials be hard and slippery. A 1-ounce shot glass, a smooth stone with a depression, a chunk of bone, a knot of resinous softwood or a knot of hardwood will work well. Make a shallow hole in the bearing block to capture the end of the drill. If it’s made of wood, a little lip balm, some Crisco or animal fat will help to lubricate the bearing block. Make sure you don’t contaminate the fire board end of your drill with the lubricant.


Almost any dry, fibrous material will work for tinder. The inner bark of cedar is great, and cottonwood also works well, as do many dried grasses. Roll these around between your fingers until they are shredded fine like a cotton ball. Make a small bird’s nest out of your tinder, with a depression in the middle to catch the glowing ember. Set it to the side on a piece of bark, so you can carry it when it bursts into flame without burning your hands. Make sure you have kindling and dry wood ready, too. Unlike matches, a second chance with a bow drill involves considerable effort.


Place a piece of bark under the fire board notch to catch the ember and to insulate it from the ground. Wrap the bowstring in a single full loop around the drill. Kneel down with one foot firmly standing on top of the fire board next to the V-notch. Get comfortable, because this will probably take at least 20 minutes. Apply pressure with the bearing block, and start rotating the drill with a full back-and-forth stroke of the bow. Very little will happen until the drill seats itself into the cavity on the fire board; at that point it will develop considerably more friction and start to smolder. Once the spark inside the dust pile is clearly smoldering, relax and lift the spark on its bark bed, dumping the spark into your bird’s nest of tinder. Blow on the spark until the tinder bursts into flame. Congratulations, you have made fire!

Starting a Fire With a Hand Drill

This is tough, but doable. Prepare the tinder, kindling and fire board as above. The fire board should be a little thinner — perhaps as thin as 1/4 inch. The drill should be about 1/4 inch in diameter and about 30 inches long. Dried cattails are a favored drill material. Persistence, tough hands and lots of rapid drilling with steady downward pressure are the keys to success. Use the full length of your hands and apply downward pressure as you spin the drill between your hands. Some people are able to flutter their hands up the drill while maintaining the drill spin to prevent it from cooling down as they shift their hands to the top of the drill to begin another round of downward pressure spins. If you find that you must stop drilling to shift your hands, do so as quickly as possible to minimize cooling. Thumb loops of string or a leather thong attached to the top of the hand drill can help you start a fire faster by applying steady downward pressure as you spin the drill.

Starting a Fire With a Fire Plow

Cut a lengthwise shallow groove in an 18-inch fire board made from soft, non-resinous wood that is at least 1 1/2 inches wide. Prepare your tinder and kindling in the same way as for starting a fire with a bow drill. Using a hardwood or other non-resinous stick, drive the stick back and forth under considerable pressure to generate friction, sawdust and, eventually, a spark.

Reprinted with permission from When Technology Fails, published by Chelsea Green, 2008.