Camping & Survival

Starting a Fire in the Wild: 3 Options

starting a fire

When it comes to surviving in the wilderness, it’s crucial to prioritize your basic needs. Those include food, shelter and water.

Of course, starting a fire is just as important for enduring the elements, and knowing how to ignite a flame without a lighter or matches may just save your life.

With that in mind, here are three ways to start a fire in the wild.

1. Bow Drill

One of the most famous ways to make a fire also happens to be the most difficult — employing friction.

This method entails quick movements and a resilient spirit, especially if your body is already depleted of nutrients, water and warmth. It’ll also require a good deal of fire-starting know-how.

First, you must gather all your materials. Find a piece of wood with a slight curve about the size of your forearm. This will serve as your bow wood.

Then, pull out a piece of paracord or rope for the bowstring. Even your shoelaces are fair game, here.

Next, find a rock, shell or another item with a notch to fit the spindle — this item will be your socket — and a piece of dry, dead softwood for the fireboard.

Lastly, you must find a 12 to 15-inch piece of softwood that measures about an inch in diameter. This small piece of wood will serve as the spindle.

Use your knife to whittle both ends into blunt points. Then, gather your tinder and kindling.

Carve a small hole in the fireboard to fit the spindle and a v-shaped notch to collect coal and hot dust. Then, place your tinder underneath.

Place the spindle on the fireboard and the socket on top of the spindle. Catch the spindle within the bowstring loop and begin sawing back and forth, quickly rotating the spindle in its hole until you create an ember.

Transfer this ember to your tinder, blow gently and begin building your fire.

starting a fire

2. Flint and Steel

If you’re going camping or backpacking, it’s probably smarter to pack flint and steel than it is to bring matches. A box of matches can easily become wet and useless.

However, flint and steel are still likely to spark, even when wet. Just be sure to have a char cloth or tinder kit handy — and dry — so you can use this method any time.

Place your nest of tinder on a dry surface and place the char cloth on top. Make an indentation to catch the spark. Then, strike your flint against the steel until a spark ignites the char cloth.

Fold the glowing ember into the cloth and place it inside the tinder nest. Gently blow on it until the nest begins to flame. Finally, use kindling to build a small fire.

If you didn’t pack a flint and steel set, you can always improvise by using quartzite and your pocket knife, instead.

Strike the sharp edges of the rock with your knife to send sparks flying. Then, ignite your tinder and build your fire just as you would using flint and steel.

fire on wood in forrest

3. Ice Lense

Who would have thought you can make fire from ice? As impossible as it sounds, you can, indeed, keep yourself warm by using ice as a firestarter.

In freezing cold survival situations, this method might just save your life.

First, locate or make the ice you want to use. The block must be as clear as possible for this to work, so either melt and freeze some snow or search frozen ponds and lakes for a nice clear chunk.

Your end product should be about two inches thick.

Next, use your knife to shape the ice into a convex lens — thicker in the middle and thinner around the edges.

Use the heat of your hands to create a smooth surface and shape the block into a more circular form.

Angle your lens toward the sun and place a nest of tinder in the small beam of light that filters through. Eventually, the pile will begin smoking and catch fire.

round ice lense

Health Benefits of Starting a Fire

Aside from the obvious benefit of survival, starting a fire can also have health benefits.

For instance, one study found that sitting beside a fire decreased blood pressure and enhanced the effects of pro-sociality.

Interestingly enough, water also comes with its own benefits. A dip in a pool, lake or pond can promote muscle relaxation and relieve tension that contributes to stress.

Thus, both elements can benefit your mental and physical health — whether you’re in survival mode or not.

Surviving Another Night

Starting a fire in the wild can provide a sense of safety and comfort, even in the most dire situation.

It also offers warmth and light, a place to cook food and even defense from certain wild animals and insects.

In short, knowing these fire-starting options will increase your chances of surviving another night and, eventually, finding civilization.

What is your preferred method for starting a fire? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Dylan Bartlett

Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about the outdoors, survivalism and similar topics on his blog. He's an avid hiker and enjoys roughing it in unfamiliar territory. Check out Just a Regular Guide to read more of his work, or follow him on Twitter @theregularguide for updates.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. A simple 9 volt battery an a little steel wool are top of my list . Even after getting wet once dried out are easy and quick to use an don’t take up hardly any room in a pocket or shtf bag.

  2. Swan, I have no dispute with Mike N’s comment.
    But, if more people were better prepared BEFORE going into the woods, there could be less call for some of the SAR teams to assemble, or at least when they were, preparation would increase the possibility that there will be a rescue as opposed to a recovery. Rescue is always better.
    I will say that after more than 40 years in healthcare, the three minutes without air is very general and sometimes generous, to say the least. That is the usual point when brain damage can begin, in my experience. For some that time is longer and for others, it can be much less. (And many already have significant, although unrecognized damage even without oxygen deprivation, but that is another discussion for a different blog.)
    I have seen many people who were unconscious before two minutes had elapsed and even with intervention, it was a challenge. Immediate intervention is key.
    Now, as far as social contact… My wife calls me a hermit. I am not sure that is true, but I do not understand most of the things on social media. I could go much longer than three months without social media and if anything I would thrive.
    But, not being out in the woods for three months, that is a different story. About the only time that has happened involved me being in the hospital… I was in the ICU for a pulmonary embolism and my activity was limited for about six months. I thought that was going to kill me, if my wife didn’t beat the PE to it. She loves me but having me home and being sick… she seems to think I don’t do sick well. Go figure.

  3. Bo, great information but I have to side with Mike N… If you are that far in a deficit for your situation you probably aren’t going to benefit much from the instruction of the main article. For those of us who see the value of putting the 3 methods of fire starting in our grey matter toolbox, I don’t think we are the focus group and their we go…chasing our tail in a closed loop.

    Understanding the “Rule of Threes” and giving people the tools to prioritize their survival skills is a good place to start as well. Well before “naked in wilderness” situations evolve.

    Cannot live:

    3-minutes without air.
    3-hours without shelter (exposure in bad conditions; both hot and cold…fire starting could be critical).
    3-days without water
    3-weeks without food
    3-months without (and this is arguable) social contact.

    Now work on your kit and your plan for dealing with these critical stages of a survival situation and you might stay ahead of the reaper.

  4. I always carry a knife and usually a gun in the woods. What better source of ignition could you ask for when you disassemble the cartridge?

  5. Most times in the woods I carry a firearm and always a knife. Pull the bullet using the muzzle to wiggle it loose. Pour most of the cartridge gunpowder on some tinder. Place the cartridge, less bullet in the chamber, aim at the tinder pile and fire. The primer flash and residual gunpowder will ignite your tinder pile.

  6. When i am in the back country and things could potentially get real in a hurry, i carry a ferro rod as a last resort, but also i have a couple bic lighters that are vacuum sealed with tinder.
    They are small, lightweight and work at high altitude. Packing the tinder with, and double vacuum sealing ensures nice dry material.
    I just check the seal each time before i go out.

  7. Carry a small magnifying glass and use it instead of a ice lens. You can pick them up at hardware and office supply stores. I have one made of plastic that works. I have also picked up other small glass ones to. And they do not require you to make a lens every time you need a new one.

  8. My best option for starting a fire is ?????

    BIC LIGHTER 1000 flames and a 4 pack will set you back????

    $2.99

  9. Great article, Dylan. I would say that building a fire is a fundamental skill that everyone who ventures into the outdoors should master. Having done SAR long ago and far, far away, it is a subject near and dear to my heart. Now, almost 50 years after that long ago and far away, I still carry certain pieces of equipment in my backpack every time I go out into the woods.
    Deer season is upon us, at least, archery season is open in Oklahoma. The spot where I hunt is kind of remote and heavily wooded in some places. As I am no longer considered to be a young man at 69, I realize that there can be a SHTF situation arising suddenly and quickly. So, in my backpack, and in different pouches in that pack, I carry different ways to start a fire and items which will assist me in my endeavor, should I find myself in extreme, unexpected peril.
    One of the biggest mistakes many people make when it comes to starting a fire under stress is to wait until they are under stress to begin practicing the skill. I am here to tell you, if you have waited until the situation is dire, your chances of survivability are remarkably diminished and you most likely will be a recovery mission for SAR, not a rescue. Learning a new survival skill under that kind of extreme stress is incredibly difficult, stacking the odds against you. The Search and Rescue literature is rife with examples of people who did not survive because they waited until they were in crisis to try to learn basic skills to stay alive. I have never had any luck with the fire bow drill; it is a lot of hard physical work, and I don’t even try it anymore. I know my limitations.
    That being said, I have used, and still do, all of the pieces of equipment I am mentioning so many times all year that it is almost second nature to me. I have used them when camping, lighting the charcoal chimney for my grill, or even starting a fire in my fireplace. I have not ever used a match to start a fire in my fireplace since we built this house in 1994. I alternate between the firestarters and I have multiples of many of them so one stays in my pack and another identical one is at the house, by the fireplace or the grill. Some of the pieces have to be prepped before they work, like a Swedish Fire Steel. They have a coating on the rod that must be scraped off in order to get any sparks. It is best to try each piece out and be sure that you can get some sparks before it goes into the pack.
    So, I have a Swedish Fire Steel, I make sure that one of the orange ones is in my pack. Orange is easy to find if it gets dropped on the ground. In the dark, any other color can be a challenge to find, even with a flashlight.
    Also, I have a “Li’l Sparky.” The good thing about it is it is one-handed operation. That is important if your are injured and cannot use both hands. The orange one is the one in my pack.
    I have at least one magnesium fire starter bar with a striker. I wait until Harbor Freight puts them on sale and buy several. They last for years, and I give them to new hunters or campers so they can learn to use them.
    I have a Strike Force made by Gerber. That shows how old it is as Gerber no longer makes them, I don’t know who makes them now, but it is a good tool to have and works well. Again, it is in orange.
    Twenty to thirty years ago, at a gun show, I bought what was billed as a Survivor Firestarter. It is a magnesium rod with a bar that the instructions called flint fixed along one edge. I bought it before the internet was a significant influence on purchasing and there is not a website listed with the paperwork that came with it. I have used it a lot and both the magnesium and the flint are showing signs of wear.
    I have several of what were billed as cigarette lighters but I have never put fluid in them. There is a screw in wand on the top with a striker bar down one side. I bought them in bulk for a really cheap price and they work well. Each one measures just over an inch wide, an inch and a half long, and less than half an inch deep. They strike good sparks and don’t take up much space.
    I carry others but, you get the drift.
    I also carry things that will burn easily to assist me in my endeavor to get a fire going. I make firestarters out of cardboard egg cartons by putting high cotton content dryer lint in the pocket and filling it with melted wax. Wax, or paraffin is cheap and easy to melt in a makeshift double boiler. I carry some of that lint in 35 mm film cannisters which are water tight and will keep it dry.
    I have several commercial products, such as Pyro Putty and Wet Fire. They will catch fire quickly and easily even when it is wet out there. Another thing I also carry is tampons. They can be fluffed up to catch a spark and will burn for a minute or two while you are stacking some wood around it. They can also be used to stop a nosebleed or be inserted into a gun shot wound in an extremity should that happen. So I have some in my First Aid kit, as well.
    This only touches on what I consider to the minimum to carry out there in the woods for fire-starting. My survival kit is probably what most people would consider to be overkill, but with my background, I am carrying nothing that I consider to be non-essential.

  10. Yeah – I want to see someone actually use an ice-lens….!
    Even when the sun is high in the sky and bright, using a glass lens is difficult, and most times there is ice around, the sun will be low in the sky and dim.

  11. I had a survival instructor tell us that if you brought no other fire-making tools, and your only option is to make a friction fire, then you are too stupid to be in the woods.

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