Outdoors / Tips and Solutions

How to Make a Fire: Alternative Techniques

The most frequent response many people gave me when I told them I was going to learn to make fire was, “Why?” Followed closely with, “We have matches, and lighters, and ovens, and a hundred other ways to make fire quickly and easily.” And while it’s true that there are dozens of ways to make fire in our 21st-Century society, there are also dozens of reasons why one would want to know alternative methods. In my case, it was a practical decision: I typically go camping a few times a year, but it’s at a national park, with rudimentary cooking pits, and you park your car next to where you pitch your tent. Under those circumstances, while it’s technically “camping,” it is certainly not “roughing it.” Making fire is fairly quick and easy while camping out of your car. But this year is different. I’m heading to Upstate New York for a multi-day hiking trip where the niceties of “glamping” are gone. I’ll have matches, but I’ve read enough to know that relying on a single method is dangerous, so I wanted to learn alternative ways to make fire, and to pack the backups. Along the way, I was inspired to write this article.

"I’ve read enough to know that relying on a single method is dangerous, so I wanted to learn alternative ways to make fire."

For full disclosure: if it isn’t already apparent, I’m not a backwoods guide, tracker, hunter, or anything like that. This isn’t a prep manual or survival guide. I’m just a guy from Long Island making a practical effort to prepare myself for my trip. I wanted to find out the easiest ways to make fire, try some of the old standbys, and just practice. Most of my attempts were done on my back patio under ideal (if somewhat windy) conditions. I chose to do all this under mostly ideal conditions so I could have a solid base from which to start; and with practice and some successes I felt that I’d be better prepared when I had to use them in the real world.

Armed with some basic tools that I gathered from my house, and a few that I purchased, I set out to… Make Fire! My success was a mixed bag. Maybe you can succeed where I failed, maybe you have better/alternative ways to accomplish what I did, maybe I’ll inspire you to try and replicate my efforts. Leave me a comment, below, and I’ll use your suggestions. If you give me enough tips, maybe I’ll do a follow-up piece. If you decide to try these yourself, PLEASE be careful. Kids should ask their parents for help. Be mindful of your surroundings so you don’t damage anything with flying sparks and such. And you will DEFINITELY want a FIRE EXTINGUISHER, charged and ready to go, because in situations like this things can go south quickly.

Since this trip is going to be entirely on foot, I wanted to make sure whatever I need to make fire is easy to carry. I’m not lugging a ton of stuff, so in preparing for this, I chose only the supplies that I knew wouldn’t

  • take up a lot of space
  • add significant weight and would
  • allow me to make multiple fires.

Basic fire building

I quickly learned that making fire starts long before you actually try to make a flame. Gathering wood is essential and gathering the right wood is critical when you’re making fire with alternative techniques. All wood isn’t created equal, so you need to know what to look for and where to look for it. The first day I wanted to start this experiment, it rained in the morning. When I went around my neighborhood to gather material, I found that even under heavy canopies, the wood was damp. Most of the tinder and kindling that was usable came from dead bushes that were still standing or branches that had broken off of trees, but got caught in other branches or bushes and were held up above the ground. Keep this in mind—looking down isn’t necessarily the best place to find your fire wood… in fact, it’s probably the worst place, under certain circumstances.

Once you’ve gathered all your wood, you need to keep it close at hand because things move quickly and speed can be the difference between success and failure.

Wood types

  • Tinder: This is the smallest, most easily flammable stuff. Think long dry grass, straw, and cedar bark. I thought leaves would be good, but quickly found that I was wrong. Leaves are horrible, so don’t use them.
     
  • Kindling: Small twigs and branches around the diameter of a tooth pick to a pencil. These will be used after you’ve ignited your tinder to start feeding the flame to build the fire.
     
  • Punk wood: Found all over the ground, punk wood is dried rotten wood. It is easy to tell when you have punk wood by using this simple test—try to crush it in your bare hand. If it crumbles or breaks apart and looks like a dried sponge, you’ve found punk wood. As long as it’s dry, punk wood catches a flame extremely well, and if you’re building a fire from an ember, it’s great for adding to kindling or tinder bundles.
     
  • Fuel wood: As the name implies, this is the larger wood that you’ll burn for the rest of the time, once you get your fire going.

When I started, I had my tinder and kindling laid out within easy reach. I separated the kindling by diameter, and broke it down into four to six-inch pieces. My tinder bundles were pretty much thrown together. I put smaller kindling on the outside so I had something to hold on to, with the tinder facing me so I could blow into it. I found that it was critical to keep the tinder bundle fairly loose so that there was plenty of air flow for me to be able to blow an ember hot enough to ignite.

Practical/conventional methods

Fire Steel and Tinder Bundle: My first attempt involved using a basic tinder bundle with fire steel. Fire Steel is a high-carbon steel alloy rod and a striker. Draw the striker down the rod and it produces hot sparks. The tinder caught very fast and the flame spread faster. This is where I learned the importance of speed.

Using fire steel and tinder
 

Cotton Ball and Petroleum Jelly: Next I tried a cotton ball, soaked with petroleum jelly. After some research, I found that people were making little packets using aluminum foil. This allowed me to make several, then compress them so I could bundle a bunch of them into a very small amount of space.

How to make a cotton ball and petroleum jelly packet
 

The combination acts like a candle and wick and the slow burn gives you plenty of time to build the fire. It’s important that you keep some of the cotton dry so it will catch the spark from the fire steel. I took a foil packet that I made, cut an “X” into the top, and then used the knife tip to fluff up the cotton. It caught the spark quickly, and I barely needed the tinder and almost went straight to kindling.

Using cotton ball and petroleum jelly packet
 

After I stopped taping that sequence, I pulled the packet from the kindling fire I had started and it continued to burn for the better part of five minutes! As far as I’m concerned, this was the best thing ever: Easy to make (I had all the components in the house), easy to pack a lot of them, quick to start, and an exceptionally long burn time.

Char Cloth: Char cloth is something that I hadn’t really heard about until I started doing research for this article. Basically, you take a strip of natural fiber—usually cotton—add a lot of heat with little to no oxygen and what you have left when you’re finished is a strip of almost pure carbon. To make the char cloth, I used an old mint tin, punched a little hole on the top as a vent, put several strips that I cut off an old towel into the tin, and then put it in a fire.

Making char cloth, step 1
 

Making char cloth, step 2
 

Making char cloth, step 3
 

You’ll notice a flame coming out of the hole in the tin – that is everything except the carbon burning off. When the flame stopped, I pulled the tin out of the fire and then let it cool. Be careful not to open it too soon, if it’s still hot when you open it, the cloth can flash ignite due to the rapid addition of oxygen. Another thing to be aware of is that the char cloth is going to be much lighter than before it was made into char cloth, so if there’s stiff breeze when you open the cooled tin, you may lose one or two cloths to the wind. I found that out the hard way.

When I added the char cloth to a tinder bundle, it caught with one strike of the steel and I had a fire after a few brisk blows into it.

Using fire steel and char cloth
 

Dryer Lint: Straight from the lint trap in my dryer, this is probably the easiest tinder you could find next to cotton balls and significantly cheaper, since you undoubtedly throw a bunch of it away every time you do laundry. I’ve read some comments from people who use certain detergents (especially those intended for high-efficiency appliances) have had problems with dryer lint as the chemicals in the detergent act as fire-retardants. My appliances are, sadly, far from high-efficiency so that wasn’t a problem, and I chose to gather lint from loads that were made entirely of cotton cloths. Any synthetic materials, like my gym gear, would probably work less well or not at all. I erred on the side of caution and stuck with all-cotton lint.

A little ball of lint and my fire steel and it caught quickly. A lot of the burn happened on the surface, so if my tinder or kindling didn’t catch right away, I could roll it over and get some extra precious seconds of flame.

Using fire steel and dryer lint
 

Waterproof/Windproof Matches: As the name implies, these matches are water and windproof. Don’t confuse this with being “strike anywhere.” You will need a striker, and the one I was using not only had a striker on the outside, there were spares in the O-ring-sealed waterproof case in plastic. As you will see from the video, the match ignited almost like a flare. I submerged the match in a glass of water and when I removed it, the flame re-ignited almost instantly, then I added it to my tinder and it caught quickly.

Using waterproof/windproof matches
 

Fire Sticks: These weren’t worth shooting a video for because they’re practically foolproof. A fire stick is made from wood fibers and wax. It is essentially what one would use to start a fireplace fire, only instead of being the size of a small log, each one is about the size of a piece of a Kit-Kat chocolate bar. I used a piece of dryer lint that I started with fire steel. When the lint was burning, I ignited the fire stick to build the fire. The advantage of these is their long burn time, so if you’re trying to start a fire with wood that isn’t exactly bone-dry, if it’s windy, or you can’t find any tinder, you can go straight to larger kindling and still get a fire going fairly quickly. Also, if you only have a lighter, a fire stick is infinitely easier to start a fire with.

Unconventional Methods

While cruising YouTube, I came across several unconventional methods of making fire that I thought I’d try. It was a mixed bag of success and failure.

Steel Wool and a Battery: I knew that in theory this should have worked. It took several attempts (and a couple of batteries) before I was able to get it lit. I discovered that the wool needed to be pulled apart. I also had some trouble figuring out where to put it in relation to the tinder. In the video, you’ll see the attempt that met with success.

Using steel wool and a battery
 

Soda Can: This is the one I REALLY wanted to make work. The theory is that the concave shape of the bottom of the can will concentrate the sunlight to a single point and ignite char cloth or even punk wood. I’ve heard of people using toothpaste and even chocolate to polish the can. While I was able to get it polished, the toothpaste also created scuffs on the surface – I was unable to get to a mirror finish and I think that’s what caused the failure. After an exceptionally long time holding my char cloth in front of it, the only thing I got was a cramp in my hand.

Magnifying Glass: I knew that there was no reason why this shouldn’t work, but I wasn’t sure if I could find success. For this one, I used punk wood. Sitting at my patio table, I directed my magnifying glass toward the sun and moved it around until I found the focal point for the light. Almost immediately, the wood started to smoke. I used dryer lint for tinder and it caught after a bit of constant blowing.

Using a magnifying glass
 

Primitive Fire Starting

After some research, I chose to concentrate on two of the most popular methods: the Fire Plough and the Fire Drill.

Fire Plough: The fire plough is a length of wood with a channel or groove carved down it. You whittle a stick to a point that matches the groove. Gritting your teeth, you rub the stick back and forth until the friction built up ignites the dust you’ve created into an ember. The ember is transferred to a tinder bundle and you blow it to a flame. Videos show people getting an ember in seconds.

My first plough was with oak for both parts. I quickly realized that I needed softer wood, so I switched to cedar. Below, the video shows how I split the wood and carved the channel.

Using a fire plough, #1
 

While I was able to get the wood to smoke, I couldn’t get the ember. It was also about 90 degrees outside, the weekend I attempted this, and the sound the wood made as my sweat dripped into the groove—rapidly cooling it—was a bit discouraging.

Using a fire plough, #2
 

After three days, four ploughs and five liters of sweat, I called it and proceeded to the next technique.

Hand Drill: This is the iconic way: A plank of wood, a straight stick, and your two hands to spin it as you push down. This causes friction and, inevitably, fire.

Having learned my lesson from the plough, I went straight to cedar. I learned from my research that I needed to carve a notch for the stick, and to cut a channel for the ember to fall into.

Steeling myself, I proceeded to spin that stick.

Using a fire drill
 

As with the plough, I was able to get smoke but my hand blistered before the ember appeared. While I’m happy to report that I didn’t sweat into the notch, the only thing I had to show after trying several times was a broken blister on one hand and four more blisters on the other hand.

What Did I Learn?

Mostly, I learned that the primitive fire starting techniques require more than a weekend of practice to get right. I’m sure I made any number of mistakes that prevented them from being successful. Did I use the right wood? Should I have used two different woods? Should it have been a mix of hard and soft wood? I’m positive that the muscles required to do either technique are ones that I rarely, if ever use, at the gym or sitting at my computer. My baby-soft hands did not lend themselves to the fire drill. At all.

If you’re anything like my wife, you may be wondering how my fragile male ego held up after my failed attempts to make fire like my primitive ancestors? Outwardly, I was fine. Inwardly I was pouting like a two-year old who didn’t get ice cream. But then I realized that my primitive ancestors needed to do that to live, much like I need my fine motor skills to write—and thus live—so I’m calling it a wash. They have their skills and I have mine. Bam! Fragile male ego intact.

Beyond that, what else did I learn? With the right tools, some solid preparation, and lots of practice, making fire using alternative techniques is not as difficult as I thought it might be when I started working on this piece. I would definitely say that practice is the key to any and all of this—especially if you’re going to try the primitive techniques. You’ll need to build calluses and use muscles you’ve probably never used, so be ready for pain and frustration.

Equipment

I had three fire steels, and I wanted to see which one worked the best. While they all worked well, I found that the textured spine of the Tool Logic blade made the most sparks with the least effort. I did like the CRKT one as well, because it’s a two-in-one deal. On one side is a fire steel; on the other is a knife sharpener. My large fixed blade got a little dull as I went through the experiment, and the sharpener put a nice edge back on—plus, it’s all on a lanyard, so I’ll be able to loop it on my pack, my knife sheath, or my belt. The Gerber Bear Grylls had a nice feel in the hand, and I liked that the cap came off to hold some cotton or dryer lint. A little tip about using the fire steel: you should hold the steel firmly in your non-dominant hand, and then hold the striker on your dominant hand at a 45-degree angle away from you. If you want to precisely place the sparks, hold the striker steady and pull the steel toward you. Driving the striker forward will spray the sparks and probably make you hit the tinder bundle. You’ll probably notice, if you pay attention during the videos, that I usually struck the steel the wrong way, so it’s kind of amazing that any of it worked at all.

I had two kinds of wind- and waterproof matches. The ones you don’t see me using were very short and burned a bit too quickly. I would suggest getting the longer styles, if for no other reason than a longer burn time is always preferable to a shorter one when you’re trying to start a fire.

Besides my late father-in-law’s Zippo lighter, this is the list of what I’m planning on packing—fire-making-wise. You’ll notice that the gear is compact, easy to pack, very lightweight, and with the exception of the foil packets, are capable of making multiple fires and give me multiple tools.

  • Foil packets of cotton balls soaked with petroleum jelly. Again, these take up very little room when compressed and you get a long burn time.
     
  • A (new) Tool Logic knife: not only does it have the fire steel, I like that the blade is partially-serrated, plus the handle has a safety whistle, and the cap of the steel is a flashlight; and who doesn’t need an extra light source? No one, that’s who. I want a new one because I relied heavily on this during the two weekends I was doing this article and the steel is wearing out.
     
  • The CRKT for reasons already stated: Fire steel + sharpener. It’s a no-brainer.
     
  • Waterproof/Windproof matches.
     
  • Mint tin with char cloth. I’ll pre-make some and if push comes to shove, I can always sacrifice part of a shirt or a dirty sock to make more. As long as the tin holds up, I’ll be able to make more and have a ready source of tinder.
     
  • The Gerber Bear Grylls… maybe. If I have room. It’s kind of a one-trick-pony and I’d really rather have a multi-purpose tool if I’m counting every ounce.