Fire Without Matches
By Steve Gillman
Making a fire without matches or a lighter looks easy on television.
On a recent episode of "Man Against Wild," the host/survivor
simply spun a stick between his hands for a few minutes, with
one end on a fire board (a piece of wood with a hole and a notch
in it), and he soon had a burning coal. This was easily blown
into a flame. Or was it easy.
One thing we don't see is the whole process in one camera
shot. This might be because it takes a long time to make a fire
using primitive means. It is also very easy to fail at any one
of the six crucial steps, and that means no fire. Here are the
six steps to making a fire without matches or a lighter:
1. Gathering the right kind of tinder.
2. Gathering firewood and laying a good fire.
3. Making the fire-starting tools.
4. Using the tools the right way to create an ember.
5. Blowing the ember into a flame using the tinder.
6. Starting a fire with the burning tinder.
Making a Fire
Of these steps, numbers 4 and 5 are by far the most difficult.
You probably already know how to gather dry wood and lay it in
a way that allows air into it, with tinder at the center, kindling
around that, and small pieces of firewood ready to add. Making
the tools, whether a hand-spun spindle or a bow and drill setup,
is relatively easy too, once you've seen how and tried it once
Tinder needs to have very specific qualities when you don't
have matches. Paper, for example, is a great tinder for starting
a fire with matches, but it won't easily take and hold a spark
or ember and allow you to blow it into a flame. That is what
you need in good tinder materials when you don't have matches.
These materials include lint from your pocket, cattail seed head
down, fine dry grass, cotton twine, cotton cloth, and dry-rotted
Some dry funguses that grow on trees work well too. Experiment
with these. You can also scrape the outside of some trees, like
western cedars, to get a small pile of fuzzy bark for tinder.
The tinder should be placed in a nest or ball of dry grass.
The moment you get your spark or coal, you will drop it into
the center and blow into it gently. With practice, you should
be able to blow this ember into a flame within a minute or so.
If not, try other tinder materials. You can mix several, like
lint, cattail fuzz, and finely shredded soft bark.
Here is the basic routine: Whether using a bow and drill,
a fire plow (like the one in the photo) or a simple spindle and
fire board, you need to create enough friction to get a small
ember. This is dropped into the tinder you have prepared, and
blown into a flame. This flaming tinder is then transferred to
the kindling and firewood you have prepared, and soon you have
a blazing fire.
Now it is time for a confession. I've practiced every element
of this process. I can lay a good fire, collect great tinders,
and blow them into a flame from an ember. I can even make a decent
bow and drill fire starter. What I haven't done yet, however,
is create an ember from friction. That's right. I've created
clouds of smoke and a lot of sweat, but never started a fire
from friction. Perhaps the fact that I have always had matches
limited my motivation.
Using the fire plough in the photo above I was able to get
smoke within twenty seconds or so. I just ran the point up and
down the groove while putting some weight on it. But smoke was
all I got. I have spent hours trying to get that elusive ember,
and I have produced a lot of smoke. Unfortunately, where there
is smoke there is not always fire.
Bottom line? Step number four is very difficult. You might
want to practice all the others to get your confidence up (you
can light a small stick and blow out the flame to get your ember
for practice). The real lesson, however, may be that if you think
you might be making a fire, bring matches or a lighter.
NOTE: To see how to make a bow-and-drill, or fire plow, visit
the page: Building Fires