How to Start a Fire Without Matches or a Lighter

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One key aspect of being a survivalist is knowing how to start a fire. Of course, there is always the conventional way; a match and some tinder, but what if you don’t have the resources available? Maybe amidst the chaos you lost your matches or misplaced your lighter. What if you had to ditch everything to get out of a sticky situation?

Would you know how to start a fire?

If not, don’t fret. I’m here to tell you five ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter.

Side note: I always keep a Ferro rod in my bug-out bag, as well as my last-ditch kit so I can avoid this situation, but just in case, I learned these ways to start a fire without matches if the need arises.

Bushcraft Methods for Starting a Campfire Without Matches

Since you trekked out into the woods without a packet of matches, we’re going to assume you didn’t bring a lighter, either.

But not to worry, there are plenty of bushcraft ways to start a fire without an accelerant or a sparking tool.

Fire Lighting Bow

You’ve probably seen Bear Grylls or other TV survivalists attempt this fire-starting method. And while it can be a little tricky, with a bit of practice, you’ll be able to get it done in no time.

You’ll need:

  • A long-ish stick for your bow (at least 1m/3ft long)
  • At least 60cm of cord that won’t burn or fray quickly (paracord, shoelaces, etc.)
  • A stick for your spindle (about the size of a screwdriver handle)
  • Tinder (cotton balls, dryer lint, twigs, dry grass, etc.)

Place the stick that acts as your bow next to a sturdy tree. Make sure there are no low branches in front of it. Tie one end of your cord to the bow about 20cm from one end. This is your handhold. Place the spindle stick in front of you with one end against the tree and create a “V” shape with the other end facing you.

Now, holding onto your bow at the tied end, begin twirling it in small circles between your fingers. Keep the spindle stick in place with your left hand and use your right to guide the cord against it, creating friction. If you feel like you need more friction, move the bow faster.

Once you’re making some smoke (after about 30 seconds or so), add in some tinder on top of the area where it’s smoking. In a matter of minutes, your tinder should catch fire and you can add in kindling to build the fire up from there.

Fire Plough

A lot simpler than the bow drill, this method requires a bit more work but is still effective without a lighter or matches.  You’ll need:

  • A hardwood stick (maple, black cherry, and beech are all common North American hardwood trees)
  • A softwood log or board (larch, spruce, and mountain pine are all common North American softwood trees)
  • Tinder (cotton balls, dryer lint, twigs, dry grass, etc.)

Start off by using a knife or a sharp rock to shave the hardwood stick into a relative point. Then, use the point to dig a groove in the softwood log. After you have a small ditch-like groove, fill it with tinder.

Continue to rub the hardwood stick back and forth until you build up enough friction. This method can take a while – about 5 minutes or so – but should eventually produce some smoke that you can fan into flame.

This method is a very bare-bones strategy for starting a campfire, but it’s worth trying at least once.

Flint and Steel

Flint and steel is a tried-and-true method for starting a fire. Unlike the previous two methods that used friction to ignite a flame, the atomic makeup of flint and steel allows them to create a spark when met with the right amount of force and speed.

For this method, you’ll of course need a flintstone and a metal implement, like a striker, an axe head, or a knife.

In the absence of flint, you can always use a smooth river stone or other relatively flat stone.

The first step is to create a spark by quickly striking the stone with the metal. After a few tries, you should be able to see a few sparks jumping from the metal.

Next, you have to attempt to catch the spark. Do so by laying your tinder/kindling beneath the stone. Sparks will want to jump, so try and position your flint in a way that the sparks shoot down into your tinder.

Once sparks hit your tinder, you’ll have to gently blow on the sparks until they become flames. Make sure to shelter them with your hands so a breeze doesn’t put out your hard work. Once the flame has started to devour the tinder, add more kindling and small sticks, gradually building the flame up into a real fire.

Solar Ignition

When you were a kid, did you ever use a magnifying glass to set leaves and grass on fire? Well, that’s actually an important skill in the bushcraft world!

This method for starting a campfire is called solar ignition. It uses direct sunlight, refined through a lens or off a mirror, to heat up a tinder. After it gets hot, the tinder should burst into flame.

To use this method of starting a fire, you’ll need:

  • A magnifying glass (in a pinch, a plastic water bottle filled with water, bifocals, or a mirror will work)
  • Kindling or tinder (cotton balls or dryer lint work best for this, you can also use dried leaves)

Start off by placing your kindling on the ground beneath your magnifying glass.

If you have a mirror, hold the mirror at an angle that captures the sun’s rays and reflects them onto the tinder. If you don’t, try angling your lens (either with or without light refraction) so that sunlight focuses on one point on the tinder.

As said before, the tinder should heat up pretty quickly under direct sun.

Make sure to hold down your tinder as it heats up; you don’t want all of your hard work to go up in smoke! Once it reaches ignition temperature, gently blow on the tinder and watch it burst into flame. Then, transfer the fire to your already-established fire pit.

This method of starting a fire is the easiest, but its reliance on direct sunlight can limit you when it comes to lighting fires during overcast days or at night.

Alternatives to Matches for Starting a Campfire

Matches are a relatively easy way to start a fire, but they aren’t always practical. If your backpack gets drenched, you might not be able to light your patches, or you might have forgotten to bring them all together. That’s where other alternatives to matches can come in handy!

When it comes down to it, the only thing you really need to start a fire is either heat or friction, as we’ve seen from the previous fire-starting methods. But if you’d rather use a modern tool to get some sparks than rub a few sticks together, you’re going to want to take a look at these next few methods:

Steel Wool and a 9-volt Battery

Steel wool is basically just really thin steel threads, so pairing it with a 9-volt battery essentially creates sparks. The steel wool will conduct the electricity from the battery, heating up so much that it can spark a fire.

First, you have to unclump your steel wool a little bit. Make sure it’s fair pulled a part. The thinner the grade of steel wool you can find, the faster it will light up.

Then, gather your tinder close to your steel wool. The two materials have to be touching in order for this to work.

Touch one end of your battery to the steel wool, and then pull a strand of it to connect with the opposite end of the battery. Within a few seconds, the wool will go up hot, so you have to be quick about catching your tinder on fire.

Once your tinder is nice and hot, add more kindling and larger firewood.

In reality, all kinds of batteries work for this fire-starting process. A, AA, AAA, D, watch batteries, phone batteries, etc.

Ferrocerium Rod and Striker

Ferrocerium is a metal alloy that when scraped or struck, produces sparks. You can buy it in the form of a rod or a block, usually for about $9 to $12 on

To use this for starting a fire in the wild, you’ll want to make sure your tinder is resting on some good fire starter material, like dried grass.

Then, you can scrape the ferrocerium rod with its built-in striker to ignite your tinder in no time!

The sparks are hot enough to make most any kindling go up in flame, so this is a quick fire-starting method that can get you through even the most difficult conditions.

Fire Piston

A fire piston, sometimes called a fire syringe, is basically an air-filled cylinder that contains a plunger. You push down on one end of the gun-shaped device to compress the cartridge against all sides, causing it to heat up and ignite–and thus your kindling (or other tinder) will light up!

The fire piston won’t work unless you have oxygen inside of it, so it might have trouble lighting in high altitudes.

When using the fire piston, make sure you place your kindling directly on top of it. Then strike away quickly!

A fire piston is a very easy fire-starting tool to use that has been around for thousands of years, but it can take a little bit of practice to get used to.

Magnesium Striker Tool

Another good fire-starting tool that can produce hot sparks is magnesium. You can find small, compact blocks of it for about $10 on, and the block itself stores well in your backpack without taking up too much room.

First, gather some dry kindling into a bundle between your hands so that you have an area where you can place your magnesium block.

Then, scrape some of the block’s shavings with a knife or other sharp object to produce sparks. With a little practice, you’ll be able to figure out how much pressure and force you need to apply with your tool in order for it to successfully start a fire every time!

Reflector from Flashlight

Ever wonder how flashlights are able to produce a wide span of light?

reflector from flashlight

This is because the light from the bulb is reflected by a cone-shaped reflective component known as none other than the reflector.

Much like solar magnification, you can ignite some form of tinder by placing it where the bulb usually goes in the flashlight.

First, just pull open a flashlight and remove the reflector from around the bulb. (Most flashlights will turn open from the top where the bulb is housed.)

Next, take your tinder and put it in the hole where the bulb should be. *Make sure the tinder partially sticks out where the bulb sits in the bowl.

Tinder in Reflector
Tinder in Reflector

Last, just hold your reflector in the direction of the sun and, if weather permits, you should be able to produce a flame. *Careful! The reflector will draw heat and become very hot to hold.)

Face towards the sun

Aluminum Foil and Batteries

Another outstanding way to start a fire when you don’t have a fire starter is using batteries and aluminum foil.

Aluminum Foil and Batteries

In order to do this, you will need:

  • Two batteries (I recommend at least 1.5v AA’s or larger)
  • Two pieces of aluminum foil
  • Tinder

The first step to this electrical concoction is to make a flat rectangle with one of the aluminum pieces. Place your batteries on top of the aluminum a few inches apart with one battery upside down (positive on foil) and the other upright (negative on the foil).

step 5 1

Next, you want to take the other piece of aluminum and make another rectangle. Take this rectangle and cut a small chunk out of the center but make sure you do not cut all the way through. I know this can seem confusing, so a good way to remember how it should look is to think about a butterfly band-aid when trying to make the top foil connection.

step 6

So now you have all the components and you are ready to make a flame!

Take your band-aid-shaped piece of aluminum foil and place it across the other positive and negative on the battery.

step 7

Lastly, take your tinder and touch it against the narrow portion of the aluminum foil. Hold it there for a few seconds and you will create a flame.

This can sometimes be a confusing process, especially getting the top portion of the aluminum foil correct. If you run into a snag or get confused, here is a great video to watch to get a better idea about this fire starting technique.

How Do You Start A Fire With Wet Wood?

Sometimes, you might have really drawn the short stick. It’s raining, all your firewood is soaked, and you don’t have matches.

Well, thankfully, there are a few survival tips you can implement to get a little fire started, even if the wood is wet.

  • Load up on tinder and kindling. You might be working to get this fire going for quite some time, so having enough tinder to start multiple times is going to be beneficial.
  • Test branches by snapping them in half. If they make a loud snapping sound, you know they’re dry. If they don’t, they’re either inundated with water or still too green to make good firewood.
  • Find the right wood. We know your choices might be limited if you’re looking for something dry, but typically hardwood burns longer than softwood, so look for maple, oak, or black cherry branches.

Generally, starting a fire with wet wood takes quite a while. But, as long as you have some patience and a lot of fire-starting material, you should be fine. Alternatively, spreading a little kerosene or gasoline on your firewood can help get it alight quicker.

Every Fire-Starting Method, Ranked

At the end of the day, you need a campfire, either for s’mores or for survival, and you don’t want to spend time dilly-dallying with fire starting methods that take forever. That’s why we’ve ranked them from best to worst, with the best being the quickest.

  1. Ferro Rod and Striker
  2. Magnesium Striker Tool
  3. Steel Wool and Battery
  4. Fire Piston
  5. Flint and Steel
  6. Fire Lighting Bow
  7. Solar Ignition
  8. Fire Plough

The man-made tools get the job done quicker, obviously, which is why it’s always important to have a campfire starter kit. The Ferro Rod and Magnesium Strikers are more efficient than matches anyways, and last longer.

Fire plough is the last method simply because it takes the longest and is the most labor intensive. However, it is the most survival-friendly, because you can make a fire completely from nature, no steel or shoelaces or magnifying glass required.

How to Keep Your Fire Burning

After you master these fire-starting techniques you’re going to want to keep that fire going. Gotta stay warm through the night. Here are a couple of tips on how to keep a fire burning.

Use DRY firewood

This is the most important component for any long-burning fire. If you use wood with moisture, there is a good chance your fire will go out and you will be left with a pile of smokey half-burnt logs. I go by the acronym D.R.Y.

Dead – Usually dead logs and trees are dried out and can be used as good starting logs.

Rotten – Rotten logs are dried out and can be broken up to make adequate tinder.

Yank it – If you can Yank a branch from the tree, chances are the branch is dead or dying, and not much water is present.

Now sometimes finding dry logs isn’t always an option and if there is moisture in your logs a proficient way to combat this is to add more tinder. This will create a hotter fire and evaporate some of that moisture.

Allow room for oxygen

Fires feed off of oxygen, so when you are building a base to your fire, leave room for the air to get underneath the base of the logs and fuel the flame. By knowing good strategies for your log base, you can allow for a more even burn and ultimately a longer burning fire.

There is a multitude of different ways to build the base of your fire, here are just a few examples:

1. Dakota Fire Hole

Dakota Fire Hole

Draws air from the hole in the ground to provide oxygen to fire.

2. Square Stack

Square Stack

Allows for airflow underneath. Can place cooking pot on top logs.

3. Teepee

teepee fire

Allows for airflow all the way around logs