How to Start a Fire: One Essential Skill to Save You from a World of Trouble

Written by Russell McCarty

Knowing how to start a fire without any tools at all is an essential survival skill and something that really can keep you going during a real life emergency situation. Humans have been building fires for centuries, yet we now rely on tools to enable us to do so, rather than relying on the natural environment that lies around us. Starting a fire without matches might sound like a big challenge, but it is something that can be done.

Why is it Important to Know How to Start a Fire without Tools?

The importance of knowing how to start a fire without any additional tools can be realized once you are in a situation where you need to know how to make a fire. Maybe you have been out hiking all day and finally gotten back to your campsite, only to realize that you have forgotten all of your essential fire-making equipment. Or, maybe you have found yourself in a completely unexpected situation, like Tom Hanks in Castaway.

The reality is that you never know when a situation will require you to know exactly how to make a fire without standard fire-making tools, as a situation like that could occur at any given time. A fire is a necessary thing for so many reasons and the type of thing that can keep you completely safe and at ease in the raw wilderness.

One of the most important factors to consider, before you consider any physical factors, is the psychological value that a fire can offer you. A fire can turn a dark and scary environment into one that feels a lot safer and a lot happier.

See also: How to Start a Campfire: Methods and Styles to Improve Your Campfire Experience

You also have to consider the multitude of physical factors that a fire can offer you. It can offer you a source of warmth when conditions around you are cold, it could also offer you a way to dry wet clothes if you have been caught out in the rain. You could use your fire to purify water, making it safe to drink. Or, you could use your fire to cook any food that you may have available.

Smokeless Fire

A fire could also be used to send emergency signals if you are in an emergency situation, or it could be used to scare away animals during the night and smoke away insects during the day. All in all, a fire can promote a safer environment.

What Do You Need to Consider before You Start?

There are two factors that you should take into consideration before you start attempting to make a fire, especially if it is the first fire that you have had to make without tools.

The first factor to consider is the type of wood that you can find around you. Certain types of wood are evidently better than others, and in bad weather conditions, you might have to search far and wide to make sure that the wood that you gather is dry. Wet wood will make it almost impossible to start a fire.

Secondly, you have to make sure that you know how to make kindling. Anything that catches fire easily can be used to make kindling, dry grass is a perfect example.

The Importance of Friction

Friction will be your best friend while you try to start a fire without any tools, but it will also be your worst enemy when you realize how fatiguing it can be to create the recommended amount of friction. The friction itself is the most important factor, but you also have to make sure that you use the right type of wood when you make both your fire board and your spindle, as most methods will require you to have both of these items.

A spindle is a type of stick that you have to spin around quickly in order to create the necessary amount of friction in between the spindle and the fire board. Ideally, the friction that you create should always be enough to create an ember, and that ember can then be used to create a fire.

Try to do some research that will enable you to spot and identify different types of trees, as that will really come in handy when you have to start a fire without any tools at all. This is because some types of wood are better to use than others, with walnut, willow, and aspen being among the best. For more tips on how to start a fire using sticks, see our article to learn more.

There are a few different methods that you can use to create a fire using friction, some of the most common ones include:

The Hand Drill Method

The hand drill method is a method that is both primitive and trusted, as it has been used for centuries. All it requires is the wood that you need to make both the spindle and the fire board, and a lot of determination and stamina on your part. Creating the necessary amount of friction that is required to create an ember can be tiresome, but you have to keep going regardless of how tired you get.

This method can be broken down into easy to follow steps:

  • Start by building your nest of tinder. The tinder nest that you build is important as it will be used to create the flame once you manage to create an ember using your flame board and your spindle. An ideal tinder nest will be made out of materials that ignite easily, as that will ensure that your ember turns into a flame.
  • Get your fire board and make a small notch in it. The notch that you create should be shaped like a ‘v’, and you should make sure that there is a little depression near the notch that you make.
  • Find some bark and place it directly under the notch. This step is important, as the bark itself helps form the ember.
  • Start spinning your spindle in the depression near your notch. This part requires a lot of determination on your part, as it can get tiring quickly. You need to spin it as much as you can, while also maintaining the same amount of pressure between the spindle and the fire board. You have to maintain this pressure and spin constantly to create an ember.
  • Act quickly when you see an ember! When you see an ember you need to quickly tap the board so that the ember itself lands on the piece of bark. You can then move that piece of bark so that it is nestled in the tinder nest that you created. You can then gently blow on the pile of tinder so that a flame appears.

This method is one of the oldest methods for creating a fire without tools, and it has been tried and tested by plenty of wilderness survival guides. All you need to really rely on is your own strength and determination, as stopping spinning means that you will have to start all over again.

The Fire Plow Method

The fire plow method is very similar to the hand drill method, but there is one key difference in the way that you start the fire.

Just like with the hand drill method, this method requires a spindle, a fire board, and a dry nest of tinder. You have to start by cutting a notch in your fire board, just this notch should be shaped more like a groove, opposed to a ‘v’. This is because the notch that you create using the fire plow method is going to be used as a track for the spindle, so there has to be enough space for the spindle to move up and down freely.

Rather than spinning the spindle around, you have to place the spindle directly into the groove and rub it up and down over and over again. This method ensures that the embers that are created will be plowed in one direction, so you should have your nest of tinder ready to catch them at the end of the fire board.

Remember to gently blow on the nest of tinder once an ember has landed on it because this will help a flame to form.

The Bow Drill Method

The bow drill method can be a little bit more difficult to do, especially if it is your first time building a fire without tools. It requires more objects than either the hand drill method or the fire plough method, but it often results in a lot less tiresome work once you have finished gathering the necessary materials and putting them together.

It is easiest to learn and understand this method by breaking it down into steps:

  • You have to start by finding something that you can use as a socket. A socket is an important piece of equipment, as it has to be used to put pressure on one end of the spindle while you start to spin the spindle around using the bow. The socket could be made out of almost anything, but stone or wood sockets tend to work best. You just have to make sure that the wood that you use is firmer than the wood that you use to make the spindle.
  • Find the items that you need to make a bow. Ideally, your bow should be made out of a long, flexible piece of wood that is slightly curved. It might take a while to find a piece of wood like this, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run. You should then find something to use as a string, most people use shoelaces because of how accessible they are.
  • Just like with the two other methods, prepare your fire board. In this method, the notch that you cut into the fire board should be shaped like a ‘v’. You should also make sure that there is a depression near the notch, where you can place your nest of tinder.
  • Attach the spindle to your bow. This can be done by placing the spindle in a loop in the string of your bow. You can then place one end of the spindle in the notch that you have cut out of the fire board, while using the socket to apply pressure to the other side of the spindle.
  • With two people, start moving the bow in a sawing motion. This motion will cause the spindle to move like a drill bit would, rotating quickly against your fire board. If you keep sawing back and forth embers will be created.
Bow Drill
Source: “William Moore of Mattagami Reserve demonstrating how to start a fire with a bow drill” by ArchivesOfOntario is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Once an ember has formed, you just have to drop it onto your nest of tinder and blow gently on the tinder to create a flame. This method is time consuming when it comes to gathering the right materials, but it saves a lot of time and effort when it comes to creating the actual ember.

An Improvised Flint and Steel Method

It is always a good idea to carry a flint and steel around with you while you are out in the wilderness, as a lot of experienced explorers of days gone by did. Even if you carry matches you should carry a flint and steel, because matches become rather useless once they have gotten wet.

It is possible to improvise a flint and steel method while you are out in the wilderness without tools. You have to do this by finding a piece of quartzite, and you can replace the steel with the steel blade that can be found on a knife.

Start by holding the quartzite and the fungus in one hand, gripping the rock tightly between your thumb and your forefinger. You should make sure that the edge of the quartzite sticks out by at least several inches. Grip the fungus between your thumb and the quartzite. You then have to start striking the make-shift flint against the steel knife, creating sparks that fly from the steel and land on the fungus.

The fungus can then be folded up and placed in a tinder nest. You just have to blow the tinder nest gently to create a flame. For a list of the top fire starter sticks, see our article for more information.


Knowing how to start a fire in the wilderness is important, even if you do regularly carry matches. The thing about matches is that any water will render them absolutely useless, so survival practice of this nature is important.

Remember that all of these methods require a little bit of practice, as you would struggle to immediately be able to complete one in a real life emergency situation. Fire is almost like a source of life, providing us with numerous important things, it should not be left behind.

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Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.