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How to Make a Fire

How to Make a Fire in the Woods

In the video below I show you how to make a fire with a bow drill. Getting a coal this fast isn’t normal though!

Learning how to make a fire without matches is incredibly rewarding. There’s something magic about blowing an ember into flame. It really is amazing… you start with two sticks or some rocks and with just your skills you make a fire from nothing.

But, I’m going to tell you right now that you are going to get frustrated. I don’t care how easy someone told you starting survival fires is. I don’t care how fast you see me do it in my videos. You are going to have to dedicate yourself to learning primitive fire starting methods if you want to be successful.

blowing bow drill ember into flame

Every time you start a fire with sticks, it’s like magic. Especially the first time you blow an ember into flame. It’s amazing!

When you watch my videos, understand that there’s a reason it looks so easy for me to get a fire started. I have been doing this for over 30 years. But, it took me a year and a half to get a coal with a bow drill! Yes, you read that right, one and a half years of failure before I succeeded.

The good thing is that I have made about every mistake there is. I talk about all those possible mistakes in my videos and you can correct them right away. Or, better yet, not make them in the first place.

Whenever I teach people how to make a fire with sticks, they are surprised how important it is to have the right technique. It’s true, technique is really important when you are learning how to use a hand drill or bow drill. I’d like to see you get so good that I could give you just about any straight piece of wood and you could get a fire going with it. The problem is, I’m not there watching over you and helping you get your fire started. I will do my best to help you out and show you exactly what I’m doing in my videos and in these articles so you can copy my style.
These are the topics listed on this page. Some of them have links to articles that give you even more detail.

Bow Drill

Hand Drill

Flint and Steel

Ferrocerium Rods

Charred Cotton

Birch Tinder Fungus

Tinder Bundle

Fire Pits

Links to my Articles and Videos on Fire


How to Make a Fire with Sticks

Starting a fire with a bow drill. Friction fire method one

components of a bow drill kit include the spindle, bow, fireboard, hand hold and cordage

Starting a fire with a bow drill takes a lot of practice to master. Just stay with it and you’ll make a fire with sticks!

Using a bow drill to start a fire in the woods is the way most people first learn to make primitive fires. There are five parts to a bow drill kit and it’s not always easy to find all five parts in the wilderness. But making bow drill fires is a great survival skill to know, and one you can easily practice at home. You’ll need a fire board, spindle, bow, hand hold and cordage.

The spindle and fireboard come in contact with each other and this is where the heat is generated. You’ll want your spindle and fireboard to be the same wood or at least close to each other in hardness.

Any small diameter stick about the length from your fingertips to elbow for the bow. Your bow doesn’t need to have a bend in it, but it will help.

The handhold can be made from any material that is harder than your spindle. Good options are bone, stone, and folded cans. The handhold has a dimple in it where the top of the spindle sits.

You will also need a piece of cordage that is tied to each end of the bow and wraps around your spindle. The best string for a bow drill kit is a piece of leather since it grips the spindle well. Shoe laces and paracord will also work. I’ve found the best natural cordage for bow drills come from yucca and nettle.

Videos where I start fires with sticks

To discover how to use a bow drill kit to start fires, take a look at my page on making fire with sticks. There is a video and text showing you exactly how to use both the hand drill and bow drill to start a fire.
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Starting a fire with a hand drill. Friction fire method two

how to make a fire with a hand drill fire kit in the Mojave desert

Learning to start a friction fire with a hand drill kit makes the most sense if you plan on being out in the wilderness with no matches.

The hand drill is much simpler to put together than a bow drill since there are only two parts. All you need is a fireboard and a spindle. Instead of spinning the spindle with cordage wrapped around it, you simply use your hands to twirl the spindle. As a result you don’t need a bow, cordage or handhold! That makes using a hand drill kit much more practical, especially on short survival stays or when traveling.

The material you use for the spindle and fire board should be about the same hardness. Usually the materials are from two different plants. Therefore, here are some of my favorite combinations:
Spindle of mulefat on sotol, saguaro, basswood or cedar
Spindle of sotol on sotol
Spindle of arrow weed on sotol, saguaro cactus, basswood or cedar
Spindle of mullein on cedar or basswood
Spindle of thistle on sotol or yucca
Spindle of evening primrose on sotol or yucca

The only disadvantage to using a hand drill compared to a bow drill kit is that you will probably get blisters starting fires with a hand drill. But, those blisters turn to calluses in about a week, then you don’t get blisters anymore. It’s well worth having blisters for a week.

A lot of people think that starting hand drill fires is harder than using a bow drill. I disagree. The reason so many people have trouble with the hand drill is that they were taught the wrong technique. Therefore, I use and teach a simple way to start hand drill fires that you can learn in this article on how to make fire with sticks.
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How to Start a Fire Without Matches

Flint and steel

small flint and steel fire kit for making fires without matches

This small flint and steel fire kit also includes a piece of obsidian. The rock has to be glassy or quartz-like to throw a spark.

To make a fire using flint and steel you hit the steel against an edge of a rock that has quartz in it. This produces sparks that fly off, land in your tinder, and get the tinder smoldering.

Using flint and steel is a great way to make a fire if you have something to catch the spark. But, that is a big if! The only things that work for me consistently are charred cotton and powdered tinder fungus. Both the cotton and fungus need to be bone dry or they won’t catch the spark.

Carrying a flint and steel kit with you is pretty impractical if that is your only method of starting a fire. You have to gather or prepare the tinder ahead of time. The tinder has to stay dry, even the moisture the tinder absorbs from your sweat makes it almost unusable.

In addition, it’s a lot of stuff to take with you. You need the flint, steel, tinder and something to carry it all it. If you carry something with you, it makes a lot more sense to bring a butane lighter along.
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Ferrocerium rods

how to make a fire using a ferrocerium rod fire starting kit to ignite fine tinder in the Mojave Desert

Using a ferrocerium rod to ignite fine tinder in the desert. This only works if your tinder is bone dry.

Ferrocerium rods are a better version of flint and steel. The technique to starting a fire with a ferrocerium rod is similar as well. You scrape a sharp metal edge against a special material (ferrocerium) to make sparks.

These rods make hot, long lasting sparks so you don’t have to use prime tinder like you do with flint and steel. But, you still have to have great tinder. Cattail and cottonwood fluff work with ferro rods. Ferrocerium rods are often sold with magnesium bars attached to them which makes it even easier to start a fire.

First of all, to use a ferro rod with magnesium, you shave some magnesium into a pile in the middle of your tinder bundle. Then you throw sparks into the magnesium to set it on fire. The magnesium burns really hot and it’s the burning magnesium that starts your tinder on fire.

With the magnesium this works pretty well but again, you have to carry

two things with you, the striker and a ferrocerium rod with magnesium attached. A lighter is probably a better option if your life depends on getting a fire started.
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Materials that Catch a Spark

How to make charred cotton

charred cotton ready to be used to catch a spark from flint and steel or a ferro rod

Two tins of charred cotton. Put your cotton in the tin and put them in a fire until smoke stops coming out of the hole in the tin.

If you decide to use flint and steel or a ferrocerium rod, it’s a good idea to bring charred cotton with you. Charred cotton holds a spark really well and you can manipulate it easily to start your tinder bundle on fire.

Making charred cotton is easy. All you need is a metal container that is almost air-tight and some cotton fabric. To get ready to make your charred cotton, punch or drill a small hole in the top of the tin and build a small fire big enough to cover the tin.

Next fill your tin with pieces of 100% cotton fabric almost to the top. Put the lid on the tin and toss it in the fire. In about 30 seconds to a minute, smoke will start coming out of the hole. Finally, when smoke stops coming out of the hole in the tin, take to tin out of the fire and let it cool.

The fragile, black stuff in the tin is charred cotton and it’s great for catching a spark from a ferrocerium rod or flint and steel. You can also put an ember from your hand or bow drill set on the charred cotton to keep it alive much longer.
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Using tinder fungus to start a fire

birch tinder fungus used to start a fire by catching a spark or coal

Birch tinder fungus for catching a spark from flint and steel or a ferrocerium rod. You can also cut a piece of fungus off to hold a coal.

Birch tinder fungus is amazing material for fire starting. If it’s really dry, it will catch a spark from flint and steel or a ferrocerium rod. You can also use tinder fungus to hold and enlarge an ember from a friction fire.

When using it with a coal from a hand drill or bow drill you can either crush the fungus into a powder or slice a piece of the fungus off to hold the coal. If you use a sliced piece of the tinder fungus, touch the end with the tiny open pores in it to your coal and the tinder fungus will start to smolder.
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Gathering Tinder

Tinder bundles

inner bark from a cottonwood tree makes some of the best tinder in the world

The inner bark from cottonwood trees makes and excellent tinder bundle. Try to get ultra-fine fibers like this for your tinder bundle.

No matter what you use to start your fire, you will want tinder to spread the flames and ignite bigger, longer lasting material. If you are using a match or a lighter, your tinder doesn’t need to be made of fine material. Since you’re using primitive fire starting methods, make a tinder bundle of tiny, thread-like material.

The dry inner bark from the poplar or aspen family are great. Cottonwood is in that family and is one of the best tinder materials you can find. Cedar bark is also very good.

There are a lot of times when you can’t find inner bark from a tree for your tinder bundle. In situations like that, look for dry grass, fuzzy seedpods, cattail heads and any material you would use to make cordage from.

The finest materials like mildewed seedpods and cattails won’t burst into flames, but they will hold and spread the coal to other, more flammable materials in the tinder bundle.

In conclusion, the best thing to do is experiment with different materials in different areas until you know what to look for and where to find it.

I have a great video on where to find tinder bundle material in the desert. I go over the principles I use to find tinder no matter where I am in the world, so this video is worth watching even if you don’t live in the desert.
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How to Make a Fire Pit

The shape and style of your fire pit depends on what you plan to do with your fire. A cooking fire pit is designed a lot different than a fire designed to keep you warm. Since those are the two most common uses for a fire, I’ll cover them.

How to make a fire pit for cooking

fire pit used for cooking in the wilderness

This cooking fire a great adaptation of a traditional key hole style fire pit used for cooking.

By far the most useful cooking fire is a keyhole fire. The fire is kept inside a border of rocks shaped roughly like an old skeleton key. There is a round section with a narrow trough enclosed by rocks.

The circular part of the fire is where you cook over the open fire, heat rocks for rock boiling and roast game whole. When you’re cooking in a pot suspended over the fire, you’ll want to cook over the circular part. When the food is done, you can move it over to the narrow section of the fire pit to keep it warm.

The narrow section of the fire usually has a thin, flat rock suspended over it. This is great for frying. You can also roast insects, seeds and nuts on the thin rock suspended over this part of the fire.

How to make a fire pit for keeping yourself warm

When you make a fire to keep warm, you want to be sure that the side of the fire you aren’t sitting or sleeping on has a semicircular reflector. Since it reflects the heat from the fire toward you, the reflector does just that.

Because they are smooth, the best reflectors are made of non-flammable material like rocks, clay or adobe. If you use rocks to make a reflector, it helps if you cover the rocks with clay or mud to make a smooth surface for the heat to bounce off of.

Also note that if you don’t have to get at your fire from both sides, a keyhole fire with a reflector on one side is the perfect fire. When you are using it to keep warm, you keep the fire in the center. When you want to cook with the fire, you simply drag coals down the narrow part of the fire pit. That is a great way to go.
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I have more detailed articles and videos on how to make fires, the links are below…

My YouTube Channel for fire starting:
My VIDEO PLAYLIST for Fire Starting
How to Start a Fire with Sticks ARTICLE AND VIDEO
How to Make a Rock Hand Hold for Your Bow Drill Kit ARTICLE AND VIDEO
How to Use Short Sticks With Your Bow Drill Kit VIDEO
Getting a Coal in 9 Seconds with a Bow Drill Kit VIDEO
How to Find Tinder Bundle Material in the Desert VIDEO
How to Make a Fire with Your Hand Drill Set VIDEO

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