How to Start a Fire Without a Lighter: 11 Alternative Methods

Knowing how to get a campfire going when you don’t have any matches or lighter is a skill that every backcountry camper should learn. In this guide, we teach you a selection of easy-to-learn, primitive methods that will let you get a healthy blaze going in no time!

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Have you ever been out camping or hiking and realized you left your lighter at home? Don’t worry – it’s possible to get a fire going without using one!

In this post, we’ll take a look at some tips and tricks for lighting a fire the old-fashioned way when all you have is dry wood, tinder, and a little bit of ingenuity.

Not only will knowing how to do this help keep you warm on night hikes or chilly campsites; but it can also add an extra layer of preparedness in case of emergency situations.

We have not 1, not 2, but 11 alternative methods to get that campfire roaring. So let’s get started!

Camper lighting fire with a match
No lighter or matches? Learn what you can do instead to light a campfire.

A Word or Two on Wood and Kindling

To use any of the fire-building methods described below, you’ll need two things: dry wood and good, dry tinder. 

The ideal woods for making a camping fire are softwoods like cottonwood, juniper, aspen, willow, cedar, or cypress, particularly if the method you’re using requires you to create friction between the two pieces of wood. Such methods include the bow method, the hand drill method, and the plow method. Needless to say, green or wet wood won’t work, so make sure you source the dry stuff.

Where to find dry wood? Either bring it with you or take it from windfall or a standing dead tree.

As for tinder, we recommend bringing along cotton balls (soaked in petroleum jelly, if possible!), a few sheets of newspaper, char cloth, or a tinder kit from the store. If not, you can use natural materials like dead leaves, twigs, dry grass, pine straw, or cedar or birch bark. Make sure you have enough of this to create a stable flame that will burn the kindling in your fire pit.

Dried out twigs and pine cones used as kindling for a fire
Dried-out debris from the forest floor can make for perfect kindling.

If you’re struggling, you can always add a little of the rubbing alcohol from your first aid kit to hurry things along!

How to Start a Fire Without a Lighter: 11 Methods

1. The Hand Drill

Like the fire plow and other friction methods, the hand drill requires creating friction between two pieces of wood. In this case, however, you’ll be rubbing a wooden “drill” back and forth between the palms of your hands.

Start by sourcing a flat fireboard (as above) and carving a small notch into the middle. Surround this with dry tinder. Next, find a straight stick roughly 1 inch thick and 8 inches long, and trim the tip so that it fits into the notch on your fireboard.

Now, place the “drill” in the notch and begin rubbing it between the palms of your hands. After a few minutes, you should start seeing a little smoke. After a few more minutes (forearm strength needed!), you should have a burning coal from which you can light your tinder.

Fire drill method for staring a fire
Probably the most well-known traditional method for starting a fire!

2. Rocks

Flint rocks with a high silica content are great for starting a fire if you’re in a bind. These types of rocks include quartz, agate, chert, obsidian, and jasper. Although, identifying these rocks can be tricky. Without a field guide, we recommend hunting down any rocks with a hard feel and glass-like appearance and doing a little trial and error to see which ones will produce sparks.

Once you’ve gathered your rocks, get your tinder and kindling ready in a fire pit. Next, strike one rock against the other with a glancing blow. This should create sparks. The trick is getting those sparks to land on your tinder!

Man striking rocks together to create a spark for a fire
Perhaps the most ‘cavemanesque’ of all the methods, but with the right type of rock it’ll get the job done.

3. Flint and Steel Method

For this variation of the rock method, you’ll need a flint rock and carbon steel knife. Strike the back of the knife blade against the surface of the rock and sparks should fly!

Start by placing a small cluster of tinder on top of your flint. You can either hold it in place with your thumb or in the palm of your hand if the rock is small enough. With the other hand, strike the rock with the back of your knife with a downward, glancing blow. This should create sparks that will light your tinder. 

When your tinder starts to smolder, transfer it to a larger nest of tinder and blow on it gently until you see flames, then add your kindling and let there be fire!

Man starts a fire using a flint and knife
Bring your own flint to save the hassle of finding flint in your camping area.

4. The Fire Plough (Aka “Fire Plow”)

For this method, you’ll need a fireboard and a “plow”. 

Your fireboard should be a flat piece of wood (cedar, hibiscus, sotol, and juniper work well). Using your camping knife, cut a 6-inch, V-shaped notch or groove in the middle of one side of the board.

Your plow should be a sturdy piece of wood (around 2–2.5 inches wide) and 10 to 12 inches long. With your camping knife, whittle the end of this so that the head fits into the groove in your board.

With your tinder close to hand, start rubbing your plow in the groove. You should be holding the plow at a 45-degree angle. Eventually (depending on how fast you go), a burning coal or ember will form in the groove. When it does, move fast and tip it from the board onto your tinder, then gently blow on the tinder until you see it catching fire.

Man blowing on tinder under a pile of logs with smoke coming out
Gently blow on the ember in your tinder to encourage it to fully ignite.

5. Mirror 

If you have a mirror on your compass or in your toiletry bag, let the fire-making begin!

Using a mirror to start a fire is easy, but it will only work if you have plenty of sunlight. This being so, it’s best to bring a backup method in case you’re thwarted by cloudy skies.

To use this method, start by creating a healthy nest of tinder. Hold your mirror a few inches above and to the side of the tinder and adjust the mirror’s angle until the reflection of the sun’s beam is on your tinder. Keep your hand steady so the beam is focused on the same spot, and wait ‘til you see smoke! 

Small handheld mirror reflecting the sun
Remember this option is weather dependant so always have a backup prepared.

6. Glass

As with the mirror method, this fire-starting method entails harnessing the power of the sun to create fire without matches or a lighter. 

What type of glass works? As long as it’s clear, you can take your pick. Eyeglasses, beer bottles, shards of glass, or a glass lens from your old pair of glasses (easy to pack!) will all do the trick. If you have a magnifying glass on your compass, all the better!

Use your chosen form of glass to focus sunlight on your tinder, angling it towards the sun to intensify the beam on the smallest area possible. You can further intensify the beam by adding a few drops of water to the glass – just take care not to thwart your fire-building attempts by spilling it on your tinder! 

Magnifying glass being used to focus the sun on dry grass to start a fire
Any type of glass can be used for this method, from spectacle lenses to beer bottles.

7. Ice Lens

You can create fire with ice? You betcha! All it takes is a large chunk of ice, strong sunshine, a good tinder nest, and a little bit of patience.

Start by finding a piece of clear ice. Put on a pair of gloves and shape this into a lens. As with the magnifying glass method, hold the ice steadily so that it focuses a beam of sunlight on your tinder, taking care not to let it drip. 

Continue holding the ice steadily, focusing the beam on the same spot, until your tinder starts to smoke and eventually ignites. Gently blow on the tinder until you see a few flames rising, then add increasingly larger twigs and sticks when you have a more stable flame.

Glacial area with abundant clear ice blocks around
If you’re not camping somewhere with abundant ice around you’ll need to bring your own!

8. Water Bottle or Sandwich Bag

Another way to harness the power of the sun is to use a water bottle or sandwich bag filled with water to focus a beam on your tinder. Of the two, the sandwich bag is the most effective.

Start by filling a clear sandwich bag with water. Next, squeeze the bag so it forms a teardrop or spherical shape. This gives you two curved sides, both of which will direct a more focused and intense beam. 

Ever noticed how a glass or bag filled with water acts like a magnifying glass? Well, this is essentially what you’ve created with your bag or bottle. As above, watch for drips, hold the bag steady over your tinder, and wait for it to ignite a fire.

Starting a campfire using a clear plastic bag filled with water
No mirror, glass, or ice? Starting a fire using a bag of water is an alternative.

9. Ferro Rod

A ferro rod (aka “firesteel”) is a magnesium-coated rod that comes with a metal scraper. Scraping the two together produces sparks – enough of them to make lighting your dry tinder an absolute cinch. The sparks produced by ferro rods are also significantly hotter than those produced by flint, so this is by far the most effective method of the two.

Here’s how to light your fire with a ferro rod:

Place the rod directly into the middle of your nest of tinder. Using the scraper or the back of the blade of your camping knife, scrape down the shaft of the rod at a 30-degree angle. From the very first scrape, sparks should fly, but keep going until you see your tinder smolder. When it does, blow on it gently until you have flames.

Man starts a campfire using a ferro rod to create sparks
A tiny piece of camping kit that’s always worth having packed!

10. Fire Bow Drill

This method is essentially a more elaborate version of the hand-drill method described above. Instead of using your hands to power your “drill”, however, with this one you’ll be creating a spindle that does some of the work for you.

While more effective than the hand drill method, the bow method requires a little more effort to source and create your fire-starting tools.

To get started, find a piece of wood with a slight curve and a decent amount of flex – this will be your “bow”. For your bow string, you can use virtually any string or accessory cord. 

Next, you’ll need a fireboard. Ideally, this should be a flat length of wood measuring 3 by 6 inches or larger. The best woods are softwoods like cedar, hibiscus, sotol, and juniper. 

These woods should also be used for your “top piece”, which should ideally fit in the palm of your hand. You can also use a shell or egg cup – anything that will hold your spindle in place while you’re working the bow.

Finally, the spindle. This should be a length of rounded softwood measuring 8-10 inches long and 0.75 inches to an inch in diameter.

Man using a fire bow drill
Now you have the wood for your bow and fireboard you are ready to construct.

Now that you have your supplies, it’s time to turn them into tools.

Start by carving a small notch in the middle of the fireboard. This is where you’ll place the tip of your spindle, so make sure it’s of a similar size. Beside this notch, carve a small funnel in the wood – this will collect the tiny coal embers formed when you are drilling. Next, carve a hole of a similar size in the middle of your top piece. 

To attach the string to your bow, cut a small notch into the tip of each end of the bow, and then tie a knot in each end of the string and place the string into the notches. The knots will hold the string in place. Your bowstring should be taut, but not so tight that you can’t wrap it around your spindle.

Finally, whittle both ends of the spindle into blunt points that fit inside the holes or notches carved into your fireboard and top piece. 

Still with us? Just checking!

With all that taken care of, it’s time to start your fire!

Person using a fire bow drill
It may take a bit of construction, but its a great device for starting a campfire.

Begin by placing pieces of tinder around the hold in your fireboard. Next, wrap the bowstring around your spindle, place one end of the spindle in the hole in the fireboard, and the other in the hole in your top piece. Place pressure on the top piece to hold the spindle in place.

Maintaining pressure on the spindle, move the bow back and forth, increasing the speed until the fireboard end starts to smolder. Within a minute or two, you should have enough heat or small embers to light your tinder.

11. The Battery Method

Let’s begin with this method’s one caveat: using your battery to start a campfire will drain it, so opt for one of the other options if you will need your battery for the rest of your trip! 

To use this method, you’ll need a single battery (AA or larger) and some steel wool. If you don’t happen to have steel wool, a foil gum wrapper will do the trick. When you touch the steel wool or wrapper against both ends of the battery, it should ignite instantly, giving you an easily acquired flame from which you can light your tinder. Simple!

Man starting a fire over kindling with a battery and steel wool
By far the easiest method, just make sure to remember the battery and steel wool!

FAQs

Which of the above methods is fastest (and which is slowest)?

The battery and steel wool method is by far the quickest. Once you’ve touched your battery to the steel wool, your tinder should ignite instantly.

Both the solar-power methods and the friction fire-starting methods are more time-consuming and can take anything from 3 minutes to 10 minutes depending on the strength of the sun and your forearm stamina! The bow method is quick once you get started, but preparing the materials can take over an hour.


    Are any unsafe?

    Is fire ever safe?! Putting the usual fire safety concerns aside, all of the above methods are perfectly safe.

    The only caveats to this worth mentioning are that you’ll need to exercise care if using your camping knife or any other sharp object to strike a flint or rock or if striking two rocks together. For the latter, we recommend wearing safety glasses or even sunglasses to protect your eyes.


      Which should I use in wet conditions?

      In wet conditions, starting a fire and keeping it going is always tricky. Tricky, but not impossible. Here’s how to go about finding the three main ingredients: tinder material, kindling, and lighter fuel.

      For tinder, you can use a variety of materials that you’ll probably have with you on any camping trip. Some examples include receipts, toilet paper, tampons, period pads, packaging in your first aid kit, food packaging, or even dry lint and fluff from your pants or jacket pockets.

      To help things along, add a little rubbing alcohol from your first aid kit.

      Even in rainy weather, you’ll usually be able to find some relatively dry kindling by searching for twigs and branches under fallen trees, or on the forest floor in thickly wooded areas. If you find any wood that’s partially wet, remove the bark with a knife then shave off small strips for kindling from the drier core.

      Your main fuel will consist of larger sticks and logs. As above, if you find any of these that are partially dry, then remove the bark and shave the sides until you hit the drier wood towards the core.

      And which of the above fire-starting methods works best when things are damp?

      Well, if you can source dry material for the friction methods, any of them will work. Because the solar methods rely on having strong sunlight, these can be ruled out. If you have a battery and a gum wrapper or steel wool to hand, this is a good option. And if you have a fire steel or steel striker and a camping knife, you’re good to go regardless!


      Happy Camping!

      No matches or lighter? No problem! We hope the above methods on how to start a fire without a lighter will help you get a healthy campfire roaring regardless! Whichever method you choose, always remember to follow campfire safety rules and extinguish your fire completely when you’re done. 

      If you liked this post or have any questions or comments, drop us a line in the box below. And if you’d like to share it with your friends, please do!

      Last update on 2024-05-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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      Kieran Avatar

      Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

      He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

      Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

      Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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