It looks easy until you try it yourself. We all kind of know the theory but once it comes down to actually starting a fire with two sticks panic sets in as your rub away and people peer over your should going – “Hasn’t it started yet?” and “Why isn’t it working?” You control the urge to shove one of the sticks down said questioner’s throat and grit your teeth, muttering things about the right type of wood and rates of rotational friction.
Theoretically starting a fire this way should be easy but in real life situations where a person ends up without a box of matches or a cigarette lighter it usually means everything else has broken down and you are in an extreme situation, – in the woods, possibly it’s windy and raining, and you have no transport nearby (cars have built in cigarette lighters…)
What you need:
Before we even discuss the methods available to start a fire it is very important to have your materials ready –starting a fire then hunting for materials to feed it just sabotages your efforts – rather too much material than too little. First you need tinder, kindling and the some sticks and later even logs to feed your fire and keep it going. Make sure these are dry and collected, ready to use.
What makes the best tinder?
- Dried dandelion fluff
- Fine dry grass – the thinner the blades of grass the better
- Cattail fluff
- Tinder fungus – found under the bark of living birch trees only. (Forget about the fungus under dead birch tree bark – it won’t light.)
- Cedar bark shavings and birch bark shavings
- Cotton ball coated with Vaseline (if you have a bug out bag with you and these have been pre-prepared)
Tip: Explore your local area so you know what can be used. If you are going on holiday to an exotic location make yourself familiar with local plants through internet searches so you aren’t left in the dark should SHTF, something like the December 26th 2004 tsunami in South East Asia.
What makes the best kindling?
- Dry pine needles and dry pinecones
- Dried herbivore dung – its basically chewed up grass and is used a lot in Africa and Asia for fires if there isn’t much wood around
- Very small dried sticks – from matchstick to pencil size preferably softwoods that are more resinous
- Dry leaves
Tip: For serious preppers don’t wait until you’re in a dire situation – check out what makes the best kindling. It’s a great activity to do with kids as they discover which burns best and then they will be able to help and collect the right stuff instead of “helping” by bringing a lot of useless material. Again if you are travelling and are gathered around a campfire at night check what the locals use for kindling and chat about the merits of what is available in their country.
A friend travelled with Bedouins over the Sahara and was intrigued that they picked up any piece of polystyrene and bits of driftwood they found lying around when they were close to the Suez Canal – they weren’t cleaning up – it was useful as kindling to make their nightly campfires deeper in the desert.
Methods to start a fire
There are three basic methods: the hand drill, the fire plow and the bow drill.
The Hand Drill
This takes some skill to master but the bonus is if you have nothing much to hand you can still make a fire. Basically you are holding a stick upright with your palms facing each other, spread flat while rotating the stick and pressing downward with the stick to create greater friction to generate enough heat for an ember to form at the base of the stick.
The secret with this is not to pause – you need to keep up the pressure and rotational friction to start that tip of the stick glowing, once you see smoke do not stop – keep up unto you have the coal dust dropping from the notch onto a piece of bark positioned so the dust is not in contact with the ground and can be transferred to the tinder:
Selecting the Sticks
You need one straight stick a little thicker than a pencil, around 12 to 15 inches long and preferably fairly smooth so you don’t hurt your hands, a prepper with blisters from fire-starting is just not good bush craft. The stick can be shaped to a point if you have a pocketknife – if not select a stick that naturally goes to something of a point.
Secondly select you fireboard – in the woods you are unlikely to find a flat piece but choose a bigger flattish stick that you can hold comfortably between your feet to keep it steady. (You are going to need both hands for the fire-starter stick.)
Choose a natural hollow in the fireboard or dig out a small depression if you have a pocket- knife to keep the fire-starter stick in place. No pocketknife and no natural hollow? Find a piece of stone with a sharp edge and use that to dig out the depression.
Getting ready to fire-start
You can cut a notch into the edge of the depression toward the edge of the wood to allow the ember to drop onto a small bit of tinder, the notch must be small so the fire stick doesn’t slip out of place into the gap. If there is someone who can help nearby they should have the tinder placed nearby the stick and fireboard ready for that ember – and have their hands cupped to protect the first bit of smoke from wind before the fire catches.
I have watched Native Australians start a fire fairly quickly using this two-man method. As the flame starts the assistant will gently breathe to help it along. Doing things alone is that much more difficult as precious seconds are wasted putting down the fire stick and bending down to the tinder – so train family members to help.
The Fire plow
For the fire plow you need a flattish piece of wood into which you can carve a channel with your knife or a sharp flint along the length of the wood. The board should be soft enough that you can make a mark in it with your fingernail. Once you have your channel you need to hold it steady with your knees. Your fire stick, which should be a harder wood around 15 inches long and roughly the thickness of a large pencil should be held at a 35 to 45 degree angle with both hands and moved up and down the channel vigorously. You will work up a sweat!
As the stick, which should be a harder wood than the board creates heated dust or fine shavings from the friction these will drop from the end of the board onto your carefully placed tinder.
The Bow Drill
Here you are taking the pressure off your hands and transferring it to the bow made from a bent piece of wood with a piece of string or leather, a shoelace or drawstring cord from your shorts looped around the bow. Basically you still need your fireboard and the fire–stick as explained in the Hand Drill method. You will need a piece of hardwood for the bearing block that holds the fire-stick steady – you press down on this with one hand while using the other hand to move the bow with the cord looped around the fire-stick back and forth to create an ember. The bearing block can be made also be made from stone – if you can find one with a depression in it to hold the fire stick steady from above. Some knives now come with a bearing block built into the handle, but should be used only if it is possible for the knife to be sheathed while in use with the bearing block – no one needs wants to risk being cut by the blade should the fire-stick slip!
Best types of wood to use for fire sticks
Certain woods are easier to use, sotol and yucca being the easiest, but then these don’t occur everywhere. If you look here you will find a list of woods – varying from great for fire starting to extremely difficult. Where you live will determine which woods would be easily available, so make sure you know your local trees and their merits as firewood thoroughly. A harder wood for the fire stick and a softer wood for the fireboard is a good combination.
When can I use hardwood?
Since hardwood is denser and burns for longer use it only once you have used the softwoods with their resinous content to get a strong stead flame going.
Moisture content in wood
You will need super dry wood for your fire-sticks. How does one determine moisture content without a meter? Check the weight of your stick against other sticks of the same size and same type of wood and choose the one lightest in weight, as it will have less moisture content. Hardwoods are heavier and denser than softwoods so you need to compare apples with apples so to speak. Generally a soft wood will be quicker for fire starting. Also split a stick in half to see if it snaps easily, the higher the moisture content the more difficult it will be to snap.
Where to find dry wood
Look for seasoned smaller twigs (that’s wood that has been exposed for a long time to dry) that have fallen and got tangled in trees rather than ones on the ground as the rising dampness may have made them useless for fire starting. Check trees for dead branches –they should snap easily and be light in weight. If they bend before snapping there is too much moisture content. Also check piles of leaves and twigs for the smaller ones towards the center that haven’t been in contact with the ground or wet from rain from above. Trees with a large spreading canopy provide some protection unless the rain is very heavy – so foraging close to the bases of trees on the opposite side to the direction of the rain should yield some dry material.
Building the Fire
Use the classic teepee shape – you can either build this beforehand, leaving space to insert the bundle of tinder or build the teepee as you go along – once the tinder is burning add the match stick size bits, then the pencil sized bit of wood, an extra bit of grass to increase the flame if necessary and slowly building to the outer hardwoods.