How to Start a Fire Without a Lighter

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Video how to light wood without lighter fluid

You’re cold and hungry, and you just pieced together a hasty shelter. You need to get a fire started to dry off and stay warm through the night, so you grab your trusty lighter out of your pack. You’ve used it for years and it’s never let you down — until now. With a disheartening click, you realize it’s out of fluid and you’re about to find out if you really know how to start a fire without a lighter.

Like you, I’ve done my share of playing with fire — literally and figuratively. But I’ve never had to perform essential survival skills with my life on the line. So I called in a favor to get an expert’s advice on the best fire-starting method when your ass is on the line and you need to turn a spark into a flame without matches or a lighter.

Jordan Jonas is the Season Six winner of the History Channel’s Alone. He outlasted nine contestants by surviving 77 days in the arctic, killed a moose with a bow and arrow, killed a wolverine with his ax, and made it all look like a fun weekend trip. Before Alone, Jonas grew up in Idaho and spent several years living with trappers and nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia. During the time since his appearance on Alone, he’s somehow become an even more proficient outdoorsman. If anyone knows about creating a fire the old-fashioned way, this is the guy.

“It is imperative to be comfortable with fire making on any extended backcountry trip, as it can literally be the difference between life and death,” Jonas said. “My favorite technique is using the Ferro rod, as nothing is more reliable while also being fairly simple to use. That said, I also usually carry a lighter as — when they work — they definitely are the easiest. The reindeer herders I lived with used matches almost exclusively, which are more reliable than a lighter, especially in very cold weather, but are also susceptible to getting wet.”

Remember the saying that two is one and one is none? That adage goes for fire-starting too.

“I think three methods of fire making are adequate to be covered in almost any outdoor situation,” Jonas said. “The Ferro rod for a fire in any conditions, a lighter for speed, and a bow drill for the worst-case scenario.”

A Good Way to Start a Fire Without a Lighter or Matches

If you’re going to take Jordan’s advice, you’ll need at least one backup for your lighter and matches. The good news is that there are quite a few fire-starting methods that are simple and relatively easy to master. The required supplies are easy to find in sporting goods stores, online, or in your own house.

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It All Starts With Tinder

Without a lighter or matches, the quality of your tinder becomes much more important. Look for fine, dry material that catches a spark, ignites quickly, and burns long enough to spread the flame to kindling. Things like pulled cotton balls, char cloth, fatwood shavings, dry grass, and feather sticks work great. If your tinder pile looks like a mouse nest, you’re on the right track. Remember, it’s always better to have more than you need than to run out of tinder before your kindling can light.

“One common mistake people make when building fires is rushing,” Jonas said. “Oftentimes when you want a fire the most, you are cold and wet and tend to get in a hurry — not collecting enough tinder and dry kindling to build your fire properly after you get that first flame. Slow down and take your time collecting good materials — ultimately you’ll be warmer sooner than if you try to shortcut everything.”

Kindling should have a diameter between that of pencil lead and a whole pencil. Once that’s burning, you can add increasingly larger pieces of wood as the fire grows. Split wood will light easier than pieces with intact bark all the way around.

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The Lighter You Thought Was Dead

Having an empty lighter is better than not having one at all. Even after the gas is gone, the spark wheel and flint can function on their own. Attempting to use them normally will still generate a few sparks, but only enough to light the very best tinder in ideal conditions.

To get extra life out of your lighter, spin the wheel slowly to grind material off the flint without creating a spark. Carefully collect this dust alongside your tinder. When you have a nice pile, strike the lighter directly over the flint shavings and you should get a nice flash that’s large enough to light the rest of your tinder. This method is simple, easy to execute, and works fairly well in bad weather.

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A Ferro Rod and Striker

In the absence of a lighter and matches, a Ferro rod is about as close as you can get to having access to fire on demand. Ferrocerium is more stable than lighter fluid and less susceptible to water damage than matches. A small Ferro rod takes up very little space in your pack, provides around 50,000 strikes, and performs well in all weather conditions. Because the material is so combustible, you can shave off small pieces to make your tinder easier to light.

Ferro rods are easy to spark, but the window of opportunity to turn that energy into a flame is short. The key is to have your tinder pile prepared and sheltered from the elements in advance, then to direct the sparks from your Ferro rod directly into the tinder. To make this easier, hold either the striker or the Ferro rod stationary above your tinder to create consistency between strikes.

Once you get repeatable results, it will be easier to make adjustments and control where the sparks land. Getting lots of long-lasting sparks requires a combination of pressure and speed. You can also use a knife instead of a striker to get a better grip; most survival and bushcraft knives have 90-degree edges on the spine for this purpose.

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Flint and Steel

Before Ferro rods were available, people used flint and steel. This is the same method that you see on flintlock firearms. When you see this kind of firing mechanism in action, you’ll notice initial combustion in the pan above the trigger slightly before the muzzle flash appears. That fire is gunpowder being lit by a mechanically controlled strike of flint against steel.

The principle is the same, but the technique is more challenging with this primitive method. Instead of scraping a Ferro rod across steel, you need to hit the flint with the steel striker using a quick, sharp motion that requires more finesse. The resulting spark is much smaller than what you’d get from a Ferro rod so having a piece of char cloth prepared to catch the ember is critical. Flint and steel kits are available for those of you who don’t want to spend your free time collecting rocks.

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Bow Drill

Bow drills, aka hand drills, are an ancient fire-starting tool. They still work, but they went out of style for a reason. Essentially, you’re using pieces of wood to generate heat, create char, and increase the temperature until you get a big enough ember to transfer to your tinder. The assembly takes time to build and getting sufficient heat can potentially take hours.

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To make an efficient bow drill, you’ll need to build a notched fireboard, spindle, bow, and end cap. Aside from cordage for the bow, everything else exists in nature. The devil’s in the details, so take your time to make sure every component is as good as it can be. Things like spindle straightness, type of wood, and tightness of your bow can make or break the whole thing.

Jonas recommended being proficient with this technique but understanding its limitations.

“It is also important to at least be somewhat comfortable with friction fire — specifically bow drill,” he said. “That way in a worst-case scenario, where you have lost your lighter, Ferro rod, and any other means to start a fire, you still have a chance, and in most situations, you will be able to find a shoelace or strip of cloth to make a bow.

That said, though in certain environments and conditions, a bow drill can be relatively simple, it doesn’t take much for friction fires of any kind to be nearly impossible, often when you need them the most — when conditions are cold and wet and ideal materials are nowhere to be found. Other types of friction fire are fun to learn as hobbies but not something you would want to rely on outside of arid climates with ideal materials.”

And be sure to be delicate with your tinder nest and gently blow to get the ember to catch. Don’t rush this part, or it will inevitably end in frustration.

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What Household Items Can You Use to Start a Fire?

You don’t have to go far to find great tools for starting a fire without a lighter or matches. There are probably all kinds of resources around your home. Some of the best include cotton balls, petroleum jelly, washcloths, metal containers, batteries, lightbulbs, and chewing gum (more specifically, the wrapper).

Cotton Balls

One of the best (and cheapest) household forms of tinder is cotton balls. The tiny fibers do a great job of catching sparks and turning them into flame. Packing a few cotton balls full of Vaseline (which is petroleum jelly – note the petroleum part) will create long-lasting tinder that’s incredibly easy to light, even in wet environments.

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Make and Carry Char Cloth

You can turn cotton fabric into valuable, stable tinder in the form of char cloth. To do this, start with a small metal container like an Altoids tin and poke a small hole in the lid for ventilation. Cut small strips of cloth and pack them into the tin, then place the tin into a fire.

By restricting airflow through the small hole, you’ll allow the cloth to char without burning. Once it’s cool, you’ll have a stable supply of easily combustible material that will hold an ember long enough to transfer it to dry grass or another form of fuel.

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Batteries and Steel Wool

Old-school batteries have their advantages over rechargeable battery packs, and one of them is the ability to bail you out when you can’t get a fire started. Unlike other methods of starting a fire, here your tinder will need to be metal to allow an adequate flow of electricity.

It’s surprisingly easy to start a fire with a nine-volt battery and steel wool. Merely nestling the terminals of the battery into a pad of steel wool will complete the circuit and heat up the strands of steel until they combust. There isn’t a lot of heat produced with this method, but it’s enough to get longer-burning tinder to light. I tried this technique with various types of steel wool and found that coarse grades will glow but the heat produced isn’t enough to rely on as a fire starter. I had great success with super-fine 0000 steel wool, though, so that’s your best bet.

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Steel wool combusts because it becomes overheated by the amount of electricity passing through it. You can apply the same technique using a nine-volt battery and an incandescent light bulb. This is tricky because it requires breaking the glass bulb without damaging the filament. When the base of the lightbulb makes contact with both terminals of the battery, the filament will heat up just like a single strand of steel wool to give you a brief opportunity to light your tinder.

Another technique that involves batteries is connecting the opposing terminals of a AA battery with a strip of foil from a gum wrapper. The key is to trim the foil to create a thin strip in the center that will concentrate the electrical current enough to generate fire. Like the filament in a lightbulb, the foil will quickly burn through in the center so you’ll need to act fast.

This is one of the more challenging ways to start a fire. There are so many variables here — having a charged AA battery, using the right kind of gum wrapper, and trimming the correct size — that you’d have to be pretty desperate to try it in a survival situation. Unlike the more reliable nine-volt battery and steel wool combination, this is more of a party trick than a viable survival technique.

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Good Ol’ Sunlight and a Lens

Remember when you used to light things on fire with a magnifying glass as a kid? It still works and you can absolutely use a magnifying glass to start a fire (that’s why it’s included in a lot of Swiss Army knife models; it’s not for map reading).

Any curved lens will do, including eyeglasses, a broken optic, or even a clear bottle of water. Keep moving it around until you’re able to focus a beam of light onto a tiny point on your tinder. This method takes time and requires intense sunlight, so it’s not always a great option and won’t work on a cloudy day, but it’s a good one to keep in your arsenal.

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How Do You Start a Fire Without a Lighter in the Rain?

Starting a fire in the rain is just like starting a fire anywhere else, but with much smaller margins for error and higher stakes since you’ll be at a greater risk of hypothermia. If you aren’t prepared with your own tinder, finding some in nature can be difficult. Check sheltered places like under dense vegetation for leaves, twigs, and grass that haven’t been exposed to rainfall.

The dead inner branches of a pine tree are a good place to find dry fuel. If you’re lucky enough to find a fallen pine tree that’s decomposing, you may be able to find fatwood in the knots. This resin-soaked wood is easy to light and is worth collecting whenever you get the chance.

If all else fails, the inner part of sticks and logs will remain dry long after the outer layers get soaked. I’ve had success using a bushcraft knife to split a log into small pieces, feathering the innermost corner of one, and using shavings from my Ferro rod to help the wood curls catch fire easier.

Increase your odds of success by having plenty of small twigs on standby to grow your flame into a sustainable fire that can light larger pieces of wood. Just avoid adding too much damp wood at once because the escaping moisture can smother a fire.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>