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You’re out in the woods but you just discovered that your waterproof matches may be resistant to rain, but that flash flood still carried them away. Welp.
Or perhaps your little sister used the last of your lighter fluid without telling you.
You prepared as you should, but circumstances beyond your control left you without matches or a lighter.
What do you do now?
Simple, you start a fire without matches!
Matches, as we know them, were invented in 1805. People survived an awful lot of years before then making fire without matches.
You can too.
If you don’t know how, read on to learn!
If you already know some techniques, continue reading anyway, because we may have some techniques which may surprise you!
Related: How to Build a Smokeless Fire
What Type of Tinder to Use
The most important part of starting a fire without matches is not the method you use, but the tinder.
Tinder is the material that’s used to start a fire. It’s typically something small, with lots of fibers, that heat up quickly.
You then use it to ignite something that will last a little longer, because tinder burns out quickly.
One of the most recommended types of tinder is a cotton ball soaked in Vaseline. This combination burns longer than cotton alone and also helps waterproof it.
If you don’t want to buy a bag of cotton just to burn it, you can also use dryer lint!
Steel wool also works as tinder, sort of. When making a fire with steel wool, use a very fine steel wool.
The steel won’t actually catch on fire, but it heats up quickly and can be used to more easily catch other tinders on fire.
Old timers knew how to make a fire with something similar to steel wool: char cloth.
Char cloth is a reusable tinder that has been used for hundreds of years. You can make it at home, and it’s reusable!
Take some cotton cloth and stick it into a small metal case, such as an Altoids tin. Poke a hole in the side with a nail, then stick it over a fire for about half an hour or so.
The cotton will produce smoke, which will catch on fire. But the cotton itself doesn’t burn, it just turns into char, kind of like charcoal.
Char cloth catches fire with just a single spark and burns for several minutes. But, like steel wool, it doesn’t produce a flame so it won’t catch larger stuff on fire. Use it for easy fire starting of other tinder.
There are also tinders you can get or produce in the wild.
Dry leaves, birch bark, wood dust, unraveled cotton cords, old birds nests, and feather sticks also all work as tinder. You can also use Chaga mushrooms, aka tinder fungus.
Feather sticks are when you shave a piece of dry wood with the heartwood revealed so that there are many long, fine curls.
Continue reading to figure out how to heat up these tinders! If you’re cold or need to cook food with a fire in the woods, these are better than any silly app!
Bonus: How to Start a Fire with a Flashlight
How to Start a Fire with Flint and Steel
Using a flint and steel is one of the most venerable methods of starting a fire, and is still practiced today.
The basic idea is that you hold the steel in your off hand, your left hand if you’re right-handed, and strike it with a piece of flint.
Flint is harder than steel, so the strike shaves off tiny parts of the steel. Thanks to the high amount of friction and their small mass, they heat up very quickly into sparks.
Land these sparks on your tinder, and you’ll get a fire before too long!
Some people carry flint and steel in a kit along with some char cloth. I carry a steel on my keychain from Emberlit and know how to find flint in the wild.
You can also make a flint and steel in the wild without preparation if you know how to find flint. Strike the back of your knife with the flint and you’ll get a similar effect.
How to Start a Fire with a Magnesium Fire Starter
Want a more high-tech and smaller version of the flint and steel? Get a magnesium fire starter!
Magnesium burns hot, very hot. About 5,610 degrees Fahrenheit, in fact. This makes it excellent for lighting tinder.
It is also pretty safe, as it won’t ignite on its own in your pocket. Unless you’re hanging out where the air is 883 degrees Fahrenheit.
A magnesium fire starter will include a way to shave the magnesium into a pile, along with a flint and steel. Just throw the sparks onto the magnesium, and you have a HOT fire ready to burn other fuel.
This is an easy way to start a fire.
You can even store your magnesium fire starter with a survival knife as a survival kit.
How to Start a Fire with a Magnifying Glass
This one is another classic fire starting method. Kids around the world have burned dry leaves and grass by focusing the sun’s energy through the lens of a magnifying glass onto the vulnerable plants.
Those poor, poor ants, too.
The main difference between messing around with burning plants and using the magnifying glass to start a fire is intent and how much tinder you use. Gotta keep that fire going.
Position the magnifying glass between the sun and your tinder. You’ll see bright light from the sun on the ground. Move the magnifying glass around and tilt it until the light turns into a dot, which will rapidly heat up whatever’s underneath it.
Chances are that a full-size magnifying glass is too big for your kit. You can find small magnifying burning lenses specifically made for the purpose of starting fires in the wild.
How to Start a Fire with Glasses
In a pinch, you can start a fire using reading glasses or prescription glasses instead of a magnifying glass.
If you’re lucky, you can just focus the sun through one lens of the glasses.
If you’re not so lucky, your glasses won’t have enough magnification to start the fire. You’ll need to remove the lenses from the frame. Hold them back to back to form one lens, convex on both sides.
You may not be able to see as well after that, but you’ll be warm!
How to Start a Fire with a Water Bottle
You don’t even need to use a glass lens to focus the sun’s rays. You can use water!
Like a lens, water refracts the light, which can focus it onto your tinder.
A smooth, round water bottle will work better for this. Like a magnifying glass, move the bottle around until the sun’s light is focused into a dot, and use that to ignite the tinder.
You can even do the same thing with a clear plastic bag or plastic wrap. Or even a light bulb filled with water!
Though, if you’re in the wild and are lacking fire making supplies but have plenty of light bulbs, I would wonder about you.
How to Start a Fire with Ice
“Ice?!” I hear you say. “Now you’re just getting silly!”
I am not! Clear ice has refractive properties which concentrates the sun’s energy without melting the ice (much).
Using ice is basically the same as using a magnifying glass or water bottle, just a bit colder.
And maybe more awkward, because you need clear ice in a shape that concentrates the light.
You can bring your own ice, such as from a frozen bucket, or harvest some ice in the wild.
If you are near a frozen body of water, then the best way to clear ice is to cut a hole in the ice. Take that chunk, and throw it away!
Wait for the water underneath to refreeze that hole. This second freeze will be more clear than the first. Cut out the hole again, and you have clear ice.
Ignore throwing that chunk away if the ice is already clear, by the way.
Take your chunk of ice and carve it into a lens. You want a curvature on both sides, but not a sphere.
After roughly whittling the ice into two sort-of curves, you can use your hand to polish it into a more perfect lens.
Focus the sun’s rays through the ice onto some tinder and… fwooosh! Fire from ice!
How to Start a Fire with a Battery
If you have a battery or two, you can start a fire. This is best done with steel wool, though you can use a foil-lined gum wrapper as well.
What you need to do is connect metal to both the negative and positive ends of the battery. If you stick two batteries together in a line that’s even better, as they will produce more energy for the fire.
Touch the metal to the negative end first and then the positive. When it contacts the positive end of the battery, you will get sparks or even immediate burning.
The first time you do this can be very exciting.
AA or bigger batteries work better. Just be careful that you’re not storing the battery and steel wool together in a way where they can accidentally connect and burn through your bag!
You can even use batteries still inside of certain types of flashlights. These are the ones with removable bulbs.
Get that bulb out of there, and insert wires into the two holes in the bulb socket. They’ll touch the battery.
You can make wire by cutting a paperclip, safety pin, or other thin metal items.
Touch the steel wool or foil to the two wires and it will ignite.
When you’re done, remove the wires and replace the bulb. Unless you like stumbling around in the dark.
How to Start a Fire with a Lemon
This one is more of an Easter egg than a serious method of fire starting, but if you set your heart to the task, you can start a fire using a lemon or orange!
Citrus fruits are actually pretty similar to batteries. Batteries contain chemical energy in the form of electrolytes. Lemon juice just so happens to be a good electrolyte.
To get power from the electrolytes, you need electrodes. These are two different types of metal, such as copper and zinc.
Stick a bunch of zinc and copper nails in the lemon in two lines, one of each type. Connect the first zinc nail to the second copper nail with a wire, second zinc to the third copper, etc.
Attach a longer wire to the first copper nail and the last zinc nail. When you touch both ends of that wire to steel wool, electricity will flow and the steel wool will burn!
What are you doing with all of these nails out in the woods, anyway?
If you have a battery, some sort of lens, some steel, or even a lemon and some nails, now you how to start a fire without matches.
And we haven’t even covered primitive fire making. Hand drills, fire pistons, and fire ploughs require a bit more woodworking and technique though, so we’ll probably cover them later.
Like any new skill, it is a good idea to practice these techniques before venturing into the wild.
Be sure to let us know how you fire making adventures turn out!