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How to start a fire in the wild (using bow drill, hand drill, flint, and other methods)

Tips for Lighting Fires

Always light your fire from the upwind side. Make sure you lay the tinder, kindling, and fuel so that your fire will burn as long as you need it. Igniters provide the initial heat required to start the tinder burning. They fall into two categories: modern methods and primitive methods.

Using Modern Tools to light a fire

You can use modern tools, accessories, or parts from tools to make a fire in the wild.


Make sure these matches are waterproof and store them in a waterproof container along with a dependable striker pad.

Convex Lens

Convex lens used to start a fireUse this method only on bright, sunny days. The lens can come from binoculars, a camera, telescopic sights, or a magnifying glass. Sometimes sprinkling water on the lens can increase the effect.  Angle the lens to concentrate the sun’s rays on the tinder. Hold the lens over the same spot until the tinder begins to smolder. Gently blow or fan the tinder into a flame and apply it to the fire lay.

Diagram of a convex lens directing Sun's rays onto a tinder nest

In addition to a lens, you can use other clear objects to concentrate the Sun’s rays.  A balloon or condom filled with water can create a concentrated beam of light when squeezed and held at the right angle.  A polished piece of ice will also work.  Even the polished bottom of a can will act as a mirror and focus the Sun’s rays into a tight, hot area (use you can use chocolate or toothpaste to polish the bottom of the can).

Metal Match or Camping Fire Starter

Metal match or camp fire starterPlace a flat, dry leaf under your tinder with a portion exposed. Place the tip of the metal match on the dry leaf, holding the metal match in one hand and a knife in the other. Scraping the back of your knife against the metal match to produce sparks. Strike the metal match quickly, and sharply towards the tinder.  The sparks will hit the tinder and eventually create burning embers. When the tinder starts to smolder, gently blow on it to ignite.


Use a battery to generate a spark. The use of this method depends on the type of battery available. Attach a wire to each terminal. Touch the ends of the bare wires together next to the tinder to generate the sparks that will ignite it.

Battery and Steel Wool

Steel woolBattery and steel wool is an excellent option for starting a fire.  9-Volt batteries work best but any battery will suffice.  Peel a piece of steel wool about 5 inches long and 1/2 inch wide.  Fluff the steel wool.  Create a tinder nest on the ground.  While holding the steel wool in one hand and the battery in the other hand, rub the battery contacts across the steel wool until it glows.  Then gently blow on the steel wool to ignite.  Steel wool burns very quickly so you’ll need to place it on the tinder as soon as it ignites.


Often, you will have ammunition with your equipment. If so, carefully extract the bullet from the shell casing by moving the bullet back and forth. Use the gunpowder as tinder. Discard the casing and primers. A spark will ignite the powder.

NOTE: Be extremely careful during this operation as the primers are still sensitive and even a small pile of gunpowder can yield surprising results.

Primitive Methods of Creating Fire

Primitive igniters are attributed to our early ancestors. They can be time-consuming, which requires you to be patient and persistent.  Friction-based fire making is particularly difficult with success highly dependent upon the wood you select for the fire board and spindle.

Flint and Steel

Flint rockWhen struck against steel, flint will produce a spark.  The hard flint edge shaves off a particle of the steel that exposes iron which reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere and can ignite the tinder.  Flint is typically found embedded in sedimentary rocks such as chalks and limestone and is often found near riverbeds or lake shores.  It is usually dark gray, black, green, white, or brown in color and often has a glassy or waxy appearance.  There is typically a chalky layer on the outside that may be white and rougher.  Chip off the chalky layer and strike a knife against it several times.  If it sparks, it is flint.

The direct spark method is the easiest of the primitive methods to use. The flint and steel method is the most reliable of the direct spark methods. Strike a flint or other hard, sharp-edged rock with a piece of carbon steel (stainless steel will not produce a good spark). This method requires a loose-jointed wrist and practice. When the tinder catches a spark, blow on it. The spark will spread and burst into flames.


The fire-plow (or fire plough) is another friction method of ignition. Cut a straight groove in a softwood base.  This will be the “track” that you rub the spindle in.  Place a tinder nest at the bottom of the fireboard, at the end of the groove, so that you plow embers into the tinder as you rub.  Plow the blunt tip of a hardwood shaft up and down the groove. The plowing action of the shaft pushes out small particles of wood fibers and embers. Then, as you apply more pressure on each stroke, the friction ignites the wood particles and tinder nest.  When you see glowing embers in the nest, gently blow to ignite the fire.

Fire plow (plough)

Bow and Drill

The technique of starting a fire with a bow and drill is simple, but as with other friction methods, you must exert much effort and be persistent to produce a fire.  Still, the use of a socket and bow makes it the most effective friction method.

Bow and Spindle method illustrating bow, spindle, and socket

You need the following items to use this method:

  • Socket. The socket is an easily grasped stone or piece of hardwood, such as Walnut or Oak, with a slight depression on one side. Use it to hold the drill in place and to apply downward pressure. It helps if the socket wood is harder than the wood used for the spindle.
  • Drill or spindle. The spindle should be a straight, seasoned hardwood stick about 2 centimeters (3/4 inch) in diameter and 25 centimeters (10 inches) long. The top end is round (to rotate easier in the socket) and the low-end blunt (to produce more friction with the fire board) with the diameter on all points of the stick roughly the same (so the bow doesn’t crawl up/down the spindle).
  • Fire or hearth board. Although any board may be used, a seasoned softwood board, such as Cedar, about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) thick and 10 centimeters (4 inches) wide is preferable. Cut a round depression about 2 centimeters (3/4 inch) from the edge on one side of the board (the spindle will spin and generate friction here). On the underside, make a V-shaped cut from the edge of the board to the depression (we will place our tinder here and hot embers from the friction will be directed into this area).
  • Bow. The bow is a resilient, green stick about 2.5 centimeters (3/4 inch) in diameter with a bowstring and about as long as your arm. Use a flexible piece of wood (such as Willow) that has a slight natural curve. The bowstring can be any type of cordage. Tie the bowstring from one end of the bow to the other, without any slack.
  • String: Any thick, strong cordage will work – cotton string, leather ribbon, or plant fibers will suffice. The string will wrap the spindle with one turn.  Make sure the string is on the opposite side of the bow, so it does not knock against the spindle when operating.  If the bow bangs against the spindle, reload and try again.
Bow and Drill method to start a far

Follow these steps:

  1. To reduce friction between the spindle and the socket that we hold in our hand, grease the top of the spindle, where our socket will be placed, with any available oil such as hair oil, body oil, soap, etc.
  2. First, prepare the fire lay. Then place a bundle of tinder under the V-shaped cut in the fire board.
  3. Place one foot on the fire board. If using your right hand to work the bow, put your foot on the left side of the hearth (fireboard).
  4. Loop the bowstring over the drill, with the arc away from the foot placed on the fire board.  The cord is looped around the spindle so that movement of the bow will cause the spindle to spin.
  5. Place the spindle in the precut depression on the fire board.
  6. Place the socket, held in one hand, on the top of the spindle to hold it in position.
  7. Press down on the drill and saw the bow back and forth to twirl the drill.
  8. Once you have established a smooth motion, apply more downward pressure and work the bow faster. This action will grind the hot black powder into the tinder, causing an ember to catch the tinder on fire.
  9. Blow on the tinder until it ignites.

If the bow drill smokes on the handhold/sprocket end, add lubrication to the spindle on that end.  Facial oil works fine.  Do not use water!  This will cause the wood to expand and create even more friction.  You can also add more taper to the end of the spindle (the narrower the spindle end, the less friction) to reduce friction or shoulder the spindle down (whittle the end to reduce the diameter).

If the resulting powder is brown (not enough heat being generated) and fuzzy, you are working the drill too slowly (or possibly the wood is too wet).  If it is brown and powdery, you are working the drill too slowly and not applying enough pressure.  The powder created should be dark brown or black.

Hand Drill

The Hand Drill method is similar to the Bow and Spindle method except you use your hands to spin the spindle instead of a bow.  Hand drill method to start a fireOf all the primitive methods used to start a fire, the hand drill method is the most difficult. As with the Bow and Drill method, begin by building a tinder nest. Cut a V-shaped notch in your fire board. Bark will be used to catch an ember from the friction created between the spindle and the fire board. Place a piece of bark just below the V-shaped notch. Notch or bunch a small depression in the board just next to the V-shaped notch. Place the end of a 2-foot spindle into the depression and place both hands, fingers spread, on both sides of the spindle. Begin rolling the spindle with your hands by moving your hands back and forth. Move your hands down the spindle as you roll to maintain constant pressure on the wood. When your hands reach the bottom, slap them together to supply blood to the palms and move them back to the top of the spindle. Continue rolling the spindle between the palms of your hands until you see a glowing ember. Tap the fireboard to drop the ember into the bark. Lift the bark to transfer the ember to your fire nest. Gently blow on the fire nest to start the flame.

A modification of this method is to attach strings to the top of the spindle.  Make loops in the string into which you will place your thumbs.  Place your thumb into the loops.  Use your thumbs to apply downward pressure on the spindle while you roll the spindle in your hands.

Final Notes

Primitive fire-building methods are exhausting and require practice to ensure success. If your survival situation requires the use of primitive methods, remember the following hints to help you construct and maintain the fire:

  • If possible, use nonaromatic seasoned hardwood for fuel.
  • Collect kindling and tinder along the trail.
  • Add insect repellent to the tinder.
  • Keep the firewood dry.
  • Dry damp firewood near the fire.
  • Bank the fire to keep the coals alive overnight.
  • Carry lighted punk, when possible.
  • Be sure the fire is out before leaving camp.
  • Do not select wood lying on the ground. It may appear to be dry but generally doesn’t provide enough friction.
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