Learning how to light a fire isn’t just a magic trick to impress your kid’s scout troop. And it’s not just a useful tool, either—in some situations, it could mean the difference between life and death.
After all, knowing how to light a fire fundamentally accelerated the modernization of the human species. And it can still dramatically impact your outdoor experiences, especially those of which are unplanned and potentially dangerous.
Keep reading to learn different methods to light a fire—without using matches or a lighter!
How to Light a Fire
Before getting into the specific methods for how to light a fire, let’s look at a couple of things that you’ll have to do first.
Gathering Tinder, Kindling, and Firewood
When learning how to light a fire, gathering tinder, kindling, and firewood might seem like a silly and obvious task. For people who have no experience lighting fires, however, it’s still an important step to describe.
For those of you who don’t know the difference between the three (it’s easy to get confused!):
Tinder is material that will catch fire very quickly and help spread the flames to larger pieces of wood. Natural tinder could include leaves, pine needles, and dry grass. Some savvy campers know that in a pinch they can also use laundry lint, tissues, scrap paper, and even tortilla chips.
Kindling is small branches that will catch fire quickly, but not as quickly as tinder.
Firewood is the big logs you toss into roaring bonfires: these are added in the end, when the fire is established and can handle that kind of wooden mass.
Here are some further things to keep in mind:
- Never cut down live branches to use for would. This harms the tree, and the branches won’t be dry enough to burn efficiently, anyway.
- The truth is that the easiest way to get a strong fire going fast is by using seasoned wood. However, many state parks forbid campers from bringing their own firewood. This helps prevent the introduction of non native insects and diseases to the area.
- The most important thing for anything you plan on burning is that it must be dry. Anything that is even slightly damp will have a hard time maintaining a flame.
- Your best best is to buy local seasoned firewood, though some national parks might even provide firewood for free!
Preparing the Fire Pit
So now that you’ve gathered your tinder, kindling, and fire, do you just go to town with learning how to light a fire? Not yet! Unless you’re somewhere that already has firepits for you to use, you first need to build a safe firepit.
Look for a space that is at least six feet away from any trees, bushes, and tents. The ground should be bare earth. If it’s not, you’ll have to manually clear it, including pulling out any superficial dry roots that might accidentally catch fire.
Once you’ve cleared the area, collect about two dozen stones, and make a rock circle with a diameter of about three to four feet. This will help keep track of the cleared space within which you need to control the fire’s flames.
How to Light a Fire
Now you’re ready to actually learn how to light a fire! Build a fire first, by picking one of the methods outlined in my how to build a fire post. Then, read through the methods below and pick the one that is most appropriate to your skill level, tools at hand, and needs.
One of the easiest way to learn how to light a fire (without matches and a lighter, of course—that’s almost cheating!) is with a ferrocerium rod.
A ferrocerium rod, also known as a ferro rod, flint, and magnesium fire-starter, is essentially a metallic rod that sparks when it is struck by another metallic object, like the back of a fixed-blade survival knife.
The great thing about ferro rods is that they spark very hot even when wet, whereas most other fire-lighting methods don’t. That’s why I usually suggest them to people who are new to lighting fires outdoors. Ferro rods can be purchased from most stores that carry outdoor and camping gears, including online.
So now that you have a ferro rod, how do you use it? If your ferro rod doesn’t come with a striker, choose another hard material. As I mentioned above, a great option is the flat side of your survival knife. Pro tip: never use the sharp blade of the knife. It will get dull super fast! Other good options are steel or glass.
Next, rest one end of of the ferro rod on the earth, close to your pile of tinder. Hold the other end up so that the rod makes a 45 degree angle with the ground. Now comes the fun part! Drag the sharp end of whatever you have chosen as your striker quickly up and down the ferro rod, pressing firmly.
If you do it correctly, you should immediately see sparks flying. If none of them land on your tinder pile, that means your ferro rod is too far away. Move it closer, and try again. Continue this your pile of tinder starts to smoke, and then catches fire.
Gently blow on small flames to coax them into a bigger fire, and voila!
Perhaps you didn’t know that lighting a fire with a magnifying glass isn’t just something you see in cartoons—it’s possible to learn how to light a fire with a lens in real life, too. But you need a very sunny and cloudless day to do it.
Make sure your magnifying glass is perfectly clean. Any dirt or smudges will weaken the focus of the sun. Next, hold the magnifying glass close to your tinder so that it directs the sunlight shining through it and onto the pile of leaves and dry grass.
Once you spot the small circle of sunlight on your tinder pile, move the magnifying glass even closer. Now comes the difficult part. You need to hold this exact position for about 30 seconds without moving, or until the tinder starts to smoke. If you don’t, no part of your tinder will ever get hot enough to catch on fire.
If nothing happens, consider getting better tinder, a better magnifying glass, or ask yourself if the sky is clear enough. When you start to see a flame, blow on it gently to bring it to life. You could even repeat the same process on a different leaf or twig in your pile of tinder to get multiple flames going at the same time.
Balloons and Condoms
This is a funny option for how to light a fire that works in the same way as a magnifying glass. That’s because if you fill either of them with water, you can turn both a balloon or condom into a sort of magnifying glass, too!
Try to make them as round as possible, and then tie the balloon or condom shut. Hold your balloon or condom up to the sun as you would a magnifying glass, turning it until you find an angle that focuses the sunlight into a circle of light on the ground. Then pretend it’s a good old magnifying glass, and proceed as you did above!
If you’re learning how to light a fire, chances are that you’ve imagined yourself twirling a branch between your hands until the friction against another piece of wood causes a nice flame. Though doing it in real life is much harder than what you see in movies, it is possible!
If you’re really committed to learning how to light a fire the primitive way, here’s how:
- Build a pile of tinder.
- Find a fireboard: a small flat piece slab of wood about half an inch thick.
- Use a knife to carve a v-shaped hole and a small indentation on the fireboard, directly next to each other. Place a slab of bark beneath the v-shaped hole.
- Find a long dry branch to be your spindle. Place one end of the branch into the indentation. Bring your hands flat together at the other end, with the branch pressed between your palms, and start rubbing your hands together, just like you see in the movies.
- Put downward pressure on the spindle in order to create friction between it and the fireboard. You’ll notice that your hands will move down along the spindle as it rolls between your palms—this is supposed to happen. Once you’re close to the fireboard, pause and start at the top again.
- The point of this is for the friction to eventually create embers in the indentation you carved into the fireboard. When the small area of friction starts to glow, tap the fireboard so that the embers fall through the v-shaped hole and into the bark below it.
- Last but not least, use the bark to move the embers to your pile of tinder, which should catch on fire and turn into a steady flame after a little coaxing.
As you might imagine, this is a long and tiresome process for learning how to light a fire, but it’s better than nothing when all your other options have been exhausted!
Now You Know How to Light a Fire!
I hope at this point you feel confident enough to go out and experiment with different ways for how to light a fire. Remember that like any activity, practice makes perfect. Just remember to stay safe and only start fires in appropriate areas.
Want to learn more about campfires? Read all about fires for survival to learn more about the art of bushcraft!