Knowing how to start a campfire is one of the most useful wilderness skills you can learn. While most of us can easily get a blaze going with matches, far fewer of us know how to start a fire without them. Not only is this a cool skill to show your fellow campers, but it could also save your life.
8 ways to start a campfire without matches are:
- Flint and steel
- Magnifying glass
- Fire plow method
- Steel wool and batteries
- Empty BIC lighter
- Clear bottle of water
- Hand drill
Although this answers the question of how to start a campfire without matches, you won’t get very far reading this list alone. To help you become the master of your campfire, we delve into each fire-starting hack below, revealing exactly what tools you need and how to get started.
Prepare To Fuel Your Campfire
Starting a campfire without using matches is difficult and takes patience. There is nothing more frustrating than finally getting a spark after 20 minutes of trying, only to realize you have no fuel to feed your fire. Before you know it, the flame has burnt out and you are back at square one.
There are three stages of getting your fire ready before you attempt to light it. They are:
- Collecting tinder
- Gathering kindling
- Sourcing wood
When you’re camping in the backcountry, you should always bring a camping knife. A knife can help you clear your camp of brush and other plant life, making it easier to contain your fire. Some of the best methods for starting a campfire without using matches also rely on you being able to fashion grooves and indents in wood, something that is only effectively achievable with a knife.
Tinder is the name given to dry flammable material that begins the early ignition of a fire. While there are ways to produce a spark using tools that aren’t a lighter or matches, this alone won’t be enough to start a roaring fire.
When you get your spark, you’ll need to use this to light your tinder before you can transition onto larger fuel sources.Fluffy grasses, resinous bark, wood shavings, and abandoned birds’ nests are all examples of tinder that you can find in the wild.
If you want to play it safe, bring some tinder with you on your camping trip. If you can’t find any natural tinder nearby, you can always grab some lint from your dryer or even unravel a tampon to reveal the fibrous string. You can also buy tinder kits online.
Kindling is made up of small twigs and sticks. The best kind of sticks to go for are ones made of dead softwood. If the twigs are a little damp, you can always peel back the layers of bark to reveal the dry interior. If you are searching for kindling around your camp spot, aim for twigs around pencil size as these will easily catch fire when brought into contact with the smoldering tinder.
Once you have got the tinder and kindling burning, you will need to build up your fire. To do this, you will need to find some medium-sized wood and arrange it in a teepee fashion around the flames.
Make sure not to go too large with the wood initially, as you don’t want to accidentally extinguish the fire. It is best to create a stockpile of dry wood so that you can grow your fire without needing to leave it unattended while you search of more fuel. Once you have gathered the three main types of fuel needed to start and maintain a campfire, you can crack on with trying to light a spark.
8 Ways To Start A Campfire Without Matches
1. Flint And Steel
This is perhaps the simplest way to start a fire without using matches. Flint and steel kits are available in both outdoor shops and online for cheap. Sometimes, paracord survival bracelets will come with a flint and steel installed.
If you don’t have a flint and steel kit, you can improvise. Look for a flint rock (a hard grey stone) and scrape the blade of your pocketknife against it until it creates a spark. Once you have made a spark, you need to catch it. If your flint and steel kit comes with charcloth, you can use this to do that, before transferring it to the tinder.
However, if you don’t have a charcloth, you can angle the flint so that the sparks ignite the tinder nest directly. Bear in mind that this will only work if your tinder is very, very dry. Once the tinder is beginning to smolder, blow gently until the nest catches fire.
- Flint and steel kits are cheap to buy
- Easy to use
- Works well in most conditions
- Can take time to refine your technique
2. Magnifying Glass
Chances are you already know that it is possible to start a fire using a magnifying glass. Although a magnifying glass is ideal, any curved lens can work with direct sunlight to start a fire. If you’ve forgotten to bring a magnifying glass, you can also use the lenses of strong reading glasses or the lenses from a pair of binoculars instead.
To start the fire, hold your magnifying glass above the tinder so the sunlight can shine through the lens. Gently move it back and forth until you can see a point of light where the rays are focused. If you can keep this point of light small, the tinder will heat up quicker.
You’ll need to be prepared to persevere with this method as it will take a while to build heat inside the tinder nest. However, your patience will be rewarded! After a while, the tinder will smoke before eventually beginning to burn.
- Little energy required
- Requires bright direct sunlight
3. Fire Plow Method
Arguably the most well-known method used to start a fire without the use of matches is the fire plow technique. As far as we know, it is one of the oldest fire-starting techniques there is! The downside of this is that it is very difficult to get right, especially the first time.
To start a fire using the fire plow method, you will need a fireboard and a plow to create friction. Softwood is the best choice for the fireboard, so look for wood types such as juniper, cedar, and hibiscus. The fireboard should be around the length of your arm, and you will need to cut a groove into it all the way up.
Once the groove has been cut, you’ll need to angle off the end of your plow so that it fits into the trench. At the end of the groove, place your tinder nest. To create the friction, hold the plow at a 45-degree angle and rub it up and down the furrow.
Continue with a rapid rubbing motion, until you start to see the tinder nest smoke. Once it does, blow on it to encourage the fire to take hold.
- Simple to set up
- Can source materials in the natural environment
- Components can be replaced if broken
- Requires few tools
- Requires specific wood
- Can be hard to get right
- Not the best technique in wet environments
4. Steel Wool And Batteries
Something many campers don’t know is that steel wool will burn when it makes contact with both the positive and negative terminals on a battery. When buying steel wool for this purpose, you are best to look for a fine grade of steel as this burns better. The finer the wool, the more zeros you will see on the package.
To get the fire going, take the steel wool and rub it on the battery terminals. If you are trying this technique, any kind of battery will work. However, 9-volt batteries tend to be favored among campers as they light the quickest and the terminals are right next to each other.
By connecting the battery terminals to the steel wool, you have created a short circuit, meaning that electrical current is flowing through the steel wool at a high temperature. The steel wool will light very quickly so make sure you are careful and have your tinder at the ready. Once lit, blow on the flames to encourage the fire.
- Easy to pack
- Requires little effort
- Specific tools are needed
- Steel wool and battery need to be stored separately
5. Empty BIC Lighter
This is one thing that is likely to have caught many of us campers out. You came fully prepared with a lighter to start your campfire, but you didn’t realize it ran out of fuel a few days ago. Time for Plan B!
There are a couple of ways to start a fire with an empty lighter. The first is to bring the lighter to your tinder and try to light it off of the sparks. The second way is slightly more complicated but generally more effective.
Firstly, you’ll need to scrape the wheel against the flint but slower, so as not to make a spark. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll be able to tap the lighter onto a hard surface to release the dust from the flint onto the tinder.
Make sure to try to pinch up all of the dust so that it’s in one small area. The final step is to use your empty lighter to make a spark. The dust should catch, making it easier to get a campfire started.
- Takes no preparation
- Many people will have an empty lighter
- Requires patience
- Needs to be a lighter with a flint wheel
6. Clear Bottle Of Water
This fire-starting method works in the same way as the magnifying glass, except that this time, it is the concave part of your clear water bottle that acts as the lens. It relies on the sun’s rays to generate heat and start a fire.
Be warned, making a fire using the water bottle method is not easy. It takes time to refine your technique to position the bottle at the right point and it doesn’t work at all on an overcast day.
To boost your chances of starting a fire this way, hold the bottle so that light passes through the top of the bottle where it is concave. You are aiming to create a bright focused light onto the tinder. Make sure to keep your hand steady here until you see the tinder start to burn.
Once it starts smoking, blow on the embers to encourage the flames along, before steadily building up your fire using kindling and larger pieces of wood.
- Many people have a plastic water bottle with them
- Requires patience
- Not easy to do
- Needs to be a clear plastic bottle (not colored)
- Requires unobstructed, bright sunlight
7. Hand Drill
This is another fire-starting method that works using friction. It is very similar to the fire plow technique. However, instead of pushing a plow along a wooden groove, it involves mimicking the effect of a drill using a spindle in a rolling motion.
If you want to give this method a go, you’ll need to find a fireboard. This will be used as the base of your hand drill. You’ll also need to find a twig that you can use as a spindle. This should be quite thin, around half an inch in diameter. Make sure it is long enough that you can comfortably and quickly roll it using the palms of your hands.
The final thing that you will need is a small piece of bark. This will be used to transfer the initial ember to the tinder. The next step is to cut a V-shaped notch in the center of the fireboard. This should be just large enough to insert the spindle into. Once you insert the spindle, you need to roll it quickly between your palms, while pressing into the notch at the same time.
It may take some time, but after a while an ember should form on the fireboard. When this happens, transfer the cinder to your tinder via the piece of bark that you collected earlier. Once the tinder begins to catch, blow gently onto it to create a full flame.
- Requires few tools
- Hard to pull off in wet environments
- Takes practice
Camping in the winter provides unique challenges that can be hard to master, especially in cold and damp weather. However, it turns out that camping in the winter can come in handy when it comes to lighting a campfire without matches.
Did you know that it is possible to start a fire using ice? Even though it sounds a little counterproductive, it really can work. Similar to the magnifying glass and water bottle methods, the ice technique works in partnership with sunlight.
You’ll first need to seek out some clear water, ideally from a lake, pond, or melted snow. It is very important the water is clear as the ice is going to act as the lens so the sun will need to be able to shine through it.
Once you have found clear water, fill a container with it and allow it to freeze. A good way to do this is to put the container on the ground and surround it with snow. It is recommended that the ice that you use is around two inches thick.
Using your knife, you’ll need to carve out a lens from the ice. It doesn’t have to be too perfect, but it should be thicker in the middle and thinner towards the edges. Once you have the shape of your lens, polish it up using your hands. The heat from your skin will melt the ice a little bit, creating a nice smooth surface.
Once the lens is ready, hold it up towards the sun and focus the streak of sunlight onto the tinder. Keep it still and wait for the sun’s rays to do their thing! If you can, wedge it between some pieces of wood at the right angle so that you don’t need to hold it in your hands. This way, you won’t get cold, and the ice won’t melt too fast!
- Requires few tools
- Great for snowy and icy conditions
- Reliant on strong sunlight
- Can be hard to get right
- The lens might melt before you have fire!
If you’re heading out on a camping trip and you realize that you’ve forgotten the matches, your first instinct is naturally to panic and assume you’re in for a cold night. However, no matches doesn’t necessarily mean no campfire. It’s not only possible but it’s also fun to start a campfire without matches.
Whether you need a campfire in a survival situation or just want to cook your sausages, these eight methods will help you avert a crisis. While some of them do take a fair bit of practice and patience, starting a fire without using matches is no longer a skill solely reserved for Mother Nature.