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Making Fire without Matches
By Steven Gillman

Have you ever tried making a fire without matches or a lighter? It looks easy on television. Recently, on an episode of "Man Versus Wild," the host/survivor simply spun a stick between his hands for a few minutes, with one end on a fire board (a piece of wood with a hole and a notch in it), and soon had a burning coal. He easily blew this into a flame. Easily?

We don't see the whole process in one camera shot of course. It would be boring, because it takes a long time to make a fire using primitive means. Also - unlike on television, it's easy to fail at any one of the six crucial steps, and that means no fire. The six steps to making a fire without matches or a lighter:

1. Gather the right kind of tinder.

2. Gather firewood and lay a good fire.

3. Make fire-starting tools.

4. Use the tools the right way to create an ember.

5. Blow the ember into a flame using the tinder.

6. Start a fire with the burning tinder.

Making A Fire

Steps 4 and 5 are by far the toughest. Anyone can quickly learn how to gather dry wood and lay it in a way that allows air into it, with tinder at the center, kindling around that, and small pieces of firewood ready to be added. Fire starting tools, whether a hand-spun spindle or a bow and drill setup, are relatively easy too make too, once you've seen how and try it a few times.

Knowledge helps. Tinder, for example, needs to have very specific qualities when you don't have matches. Paper is a good tinder for starting a fire with matches, but it won't easily take and hold a spark or ember and allow you to blow it into a flame. Good tinder materials when you don't have matches include lint from your pocket, cattail seed head down, fine dry grass, cotton twine, cotton cloth, and dry-rotted wood.

A few types of dry funguses that grow on trees work as well. You can experiment with these. You can also scrape the outside of western cedars and some other trees, to get a small pile of fuzzy bark for tinder.

Place the tinder in a nest or ball of dry grass. When you get your spark or coal, you'll drop it into the center and blow into it gently, hopefully blowing this ember into a flame within a minute or so. If it doesn't work, try other tinder materials, and even mix several, like lint, cattail fuzz, and finely shredded soft bark.

The basic routine, whether using a bow and drill, a fire plow or a simple spindle and fire board, is to create enough friction to get a small burning ember. You drop this into the tinder you have prepared, and blown into a flame, then transfer the flame to the kindling and firewood you have prepared. Soon you have a blazing fire in front of you.

Now it's time for my confession. I've worked on every element of this process. I lay a good fire, collect great tinders, and I can blow them into a flame from an ember. I even make a decent bow and drill fire starter. However, I've never created an ember from friction. I can make clouds of smoke and a lot of sweat, but I have never started a fire using primitive tools. I have always had matches, which may have limited my motivation.

The lesson? Step number four is tough. Practice all the others to get your confidence up. You can light a small stick and blow out the flame to get an ember for practicing. Or maybe the lesson is that if you think you might be making a fire, bring matches or a lighter.

Copyright Steve Gillman. To see exactly how to make a bow-and-drill and fire plow, visit the page on Building Fires, at the Ultralight Backacking Site:

Article Source:

Like this article?  You may also enjoy:  Ultralight Backpacking by Steve Gillman, Breakfast Recipes by Steve Gillman


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