Starting a Fire

Photo by Peter Reft

Photo by Peter Reft

  • Start a fire using each of the following methods with dry tinder and fuel: lighter, match, convex lens, flint and steel, bow/drill.
  • Start a fire using each of the following methods with wet fuel: Lighter, match, flint and steel.
  • Start a fire and boil water in a tactical scenario without being detected.

Starting a Fire

Security first: weigh hazards and risks of detection against the need for a fire. In an evasion scenario:

  • Use trees or other masking sources to dissipate smoke.
  • Use the Dakota Hole method if possible.
  • Use very dry wood to minimize smoke (green wood/plants will generate thick white smoke).
  • Use fires at dusk, dawn, or during inclement weather.
  • Use fires at times when the local populace is cooking.
  • Use only natural materials. Black smoke generated by man-made materials is a massive target indicator.

Fire building

The three essential elements for starting a fire are heat (ignition), fuel (tinder, etc.), and oxygen (supplied by proper fire building techniques). Starting a fire is done by a source of ignition and falls into two categories; modern and primitive.

Modern Methods. Modern ignition uses devices widely available and are what is typically used to start a fire. Reliance upon these methods may result in failure during a survival situation either through non-availability of the item, or failure of the item in extreme circumstances. Always carry more than you think you need. Two is one, one is none.

  • Matches and Lighters. Always carry if possible, even in urban areas. Ensure you waterproof these items.
  • Convex Lens. Binocular, camera, telescopic sights, or magnifying lens are used on bright, sunny days to ignite tinder.
  • Flint and Steel. Sometimes known as metal matches or “Mag Block”. Scrape your knife or carbon steel against the flint to produce a spark onto the tinder. Some types of flint & steel designs will have a block of magnesium attached to the device which can be shaved onto the tinder prior to igniting. Other designs may have magnesium mixed into the flint to produce a higher quality of spark.
  • Sparks from batteries (i.e., batteries and steel wool).
  • Pyrotechnics, such as flares (last resort), etc.

Primitive Methods. Primitive fire methods are those developed by early man. There are numerous techniques that fall into this category and without significant prior training, these method are difficult to master and require time to find the proper materials and build the device. One of the more effective methods is the friction method using a bow & drill. The technique of starting a fire with a bow & drill is a true field expedient fire starting method which requires a piece of cord and knife from your survival kit to construct.

The components of the bow & drill are bow, drill, socket, fire board, ember patch, and birds nest:

  • Bow. The bow is a resilient, green stick about 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 30-36 inches in length. The bow string can be any type of cord, however, 550 cord works best. Tie the string from one end of the bow to the other, without any slack.
  • Drill. The drill should be a straight, seasoned hardwood stick about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 8 to 12 inches in length. The top end is tapered to a blunt point to reduce friction generated in the socket. The bottom end is slightly rounded to fit snugly into the depression on the fire board.
  • Socket. The socket is an easily grasped stone or piece of hardwood or bone with a slight depression on one side. Use it to hold the drill in place and to apply downward pressure.
  • Fire board. The fire board is a seasoned softwood board which should ideally be 3/4 of an inch thick, 2-4 inches wide, and 8-10 inches long. Cut a depression 3/4 of an inch from the edge on one side of the fire board. Cut a U-shape notch from the edge of the fire board into the depression. This notch is designed to collect and form an ember which will be used to ignite the tinder.
  • Ember Patch. The ember patch is made from any type of suitable material (i.e., leather, aluminum foil, bark). It is used to catch and transfer the ember from the fire board to the birds nest. Ideally, it should be roughly 4 inches by 4 inches in size.
  • Birds Nest. The birds nest is a double handful of tinder which will be made into the shape of a nest. Tinder must be dry and finely shredded material (i.e., outer bark from juniper/cedar/sage brush or inner bark from cottonwood/aspen or dry grass/moss). Lay your tinder out in two equal rows about 4 inches wide and 8-12 inches long. Loosely roll the first row into a ball and knead the tinder to further break down the fibers. Place this ball perpendicular onto the second row of tinder and wrap. Knead the tinder until all fibers of the ball are interwoven. Insert the drill half way into the ball to form a partial cylinder. This is where the ember will be placed.

Producing a fire using the bow & drill:

  1. Assemble the components.
  2. Place the ember patch under the U-shaped notch. Assume the kneeling position, with the left foot on the fire board near the depression. Load the bow with the drill. Ensure the drill is between the wood of the bow and bow string. Place the drill into the depression on the fire board. Place the socket on the tapered end of the drill.
  3. Use the left hand to hold the socket while applying downward pressure:


  • Use the right hand to grasp the bow. With a smooth sawing motion, move the bow back and forth to twirl the drill.
  • Once you have established a smooth motion, smoke will appear. Once smoke appears, apply more downward pressure and saw the bow faster.
  • When a thick layer of smoke has accumulated around the depression, stop all movement. Remove the bow, drill, and socket from the fire board, without moving the fire board. Carefully remove your left foot off the fire board.
  • Gently tap the fire board to ensure all of the ember has fallen out of the U-shaped notch and is lying on the ember patch. Remove the fire board.
  • Slowly fan the black powder to solidify it into a glowing ember. Grasping the ember patch, carefully drop the ember into the cylinder of the birds nest.
  • Grasp the birds nest with the cylinder facing towards you and parallel to the ground. Gently blow air into the cylinder. As smoke from the nest becomes thicker, continue to blow air into the cylinder until fire appears.

Trouble Shooting the Bow & Drill:

  • Drill will not stay in depression- Apply more downward pressure and/or increase width/depth of depression.
  • Drill will not twirl – Lessen the amount of downward pressure and/or tighten bow string.
  • Socket smoking- Lessen the amount of downward pressure. Wood too soft when compared to hardness of drill. Add some lubrication: animal fat, oil, or grease.
  • No smoke- Drill and fire board are the same wood. Wood may not be seasoned. Check drill to ensure that it is straight. Keep left hand locked against left shin while sawing.
  • Smoke but no ember- U-shaped notch not cut into center of the depression.
  • Bow string runs up and down drill- Use a locked right arm when sawing. Check drill to ensure that it is straight. Ensure bow string runs over the top of the left boot.
  • Birds nest will not ignite- Tinder not dry. Nest woven too tight. Tinder not kneaded enough. Blowing too hard (ember will fracture).

Extinguishing a Fire

All fire must be properly extinguished. This is accomplished by using the drown, stir, and feel method:

  • Drown the fire by pouring at water in the fire lay.
  • Stir the ember bed to ensure that the fire is completely out.
  • Check the bed of your fire by feeling for any hot spots.
  • If any hot spots are found, start the process all over again.

Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.