In remote wilderness areas, fire is a primal force that provides warmth, and protection, as well as the ability to cook food and purify water. That’s why knowing how to start a fire comes second on the list of best survival skills: shelter, fire, water, and food. But relying solely on using a lighter to start a fire while in the wild is risky. Failures happen, and you don’t what to be caught unprepared. That’s why it’s crucial to explore alternative methods of how to start an emergency fire that can save the day when your trusty lighter fails you.

In this article, we’ll dive into six versatile and reliable techniques on how to start a fire without a lighter that every outdoor enthusiast should master. 

Table of Contents: How to Start a Fire Without a Lighter

  • Method 1: Bow Drill
  • Method 2: Knife, Quartz, and Fungus
  • Method 3: Ferro Rod
  • Method 4: Battery and Steel Wool
  • Method 5: Water Bottle
  • Method 6: Matches

1) How to Start a Fire with a Bow Drill

In order to make a bow drill, you’ll need to gather the following supplies:

  • A flat piece of soft wood, such as cedar, to serve as the fire board
  • A stick no shorter than 12 inches long for the “bow”
  • A length of string (parachute cord from your survival kit is ideal, but a bootlace will work in a pinch)
  • A stick of soft wood, like cedar, for the spindle
  • A small chunk of hardwood about the size of the palm of your hand
  • Tinder—such as, chug fungus, dry grass or leaves, cedar bark shavings, finely shaven birchbark, or a commination of any of these things

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to start a fire without a lighter, using a bow drill:

  1. Carve your fire board from the soft wood. The dimensions should measure about 3/4-inch thick, 3 to 4 inches wide, and about 15 inches long. Next, saw or whittle a V-shaped notch into the board on one end. Your fire board should be flat and rectangular.
  2. Make the bow by tying the cord to the bow stick. Make sure you tie the string loose enough so that it’ll tighten once it wraps around the spindle—but not so tight that it’s a challenge to wrap around the spindle.
  3. Next, carve an indent into the palm-sized piece of wood for the top of the spindle to fit into.
  4. Twist your spindle into the bow string so that the string wraps around it once. Do this so that the spindle is on the outside of the bow string as opposed to the inside. 
  5. Place your fire board down on a flat area, putting a thin piece of bark, such as birch bark or something similar, underneath the V on your fire board. (This will be used to transfer the coal you’re about to make to your tinder bundle.) 
  6. With the spindle in the bow string, hold the fire board down with one foot and place one end of the spindle on top of the V on the fire board. It should be little toward the back of the V ideally. Hold the spindle vertically by placing the palm-sized piece of hardwood on top of it . 
  7. Holding everything in place, begin moving the bow back and forth, starting slowly before building speed. Once you “burn in” your spindle into the board, you can speed up. When you start seeing smoke, keep going steadily. You are building an ember that will begin collecting at the bottom of the V. 
  8. When you have a significant ember, stop moving the bow. Nurture the ember a little by waving air on it or gently blowing on it. 
  9. Transfer your ember to your tinder and continue blow on it gently. Keep blowing on the ember until your bundle of tinder turns into a flame. Then add the small pieces of kindling followed by larger pieces of firewood.

2) How to Start a Fire Without a Lighter, Using a Knife, Quartz, and Chaga Fungus

Chaga is a fungus that grows on birch and other trees. It’s an effective natural source of tinder and catches fire quite easily. Use it to get a fire started with a flint and steal, a ferro rod, or, as you’ll learn here, with a knife and hunk of quartz.

  1. Locate a piece of chaga mushroom growing on a birch tree and break it off to expose its inner core, which should look orange-brown and yellowish. Break part of the chaga into crumbled pieces and place them on top of a rock. 
  2. Using the back of your belt knife and a piece of quartz, create sparks by smacking the back of your knife and the quartz together, trying to direct a spark to land onto the crumbled chaga. 
  3. When a spark or two lands, begin gently blowing on it to create a large ember in the crumbled chaga. Then, transfer the ember over to a larger pice of chaga and blow on it until you have a significant ember. 
  4. Add other tinder, such as shaved birch bark, dry leaves or grass, fluffed cedar bark, or a combination of these things to the chaga ember and blow until they grow into a flame.

3) How to Use a Ferro Rod to Make Fire

If you really want to know how to start a fire without a lighter, invest in a ferro rod. Why? Because a ferro rod can start a lot more fires than a lighter can. It’s also far more durable, reliable, and can be used when soaking wet. That being said, it doesn’t produce an open flame—only sparks—and getting a fire going with it is more challenging than with a lighter. Here’s how to start a fire with a ferro rod, starting with how to gather the best tinder.

  1. Find a cedar tree and scrape a large bundle of fluff from its bark by running your knife horizontally against the tree.
  2. Find a Balsam fir tree. Balsams are coniferous trees with short needles and smooth, grey bark. The bark has many bubbles in it that contains the tree’s sap, which is flammable. Holding your bundle of cedar fluff under a sap blister, cut the blister open with your knife and spread the sap onto the fluff. Continue doing this with multiple blisters until you’ve collected a significant amount of sap onto the fluff. 
  3. With some kindling and larger firewood set to the side, scrape your ferro rod with your knife or the scraper the rod comes with and send sparks raining onto the tinder. You’ll find it will burst into flames quite easily.

4) How to Start a Fire with a Battery and Steel Wool

It’s possible to get a fire going with everyday items like steel wool and a battery. Often, steel wool can be found in a camping mess kit, and 9-volt batteries are often used in walkie-talkies. 

  1. Gather a 9-volt battery and some fine-grade steel wool. Stretch out a small piece of steel wool, ensuring it’s not touching any flammable materials.
  2. Touch the terminals of the battery to the steel wool. This will create a circuit and will ignite the steel wool. 
  3. Transfer the burning steel wool to your tinder bundle and coax it into flame by gently blowing on it.

5) Start an Emergency Fire with a Water Bottle

For this to method to work, you’ll need a sunny day as well as a direct view of the sun. If you have those conditions, this is actually a pretty convenient way of starting a fire without a lighter, as there are very few things that need to be collected before starting. 

  1. Fill a clear water bottle with water—all the way, leaving no air bubbles inside.
  2. Position the bottle in a way that the sun’s rays pass through the water and converge into a focal point, similar to what you did with a magnifying glass as a kid. 
  3. Position your tinder bundle at the focal point until the concentrated sunlight ignites the tinder. 
  4. Nurture the smoldering tinder into a flame by gently blowing on it. 

6) Strike-Anywhere Matches

Let’s not forget about tried, tested, and true matches—perhaps the most obvious method of how to start a fire without a lighter. Choose wooden, strike-anywhere matches, and store them in a small, waterproof container. (Make sure to cut igniting strip off the match box, and store it inside the container, too.) This is a great addition to your survival kit.

  1. Gather your fire-making materials. Tinder, such as birchbark; kindling, such as small dry twigs; and larger firewood.
  2. Prepare the match. Ideally, you’re using strike-anywhere matches, which can be lit on any rough surface. Wind- and waterproof storm matches are great, too, but they require the specific striking surface of a matchbox. 
  3. Create a tinder bundle. Arrange a small, loose bundle of easily ignitable material like dry grass, leaves, paper, birchbark, or a combo of any. 
  4. Ignite the match and tinder. Hold the match firmly by the non-burning end and strike it against the designated surface with a swift, downward motion. Cupping the match with your other hand to protect it from the wind, hold it under the tinder until it ignites. 
  5. Build your fire. Gradually add small killing pieces to the growing flame, allowing it to spread and establish a stronger fire. As the fire grows, add larger firewood to sustain it.


Q: Can you start a fire without a flame?

Yes, fire can be started without a visible flame using methods like friction-based fire making, including the bow drill technique mentioned above.

Q: Can fire burn with just oxygen?

No, fire requires three elements known as the fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Without one of these components, fire cannot sustain itself. Oxygen acts as a supporter for the combustion process, allowing fire to burn.

Q: Do fires need heat to start?

Yes, heat is essential for initiating the combustion process and starting a fire. Heat can be generated through various means, such as friction, sparks, or a heat source like a match, lighter, the sun, or a magnifying glass. Once the heat is sufficient, it ignites the fuel, leading to a self-sustaining fire. 

Q: How do you assemble a fire so that it’s ready to light?

Gather dry tinder, such as birchbark, and a large amount of dry twigs for kindling. Then, get larger pieces of firewood. Begin assembling a fire by laying down your tinder, placing kindling on top of it (use more kindling than you think you need). Then, put your larger firewood pieces on top of that, surrounding it in a teepee structure. You can also put them around the tinder and kindling in a log cabin, making sure the firewood logs are laid in so that they touch the kindling beside it, laying firewood legs across the top of the log cabin structure too. Be sure that some tinder, such as bark or paper, is sticking out from the bottom of the ready-to-light fire so that you can more easily light it with a match or lighter. It’s a good idea to leave an assembled fire like this in the wood stove of your cabin. 

Q: What is the fastest way to put out a fire? 

The fastest way to extinguish a fire depends on the type and size of the fire. For small fires, smothering the flames with a blanket, kicking dirt on it, or stomping it out with your boots can be effective. Of course, a fire extinguisher works well too. For larger fires, such as bonfires, water is your best bet. It’s a good idea to have easy access to water when you have a fire. Remember to always keep fires in control and don’t leave them behind until they’re out. The rule of  thumb is that, if the coals are too hot to pick up, it’s not out yet.

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