Fail-Proof Methods to Make Fire

From bow drill to fire plow and magnesium fire starters, equip yourself with the knowledge necessary to make fire in any circumstance.

Logs on fire

A burning campfire in forest

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Frozenmost

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When humans first learned to create fire, that moment forever changed us: We rose above mere survival. We kept cold weather and predators at bay, cooked diverse and tasty foods, shaped tools and weapons, and thus we progressed. Our very lives have been shaped and transformed by fire and its myriad uses, even to the present day.

Whenever outdoors, fire-making is a crucial skill to have. I personally learned that making a fire on my first attempt kept me alive when things really went haywire. It was literally do or die — and I lived to tell my tale.

Today, we have an array of tools and gadgets that can help us outdoors. They are useful tools, but they are only tools. We do ourselves a disservice if we become so reliant on mechanical means that we are ignorant of fire-making basics with limited technology. So, here’s a tutorial on fire-making: from the very simple — some might say primitive — to the more complex. Let’s start from square one and go from there.

Essentials of Fire Making

As elementary as it seems, a fire must have three components working together: heat, fuel, and oxygen. Take away any of these, and you won’t have a fire. By working in harmony, they provide warmth, comfort, illumination, and may in fact be lifesaving. Let’s examine some basics, and then look at some very simple, yet effective fire-making methods.

Make certain everything is ready before the fire is attempted. Take the time to do it right rather than do it again; you might not get a second chance.

Reliable tinder is the first step. It is any flammable, finely divided material that holds a spark or flame long enough to ignite larger materials. Some examples of tinder are: cattail down; dried grasses; dry inner bark from standing dead trees; and the bark from certain trees such as sagebrush, juniper, and birch.

No matter whether the fire is made from high-tech or primitive means, my experience taught me that a tinder nest helps catch a spark or flame. As one might guess, a tinder nest is made from tinder and formed into the shape of a bird’s nest. The nest should be as large as your cupped hands. It helps to have your back to the wind, and then it is either cupped in your hands and gently blown to life, or placed under the kindling and gently nurtured into fire.

When kindling is considered, visualize dry material such as twigs ranging from the thickness of a pencil’s lead on up to the thickness of your little finger. Now, gather enough kindling of graduated sizes so that you have about four handfuls. Having this material should start a fire under almost any condition.

Once gathered, arrange the kindling into some sort of structure, such as a beehive dome, or tepee, starting from smaller kindling to larger. Make certain it has enough open space for ignition, yet is closed off enough for heat concentration. Once it catches, fuel is gradually added as needed.

Flint and Steel

The standard method of pioneers, frontiersmen, and the mountain man was flint and steel. Though easily learned, it takes practice, and requires good materials for the tinder.

One must have a piece of carbon steel — stainless will not work — and a hard silica rock, such as quartz, jasper, agate, or flint; hard quartzite will work. The best stones for flint are hard enough to withstand repeated striking and can retain a sharp edge that can peel off tiny flakes of steel. An old machinist’s file works rather well; there are some cheap pocket knives that also work well if you don’t want to abuse your higher quality knife. Just make certain they are carbon steel and not stainless.

Tinder is usually prepared in advance, and there are a few materials that are found in nature. Dry cattail fluff and thistle down are examples. There is a type of stringy fungus that resembles Spanish moss that grows in deep forests on the branches of trees. It can catch and hold a spark, as well as very dry and finely divided bark such as sagebrush, juniper, cliffrose, and similar barks. However, from my experience, it is very difficult to catch a spark with these materials — and they must be very, very dry.

The most reliable material is punk. There are different types of punk, but one of my favorites is simply 100 percent cotton cloth charred to blackness, prepared beforehand. It must be stored in a waterproof container. In older times, people carried a tinderbox, which was watertight, and held the punk, stone, steel, and tinder.

Place the punk in the center of the tinder nest. Take the steel and strike it downward on the flint, making certain it strikes a sharp edge. Forceful, deliberate strokes are more effective than a flurry of jackhammer strokes. A strike spalls off minute flakes of steel which ignite in the air. When it lands on the punk, it begins to smolder. Gently fold the nest around the ember and raise it above eye level, and begin to softly blow the ember into a living flame. Success!

Friction Fires

When I was very young, I learned that ancient people made fire by “rubbing two sticks together.” Naively and eagerly, I tried and tried until I wore myself out. Later on, I learned how to be more effective. These methods require practice — and more practice. They also require very little equipment, so they can be useful in a pinch once learned.

Fire plow: Of all primitive methods, this requires the least amount of materials, but the materials and technique are everything. Soft woods such as willows, cottonwoods, cedars, and yuccas work as a base, and mullein stalks, seep willows, or sunflower stems can be used as the plow. Simply begin pushing a stalk down a flat wood length, forming a groove. Gradually add pressure and speed, being careful not to disrupt the pile of sawdust being ground off toward the end. As the dust builds and begins to smoke, carefully increase the pace until the smoke thickens, then stop. Carefully lift the plow and gently allow the ember to grow, and then place the ember into the tinder nest and bring it to life.

Bow drill: This often comes to mind when thinking “primitive.” You need a flexible bow, spindle, a fireboard, and a socket. Similar types of woods as with the fire plow work well in this method. The spindle should be straight, about the thickness of your thumb, and about a foot long.

The bow length can be anywhere comfortable from 18 to 36 inches, and the string can be a leather thong, parachute cord, or stout string. For the fireboard, cedar, cottonwood, and willow all work well. The socket can be many things: bone, socket, stone, hardwood — anything into which a cone-shaped indent can be formed.

The spindle is pointed on top, and blunt at the bottom. The fireboard has a carved indent to receive the spindle. A notch is made in the indent to catch the ember. The point of the spindle rests in the socket.

It is easiest to kneel with one foot steadying the fireboard, then wrapping the arm around the knee, holding the socket in your hand; the other hand holds the bow, with the bowstring wrapped once around the spindle. Begin by moving the bow in a sawing motion, gradually adding speed and pressure to the spindle till it is smoking thickly and the dust has gathered into a smoking ember. Gently place into the tinder nest and breathe it to life. That is an accomplishment to be proud of!

Modern Tech

Did you know steel wool is a fire-starter? It must be fine (0000) and protected from rust. Touch the steel wool to both ends of a battery and immediately place in the tinder nest. It burns with a fierce heat even in wet weather. Often a spark from flint and steel will ignite steel wool.

Many people have a difficult time with magnesium fire starters. It is often because of impatience. Take the time to scrape off enough fine flakes — about the size of a quarter — and place it into the tinder nest as a small mound before striking the sparker side. Then coax it into flame.

My personal fail-safe fire starter is a 15-minute highway flare. It is compact, sturdy, waterproof, and lightweight. It will ignite under virtually all weather conditions, and will direct a fiercely hot, focused flame toward your prepared material, and will generate enough heat that even rain-soaked tinder dries and catches fire.

There are an array of gadgets, lighters, tools, and other goodies that are attractive to the person who ventures outdoors. They’re cool, and they do typically work, despite the marketing hype. But we’ve been around a lot longer than history records, and somehow we’ve made it so far. Keep your wits about you and prepare yourself — then nature’s surprises or life’s circumstances won’t catch you off-guard. Knowing how to make a fire under any condition is one skill worth learning, and it is far easier to practice from the comforts of home rather than struggling with the task when a do or die survival situation confronts you.   

Check out Gordie’s seven essential survival skills.


My personal fail-safe fire starter is a 15-minute highway flare. It is compact, sturdy, waterproof, and lightweight. It will ignite under virtually all weather conditions, and will direct a fiercely hot, focused flame toward your prepared material, and will generate enough heat that even rain-soaked tinder dries and catches fire.


Gordie Soaring Hawk is originally from the Iroquois people around the Great Lakes, though he has lived in the deserts of the American Southwest for most of his life, where most of his survival expeditions occurred. Although he no longer runs expeditions, he teaches numerous Native American and primitive technologies workshops on the 6-1⁄ 2 acres where he and his companion, Pam, live.