In a survival situation being able to start a fire can mean the difference between life and death.
Hopefully your bug out bag or survival kit has the fire starting tools that will help you start a fire quickly and reliably. But what if this gets wet, lost, or used up? Then you will need some primitive fire skills to build your fire. Primitive fire making is a bushcraft discipline that uses simple tools and natural materials to create fire.
By being able to make fires quickly and effectively in any weather conditions, you will be better prepared for emergency situations. In this article I am going to show you how to start a fire using primitive skills as well as compare and contrast the various methods to help you decide which one is best for you to learn first.
Primitive Fire Making Techniques
Flint and Steel
This is the easiest of all bushcraft fire starting methods. All that is required is a flint and a piece of carbon steel (such as your survival knife). Flint and carbon steel should be a part of every wilderness survival kit as it will allow for easy primitive fire starting in virtually any conditions:
- The friction formed by striking the steel against the flint will form sparks.
- You want to strike the steel against the flint with a loose wrist. It may take a bit of practice to get the technique down.
- Have tinder ready to ignite as the sparks start to fly from the flint.
- Gently blow on the sparks that land in the tinder or char cloth until it ignites.
- Make sure you have your kindling nearby and ready to add to the tinder once it catches.
This method of bushcraft fire starting is relatively easy to execute. It requires the least amount of physical strength and energy to perform and can be done with only two items. We recommend the SurvivalSPARK Emergency Magnesium Fire Starter as a trusty flint and steel tool. However, if find yourself in a situation without carbon steel or a flint available, which is why it’s important to know as many primitive fire making techniques as possible. This will better perfect your wilderness survival skills, preparing you for all situations. Here is a video that shows you how to find flint in the wilderness:
This is the simplest form of primitive fire making using only natural materials. It is essentially an optimized way to “rub two sticks together” with the base board being one and the plow stick being the other.
Start by procuring a flat piece of hardwood at least a couple of inches thick to use as your baseboard.
- On the flat side, cut a straight line down the center using your survival knife.
- Hollow out this line to create a shallow, thin groove, about ¼-inch wide.
- Find a softwood stick, at least 1-inch thick. Use your bushcraft knife to carve the end of the stick to a rounded point, with the tip being small enough to fit into the groove on your board.
- To cause enough friction to generate sufficient heat to ignite a fire, we will now rub the two crafted parts together.
- Applying continuous force, rub the stick through the groove in the wood, starting at one end and going toward the other.
- This will require a bit of strength in order to create the friction necessary to form a spark.
- As the stick rubs against the baseboard, wood will slowly shave off.
- The friction you are causing will create heat and tiny embers, which will ignite the wood shavings.
- Have your kindling ready and, as before, gently blow on the sparks within the tinder to ignite a flame.
The fire plough method of primitive fire making is simplistic in design, allowing it the versatility to be applied in virtually any location. It’s an ideal wilderness survival tactic due to sheer simplicity.
Nonetheless, it does require quite a bit of physical force and energy to create the spark, someone who is weakened by starvation or exposure may have difficulty getting the fire plough to work. As with all primitive fire starting methods it is essential to practice in order to perfect the technique. Here is a video demonstrating the fire plough method:
A hand drill is a bushcraft technique that is simpler to build than the bow drill, but it will require greater energy, patience, and skill to implement. All that is required is a drill and a fireboard. The stick being used for the drill is spun between two hands (instead of using a bow to spin the drill) to generate enough friction to create embers.
- In the same way as the bow drill’s drill was constructed, find a softwood stick and carve one side to a rounded point.
- Cut a small hole in the softwood fireboard, about an inch from the edge of the board.
- Cut a v-shaped notch connecting the hole and the edge of the board, with the point of the v connecting with the hole.
- Fill the v-shaped notch with tinder. Position the point of the drill into the hole on the fireboard.
- Place both palms flat on either side of the drill. Press your hands in firmly, and rub them back and forth. Apply downward pressure as you spin the drill for added friction.
- Continue to spin the drill in the fireboard until smoke and embers form.
- As with the bow drill once the embers start to make the tinder smolder gently blow to develop a flame.
This method is easy to construct in a pinch, making it a valuable bushcraft skill. Be sure to practice often because it can be difficult to implement. Persistence and endurance are required to make it work. Here is a video showing the hand drill fire starting method:
This method is more complicated to build than either of the previously mentioned methods. However once a bow drill is built it requires less exertion to create a usable ember. Lets take a look at how to build a bow drill fire starter:
- Start by finding a piece of hardwood, rock, or bone that contains a divot or shallow depression. This will serve as the socket that the drill rests in.
- Next, find straight stick that will serve as your drill. The drill will need to be a piece of hardwood about ¾-inch thick. One end should be blunt and the other end will be chiseled to a rounded point.
- Make a flat piece of softwood, at least 1-inch thick, to use as a fireboard. Cut a tiny hole into the board, about one inch from the side, barely big enough for the tip of the drill to rest in.
- Cut a triangular notch connecting the hole to the side of the board, with the point of the triangle connecting to the hole in the board.
- Find a bendable, green stick to craft into a bow.
- Tightly tie a piece of sinew or paracord to the bent ends of the bow.
- Place your tinder into the triangular notch in the fireboard in step 4. This is where the sparks will form.
- Place your foot firmly on the fireboard to hold it in place. Loop the bowstring around the drill and place the point of the drill into the hole in the fireboard. Grab your socket from step 1, and place the depression in the socket on top of the drill to hold it firmly in place.
- Pull the bow back and forth rapidly. As you do so, this will drive the drill into the wood, creating friction.
- As the embers begin dropping into your tinder nest, gently blow until it ignites.
Although a bow drill is more difficult to build than a fire plough it should create fire faster and with less effort. If you are able to make your tools you can use them multiple times, making your investment pay off again and again. Here is a video demonstrating the bow drill technique:
Pump Fire Drill
The pump fire drill is the most difficult to construct of all the primitive fire starting tools. This is due to its more mechanically complicated nature. This is compensated however by requiring nearly no effort to generate embers and a fire once the pump fire drill is constructed. Lets take a look at how to build one:
- Find a round piece of hardwood and cut a small hole in the center. Using sinew, cordage, or paracord attach a sharp rock or arrow to the end of a hardwood stick.
- Drill a hole through a rock at the same width of the stick, and push the stick through the hole, with the arrow resting about one to two inches below the rock. The rock should fit snugly, without moving.
- Find a slightly curved piece of hardwood and drill a hole through the center, the same width as the stick.
- Insert the curved piece of wood onto the stick, an inch above the rock, so the bow in the wood is facing upward. It should fit loosely so the device will easily rotate inside of it.
- Etch two notches on the ends of each side of the bowed wood so that a string can be tied around easily. Tie a piece of sinew, cordage, or paracord to connect the edge of each side of the bowed wood to the tip of the stick, in the direction away from the arrow.
- Grab the bow wood as a handle. Press the arrow to the hole in the firewood and spin the device to wind it up.
- Allow the device to unwind itself. As the arrow is driven into the fireboard, embers will form.
This bushcraft fire starting technique requires almost no effort to create a fire and is great for people of smaller stature and strength. However, the pump fire drill itself will take some time to build so it should be practiced or built ahead of time and then brought out when needed. Here is a video showing the pump fire drill technique:
The fire piston is a primitive fire starting technique that is a bit more complicated to make, requiring the use of hardware to build. The fire piston uses the pressure created by quickly ramming the piston down a chamber to generate enough heat and pressure to ignite a piece of charcloth or other tinder.
- You will need a piece of copper or strong plastic pipe about 10 centimeters long. Sand the ends so they are smooth.
- Plug one end using a brass end cap, piece of metal, or wood. Glue the cap on so it fits snug.
- Take a 10-millimeter thick wooden piston and cut it so that it is a couple of centimeters longer than the tube.
- Insert the piston into a power drill. Run a file on the end of the piston, a couple of millimeters from the end and run the drill until the file carves a smooth indented line around the piston.
- Insert a 10-millimeter rubber ring around the ring in the piston. Drill a 5-millimeter hole into the end of the piston on the side with the rubber ring.
- Apply a thin layer of glue to the end of the piston to clog the pores of the wood. Drill a 10-millimeter hole into a cylindrical wooden knob and glue the bare end of the piston into the knob.
- Fill the hole at the end of the piston with charcloth.
- Lubricate the rubber ring and insert the piston into the copper tube. Forcefully push the piston into the tube quickly, pulling it back out immediately.
- Do this repeatedly until the charcloth ignites, then transfer the ignited charcloth to your tinder.
While the fire piston method does require some effort to build, creating a fire with it is incredibly easy. Although it can’t be built out in the woods with simple tools it is still useful to learn. Once a fire piston is built it’s a light weight and compact addition to any fire starting kit.
Bonus Method: Fire Starting Tools You Can Depend On
While primitive fire starting is a huge asset in your survival skill set, being prepared with the right tools can make your life a lot easier.
I recommend the SurvivalSPARK Emergency Magnesium Fire Starter as mentioned above. It is a fire starting tool that you can count on getting a fire started quickly in an emergency situation.
The other interesting survival fire starter worth checking out is the Everstryke Pro Waterproof Emergency Lighter which integrates a wick and striker wheel in a small waterproof housing.
What is the Best Primitive Fire Making Method?
In an ideal world we could just go out and master all of these 6 techniques and be ready to build a fire no matter the circumstances. However not everybody has time to master all these survival skills. What I suggest is picking one, or 2 at most and practicing it until you can create a fire using it in your sleep. Picking which method to learn comes down to several factors including:
- What resources are available
- How much time you have
- How much energy you want to expend
Feel free to try out all 6 methods to find which is the best for you. Once you have that figured out practice, practice, practice. The time invested improving your primitive fire starting skills will pay huge dividends if you ever need to start a fire without matches. Always remember, Chance Favors The Well Prepared.
Do you have a favorite primitive fire making method? Have any tips for starting a fire without matches? Let us know in the Comments Section below, thanks!