Fire Building Techniques: Practical Ways to Create an Outdoor Fire

Fire Building Techniques
Jerry Mueller
Written by Jerry Mueller

In the wild, where anything could happen, it’s important to increase not only the number of survival tools you prepare but also to sharpen your inherent survival skills. One of the most important skills to master that could very well end up being your saving grace revolves around fire building techniques that let you start a blaze without the aid of any modern tools.

While we do hope that you’ll never need to resort to this, there’s no telling when you might accidentally get your box of matches wet or when your fire starter might malfunction. Spending one night in the wild without fire might not seem like such a big deal—especially when you still have your camping tent, flashlight, and food supplies with you—but what if you have to spend more than one night alone in the dark?

What if you’re in a dangerous area heavily infested with wild animals? What if the temperature drops suddenly and your jacket is no longer enough to keep you warm? You won’t go wrong with adding fire building techniques to your arsenal, but you might end up regretting it if you don’t learn the primitive ways for building a fire while the information is still readily available.

Starting a Fire

In this article, you will learn different ways to build a fire without the help of convenient modern tools such as matches or a fire starter kit. We’ve separated this article into two major sections. We will first explain how to start a fire using the focal point produced by magnifying lenses, then how to achieve the same goal using much more primitive methods, if worse comes to worst.

How to Start a Fire in the Wild

If you have a match, all you have to do is strike it and let it ignite a pile of twigs treated with alcohol. If you have a magnesium flint, starting a fire is another simple business that only involves creating a spark that would spread to the pile of tinder you’ve previously prepared. If you don’t have any of the above, fire starting might not be as simple of an affair, but it’s not impossible either.


Without further ado, here are several techniques you can employ to start a fire in the wild alone, without the help of any of the tools we’re all used to relying on:

Method #1: Use a Magnifying Lens

When we said we were going to teach you how to build a fire the primitive way, was the first thing that came to your mind related to the good old-fashioned hand-drilling using a spindle and a fire board?

We’ve all seen it in the movies—how they made a thin, wooden stick stand up vertically on a thicker wooden board and start spinning like there’s no tomorrow. They made it look so simple, but that’s actually the hardest way to start a fire without the help of a match.

Not only will it drain your stamina rapidly, but it’s also a very fickle technique. Not just any plain old wood will do. Walnut, cypress, cedar, willow, aspen, and juniper wood make the best fire starters, but none of these woods may be readily available where you are, and that’s assuming you can even tell them apart properly, which could be very hard to do on the best of days, let alone when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Starting Fire with Magnifying Glass

Image credit: pixelmari.com

Also, the wood has to be completely dry, or else it won’t work. With how often it rains in the mountains, finding two bone-dry wooden pieces of just the right size isn’t a walk in the park.

That’s why we’d like to save this method as a last resort. Rather, we’d like to suggest that you bring a magnifying lens with you whenever you venture outdoors to a place where it’s likely that your box of matches or your flint will get wet and be rendered useless—such as when you’re river-trekking. A little water won’t harm your magnifying lens, and starting a fire with it is a quick and simple affair if you know what you’re doing.

We will list out the supplies that you need to prepare to try this method out:

  • The Lens. While we did mention that you should bring with you a magnifying lens, if you don’t have any or you think a traditional lens is impractical, you can also go for binocular lenses or even your eyewear—anything that can focus sunlight into a specific spot will do just fine.
  • Tinder. You will have to build a tinder nest out of twigs, dead grass, or anything that catches fire easily. Make sure everything is bone dry, or you’ll have trouble lighting it up. You’ll also want to shred them into small pieces and pile them all together. If you have alcohol or other types of fuel with you, treating the tinder first with a cotton ball will make things easier for you.
Dry Tinder and Magnifying Glass

Image credit: offgridweb.com

Once you’ve got the tinder nest ready, take the lens and start following these simple steps:

  • Wet the lenses with water. Whereas with matches and flint stones contact with water render them entirely unusable, with lenses it’s actually the exact opposite. Treating your lenses with a bit of water just before you use them to start a fire will help sharpen their focus and thus add more kick to the beam.
  • Angle the lens parallel with the sun. Pinpoint where the sun is, then angle the lens until you see a beam of light narrowing down from the lens into a pinprick focus point on the tinder nest. Hold the lens in that position until the nest starts to burn.

Simple, isn’t it? It wouldn’t even take ten minutes to get a good flame going.

Starting Fire with Soda Can

Image credit: americansurvivor.com

If you don’t have a magnifying lens, binoculars, or even eyeglasses with you, you can still employ the same method using other, less-than-conventional tools:

  • Steel Polish and Soda Can. If you brought a canned drink with you to refresh yourself with on your adventure, don’t throw away the can after you’re done with it. You might still have uses for it—namely to start a fire. This works best if you have compounds with natural steel-polishing properties with you, such as toothpaste or a chocolate bar. Polish the bottom of the can until it gleams like the surface of a mirror, then angle it towards the sun. It should form a focal point on the ground—and a powerful one, too. Place the tinder nest about one inch away from it, not directly under it.
  • Ice. If you love ice climbing or you like to go hiking in wintertime, then you’re in luck because you wouldn’t need to reserve space for a magnifying lens in your backpack. Why would you when you’re surrounded by the natural alternatives of it? For this to work, you need clear ice—not muddy ones. You can fill up a small container about two inches deep with ice water from the river, the lake, or by melting down snow. Once the water has solidified into ice, shape it into a lens using a knife—thick around the middle and thin around the edges. Smoothen the surface with your hands, and you’re now ready to make fire out of ice.

You should be able to start a blazing fire with ease using any of the above methods in minutes or perhaps even seconds. The problem is, those methods only work when the sun is out. What happens when the need to build a fire strikes in the dead of night? You’ll have to resort to other methods—namely the hand-drilling and other primitive methods that we mentioned briefly above.

Starting a Fire

Difficult as they may be, they are not impossible to execute in the wild. In fact, those techniques have saved the lives of countless people since they were first invented thousands of years ago.

Method #2: Use Your Elbow Grease

Before you get down to work, you’ll have to prepare some things first things first:

  • Spindle. The spindle is the thin, stick-like piece of wood that you’ll drill into a larger wood to create a spark. As we’ve mentioned above, the best types of wood you can use as a spindle include walnut, cypress, cedar, willow, aspen, and juniper. Other types of wood might work as well, but it will take you two times as long to get the fire started, and it takes long enough already even with the right kind of wood. The stick you will use as the spindle should be around fifteen inches long.
  • Fire Board. The fire board should ideally be made of the same type of wood used for the spindle. Both the spindle and the fire board have to be bone dry for this to work.
  • A Bark of Wood. You’re going to need this to transfer the fire to the tinder.
  • Tinder. This is the easy part. Just like before, gather all the dry, flammable things you can find—such as dry twigs and dead grass. Likewise, it would be best if you could treat the tinder with alcohol or other fuels first to increase its flammability.
  • Knife. Any kind of knife will do. You just need to use it to cut a notch into the fire board so you can start spinning.

The real challenging part starts now. Take a deep breath and crack your knuckles. Make sure you’re ready to go at it for a good while because you can’t stop halfway or else all your hard work will be undone.

Here goes nothing:

  • Use your knife to cut a notch into the board. It should be shaped like a ‘V.” This is where you will drop the ember onto the bark once you’ve got a small flame going.
  • Next to the notch, cut a depression into the fire board. Note that this is where you will stick one end of the spindle into. Make sure it’s deep enough to hold the spindle in place while you spin it at high speed.
  • Before you start spinning, first put the wooden bark underneath the notch you just carved into the fire board. Position it in such a way so that once you’ve gotten a small ember started, all you’ll have to do is knock on the board to drop the fire onto the bark, which you would then use to transfer the flame onto the pile of tinder.
  • Stick one end of the spindle into the notch. Stand up or kneel down with your back straight so that you’ll be able to use your weight to keep the fire board in place.
  • Position the palm of your hands on both sides of the spindle, then start pushing them back and forth to make the spindle spin. Also move your hands up and down as you spin—don’t just stay in one place. Put your back into it!
  • If you’re doing this right and with enough speed, you should soon see a spark and smoke will come out of the spot you’re drilling. Tap on the fire board gently to drop the ember onto the bark, then deposit the flame onto the tinder.
  • Cup your hands around the fruit of your labor then blow on it carefully. That measly little glow of orange should catch and grow into a crackling fire in no time at all.

If you succeeded, congratulations! You’ve just retracted the steps of our ancestors to the proud moment when mankind first learned how to harness the element of fire. If that method didn’t work for you, don’t worry.

Starting a Fire with Stick

As long as you’ve got some elbow grease you can spare, and you aren’t inclined to give up too soon, there are plenty other ways to start a fire with the simple tools readily available in nature:

  • Bow Drill. This one isn’t the easiest to make, but it costs you the least amount of energy and usually produces a fire in the shortest amount of time. This method is largely the same as the basic one we’ve explained above; the only difference is that you’ll need to find a suitable socket to put pressure that will keep the spindle in place first, then you need to craft a makeshift bow. Pick a piece of softwood that you can shape into an arch, then tie a string or a shoelace onto both ends. Loop the string around the middle of the spindle, then start using the bow like a saw. Push it back and forth so that the spindle starts creating friction in the depression you’ve cut into the fire board.
  • Fire Plough. This one is just as simple to prepare as the basic friction-based fire starting technique we’ve explained above. As long as you’ve got a knife that’s sharp enough to cut a long groove into a block of softwood, you’re good to go. This time, you won’t be spinning the spindle—rather, you’ll be shoving it back and forth along the groove. The aim of this motion is to shave dust particles off of the fire board as you go and heat it up enough so it will catch fire. The dust particles will then light up the tinder nest you’ve placed right at the end of the fire board opposite from where you’re kneeling. Some might find this method simpler than the first one because you won’t have to balance the spindle as you push with both hands, and you don’t have to keep your back straight all the time—although it certainly helps if you do.
  • Teamwork Drill. If you’re stuck in an emergency situation with a friend, you can work together on an improved version of the basic friction-based fire starter. Everything’s the same; the only difference is that you need a string or a shoelace that you can tie in a loop around the spindle’s middle. One person should use their weight to put pressure on the spindle from the top while the other uses both hands to pull on each end of the string. The spindle will spin at high speed without much effort on any one person’s part since the burden is shared between the two of you. Now that’s the kind of sparks we like to see between two!

We suggest that you try your hands at the above methods—especially the high-difficulty friction-based ones—well before you find yourself in an emergency situation with no matches or magnesium flints at hand.

Bow Drill

Image credit: offgridweb.com

While it’s not impossible for beginners to get the hang of them in a day, in actuality, chances are it’ll take more than a few tries before you get it right.  If you’ve had practice, you’ll be able to handle the situation with confidence, and that’s very important in case you ever find yourself trapped in a critical situation.

Wrap Up

We’ve included all the methods we think will come in handy for you in a real-life emergency situation. There are other methods to start a fire without the use of matches and flint stones—such as by rubbing a 9-volt battery onto a bundle of steel wool. Since we’re sure not many people will be inclined to carry steel wool on their person while they are hiking, we skipped that method in favor of those that make use of things you actually have a chance of finding and collecting in the wild.

No matter which fire building technique you think you’ll end up employing, we suggest that you spend some time practicing them firsthand. You don’t want to be caught up a creek without a paddle or without knowing how to paddle.

Start a Fire

No matter how many tries it takes, don’t give up on mastering these techniques. Although, at the same time we pray that you’ll never need to make use of them. Carry extra matches or magnesium fire starters with you and put them in an airtight, waterproof container to be safe.

Which fire building technique do you think will come in handy for you if you ever need to employ them outdoors? Have you tried them out? How did it go? If you know of any other effective fire building techniques that we didn’t mention in this article, please share your experience and knowledge with us in the comments section below.


Jerry Mueller

Jerry Mueller

Jerry ‘Boy Scout’ Mueller spends 99% of his time camping or teaching others how to live in the wild. He became an Eagle Scout which is the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting division when he was 17 and after that he still lives the scout life. Jerry always plans neatly every trip, takes leadership very seriously and if you listen to his tips and stories, you can learn tons of useful things.