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Primitive Fire Starting Techniques

By Edited Apr 27, 2015 0 0


Primitive Fire

Perhaps you spend a lot of time outdoors and want to learn basic survival skills.  One of the most basic and most important skills that an outdoorsman can have is how to build a fire.  Ideally, you’ll want a lighter or matches, but both can stop working in wet conditions and both can be lost.  If you have the knowledge of how to build a fire using only what you can find in the outdoors, you’ll never have to spend a night without a source of light and comforting warmth.

Mankind has had the ability to control fire for nearly as long as his existence.  Nobody knows where or when we gained control over this element.  It has been lost to the ages.  Fortunately, we have kept the knowledge of how to create fire from virtually nothing into our modern times.  Aside from finding fire at a lightning strike or other natural cause, there are three basic methods for starting fires primitively:  friction, flint and steel, and air compression.  Each method is covered individually below.

Starting a Primitive Fire by Friction:

Bow drills are probably the most common and well known method of starting a primitive fire.  There are many varieties of this technique, but he basic idea is revolves around rubbing two sticks together.  Unfortunately, what we see in movies is usually just about the most inefficient way of going about starting a fire using this method.

 First you want to create a bow.  Take a bent stick and tie a string to both ends.  Leave a little slack in the string; we’ll get to why later.  You’ll want to find a straight piece of wood.  This is your spindle.  Next you’ll need a fireboard.  This is a flat piece of wood with small holes for your spindle to rest on and notches next to each hole to allow air to reach your coal.  You’ll also need a block of wood with a pit drilled in it about the same diameter as your spindle.  This is your handhold.

Now it’s time to start your fire.  Wrap the string of your bow around your spindle.  The slack you left in the string should accommodate you here.  Your spindle should be perpendicular to the ground and to your bow.  Place one end of your spindle into a hole on your fireboard and place the other end in your spindle.  Your set up should look like this:

Bow Drill Set-up

Note each component of your set up:  The bow, spindle, fireboard, and handhold.

By moving the bow back and forth your spindle should spin.  The friction between it and your fireboard should be enough to start a coal in the saw dust that the movement creates on your fireboard.

Another friction method is the fire plough.  This method is well known from its use in the movie Castaway.  In the movie, Tom Hanks starts a fire while stranded on a desert island.  To replicate his method you’ll want to get a flat piece of wood (splitting it part way is helpful, but not necessary) and carve a groove down the length of it.  This will be your trough.  Next get another stick and while holding one end, slide the other up and down the trough.  The more friction you can generate, the more heat you’ll produce and the quicker your fire will light.  A good tip is to put some body weight (not too much) on your stick and to rub as fast as possible.  A little bit of tinder located at the far end of your trough will also be helpful because it will provide a nice “nest” for your coal to heat up in and eventually it will ignite.

Whatever friction method you use, be sure to choose a dry wood for your spindle and fire board.  If it is somewhat soft, that tends to help too because it allows pieces to break off easier and become part of your burning coal.  Also, be sure to have gathered tinder and built your fire lay.  It would be a shame for all of your hard work to go to waste because your coal went out while you were busy collecting fuel.


Friction Fire Kit
Amazon Price: $28.00 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 27, 2015)
If you are interested in starting fires by friction the Friction Fire Kit is a good way to start. This kit comes with all of the right materials and a full set of instructions to get you started.

Starting a Fire with Flint and Steel:

Everyone has seen this method in the movies.  All you have to do to produce a spark is to strike a piece of steel with a piece of quartz, or, better yet, flint.  The tricky part about this technique is catching that spark!

To begin with, you can use just about any type of steel, but some types work better than others.  High carbon steel or iron is best.  Many people prefer to use old files because they provide a greater striking surface.  Just about any hard rock will work, but flint works best.

To catch your spark, you’ll want to prepare a tinder “rat’s nest.”  This can be anything from dryer lint to balled up bark from a cedar tree.  What you’re looking for is a fibrous material that can be densely packed.  Another more efficient method is to use char-cloth.  This can be made by placing a few small squares of cotton cloth (you can use pieces of an old t-shirt) into a small tin or can with a nail hole in one side.  Place this container in a fire for a while until you stop seeing smoke come from the hole.  What you’re doing is removing everything from your cloth except the carbon.  This material should ignite easily with a single spark.

Now take your steel in one hand and your flint in the other.  Strike the steel with the rock in a sweeping downward motion.  You want to graze the metal with the stone.  You should see some sparks come off.  Now the tricky part is to catch one on your tinder!  Once you catch a spark, gently blow on it until your tinder bursts into flames.  Voila!  Fire.

Starting a Fire with Compression:

This is probably the most complex and difficult methods of primitive fire starting.  The basic idea is to create a tube with a plunger.  Bamboo works well for the tube.  The plunger should be air tight and the tube should be sealed at one end.  Place a small amount of tinder or saw dust into the bottom of the tube.  Then place the plunger into the tube.  It shouldn’t slide all of the way to the bottom on its own.  Now, with the palm of your hand, strike the plunger pushing it into the tube.  It shouldn’t  go all of the way due to the air pressure pushing back on it.

What’s happening here?  Inside the tube is the air is becoming compressed.  Basic chemistry tells us that when gases are quickly compressed, they heat up.  Compress them enough and they should get hot enough to start a fire.

Remember that tinder you placed in the tube?  If the air inside has gotten hot enough, it should have ignited.   Carefully remove the plunger and dump your coal onto a “rat’s nest.”  Gently blow on your coal until you have ignition.

We’ve just reviewed the basics of primitive fire starting.  The next step is to build or buy whichever kit sounds most interesting to you.  Then practice until you become skilled enough to start a fire every time you try.  Experiment with the different techniques until you find your favorite and are at least somewhat familiar with the others.  Once you’ve got them down, you’ll never be caught in the outdoors without the ability to make fire.

This is a great kit for those interested in starting fires using primitive methods. It includes not only a high carbon piece of steel and flint for striking, but comes with a fire piston set as well.


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