There are lots of ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter. But, ideally, you should never find yourself in a situation where you need to use one of these methods.
Matches and match-less fire starters are one of the items that you should always carry with you just in case.
This is especially true when going into nature. Even the most skilled outdoorspeople can get lost or have accidents that cause them to spend an unplanned night in the wild.
In this situation, the ability to make a fire could literally mean the difference between life and death. You need fire for things like:
So, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to bring a reliable fire starter when going outdoors (even on day hikes!).
But I get it.
Things do happen and you could find yourself needing to know how to start a fire without matches.
Lets dig in.
How To Start a Fire Without Matches: It’s All About the Tinder
With almost all of these methods of making a fire without matches, you only get a small spark. At best, you get a tiny ember which dies out quickly. It is very difficult to make a fire from just a spark or ember!
To succeed, you will need to have good tinder ready. Ideally, you have a char cloth with you. Char cloth can be ignited with a single spark, even at lower temperatures. Then it is used to ignite tinder.
Most of the ways to make a fire without matches rely on friction. You’ve probably seen it done on movies. They make it seem as easy as banging two rocks together.
Friction fire-starting is fairly simple, but is very labor-intensive. Don’t expect it to be as easy as you saw on TV!
Instead of just rubbing two sticks together or banging rocks, you’ll have much more success if you use one of the methods below.
1. Hand Drill
The hand drill is the most basic of the friction fire-starting methods.
To make it work, you will need a base board, such as a larger branch or even the top of a tree stump. And you will also need an arm-length stick.
Here is what you do:
- Make a notch in your base board. The notch should be just big enough to fit your stick.
- Squeeze the stick into the notch.
- Put your tinder next to the notch.
- Using your hands and a lot of downward force, spin the stick back and forth in the notch.
- Sparks should start to appear, and these sparks will light your tinder.
- Blow on the tinder to get the sparks to form a flame.
2. String or Bow Drill
This method works in the same way as the hand drill. The difference is that you use a piece of string or rope (like your shoelace or a piece of paracord) to rotate the stick.
There are a couple ways to make your drill. One is to make a “bow” and twist the stick into it. Then, when you pull the bow, it will cause the stick to rotate.
3. Fire Plough
Instead of rotating the stick to create friction, you can rub it back and forth in a fire plough (also called fire plow).
To make a fire plow, you need a board with a groove going down its length. The groove is necessary for catching sparks and embers.
You cut a second stick to a dull point. Then you rub the stick up and down the groove. This produces friction as well as little pieces of wood dust which ignite. Once you’ve got enough lit dust in the groove, you can put in your tinder.
4. Rudiger Roll Method (Fire Roll)
This is a personal favorite of mine. Legend has it that this method of starting a fire without matches was invented by prisons in WWII as a way of lighting their cigarettes.
Here’s how it works:
- Use a flattened piece of flammable fibrous material, such as cotton, jute, or hemp.
- Lay the material onto a flat surface.
- Cover it with something like ashes, rust, tobacco, or even the contents of oxygen absorber packs. The purpose of this is to create more friction and act an accelerant. You can do it with just the fiber material, but it will take a lot more friction.
- Roll the material up.
- Press a flat item on top (like a board) to roll it very tightly.
Then use the board to roll the bundle back/forth rapidly. It should start smoldering very quickly.
5. Flint and Steel
A flint and steel is one of the most primitive methods of starting fires without matches. It consist of two parts: A steel which gets struck against a flint.
Flint is a harder form of the mineral quartz. It has a hardness of about 6. Hardness is important. If you try to use a softer rock, it won’t be hard enough to shave away pieces of the steel.
If flint cannot be found, you can also use:
Any stone that scratches glass is probably hard enough to make sparks.
Before steel was invented, people used the mineral iron pyrite to strike against flint. Today, you can buy cool stuff like steel strikers for fire making.
Good fire steels are made from high-carbon steel that has been treated to an ideal hardness. They will give off millions of sparks when hit.
However, it is possible to improvise a steel striker. A good survival knife will work. So will things like an old shop file. These will work, but they won’t produce as many sparks as a fire steel.
How Flint and Steels Work in Fire Starting
The reason a flint and steel works for fire starting is because the flint is harder than the steel.
When you hit the flint with the steel, it causes little pieces of iron from the steel to curl off. The friction and exposure to air cause the iron to ignite. These are the sparks you see.
Thus, it is actually the steel which is starting the fire, not the flint (even though it is the flint you see chipping away).
Here’s a very nice flint and steel fire starting set with a stylish leather pouch on Amazon.
6. Ferro Rod Striker
A Ferro (short for ferrocerium) rod works a lot like a flint and steel. However, they are completely different things. A Ferro rod is made of a special material which gets VERY HOT when struck.
It will produce sparks that are in the 5,400F range. Compare this to the 800F sparks produced by a flint and steel.
The higher temperature makes it much easier to start a fire with a Ferro rod than a flint and steel. If you are going to carry a striker around for survival purposes, then a Ferro rod is a much better choice.
We love this Uberleben Ferro Rod on Amazon.
7. Using an Empty Lighter to Start a Fire
You brought a lighter along but it ran out of fuel? You can still use it to start a fire.
The reason that this falls under the friction-methods of fire starting is because there is actually a tiny flint inside the lighter (often it’s ferrocerium, so technically not a flint). The flint is what supplies material for the sparks when you spin the spark wheel.
Here’s how to do it:
- Remove the lighter’s metal safety guard.
- Hold the lighter upside down over tinder.
- Gently spine the spark wheel. You do NOT want to make sparks.
- Little pieces of ferrocerium will fall onto your tinder.
- When you have a good pile of ferro shavings (after about 2 minutes), you can spark the lighter next to them. They will ignite!
Note that the ferro shavings will only stay lit for a fraction of a second. You must have your tinder ready to catch the flame!
If it is a Bic-style lighter, you can use your survival knife to shave off little pieces of plastic from the lighter case. These are great tinder.
These methods of starting a fire without matches only work during the day and when the sun is very strong.
In real life survival situations, you probably aren’t going to get that lucky. Night might fall before you realize you need to start a fire. It rains. Or there are simply too many trees around.
Still, if you know that you will need to make a fire and don’t have any matches or a lighter, you can plan ahead. As soon as you get some good sun, use it to make a fire and then use a torch to carry embers with you.
8. The Magnifying Glass in Your Compass
Most of us don’t carry a magnifying glass around with us anywhere, especially in nature. However, your compass might have a magnifying glass on it. You can use this to create a fire on sunny days.
It actually is (almost) as easy as they show in movies. Just focus the light on some tinder and hold your hand very steady. In just a few minutes, the tinder will ignite.
This type of magnifier on Amazon would work perfectly.
9. Sandwich Bag Filled with Water
You might have heard of this trick for making a fire without matches. Yes, it actually does work (and is really damn cool).
What you do is fill a clear sandwich bag with water. Then squeeze the bag so you have a sphere shape filled with water. Now you have two curved sides (biconvex) which together will capture and focus light.
Essentially, you’ve just created a magnifying glass.
The video below shows how well this works in bright sunlight.
*A water bottle filled with water can also be used to start a fire, but it won’t be nearly as effective as the sphere shape created by a plastic baggie.
10. Eye Glasses
This is another method that you always see in movies and TVs. As you’d expect, it doesn’t usually work in real life. Most eye glasses simply don’t focus light enough to produce a fire.
Here’s what you need to know:
It only works if you are farsighted.
Glasses work by bending the light before it reaches your eyes. If you are nearsighted, glasses will bend the light further away from your eyes. Thus, nearsighted glasses will actually disperse sun light instead of focusing it.
If you are farsighted though, your glasses will focus the light closer. So, they will condense sunlight and can be used for starting a fire without matches.
Put a drop of water on the glasses lens.
Unlike magnifying glasses, your eye glasses are not biconvex (curved in both directions). So, eye glasses will only bend the light one time.
This means that most eye glasses simply won’t condense the light enough to create a fire – especially if you don’t have something like a char cloth to ignite.
However, if you put a drop of water onto the middle of the lens, it will bend the light so it focuses more. This creates a much stronger beam of light.
Or double the lenses.
Another way to make the eyeglasses fire work is to double the lens. Simply break the glasses in half and put one lens on top of another. As shown in the video, this will increase the focus of the lenses so the sunlight is concentrated into a more powerful beam.
Obviously this means that you now have broken glasses, so it’s not the best solution if you actually need your glasses to see. Maybe you’ll be lucky and two members of your group will wear glasses that you can layer on top of each other.
Some beauty mirrors curve inwards (concave), meaning that they can focus sunlight into a tight, hot beam. Fire fighters even issued warnings that people shouldn’t keep these types of mirrors near windows because of the risk of fires.
However, it’s a lot more challenging to start a fire with a flat mirror. It would take a long time of pointing the light beam to get the area hot. By then, the earth would have rotated, meaning the light beam would slightly change position – and thus the same spot wouldn’t be heating up anymore.
If you want to make a fire with a mirror, you’ll have to create a parabolic mirror. Which leads us to #12…
12. Parabolas for Starting a Fire
Without getting into the complex mathematics of parabolas, a parabola is a deep concave dish. When made out of a reflective material, parabolas are really good at concentrating light onto a surface.
It’s actually pretty easy to make a parabola. You can even find one in nature (thanks a-holes who leave trash everywhere).
- The reflector in your flashlight
- The bottom of a soda can, polished with tootpaste or something similar
- A Mylar space blanket, put into a parabola shape
Interestingly, a parabola is actually how the Olympic Flame is lit.
The video below shows just how well it works.
Using Everyday Objects to Light a Fire
Here are some ways to make a fire without matches that are truly MacGyver-esque.
13. Battery and Gum Wrapper
One really cool trick that you can do is use a battery to start a fire. Note that doing this will drain the battery, so don’t do this if you actually need the battery!
You will need a battery and something which is metal but can ignite. Steel wool is the best option, but not everyone will have it laying around. A gum wrapper also works really well and is probably easier to find.
Take your steel wool (or metal gum wrapper cut into a thin strip) and touch it to both ends of the battery. A spark will form instantly and ignite the steel wool. Quickly use this to light your tinder.
If the steel wool doesn’t light right away for some reason (like your battery juice is low), you can create sparks by rubbing the steel wool on the battery ends.
It will cause current to go through the wires and heat them up until they ignite.
You can also take a piece of metal, like a paperclip, and rub it against both ends of a battery at the same time. Sparks will form and these sparks can be used to light tinder.
14. Fire Piston/Fire Syringe
A fire piston is an airtight cylinder with a plunger in it. When you push down on the plunger, it creates a huge amount of pressure. The pressure creates heat, which can be transferred to tinder.
There are a bunch of different ways to make fire pistons at home. You don’t even need any special materials. So, in a SHTF situation where you run out of lighter fluid, you could build yourself one of these.
Below is a video showing how to make a mini DIY fire piston. There are plenty of other ways to do it, so check out other videos and tutorials.
Also see our picks for the best fire pistons available to buy.
15. Instant Cold Pack, Zinc Powder, Salt and Water
Got an instant cold pack in your first aid kit? Then you can use it to start a fire.
Cold packs contain the chemical ammonium nitrate. When combined with zinc, salt, and water, it will ignite to make a fire.
So, where the heck do you get zinc? Powdered zinc can be ordered online. But, chances are you won’t have zinc laying around in a SHTF situation. Instead, you can scrape the greenish part off of a galvanized pipe.
Here are the instructions:
- Open the cold pack and remove the bag of ammonium nitrate.
- Grind up the ammonium nitrate.
- Combine ½ tsp. of ammonium nitrate with 1tsp powdered zinc and a small pinch of table salt.
- Put the mixture on a cotton ball or other tinder.
- Carefully put 1 drop of water on the mixture. Wait and it will produce a green flame!
Disclaimer & Safety notes
- Try this at your own risk! I assume no responsibility for injuries!
- Obviously, if you try this, do it outside.
- When obtaining scrapings of zinc, wear a face mask so you don’t inhale the zinc dust.
- Wear gloves. Your sweat can ignite the powder on your hands!!!
- Once the powders are mixed, be very careful not to get it mixed. It only takes a small amount of water to ignite this.
- The mixture cannot be stored. Moisture from the air could cause it to ignite.
If you are good at chemistry, then there are a lot of ways to start a fire without matches using chemicals that you can extract from household items.
However, most of these are not really practical for survival situations. You’d have to be a really good chemist to know how to extract the chemicals and what ratios to use.
Plus, there is risk of explosion and toxic fumes. In short, I’m listing these for educational purposes but don’t really expect anyone to employ them.
If you do try them out, be cautious!!! I assume no responsibility for injuries or damages! 😀
16. Potassium Permanganate and Glycerin
Potassium permanganate (or PP) is a chemical which has a surprising amount of survival uses, such as purifying water and treating wounds. So, it is a good thing to keep in your emergency supplies kit.
You can buy PP in hardware stores in the area for water softeners (since it is used to remove iron from water). Since it is used for treating fungi and bacteria in aquariums, you can sometimes find it in pet stores too.
It can also be used for starting a fire without matches.
All you need to do is pour some liquid glycerin over a bit of powdered PP. Wait a bit (it can take up to a minute for the reaction to occur) and the mixture will ignite into flames.
17. Potassium Permanganate and Battery Acid
If you don’t have glycerin to mix with PP, you can use battery acid instead. Battery acid is just diluted sulfuric acid. You can concentrate it from battery acid (instructions).
As explained here, dip a long wand into the sulfuric acid. Then (while standing as far back as possible!), use it to touch potassium permanganate crystals sprinkled on a cotton ball. It only takes a few seconds for the PP to lit on fire.
The reaction can be violent, so be cautious if you are going to try this.
18. Chlorine and Brake Fluid
For this to work, you generally need highly-concentrated chlorine. For example, chlorine pool tablets. When you combine the chlorine with brake fluid, it makes a huge fire ball. Yes, this is explosive and should never be done indoors. You can read more on why it works here. The video below shows the reaction.
19. Sulfuric acid with Potassium Chlorate and Sugar
Here’s another super scientific way to make a fire without matches that you will probably never do in real life.
First, you’ve got to get sulfuric acid, which will probably be sourced from battery acid (see #17). Then you’ve got to get potassium chlorate, which is a bit more complicated but still possible to make at home from bleach.
Now all you have to do is:
- Mix together equal amounts of potassium chlorate and sugar
- Add two drops of sulfuric acid to the mixture.
- Wait a bit and you’ll soon see purpose flames!
Have you ever tried any of these methods? Any other ways of making a fire without matches or a lighter that I missed? Let us know in the comments!
Related: Make sure you know the all different types of lighters.