Every prepper understands the importance of knowing multiple ways to start a fire. This is an especially vital skill if you ever find yourself without a lighter or matches.
Before you laugh at the idea that you may be caught unprepared, just remember that even the most experienced prepper can end up in unexpected survival situations. Learn these strange but effective ways to start a fire without using a lighter, and you’ll have one of the most valuable survival skills that could literally save your life one day.
Requirements to Start Any Fire
To successfully start a fire in any of the strange ways I’ll cover here (and the normal, boring ones too), you need to fully understand how fire behaves and why it can be so hard to get one going in the first place. Don’t skip this section and don’t roll your eyes like that. Your life could depend on this quick science lesson.
Fire is a chemical reaction, plain and simple. It’s the result of the right ingredients in the right amount at just the right time. Every fire relies on the Combustion Triangle. Each side of the triangle represents one of the three elements you’ll need to provide before your fire will ignite. Missing even one component will result in failure and you could freeze, starve, or become severely dehydrated.
Sufficient oxygen is readily available in most situations, so you don’t need to carry around oxygen tanks everywhere you go. Those are already sitting in your chest. As long as there’s at least 16% oxygen in the air, you’ll be able to start a fire—which is why blowing on a fire helps. You’re breathing out carbon dioxide but also enough oxygen (mixed with the air around you) to feed your warm little friend. To put this into perspective, the air you’re breathing now has about 21% oxygen content, and you only need around 19.5% to stay alive.
Fires will burn anything dry and flammable. Unless you’re underwater, you’ll likely be able to find enough fuel for a small fire even in the wettest conditions. Can’t find twigs? Check your pockets for paper receipts or even dollar bills. If you don’t have those, your undergarments will burn with a little prodding. Be creative! It’s your life, after all.
This is where most inexperienced people fail. They believe the heat comes after the fire has started, but that’s completely wrong. The first heat has to come from somewhere before a fire can make more of it. Getting that first spark can be difficult. Many times, a newbie can make lots of sparks, but just can’t get the heat to stay in the right place to start a fire. Don’t be that guy.
When all three ingredients are in place and set up properly, you get a nice, toasty fire. I’m not going to cover how to build an awesome fire in this article, but you can check out this quick video.
You can use this knowledge of the Combustion Triangle to stop a fire that’s raging out of control. Simply remove one of the three components and the fire can’t keep burning.
But, that’s enough basic science for now. Let’s learn some strange ways you can start a fire without a lighter!
Ways to Start a Fire
Every survival site will have instructions to help you start a fire in the most basic way: friction. Literally rub two sticks together long enough and fast enough and you’re going to get enough heat to light them up.
Effective, but not on my “cool and strange” list, so we’ll skip that one. I’m also not going to talk about flint and steel because you probably have those in your bug out bag. This article is about the strange ways you can start a fire using found supplies or everyday objects that might be near you after a disaster.
Steel Wool and Batteries
This won’t be the last time I’ll say that you should always have steel wool nearby. Steel wool is lightweight, has a ton of uses in everyday life, and is especially handy for survival purposes. In this case, you can use steel wool and a simple battery to start a fire. Not only is it fast and straightforward, it’s cool to watch. The best part is that this method works well in wet conditions as long as you have dry tinder.
I’ve read some prepper sites that claim this isn’t a “true survival technique because you won’t have steel wool and a battery with you.” I call bullshit. There’s no reason you can’t have a tiny, lightweight steel wool pad with you. And if you have a cell phone or any other electronic device, you already have a battery. Sounds to me like some people just aren’t as prepared as they think they are.
What You’ll Need
- Steel wool – To do this right, you’ll need to start with the proper grade of steel wool. The finer the threads, the better. Look for 00-grade steel wool or 000-grade; these are the most common where I’m from and very fine. If I go closer to town I can sometimes find 0000-grade, but it’s a little too fine for my other needs, so I don’t bother.
- Battery – Almost any type of battery will work. Although try to go with at least a 9 volt battery to ensure it has enough juice. If you don’t have a 9 volt, consider using a cell phone battery or multiple smaller batteries connected together in series (such as two C or D size battery’s connected end-to-end).
- Pull the steel wool apart and fluff it up. You’re trying to give it plenty of surface area and oxygen, but don’t go crazy. The strands need to be somewhat close in order to ignite each other. Just make it a little fluffy and spread out.
- Collect your tinder. Pile your dry tinder in an appropriate location, away from drafts.
- Place the steel wool fluff on top of the tinder. Tuck the edges into and under your tinder pile to create a little pocket. If you don’t tuck some of the steel wool into the tinder, it’s likely to simply burn on top, leaving your tinder untouched.
- Connect both the positive and negative contacts of the battery to the steel wool. If you’re using a 9-volt battery, simply tap the contact end against the steel wool in multiple locations. It will ignite instantly, so pull your hand back quickly. Start adding small bits of tinder to the top and continue feeding the fire as you normally would.
There are tons of videos showing this process, and almost all of them show a 9V battery. I think this is a little lame and not as helpful as they could be. In most of the videos, they don’t mention that any battery will work, so it’s a common misconception that only 9V batteries will do. This guy knows how to use two AA or AAA batteries to get the job done.
Using batteries with the connections on opposite ends takes a little more work, but it’s just as cool. To make the process easier, I make a couple of tall peaks in the steel wool nest and tap the batteries between them. As long as both connectors touch the steel wool at the same time, you’ll get it lit.
Harnessing the Power of the Sun: Patience, Grasshopper
We’ve all heard about the kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. Hell, half of us probably were that kid. Starting a fire using the power of the sun is just like burning ants with a magnifying glass.
However, it takes patience. Chances are that you won’t have a magnifying glass nearby when SHTF, so we’ll need to look for other ways to reflect or magnify those killer rays.
Survival Bracelets (Pack of 2) – The Latest Trend
These little bracelets seem to be the latest trend. At first I was a little put off by them, but you know what? It sure doesn’t hurt always having a compass, whistle, flint fire starter, and around 9 feet of paracord always with you!
Get used to wearing this everyday and that’s what you’ll always have on you—a full survival kit.
Soda or Beer Can
Because humans are filthy beings, you can find empty cans everywhere. Cities, suburbs, and forests are littered with these objects. While annoying in the everyday world, they can save your life when SHTF.
This method, sadly, will only work in areas with a lot of sunlight, but it’s a cool trick to learn regardless of your location. And, honestly, I’d even try this in the gloomy Pacific Northwest if it was my last option.
What You’ll Need
- One aluminum can. Soda or beer can will work. As long as the underside has a bare (unpainted) aluminum surface in a dome shape.
- Polish the underside of the can. Use wet rag and some sort of polishing compound. Rub small circles over the bare aluminum underside of the can to polish. The more reflective the bottom of the can is, the better. Toothpaste works well as a polishing compound, and so does natural clay.
- Gather your tinder. Gather your tinder into a pile (or tinder nest) between you and the sun.
- Position the tinder and the can. Hold a small amount of tinder in one hand. Aim the polished bottom of the can directly at the sun. Hold some tinder near the bottom of the can and feel for the hottest spot while looking for the smallest point of light reflecting onto your tinder.
- Wait. This can take seconds or minutes, so be patient. As soon as you see the smoke and the spark, carefully place your lit tinder into the tinder nest and gently blow.
Glass bottles, lenses from eyeglasses, and even broken pieces of windows can all be used in much the same way. Use what you have! Want to see this in action? This video shows the basic idea, though they don’t use the kind of tinder you’d normally find in a survival situation.
Plastic Bags and Water
One of my must-have bug out bag items is a handful of plastic bags. They have so many uses, it’s mind-boggling. One of them, believe it or not, is starting a fire. Even if I’m caught without my BOB, I know I can find a relatively clean plastic bag somewhere because, just like the cans mentioned above, humans toss plastic bags everywhere.
What You’ll Need
- One clear plastic bag. A clear zip-lock or sandwich bag will work great. Make sure it is as clean as possible.
- Prepare your tinder bundle. Grind tinder into a fine powder. Pile tinder powder onto a tinder nest or a base plate (wood block, strip of bark, etc.)
- Fill your bag with water. Fill your plastic bag ½ full of clean water. Do not seal it.
- Twist your bag and water into a sphere. Hold the bag by one top corner, then slowly twist the top of the bag. Push the air out as you twist the bag, creating a tight sphere of water inside the bag.
- Position the sphere. Hold the sphere over your tinder powder, be careful not to drop water on it. Turn the sphere until you find the most focused beam of sunlight coming through the bag and hold it steady over the tinder.
- Wait. You’ll see smoke and you may get a flame at this point. If you only see smoke and a blackened area after a few seconds, add a little more tinder powder over the burnt spot and use the water sphere again. This will heat the tinder from the bottom and the top.
As with the can method, this works best in a very sunny location. However, it’s worth a shot in any environment with enough sun to create that intense, focused beam. You can use water bottle and jars of water with this method as well, all of which can usually be found lying around somewhere.
Even without your bug out bag or access to your stash, I’m willing to bet you have a flashlight. Maybe on your key chain, in your pocket, or in your briefcase or work bag. These are pretty standard everyday objects and prepper gold, which means even if you’ve lost or forgotten yours, someone nearby has one.
Even without the lenses intact, a flashlight can start a fire. The concept is similar to the soda can method. It uses refracted light to focus heat. The main difference between these methods is that the tinder is inside in this case, not sitting in a pile outside. That means the light needs to go inward, not outward.
What You’ll Need
- A flashlight. Really you are only going to need the reflective cup from inside the lens of the light. So even a non-functions flashlight could provide this. The larger the reflective cup is, the better. Don’t try this with very small pen lights.
- Disassemble the flashlight. Unscrew the flashlight head and remove the silver cone around the bulb.
- Place tinder into the reflective cup. Place a small amount of tinder into the hole in the bottom of the cup. This is easier if you push it up into the hole from the bottom, not shove it down from inside the cup. You only need a tiny bit poking up.
- Position the cup. Aim the inside of the cup toward the sun. You should see the light bouncing all through the cup at this point. Try to position it so most of the light is aimed back at the tinder.
- Transfer the small amount of lit tinder in the cup to a larger tinder pile. Once the tinder lights, pull or poke it out of the cup and gently blow on it while adding it to your tinder pile.
As you might imagine, any highly-reflective, cup-shaped object could replace the flashlight in this method, so look around you. There are even rumors of people doing this successfully with a clear chunk of ice they have sculpted into a dome shaped lens. Although in theory it’s possible, I have never seen this successfully done myself.
Brake Fluid and Chlorine
I imagine that this method would be more useful for suburbs and urban landscapes simply because you’re less likely to find swimming pools and vehicles in the woods. Please note that this method is not for indoor use.
As with using any dangerous chemicals, you want to be extremely mindful if you try this method in a survival situation. There won’t be any emergency medical responders standing by if you get this in your eyes or catch yourself on fire.
What You’ll Need
- A dry chlorine pool tablet. Standard swimming pool chlorine will work great, just make sure it’s dry.
- Clean, bottled brake fluid. If the bottle you find has a large opening instead of a small one, transfer the fluid into a container that can be squirted from a distance. This is not a method you want to be up close an personal with.
- Crush the chlorine pool tablet into a fine powder and place in a pile. Make sure you set this up in a well-ventilated and uninhabited area. Sand is ideal, but concrete can work as long you’ve cleared the surrounding area of flammable objects.
- Stand back.
- Mix the brake fluid to the chlorine powder. Aim the nozzle of the brake fluid bottle toward the chlorine pile and squeeze.
- Wait. Don’t get antsy. This is a chemical reaction that takes anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds to complete. Listen for the hiss. Next is the smoke, and then a fireball.
This is a chemical fire. It’s not wise to use this for cooking or purifying water. This particular fire should only be used for protection and heat in an outdoor environment.
You may find other sites disagreeing with me on this point, but I’d rather not risk poisoning my water or breathing toxic fumes while I roast a fresh rabbit. Better to be safe than sorry when there are no hospitals around.
Go out and practice some of these fire-starting methods before you need them. They can take a bit to get right, but once you’ve been successful a couple of times, it’ll be much easier to get your fire going in the future.
There are many ways to fine-tune each of these methods to your unique situation, so play around with them. Try different types of tinder and different environments.
When the SHTF, use your best judgment on which method would be most appropriate for your needs. Even without your bug out bag or perfect bug out location, you can survive some crazy disaster scenarios using just the items around you. A little planning and practice now could save your hide in the future.
Do you know of any creative ways to start a fire that could help another prepper out? Share in the comments below!