Are you one of those careful planners who always has a handy fire starter stashed in your car’s glove compartment or in the backpack you carry while hiking or camping out under the stars? If so, you’re miles ahead of the average person who spends time in the great outdoors.
Let’s just be honest here, lighters break (quite often), fire starters stop working, matches get wet, and all this usually happens at the worst possible time. That’s why having a broad range of methods for starting a fire can quite literally be a lifesaver. Far too many people die of hypothermia-related deaths each year, many of which could have been avoided. That’s why I’m going to teach you how to start a fire with a spare battery and a chewing gum wrapper—because it might just save your life.
Why it Works
In all the methods described below, you’re essentially creating a path of very low resistance for the energy to flow through, from the positive (+) terminal to the negative (-) terminal of the battery. Once this connection is made, the battery will put as much power through the material making this connection as possible. If the material can’t handle this flow of electricity (because it’s too thin, for example), it will heat up and eventually get red hot.
The foil on chewing gum wrappers is perfect for this technique because it’s very thin foil with a paper backing. That means the thin foil heats up easily and the paper backing is an excellent fuel source for turning the heat into a flame. You aren’t limited to gum wrappers though, so you can use many other thin, conductive materials to make this same reaction.
What You’ll Need
- A Battery: If you have a working flashlight and on you or in your gear bag, then you have a battery to work with. If not, you can improvise. Look for anything that may have a battery inside of it, like your cell phone, tablet, lantern, GPS, or any other battery powered device. Avoid very small watch batteries as this usually can’t put out enough energy to make these techniques successful.
- Chewing Gum Foil: Chewing gum foil is perfect for this technique because it has a thin piece of foil on one side and usually a paper backing on the other, which will help it to ignite. If you don’t have this, you can also improvise. Normal aluminum foil can work if your battery is big enough (such as a 9-volt battery or cell phone battery), or you trim the foil down thin enough. Find something extremely thin and conductive.
How to Do It
With a battery from your trusty flashlight (or another device) and a single gum wrapper, you can light a fire to keep you from freezing or becoming ill and immobilized while out in the cold. Make sure you have plenty of try tinder on hand and follow these steps.
- Locate a AA Battery and a Gum Wrapper. If you have any electronic devices in your backpack, you most likely have an AA battery. Whether you’re carrying headphones, a digital camera, a flashlight or other battery-powered device, you probably have an AA battery. If not, you can also use an AAA, C or D for this purpose.
- Find a Foil Gum Wrapper Lined with Paper. For best results, try finding a gum wrapper made of foil with a paper lining. Although this type of wrapper is not as common now as it once was, some popular brands of gum still package their products with foil and paper wrappers, like the brand “5 Gum.” Of course, if you’re a prevailing “Wrigley’s” fan, you’re also all set for this project.
- Prepare Your Gum Wrapper for Lighting. For this step, you can use a pair of scissors, your survival knife or your fingers. Cut or tear the wrapper lengthwise into three equal (or near equal) strips. This will give you three chances to start your fire. Next, cut each of these wrapper strips into an hour-glass shape. It will help if you can make the hour-glass measure about 1/16th of an inch at the center of the strip. This narrow center section is the point of the wrapper strip that will spark and ignite into a flame that will spread to both sides of the wrapper.
- Start Your Survival Fire. You will have just a few seconds to ignite your tinder with the flame created by your battery, so have plenty of dry tinder close by before sparking your prepared wrapper strip. Then, touch the foil side of both ends of the gum wrapper to the positive and negative poles (ends) of your battery. This step can release some heat, so protect your hands with gloves, a scarf or a rag, if you can. The center of your wrapper strip may spark quickly, so be prepared. When it sparks, light your tinder immediately. You’ll most likely have just one or two seconds for igniting the tinder, so be ready.
- Correct Any Mishaps. If your fire doesn’t ignite on the first attempt, try again with another gum wrapper strip. If your first strip didn’t spark to create a flame, the hourglass shape at the strip center may not have been thin enough. Try making the center of the wrapper strip thinner by trimming it down, then try again.
Practice Makes Perfect
The know-how and skill to start a simple fire without the aid of a modern fire starter, pocket lighter, match or other aid can be crucial for surviving the elements during frigid winter temperatures. During snow and sleet storms, you’ll need to seek shelter in forest areas or in areas of overgrown shrubs and brush if there are no buildings or shelters around.
Although most people carry fire starters in their pockets, backpacks or cars, if you are without one of these handy devices (or they break), you must be prepared to improvise in order to help ward off the dangerous cold and/or elements. Practice this technique now, when it isn’t a life or death situation, so you’ll be confident with it later.
Using a 9-Volt Battery
The method mentioned above also works great with a 9-volt battery. A 9-volt battery is a lot more powerful than your standard AA battery, however. So if you try this technique, you can make your hourglass cut much wider than 1/16th of an inch at the middle.
But the great thing about using a more powerful battery like a 9-volt is that you have a lot of other options for the material to use instead of just a very thin gum wrapper. Remember, these methods all work on basically the same principle as the one mentioned above—too much electrical current through a conductive material that’s too thin to handle it.
9-Volt Battery and Steel Wool
You can also spark a fire by the same method described above using a 9-volt battery and fine steel wool. These batteries are commonly used to power home fire detector units and some small appliances. Two 1.5-volt batteries will often also work. It’s less voltage though so you’ll need something very thin to pass the current through. Try using just one loosened strand of fine steel wool for this.
9-Volt Battery and an Incandescent Light Bulb
The tungsten wire filaments inside a standard incandescent light bulb reach high degrees of heat whenever electricity runs through them. Since the wire found in a 75-watt bulb will reach temperatures of as much as 4600 degrees Fahrenheit, you can start a fire fairly easily by using this method. The only problem, of course, is finding an incandescent bulb if you are stranded out in the woods or deserted countryside by yourself.
If, however, you should have access to such a light bulb and a 9-volt battery, you may be in luck. After wrapping the bulb in a cloth or rag, use a blunt object to break it gently, taking care not to damage the thin filament inside. Take the time to clear away the broken glass. Be sure to have your tinder bundle of dry twigs, grass, small branches, and debris nearby. Next, just touch the light bulb base to the two opposite terminals of the battery to light up the filament. Then, touch the filament to your tinder, and voila—you’ll have a fire.
Using Your Cell Phone Battery
You can also start a fire using the powerful lithium-ion battery found inside your cell phone or tablet. I decided to list this technique separately since the method is slightly different. You can use a chewing gum wrapper, but since the flow of electricity is so powerful from a cell phone battery, you probably shouldn’t trim down the foil as thin as if you were just using a standard AA battery. Follow these simple steps:
- Prepare the Battery. First, remove the battery from your phone or tablet and identify its positive and negative terminals. The outermost gold plates located on the bottom or top of the battery are usually these two terminals.
- Prepare the Conductive Material. Next, form a thin log roll using a strip of aluminum roil, foil-lined paper or fine steel wool. If you’re using a chewing gum wrapper, instead of trimming it, just roll it lengthwise into a long roll so it’s a bit thicker.
- Prepare your Tinder. Gather plenty of dry tinder. However much you think you need, double it. If you are having a hard time locating dry tinder, don’t forget to think creatively. Look under rocks or at the base of thick bushes.
- Shape Your Material and Make Contact. Shape the log of foil or steel wool into a “U” formation so that it can reach both the positive (+) and negative (-) battery terminals. Touch its ends to both battery terminals simultaneously.
- Light Your Tinder. As the battery short-circuits, sparking your material that is making the connection into a flame, light your tinder.
Can You Be Electrocuted While Doing This?
You may be wondering if you risk electrocution during your efforts to ignite tinder using these methods. Well luckily for you, and anyone else stuck out in the harsh cold, the risks are almost non-existent.
Almost all standard batteries (such as AAA, AA, C, D, or even 9-volt batteries) aren’t capable of producing enough electricity to harm a human. Did you ever play the game with your friends as a kid where you would lick the terminals of a 9-volt battery and feel the little “tingle” go through your tongue? Well, I did, and it was just that—a little tingle. You almost couldn’t feel it, and that was with a 9-volt, one of the larger batteries mentioned here.
A cell phone battery may have a little more kick in terms of electrical flow, but they are still usually only around 5 volts. So you’re pretty safe and you really should be more concerned about burning yourself than getting electrocuted.
For more unique
firestartingideas, see 5 Strange Ways to Start a Fire Without a Lighter.
Although there are various methods for using the physics of electricity for starting your fire, the safest and easiest method for most people is performed with use of a battery and a common gum wrapper of paper-lined foil. Just remember to practice it now, before you have to rely on it to save your life.
Once you practice and master this technique, you’ll most likely remember to carry batteries and gum that comes wrapped in this type of wrapper whenever you go on hiking or skiing trips during the winter months. Hey, if you don’t need the wrapper to start a fire, it’s always a good uplifting kick to chew on some gum while you hike!
Although I trust that you’ll usually have your trusty modern fire starter in your pocket or backpack, right? Well if not, or if it fails, you now have one more skill to keep you safe during the deep-freeze days and nights of winter.