Letter Re: Tinder and Fire Ignition Options

SurvivalBlog reader "Entropy" recently wrote a great article about building a fire in a post collapse world and being a Scoutmaster for 18 years it is a lot of fun teaching scouts how to make one.  Seeing the look in their eyes as they get their first fire built in the outdoors using no matches is a great experience.  As a matter of fact, in winter camps where the ground is not frozen I like to use a trench fire pit with rocks in it, then bury it and sleep on top for a very cozy and warm night. I too was bitten by the survival bug when I was a young scout, and the first priority in survival is ‘keeping your wits about you” so you can focus on what is important.  One real force multiplier in helping to keep people calm is a fire.  It can warm the heart as well as the body.  Here are a few simple ways anyone can use to get a nice little fire started.  Please remember that little is the key word in a survival or bug out situation.  Cowboys used to light a very small fire just big enough o put their coffee pot on, because they ate their food cold, and a hot drink was all they needed to warm their spirits. The methods below are simple and inexpensive methods of getting the first spark into a flame. 


Match: enough said, unless it is windy in which case you may only have a 0.5 second flame.  Lets read on, shall we?

ditto…but wait what if your lighter is out of fuel?  Well if it still has a good flint, then you have a handy little spark generator.  I prefer the older Zippo style lighters since I don’t have to worry about a seal drying out and I can store some lighter fluid for many refills.  It also lets me have a refill of flints right in the bottom of the lighter.

Permanent Matches:
 These are an interesting combination between a Lighter, and a “Fire Stick” (below).  It comes with a small reservoir which you fill with lighter fluid.  The ‘cap’ has a magnesium striker it with a glass wick that is supposed to burn up to 15,000 times. The wick is in the screw top lid which extends down into the lighter fluid.  You strike the magnesium stick on the side of the container to ignite. 

Fire Piston:
The fire piston uses the friction from compressing air to get an ember from tinder.

Flint and Steel:
  If you can find some flint, and you have a piece of high carbon steel then all you do is strike the two together and you get a spark.  These are usually used with char-cloth (cloth which has been charred) to catch the spark, but you could use a number of items to catch them.

Magnesium fire starters:
  These are a gray rectangular piece of magnesium with a bar on one side that when you slide a piece of high carbon steel down, it will spark.  These are very handy to keep around.  Just scrape off some magnesium into a small pile, and then place the ‘sparking bar’ right on it and when you scrape the bar, it will ignite the magnesium for a hotter ignition source.

“Fire Sticks”:
  Everyone has seen these they are simply the piece of steel with the post you run it down to get a spark.  These are similar to Flint and steel.  There are many out there which range from a very inexpensive stick and steel on a small chain, to the more survival sized ones.  I have used one called a “Blastmatch” in the past which is a spring loaded plunger type of stick with the steel scraping it as you press down on it.  It gave a brilliant spark (almost too much for OPSEC) but then it broke very easily.  So really ‘tool time’ these when you are shopping.

Magnifying glass:
  Everyone remembers burning insects with a magnifying glass, and yes you can get things to smolder, but you really need a good amount of sun to get a magnifying glass to start a fire.  To do it you need to focus the brightest part of the light coming through the glass into the smallest most compact point you can make it, and then hold it there.  It will work on paper, and really dry small vegetation, but you do have to be patient.

9 volt battery and steel wool:  Just rub the steel wool across the top of the battery and the electrical shorting sparks will ignite the oil on the steel wool.  DO NOT STORE THE TWO TOGETHER…it gets hot fast.  A little goes a long way with this.

Potassium Permanganate (a powder) and Glycerin (a viscous fluid):  Potassium Permanganate is an Oxidant which can be used to sterilize water, treat ulcers like canker sores, and a general topical disinfectant, but it will stain the affected area purple. It is used to treat candidiasis (superficial fungal infections like Oral Thrush and Vaginitis) and will neutralize Strychnine (poison).  Glycerin, or Glycerol, may be used as a laxative (2-10 ml used as a suppository or enema), and has been used to treat psoriasis, burns, calluses, and other minor skin irritations.  It works as a bacterial desiccant (it removes moisture through absorption) on contact so it can also help with periodontal diseases.  Okay back to the point, when you create a small mound of Potassium Permanganate with a small depression in the top, and then place a few drops of Glycerin in the depression you get a very impressive exothermic reaction which will start a fire, or even can be used to initiate a thermite reaction.  It takes a bit of time for it to occur but don’t put your hands over it to feel for heat.  It happens very quickly and is very hot when it happens.  I recommend testing this method, but don’t do it on your kitchen table with a thick folded up piece of heavy duty tinfoil.  It will go through it and make your wife very unhappy with the black mark it leaves. Trust me on this point.

Hand Drill: You will need a straight stick with a narrowed end (Drill), a notched piece of wood with a depression for holding the narrowed end of the stick (the notch should extend into the bottom of the depression for air movement). You will also need a piece of Leather, or metal under the notch to catch the ember. The notched board goes on the ground and you hold it in place by putting your foot on it or kneeling on it.  .  The drill should be standing straight up out of the depression, and held in place by your two palms.  By spinning the drill between your palms, and pressing down you will create friction and over time a smoking ember.  You will continually have to move your hands back up to the top of the drill as they will move down as you continue to spin and push down on the drill.  When you see some smoke coming from the depression then you can remove it to see if you have an ember.  When you have an ember you will need to move it quickly to your tinder and begin the process of nurturing it into a flame.

Bow and Drill:
  This one is probably the most complicated in that you must have: a straight piece of wood about 8-12 inches long which is narrowed on both ends (drill), a notched piece of wood with a depression for holding the narrowed end of the drill (the notch should extend into the bottom of the depression for air movement), a flexible but strong piece of wood about 16 to 24 inches long that has a slight natural curve to it (the bow) , a string (bow string) and a piece of something hard enough to withstand the heat from the drills friction with a depression to help control the top of the spinning drill.  You will also need a piece of Leather, or metal under the notch to catch the ember.  The notched board goes on the ground and you hold it in place by putting your foot on it or kneeling on it.  Then you have the drill standing straight up out of the notch.  The bow string goes around the drill (one wrap only) and then on the top of the drill is held by the hard small piece of wood and your hand (gloves are a good idea).  The bow string should be tight enough that when you push the bow back and forth it will spin the drill but not bind on it.  Once you have this balancing act in place, you move the bow back and forth until you see an appreciable amount of smoke coming from the notch then you look under it and see if you have an ember.  If you do then transfer it to your tinder immediately and start the gentle blowing that will bring you a flame.  If you don’t have any In-Laws that frustrate you, then this will help you understand what frustration is all about.  If you can do this, you can do anything.  This is a really primitive ‘ART FORM’ method of making fire.

Getting that first spark to actually ignite your tinder is a little harder that it appears on the silver screen.  I have had many scouts go grab a handful of what they think is dry bark, or weeds only to find that it is still too wet, or the oils in them only smoke no matter what they do.  One of my favorite examples was an episode of a survival-BASED reality television show where they gave the contestants a magnesium fire bar.  They were holding the magnesium side, and striking the flint side with a machete.  They were getting a pretty good spark too, but there was NO WAY they were getting a fire.  My wife, whom I love dearly, was sitting there saying “Oh that was a good one”, for every spark they got.  I on the other hand was sitting there thinking, “They would die in a real survival situation”.  It wasn’t until I explained to her that you can scrape magnesium into a little pile, hold the fire starter right down on the pile, and scraping the blade (held at a slightly obtuse angle towards the pile ) down the ‘flint’ side so that the sparks land in the magnesium and "poof!" you have fire.


Ethanol based hand cleansers: these come in pocket bottles or pumps and the 10% ethanol will burn for a short time.  A spark can ignite this but the ethanol will evaporate quickly.

Cotton balls and Vaseline:
  These will burn once ignited just like a candle will.  If you spread out the cotton so it is not just a clump, you can light it with a good spark.

Paraffin and Cotton balls:
  Very similar to above, just different substance.

Sawdust and paraffin blocks:
  Fill the depressions in a paper based egg carton with a mixture of melted paraffin mixed with sawdust (from wood not particle board due to the glue).  Let them cool, and cut or break apart the individual parts, with the cardboard attached and it can be lit with a lighter, or match and will burn like a candle.

Dryer Lint:
   This is my personal favorite.  Simply take the lint residue from drying cotton clothing out of your dryer and place it into a pill bottle, Ziploc baggie or other water resistant container and it can be started with the smallest spark.  This will also win you points with the significant other by cleaning out the lint filter.  With it being so flammable you may want to confirm that your dryer vent is clean and connected.  This is especially important if you have a furnace or water heater (flame) in the same room. Safety first.

Wax and newspaper:
  Dip pieces of newspaper in paraffin wax and it burns like a candle. This one is similar to the sawdust but you can leave some of the paper not covered in paraffin and it will ignite easier.  You can do this with cardboard or any other paper product as well.  The paraffin only makes it a little slower burning and a little more durable.
Gun powder:
  Yes you could remove a bullet from a cartridge with a pair of pliers and use some of the powder inside to catch your spark, but it is a violent reaction so if you are desperate enough to try this, . (All the usual safety precautions apply. For example, never grasp a rimfire cartridge by its rim, with pliers!)

Don’t get me wrong, a fire is not difficult.  For those who wish to be proficient at it though does require some practice.  But when you are cold, hungry, and out in the middle of nowhere, a fire can save your life.  Just remember to think about what kind of fire you really need
Keep your powder (and your tinder) dry. – Brad M.

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