This article outlines the main fire lighting options that are specific to bushcraft applications, in the Northern Hemisphere.
There are a number of ways to light a fire, with various tinder and ignition options available.
What you use will ultimately depend on your environment and what you have with you.
For this article, we will concentrate on the equipment used to start a fire, using a spark, flame or other magical force.
After reading this post, you should have a solid understanding of the different firefighting methods available and how to implement them effectively in the outdoor environment.
Although it has slightly fallen out of favour to the more widely used lighter, the humble match is still a great option for fire lighting, as long as you take a few precautions.
It is good practice to become proficient at lighting a fire with just one match.
This way you do not to go through all your matches just to get a single fire lit.
Ideally, you should be aiming for one match, one fire!
This is easier said than done, but with practice and with the correct preparation, this can be achieved consistently.
Remember, prepare your kindling and fuel in advance, so that everything is ready to go.
Keep the matches dry: it sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget about your matches until you go to use them.
Matches and moisture don’t do well together – the heads will soften and disintegrate when trying to strike them.
Store your matches correctly, in a dry environment.
A dedicated waterproof matchbox is the best bet, such as a 35mm film canister, with a section of the striker glued to the inside lid.
If you have the time, you can also make one out of birch bark.
Ray Mears has a video on how to make one below:
How to light a match correctly
Everyone can light a match, can’t they? Well yes, but most don’t do it correctly. And why would they?
Most of the time it’s not the end of the world if you go through a few matches at home, lighting the BBQ or some candles.
If you are out in the field though, away from it all, it can really matter!
You need to get maximum use out of those matches and not use half the box to get a fire lit.
It may be your only ignition source, so learn to make them count.
Correct fire lighting technique
Assuming your matches are dry, the most important thing to have ready, before you even think about getting a match out of the box, is your kindling and main fuel source.
Using a standard pack of matches, find out which way the heads are facing.
If the weather is dry, open the matches however you like. It will not make much difference.
Should it be raining or snowing though, open the pack from the other end (stick end) and keep the open end pointing downwards.
Put your back to the wind if it is raining, to shield the pack even further.
This is to stop any chance of a water droplet, or snowflake, getting in there, potentially ruining your match heads.
Assuming your hands are dry, take one match from the box by pulling one out and downwards.
Close the box.
Hold the box in one hand, with the striker facing towards the match in the other hand.
Grip the match at the bottom of the stick with your index finger and thumb.
You now also want to place your middle finger directly on the match head itself.
This provides support to the match head and minimises the chance of it snapping on you.
If you have not done this before, you can be forgiven for being a little nervous about burning this finger when you go to strike the match.
However, in practice, the striking action is so fast, that your finger will be well out the way of the burning match head before it gets a chance to burn you.
You should naturally remove the middle finder when you strike and just have the match gripped between the thumb and index finger.
Strike the match!
Now that you have lit the match, immediately cup your hands and shield the flame.
You do not want the flame blowing out from a gust of wind.
After a few seconds, the flame should establish and the main wooden stick should start to take and establish a stronger flame.
Now carefully take your flame to your kindling and keep it shielded while you ignite it.
Once you have lit the kindling, you should now have an established flame that you can slowly build on with your different wood sizes, until you have a well-established fire.
Once the fire is stable and doesn’t need your constant attention, place the matches back in their box – not on damp ground.
Place back inside your pocket/backpack etc, to ensure they are kept dry.
You only used one match didn’t you, so you have plenty left for next time 🙂
It doesn’t need much explaining and indeed some would regard it as cheating, but we all use lighters from time to time.
They are fast and reliable.
Even though this is a common igniter, I would 100% advise that you practice and become proficient in the other methods (match, firesteel, etc), in all weathers.
This ensures that you can light a fire confidently, in a variety of conditions and environments, with multiple ignition options at your disposal.
If one fails you have another to use – it always pays to have a backup option.
The disposable type is the most common and what most people think of when they think of a lighter.
I would urge you not to use disposable lighters if you can, as they are not great for the environment.
A good standard one that I like is the Clipper. They are refillable and you can replace the flints in them when needed.
They also just work!
Windproof lighters: Another gas option is the windproof type – sometimes known as a butane torch.
These are designed for lighting up in bad conditions, by providing a jet like flame.
They use a piezo ignition and create quite a roar, which in turn uses up more gas than the standard type above.
The only problem with these types of lighter is that I am yet to find one that is reliable, as they all seem to break pretty quickly and stop igniting, hence me not recommending them.
If you do find a good one though, please let me know in the comments below.
One of my favourites is the petrol lighter, or to be exact a Zippo.
I just really like these and have used my trusty black version for donkey’s years.
They are solid and have that great unique ‘Zippo’ sound when opening and closing.
They are refillable, using the recommended specific lighter fluid – but at a push, you can also use other fuels, such as petrol or Coleman fuel.
Be very careful with these though and follow directions.
You can also replace the flints and wicks on them – and genuine Zippos also come with a lifetime guarantee.
The fuel can evaporate if left for a while, but if you are a regular user, these are a great option.
Using a lighter is pretty instinctive and I’m not going to insult you my telling how to light one up. There is only one way to do it.
However, I will mention trying to avoid rolling the strike wheel the wrong way, as this messes up the flint. That’s all I will say.
Once lit, as with matches, cup your hands to protect the flame whilst it ignites your kindling.
Place back in your pocket and get that fire roaring!
The original ferro rods were composed of a mixture of 30% iron (ferrum) and the rare earth metal cerium – hence ferrocerium rod.
In recent times, this has been shortened to ferro rod, but is also known as a Swedish fire steel – or just fire steel.
When struck with the back of a knife, or metallic striker, this action causes the metals to shed from the rod and combust.
This produces incredibly hot sparks – that can reach temperatures of around 3000 deg ℃ (5432 ℉).
If you have a good dry tinder such as some scraped birch bark or amadou, these sparks will ignite it very efficiently, with just a few strokes.
Ferro rods are incredibly simple in design and will last a very long time – that is their beauty.
They are very low maintenance and will still strike in all conditions, even if it is wet and cold.
They are an excellent tool, even if you only carry one as a backup to your lighter – I would always recommend carrying one when you are out.
Which ones are good?
Most firesteels are able to create a good shower of sparks.
Some are easier to use than others, with different lengths coming into play and handle options.
Some people like to take the time to make a custom firesteel, by affixing a handle made from deer antler or similar onto a blank rod. This makes for a nice looking tool.
Most standard options have a plastic handle though and are a solid, no-fuss option.
The one I currently use is the Light My Fire – 2.0 firesteel.
They have been around a long time, and this simple to use and uncomplicated design makes this a great choice if you are looking for a decent ferro rod.
Flint and steel
The flint and steel is a traditional and time served fire lighting method.
When the steel striker hits the flint, the flint removes a very small piece of the striker’s metal and this creates a spark.
Not the other way around as is commonly believed.
You will not get anywhere near the same amount of sparks as you would with a fire steel, but this method does work and is ultra reliable.
The sparks produced are known as ‘cold sparks’, so you will need to be patient and try and catch one while it’s still glowing.
If you manage to get this spark to land on your chosen tinder, such as char cloth or some birch bark, you can then blow on this to encourage ignition.
As per the video below, you will need a nice sharp stone for this to work correctly, so that the small fragments of metal are removed.
Flint is ideal for this due to its ability to shed material and leave an incredibly sharp edge as it flakes away.
You can obtain some locally, or bring some in and keep it in a pouch along with your striker and tinder.
With some practice and correct technique, this is a great, reliable method, that has very little to go wrong.
A fire piston – sometimes known as a slam rod – uses compressed air to ignite a small piece of tinder.
The fire piston is made up of two sections, one male part, one female.
The tinder – usually a piece of char cloth (see below) – is placed at the end section of the male part.
The male part then slides into the female (sorry).
When pushed down with force, the airtight seal causes the air inside to compress and raises the temperature to around 250 ℃.
This is usually hot enough to ignite the tinder.
The male part can now be removed and the ember placed onto your awaiting main tinder.
You can now blow on this to get your fire going.
Which one to get
There are a multitude of fire pistons on the market, with the bulk coming from China.
If you can, go for an American made fire piston.
A good video showing the fire piston in use can be viewed below:
A bow drill set is a great tool to use in the Northern Hemisphere and can create a good ember even with slightly damp wood.
You will need the following parts to create one:
Bow section: the main part that is drawn back and forward to create the drilling action. This is a formed from a carefully selected tree branch.
Cord: this attaches to the bow and is what grips and spins the drill. 550 paracord is usually used for this.
Drill section: this is what spins and ‘drills’ into the hearth below to create an ember.
Bearing block: used to create a low friction ‘cup’ that sits on top of the drill section and is held in place with your non-dominant hand.
Hearth: the base section of wood that stays fixed in place and is ‘drilled’ into, to create an ember.
Ray Mears demonstrates the process in the video below:
For an even more detailed look, MCQBushcraft has an excellent video on this also.
A very basic but effective method is to start a fire from a lense, usually a magnifying glass.
If you carry a standard plate compass, such as the Silva Expedition 4, then you will have a magnifying lens built into the compass.
You do need bright sunlight for this to work, but assuming the sun is strong enough, you can move the lens closer to the tinder until you have a small concentrated spot of light, that is laser focussed on your tinder.
If the beam of light is intense enough, the tinder will start to smoke and with a little help – eventually, ignite.
This is a great method to use, as it enables your compass to have a dual purpose.
Not much use if it’s cloudy though!
As you can see, there are many different ways to get a fire going. I would encourage you to try and master as many methods as you can.
Not only is it fun, it could save your bacon one day and is certainly not wasted effort.
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Until the next time….