Last Updated on July 20, 2017
A google of “how to start a fire with sticks” produced 26,800,000 results a few days ago. Don’t know that I believe the stats, 26,800,001 might have convinced me, but I do believe if you are at the point of rubbing two sticks together to start a fire in 2017 you are not very high on the food chain. In fact, I would suggest this activity is better suited as an alternative to when you can’t find a sitter so you can go to the gym as opposed to a position to put yourself in when the lack of heat may kill you.
The ability to start a fire in the wild is one of the most important skills one can learn. Not just for warmth, but for light, and cooking, and signaling your location and, in some cases, keeping the creatures of the night at bay. Every emergency kit or bug-out bag should have at least five (5) fire-starting methods, because you may face a variety of different conditions from weather and terrain and available fuels.
Instead of sticks and endless upper body strength, as a prepper, you need redundancy. News Flash: Sometimes some things fail, eventually all things fail. Backups and alternatives are a good thing, and, other than a fully functioning flame thrower (which will eventually fail), fire starters do not take up much room and do not add much weight. The right approach to having redundancy is to make a kit that goes from easy to more challenging. And easy can be a disposable lighter, more than one, matches, safety “and risky” as well if you can find them, down through survival specific gear (Spark Force, SE FS374 All Weather 2-in-1). I suggest you have butane stick lighters, road flares, steel wool and a 9-v battery, more matches, magnesium fire starters, calcium carbide and a welder’s striker, and magnesium ribbon, to name just a few.
And, although there are a lot of commercially available kindling substitutes, they can be expensive and can be cumbersome, and there packaging is usually not designed to last years. One such product I tested here in mid-sentence that stated “stays lit in fierce weather” I lit it with an open flame (Bic lighter) but I could blow it out from a distance of 2 feet. I may use the leftovers in my fire pit just to dispose of them.
I really like things you can make and prove for yourself that they work and you can test them under the conditions you may face. I have found that properly stored dryer-lint mixed with dry sawdust never fails. It isn’t pretty and it needs help to stay put in a wind but over time you can have a bag big enough to use as a pillow and it only takes a spark to get it going, and you only need a small amount each time. There are a lot of other alternatives for the more cautious and conscious, like mixing rifle powder with Acetone. I have used this one often, but I have a lot of chemistry in my background and I know “black powder” is not “rifle powder” as black power is fast burning and therefore more explosive than rifle powder which is slower burning due to the shape and composition of the granules – just one of the differences between making a useful fire-starter verses obtaining a bad reputation at your local emergency room.
I do this is a plastic bowl, OUTSIDE, with the Acetone slowly added to the bowl of rifle powder and stirred with a wooden stick – a popsicle stick or a paint stir, depending on the quantity you want. Wood on plastic as opposed to any metal for spark suppression during the mixing process. A sticky paste is the consistency I want and it should be stored in an airtight container. Decades ago the old 35mm film canisters were great for this, now I would recommend a trip to the Dollar Store and a search in the kitchen section for small inexpensive plastic spice containers. Old prescription bottles work well as do over the counter pain pill bottles if you can deal with the child-proof aspect of each. Be creative, LABEL correctly!
To ignite this compound just rub some of the paste on one end of some steel wool and touch the other end of the steel wool with a charged 9-v battery. Yes, the downside is this requires a lot of moving parts as opposed to the lighters we have become accustomed to, the upside is it works and does not depend on the quality of an item perhaps produced overseas (which I have in my bag as backups). It produces an intense flame that will get your kindling going and can burn for up to three minutes, and that is important. If it hardens, it will over time, it will burn faster, but it will not explode.
Another good homemade fire-starter is sawdust soaked in a fuel, kerosene over gasoline please, again slower burning which is what one wants to start a fire. Simply soak sawdust, fine chips work but the rough chips from a chainsaw cutting wood work better. Store as above, in a sealed container. This can be lit with a match. Don’t spread the compound as the flame from the small mound of material will produce a longer burning concentrated flame. FYI, sawdust is a component in some road flares.
Returning from the dark arts, dry storage is the key with any fire-starter equipment and materials and the food storage bags you can buy at the grocery store are poor, at best, for keeping moisture out. The right solution is Mylar resealable bags. Caution should be exercised when opening these bags in areas with high humidity, or during a cloudburst, and you should close them immediately and you should always double bag them “to be sure”. The bags will perform almost forever and after just a few days “out there” it may seem like forever. AND, if steel wool and the 9-v battery are a part of your redundancy kit, PLEASE store the 9-v battery separate from EVERYTHING else. Please store any batteries separately.
Finally, a little aside on “matches”. Many years ago, OSHA “regulated” the old matches almost out of existence. Strike anywhere matches were deemed too “unstable” even though they first appeared in 577AD in China, and were first made in America in 1825. The government made them disappear in America twenty some years ago, BUT they are making a comeback. The Diamond Strike Anywhere Matches, in Eco-friendly green tip, are available at a campground store or camping supply retailer and most grocery stores and they can be purchased from Amazon as well. “Survival matches” like the UCO Survival Matches come with “2 strikers” as opposed to claiming they are strike anywhere wind & waterproof matches. And they state “up to a 12 second burn” which is good for a match and the reason why I make my own fire-starter in the first place.
Starting a fire is something that the whole family should practice. Understanding the challenges of wet tinder, winds, and materials, and the structure of going from small to big gradually are things better understood when practiced. It will also teach them respect for the process, the results of the process, the dangers and benefits of those results and the things that made it happen. Rubbing two sticks together should be used as a punishment in 2017.