How To: Start a Fire Without Matches

By MDC | November 1, 2023
From Xplor: November/December 2023

What if you were lost in the winter woods without matches or a lighter? Could you start a fire to stay warm? With a little know-how and lots of patience, you sure can.

Harness the Sun

This method of starting a fire uses a lens to focus sunshine into a white-hot point of light. A pair of glasses, binoculars, a magnifying glass, or even a water bottle can be used as a lens. Here, we’ll use something most hikers have in their packs: a sandwich bag.

Find a Safe Spot to Build a Fire

Pick a place that’s sheltered from the wind. Brush away everything on the ground that could ignite — leaves, pine needles, grass — until you get down to bare dirt or rock. The bare area should be a circle at least 5 feet wide.

Gather Fire Fuel

You’ll need three things for your fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel. Gather all three before you attempt to light the fire.

  • Tinder is dry, fluffy material that easily catches on fire, such as dryer lint, toilet paper, pine needles, dead grass, birch bark, or cattail fluff. You’ll need a fist-sized wad of tinder.
  • Kindling lights easily and burns long enough to catch bigger branches on fire. Look for bone-dry twigs that are thicker than a matchstick but thinner than a pencil. Collect at least two armfuls.
  • Fuel is made up of larger branches that will burn from several minutes to several hours. As long as it’s dry, anything from finger-sized branches to leg-sized logs will work. Two armfuls should get you started.

Find Your Focus

  1. Place a ball of the driest, fluffiest tinder you can find inside a “cradle” of longer-burning tinder like dry grass or paper.
  2. Fill a sandwich bag half full of water. Twist a corner of the bag into a small, tight ball of water with no air bubbles.
  3. Use the water ball to focus the sun’s rays onto the tinder. You’ll have to spin the ball around and move it closer and farther away until you see a pinpoint light. Hold as steady as you can so the light stays in one spot. Soon you’ll see a puff of smoke and a tiny flame.
  4. Loosely wrap the outer cradle around the inner tinder and gently blow on it to coax up a larger flame.

Stoke the Fire

  1. Stack kindling around the tinder to form a cone of sticks. Place matchstick-sized twigs closest to the tinder and pencil-sized twigs farther out.
  2. Once the kindling is burning brightly, add bigger sticks. Be careful not to knock over the cone.

Add fuel until the fire is as large as you want it to be. Whew! Now you can relax, warm up your toes, and bust out the s’mores.

Also In This Issue

Deer in Snow

Critters have tons of tricks to stay alive when temperatures dive

This Issue's Staff

Artist – Matt Byrde
Photographer – Noppadol Paothong
Photographer – David Stonner
Designer – Marci Porter
Designer – Les Fortenberry
Art Director – Cliff White
Editor – Matt Seek
Subscriptions – Marcia Hale
Magazine Manager – Stephanie Thurber