5 ways to light a fire – From friction to flame

5 ways to light a fire – From friction to flame

Fire has played a central role in human evolution, profoundly influencing the trajectory of our development. The mastery of fire by early humans, believed to be controlled first by Homo erectus around one to 1.5 million years ago, marked a significant turning point. It enabled our ancestors to cook food, deter predators, and survive colder climates, which in turn allowed for more complex social structures and improved communication skills. This control over fire not only facilitated dietary changes but also had a lasting impact on human physiology and culture, fostering advancements in technology and social organisation (Wrangham, 2009).

A camp fire at the side of a beautiful lake at sunset.

The ability to control fire is what initially set us apart from other mammals. We found ways to start, maintain and transport fire. This gave us greater flexibility in where we could live, what we could eat and how we could protect ourselves from wild animals. Perhaps one of the most under-rated aspects of fire in a survival situation is its ability to lift our spirits.

In a survival situation our priorities, in order of importance, are:

  1. Make a decision within the first three seconds. STOP (Stop, think, observe and plan).
  2. Secure air – Removal of ourselves from threat, first aid. We can’t live without air for longer than about three minutes.
  3. Shelter – Shelter from extreme environments is essential to prevent hypothermia in extreme cold to heat exhaustion in extreme heat. Hypothermia can kill within hours so we need to find or create shelter within the first three hours.
  4. Water – It is unlikely that we will survive for longer than three days without water 
  5. Food – Most people can survive for up to three weeks without food. Once personal safety, air, shelter and water have been secured our next priority is to find food.

Using fire in a survival situation initially falls under shelter. We can use fire to create warmth, boil water to make it safe to drink, cook food and to signal our position for rescue.

The key to a successful fire is preparation. The better the preparation the higher the chance of success. Not only do we need to be able to start a fire with an ignition source, we also need to be able to sustain the flame for as long as it is required, that could be minutes, hours or days. We need tinder (material that readily accepts a spark), kindling (thin, dry sticks that prolong the initial flame) and sustaining wood (thicker sticks that burn for longer). These should be collected and processed (prepared) before attempting to light a fire.

Here are five ways to start a fire

1. Open Flame: Lighters/matches

Using an open flame, such as from a lighter, is perhaps the most straightforward method to start a fire. Lighters are portable, reliable, and easy to use, making them a staple in modern survival kits. They work well in most weather conditions and can quickly ignite a variety of tinders, offering immediate fire access with minimal effort (McLean, 2000).

2. Spark: Ferro rod/flint and steel

A ferrocerium rod, often referred to as a “ferro rod,” produces sparks when scraped with a striker or the back of a knife blade. These sparks are extremely hot and capable of igniting a wide range of tinders. This method is highly reliable, works in all weather conditions, and is an essential component of many emergency and outdoor survival kits (Thompson, 2004). An alternative to a ferro rod is a more traditional flint and steel striker. A flint and steel is harder to master than a ferro rod but once mastered is a viable alternative.

3. Solar: Using a Lens

Solar ignition utilises the sun’s rays to start a fire, requiring a magnifying lens or any convex lens to focus sunlight onto a point on your tinder. The intense focal point increases the tinder’s temperature until it ignites. This method is effective in sunny conditions, offering a viable option when traditional methods are not available or desired (Gibson, 2011). A piece of glass, especially the concave bottom of a bottle, often found lying around, can be used for solar ignition.

4. Friction: Fire bow/ Bow drill

The fire bow or bow drill is a classic friction-based method to start a fire. It involves using a bow to rapidly spin a spindle against a fire-board, generating enough heat through friction to create an ember. This method is more advanced than the basic hand drill because the bow allows for continuous motion, reducing physical exertion and increasing heat generation efficiency. Wood selection is crucial, with softer woods like cedar or spruce often preferred for both the spindle and the board (Kochanski, 1987). An alternative friction fire can be made using cotton wool and charcoal by crushing the charcoal into small pieces and rolling these pieces up in a piece of cotton wool (an eye pad is ideal). Placing the cotton wool roll on a hard surface, sandwiching it between another hard surface (split log works well) and rolling the the one against the other vigorously creates heat friction that leads to combustion.

5. Chemical: Potassium Permanganate and Glycerin

A less common but highly effective method involves chemical reactions to ignite a fire. Mixing potassium permanganate with glycerin sets off an exothermic chemical reaction that ignites within seconds. This technique is valuable in survival situations as it requires minimal physical effort and can be ignited under varied environmental conditions, although the materials need to be handled with care and stored properly (Schulz, 1998).

Understanding and mastering various fire-starting techniques remains a fundamental survival skill that connects us to our ancestors. The ability to produce fire has been a catalyst for human development, from social evolution to technological advancements. By continuing to explore and teach these methods, we honour our past and ensure that these critical survival skills are preserved for future generations.



– Gibson, E. (2011). *Solar Fire Starting: Techniques and Applications*. Adventure Publications.

– Kochanski, M. (1987). *Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival*. Lone Pine Publishing.

– McLean, S. (2000). *Modern Fire Devices*. Survival Techniques Journal, 8(1), 45-50.

– Schulz, H. (1998). *Chemical Fire Starting Methods*. Experimental Survival Techniques, 3(2), 112-118.

– Thompson, R. (2004). *Ferrocerium Rods in Survival Situations*. Essential Survival Gear, 9(4), 200-205.

– Wrangham, R. (2009). *Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human*. Basic Books.

The Rule of Threes – How to prioritise in a survival situation

The Rule of Threes is a guideline often used in survival training to prioritize essential needs in a critical survival situation. It outlines the basic timeframes within which a person can survive without specific resources.

Decision: STOP (Stop, think, observe and plan). Make a decision within 3 seconds. Do a rapid initial assessment of what has happened, where you are and what you need to do.

Air: You can survive only about 3 minutes without air. This priority addresses situations involving airway blockage (First Aid), the inability to breathe (under water) or toxic environments, especially where smoke or gases are involved. Immediate action must be taken to remedy the situation. If you manage to survive the first three minutes then chances are you’ll make it to the first three hours.

Shelter: Exposure to harsh conditions without adequate shelter can be fatal. You can survive approximately 3 hours without shelter in extreme environments, where protection from extreme heat (heat stroke) or cold (hypothermia) is crucial. If you manage to survive the first three hours then chances are you’ll make it to the first three days.

Water: Dehydration is a serious concern in survival scenarios. You can survive about 3 days without water, depending on the climate and your physical condition. Procuring and securing a drinkable water source is essential. Treating the water to ensure it does not make you sick is also essential. If you manage to survive the first three days then chances are you’ll make it to the first three weeks.

Food: While important, food is lower on the list of immediate survival priorities. You can survive approximately 3 weeks without food. In a survival situation, your focus should be on the procurement of air, shelter, and water before food. Once you have secured air, shelter and water you can then start foraging for food. Prioritise high calorie food where possible. The goal is to conserve energy. When we expend energy looking for food we need to ensure that the calorific reward from the food we eat exceeds the energy used to secure it in order to prevent an energy deficit. Food high in fat contains more calories than plant leaves as an example. If you manage to survive the first three weeks then chances are you’ll make it to the first three months.

Human connection (for mental health): In prolonged survival situations, being completely isolated or lacking interaction with other people can lead to psychological distress and mental health issues. Human beings are inherently social creatures, and lack of social contact for periods of longer than 3 months can affect mental and emotional well-being significantly. If you manage to survive the first three months then chances are you’ll make it to the first three years.

Habitual environment (community rebuilding: Over extended periods, the need to establish a stable community or adapt to a new environmental reality becomes critical. This involves forming a sustainable living situation that includes stable food sources, secure shelter, and a functioning societal structure to support life over years. This is about moving from mere survival to rebuilding and thriving in a new status quo and is achievable within the first 3 years. If you’ve managed to survive the first three years chances are you’ll be able to continue supporting yourself to survive as long as it takes to be rescued.

These extended applications of the Rule of Threes highlight the importance of psychological and societal needs alongside the basic physiological requirements for survival in long-term scenarios.

Understanding and applying this hierarchy can help manage decisions and actions effectively when faced with a survival situation, ensuring that the most critical needs are met first to increase the chance of survival.