Light ‘Em Up – Ways to Start a Fire

Like the saying goes “start small and build up”, and so follows the way to start a fire. You need a method
to create a brief burst of energy, like a spark or concentrated heat source to get things going. In a
previous article (LINK], I described how to build a tepee fire
and ignite its tinder with matches or a lighter. Tinder is a dry material (ex: straw, lint, pine needles) that
ignites with very little energy, and then works to further ignite the kindling, the next larger stage of the

Matches, a traditional way to light almost anything, have become more of a rarity in many households
these days. Disposable butane lighters have essentially replaced matches. Let’s explore different
methods to start a fire using these items and also some alternatives.

The Obvious – Stockpile some Butane Lighters & Matches

Butane Lighters

The simple choice is to purchase a few inexpensive disposable butane lighters. They have a very long
shelf life when kept in a sheltered environment, especially keeping them (their plastic body) away from
prolonged direct sunlight exposure. Disposable lighters contain a small amount of liquid butane fuel that
immediately turns into a gaseous state and burns into a flame when ignited by a spark generated by an
internal piezoelectric crystal. Most people are very familiar with these lighters and they are easy to use.
For most emergency situations, these lighters will work fine because you can typically get hundreds or
thousands of lights, depending on the length of the burn time of the flame.


Stashing away a box or two of traditional matches is also a good idea. They are inexpensive and easy to
use but the downside is that they must always be kept dry, which can be a challenge in many outdoor
conditions, and don’t work well in windy conditions.

Additional Methods

Modern Day Flint & Steel

Sparks can easily be created by striking a flint material (with a hard and sharp edge) against an iron
containing material in a glancing blow fashion. This method has been used for thousands of years using
quartz-based rocks (the flint) and iron containing pyrite rocks (the “steel”) to create sparks.
In modern day times, a flint is a steel blade with a sharp edge that impacts a piece of carbon steel or
ferrocerium material, creating friction and many spontaneously burning particles showering out.
Ferrocerium is a man-made material, containing special metals and some iron, that produces sparks that
are much hotter than obtained with natural carbon steel. Kits branded as “flint & steel” typically contain
a blade made of steel and the target ferrocerium material. They are also commonly referred to as ferro
rods, metal matches, or firesteel. The significant advantage of ferro rods is that they can get wet, are
very long lasting (1,000’s of lights) and thus are a great choice for survivalists. Buy one, throw it in your
bug-out bag, and you never need to give it another thought.

Fire Start Enhancers – Magnesium, Cotton Balls coated with Petroleum Jelly

If you are having trouble getting the tinder or kindling to ignite into a larger flame, you can use several
enhancement techniques. One is to swab some petroleum jelly (Vaseline) onto a cotton ball. As the
name implies, petroleum jelly is a fuel and it will readily burn. Wipe some of the cotton ball with the
jelly, making sure to leave ample exposed cotton fibers to ignite using matches or your lighter. Once the
cotton fibers are ignited with a small spark/flame, the resulting fireball will provide a sustained burn
with a decent flame.

Several “flint & steel” kits on the market also include a block or rod of magnesium metal. Magnesium is
a metal that burns with intense heat and can be used to kick-start a fire into gear. The magnesium needs
to be shaved off into small flakes using a knife and collected. Add these flakes to the tinder before
sparking/igniting it. The flakes can also be sprinkled on the petroleum coated cotton ball for a maximum
fireball starting effect.

Solar Parabolic Mirror / Magnifying Lens

A lesser-known way to start a fire is by using a magnifying glass or small reflective solar parabolic mirror.
Many sizes of either will work but I suggest one with a minimum diameter of 4 inches (10.5 cm). They
both work by concentrating the rays of the sun to a pin point area. Of course, they will only work during
the day, and when its sunny, but they are inexpensive and their energy source (the sun) is endless.
The objective is to hold the parabolic mirror or magnifier such that it faces the sun and then adjusting it
until you concentrate the sunlight to a point on the tinder. Then, hold the position steady with the rays
focused on one point until you see some smoke and small glow/flame. Blow on the tinder a bit to help
the burn process by its increasing oxygen flow. I have successfully used the small parabolic mirror
(readily available from eBay for a few dollars including shipping) to ignite some tissue paper on a calm
day in the middle of the winter when the sun is lowest in the sky and its rays are weakest. It’s cheap and
can work as a great back-up.

Solar Parabolic Mirror Igniting Wood Fibers

Magnifying Glass Igniting a Tinder Bundle

Battery & Steel Wool

A fire can be started by connecting together (shorting) the terminals of a 9V battery with a piece of steel
wool. The energy stored in the battery is rapidly discharged through the steel wool fibers to heat them
enough to glow. In case you are wondering, a single 1.5V battery (AA, AAA) will not work because it’s voltage and energy are too low. I’m only covering this technique as a last resort emergency option. It rapidly depletes the charge in the battery and presents a danger that the battery can catch fire and/or

Mechanical Friction

There are also a couple of techniques based on mechanical friction that have been used for thousands of
years to start a fire. Basically, you need to rub two pieces of wood together with sufficient force and
duration to create a tiny burning ember. There are numerous videos on YouTube to show you the
techniques. If you are inquisitive and have ample patience and physical endurance, then give it a go.
Otherwise, the other modern-day techniques will serve you just fine.
WRAP-UP: This article covered several simple ways to start a fire, and identified several inexpensive
items to purchase now and store in your emergency bag. Most items don’t require much skill to use but
do require some basic knowledge that was provided here. Plan ahead and make sure you some of these
items on hand in preparation for an emergency.

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