Surviving an apocalypse – Starting a fire without matches

Often Fysh asks about what would happen if there was an apocalypse, be it by zombie or something else thanks to all the dystopian themed movies (also, it probably doesn’t help that my paranoid overly prepared stepfather has a garage full of supplies for when if it happens).

There are a lot of things that I’ve learned over the years thanks to either a parent or a stranger that school never taught me but that’s come in REALLY handy and has impressed someone / saved my life and would definitely come in handy if shit ever hit the fan in any way.

Do you know how to catch and gut your own fish? Can you build a temporary shelter? Do you know how to plot North or where to camp if you are stranded without signal? We’ve started doing fact Friday and although interesting facts come in handy of course they don’t really teach us basic life skills. And yes you can argue that your iPhone and google has everything you’ll ever need if you get stuck but what happens when the battery runs out or you’re stuck without signal?

That handy iPhone of yours might have a torch app but it isn’t going to spark a fire. And making a fire is ultimately the essential survival skill (well that and finding clean water). You never know when you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’ll need a fire, but you don’t have matches. Maybe your ship wrecks and you’re the only survivor left on a deserted island or you’re out camping and you lose your backpack fighting off a giant grizzly. Okay so it doesn’t need to be something as dramatic as that because even extremely windy or wet conditions can render matches and lighters virtually uselessly. And whether or not you ever need to call upon these skills, it’s just damn cool to know you can start a fire, whenever and wherever you are. So what do you do if you’re stuck somewhere (even at home) and you have no matches, no lighter, and you can’t get to a shop to buy some?

Well, you actually have a few options!

  1. Flint and steelIt’s always a good idea to carry around a good flint and steel set with you on a camping trip. If you don’t have a set find a piece of quartzite and use your pocket knife.

    You’ll also need char – a cloth that has been turned into charcoal. If you don’t have char, a piece of fungus or birch will do.

    Take hold of the piece of rock between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure an edge is hanging out about 2 or 3 inches. Grasp the char between your thumb and the flint.


    Grasp the back of the steel striker or use the back of your knife blade. Strike the steel against the flint several times. Sparks from the steel will fly off and land on the char cloth, causing a glow. Then fold up your char cloth into the tinder nest and gently blow on it to start a flame.

  2. LensesTo create a fire, all you need is some sort of lens in order to focus sunlight on a specific spot. A magnifying glass, eyeglasses, or binocular lenses all work. If you add some water to the lens, you can intensify the beam. Angle the lens towards the sun in order to focus the beam into as small an area as possible. Put your tinder nest under this spot and you’ll soon have yourself a fire.

    The only drawback to the lens based method is that it only works when you have sun. So if it’s nighttime or overcast, you won’t have any luck.

  3. Balloons and CondomsBy filling a balloon or condom with water, you can transform these ordinary objects into fire creating lenses.

    Fill the condom or balloon with water and tie off the end. You’ll want to make it as spherical as possible. Don’t make the inflated balloon or condom too big or it will distort the sunlight’s focal point. Squeeze the balloon to find a shape that gives you a sharp circle of light. Try squeezing the condom in the middle to form two smaller lenses. They both have a shorter focal length than an ordinary lens so old them about 5 cm from your tinder.

  4. Batteries and steel woolStretch out the Steel Wool as you want it to be about 12 to 15 cm long and a 1 to 2 cm wide.
  5. Hold the steel wool in one hand and the battery in the other. Any battery will do, but 9-volt batteries work best apparently. Rub the side of the battery with the “contacts” on the wool. The wool will begin to glow and burn. Gently blow on it. Now quickly transfer the burning wool to your tinder nest. The wool’s flame will extinguish quickly, so don’t waste any time.

And of course there is the one that you see in all the movies – the hand drill version which is the most primal but also most damn difficult. the Khoisan have an easier more “modern” version dubbed the bow drill that it still a bitch but a hell of a lot easier and less likely to give you splinters. It’s also easier to maintain the speed and pressure you need to create enough friction to start a fire. In addition to the spindle and fireboard, you’ll also need a socket and a bow.

Get a socket. The socket is used to put pressure on the other end of the spindle as you’re rotating it with the bow. The socket can be a stone or another piece of wood. If you use another piece of wood, try to find a harder piece than what you’re using for the spindle. Wood with sap and oil are good as it creates a lubricant between the spindle and the socket.

Make your bow. The bow should be about as long as your arm. Use a flexible piece of wood that has a slight curve. The string of the bow can be anything. A shoelace, rope, or strip of rawhide works great. Just find something that won’t break. String up your bow and you’re ready to go.

Prepare the fireboard. Cut a v-shaped notch and create a depression adjacent to it in the fireboard. Underneath the notch, place your tinder.

String up the spindle. Catch the spindle in a loop of the bow string. Place one end of the spindle in the fireboard and apply pressure on the other end with your socket.

Start sawing. Using your bow, start sawing back and forth. You’ve basically created a rudimentary mechanical drill. The spindle should be rotating quickly. Keep sawing until you create an ember.

Make you fire. Drop the ember into the tinder nest and blow on it gently. You got yourself a fire.


There are a lot more ways to start fires, like lemons with nails etc but these are the ones I’ve used and know work so at least now when the zombies attack or the aliens come for us and all the power is out you’ll know how to start a fire for the pigeons you’ve caught to eat :P 

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