How to Make a Fire Without Conventional Tools

Despite what you might have read in survival manuals, making fire without tools is no easy task

hunter by a fire
A steel knife struck against any hard glassy stone will throw sparks to ignite your tinder. Blow on the tinder when it begins to smoke.Vic Schendel

By late afternoon it seems like a dream, that day I made fire by rubbing sticks together.

On that occasion I'd been sitting in an Indian wickiup, using a bow drill provided by a professional survivalist, and I'd risen smoke from the blurring spindle, given birth to a glowing coal, and coaxed the coal into flame. The adage "where there's smoke, there's fire" seemed to be applicable to something other than political scandal.

But now, here in the Purcell Mountains, battling wintry spring weather more typical of a survival situation, I not only don't have fire but I have yet to produce a single wisp of smoke. What I do have is a blister on my left palm as big as a silver dollar from bearing down against the socket of the bow drill and the disheartening realization that, should my life depend on making fire with a shoelace and a couple of sticks of wood, I'd be halfway to dying now.

I've hiked up here to see for myself if the advice in survival manuals about starting fire without conventional tools is sound, in which case I'll celebrate victory by toasting a marshmallow. The question: Can a lost, cold hunter count on making fire with the marriage of two sticks after reading two paragraphs and glancing at an illustration in a book? My opinion is no--not unless you have tons of practice and access to woods that work. And this from somebody who has been taught the proper technique and who isn't cold or lost.

The reason I'm only halfway to dying, however, is because according to another theory floated in the survival manuals, I still have a trick in my pack.

You Can't Start a Fire Without a Spark
To paraphrase from the open page of the manual in hand: A steel knife struck against any hard glassy stone will throw sparks to ignite your tinder. Blow on the tinder when it begins to smoke.

The knives in my pack range from a rusty Boy Scout folder to a gleaming Boye boat knife with a cobalt blade. I find a piece of quartzite and get to work. I tell myself I'll be toasting that marshmallow any minute.

I actually have had a lot of practice with this fire-starting method and know going in that the shiny blades with a high chromium content are worthless; you couldn't throw a spark with a stainless blade if you locked it in a car trunk with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Nearly as useless are softer nonstainless blades. The molten flecks of steel will be too large to reach the required heat. What you're trying to create, by sharply flicking the back of the knife blade against the sharp angle of the stone, is flying steel slivers so small that they become incandescent. To make this happen, you need a high-carbon, nonstainless blade that has a Rockwell C-scale hardness of at least 58--and 60 is better.

The best sparkers in my pack include a half dozen Swedish Mora knives, an ancient Barlow folder, and a custom semi-­skinner by Bob Jolley, with which I've actually started quite a few fires over the years. But despite my skill, I can't start a fire today with any of these knives because the meager sparks you can expect from striking a knife blade against stone aren't hot or numerous enough to light traditional forms of tinder. You first need to catch the spark with a piece of true tinder fungus, which only grows on trees that are not native in the West, or a piece of char cloth, which is made by partially burning cotton such as blue-jean material. Then you transfer that glowing cloth to a tinder bundle and blow it to flame. In other words, in order to spark fire, I first have to make fire to burn my pants. This is a bit of a catch-22, and I walk off the mountain feeling rather inadequate to the manual.

Tomorrow I'll be back with a steel sparking tool and tinder appropriate to the task, and I guarantee you I'll toast my marshmallow. If you want to toast yours, metaphorically speaking, and maybe save your life down the road, I suggest you throw away the manual and rely on fire-making tools that in real-world conditions actually work.

From the August 2012 issue of Field & Stream magazine.