Oregon is renowned for its stunning natural beauty. We revere our forests, rivers, mountains, desert, and coastline with a proud awe found no where else. This love of the land makes Oregonians outdoor adventurers. We camp, we hike, we climb, we fish—we’re outside a lot.
But when the sun goes down and the temperature drops, we need a fire to keep us warm. We all know to pack matches or a lighter to start a fire when we’re out adventuring, but life happens. Maybe you expected to be back to your car before nightfall but plans changed. Maybe you dropped your matches on the trail somewhere or your lighter is out of fluid. While you might think, Pssh, I’m far too responsible and capable to lose my things or forget matches, it does happen. Be prepared by learning how to light a fire without matches or a lighter before you hit the trail.
Collect Flammable Fuel
Gather tinder, kindling, and firewood for fuel first. If you don’t have these things ready, your fire will fail! Sparks don’t do much with nothing to burn. Tinder is dry, fluffy, flammable material like a loose ball of dry grass and leaves. You can also use paper as long as you focus the light on a dark section of paper, like a printed image or just some dirt you’ve rubbed onto it. Tinder is easy to ignite, but won’t sustain a flame for long. Kindling is denser dry material, like sticks. This will establish a flame long enough to light firewood. Firewood will sustain a flame for a long period of time.
Take Stock of Your Gear
Take a moment to go over your campsite to look for anything that may be useful to start a fire: everyday items like eyeglasses, a flashlight, binoculars, a clear glass bottle, a balloon, batteries (AAs from a flashlight or a cell phone battery would work), steel wool, a soda or beer can, metallic gum wrappers, a clear plastic water bottle, or even a condom.
Protip: Don’t forget to look in your car! If you are near enough to it, you may have more useful items stashed away in there. A roadside emergency kit with a flare or an electric cigarette lighter in older cars would generally get a fire going fast, and definitely much more easily than a lens method.
Once you have collected your wood fuel and all the potentially useful items from your campsite you can find, it’s time to get down to business. There are two primary methods to starting a fire without matches or a lighter: the lens method and the friction method.
Start a Fire With a Lens
Starting a fire with a lens takes time, but can be done. To get started, grab a lens from the items you collected. A pair of glasses (but not sunglasses), the reflective mirror in your flashlight (take it apart first!), a glass or plastic bottle (not brown or green glass), the bottom of a beer can, or even a balloon or condom filled with water can work as a lens. If you are in seriously dire straits and don’t have water, use urine. It’s not pleasant, but it can do the job. Whichever type of lens you use, make sure to polish it well. The more reflective the lens, the easier it is to start a fire.
Next, focus a beam of sunlight onto your tinder. Rotate your lens to find the maximum amount of sunlight available. Once your tinder starts to ignite, gently blow on it or wave the tinder around to get the flame started. Add more tinder as needed until the flame is strong enough to catch the kindling on fire. Congrats! You started a fire!
This video walks you through the process:
Start a Fire With Friction
Starting a fire with friction takes a little more elbow grease than the lens method, but it’s an important survival skill to learn for backpackers and fishermen alike. If you have a battery and steel wool (unlikely but possible), stretch the steel wool out so that it has a looser texture, then rub the connection end of the battery on the wool until you have ignition. Move the steel wool to your tinder and kindling and get warm!
To start a fire using only plant matter and your hands, you’ll need three things: a hearthboard, a spindle, and a nest. A hearthboard is a light piece of wood with porous grains. A spindle is a sturdy stick you rotate and rub onto the hearthboard. To make a nest, gather dried grass and moss and bundle them into a spongy nest shape. Use a knife to cut a gouge out of the hearthboard, place one end of the spindle in the hole you created, then begin rotating the spindle between your hands quickly. Lean into the spindle and push down into the hearthboard for more intense friction. Try wetting your hands with water or saliva to get a bitter grip on the spindle. Once you’ve established a hot coal on your hearthboard, drop it onto the nest you made. Massage the nest a bit to get the fire going, and don’t forget to blow on it. Start gently, then blow harder gradually as the fire spreads. Once you have a flaming nest in your hands, move it over to your kindling and firewood! Pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
National Geographic has a great run-through video so you can see the process in action:
Pack Backup Gear
There is no shame in being extra prepared. Tuck a book of matches in your backpack, your first aid kit, AND your car. Consider keeping some inexpensive fuel bars and flint in your hoodie pocket or a multi-purpose survival bracelet complete with a firestarter on your wrist.
When enjoying Oregon’s great outdoors, we plan ahead by learning survival skills and packing what we need to survive. We do this to take care of ourselves, but don’t forget about taking care of Oregon. Always extinguish your fire completely before leaving your campsite and pack out what you brought in. Leave no trace.