Here’s How to Start a Fire With Just Sticks

As a prepper, no matter what event you feel is threatening our world and our way of life, you can rest assured that being able to start a fire with sticks is one basic skill you will need at some point. In addition, there are many different activities you participate in during “normal times” which could leave you stranded without any way to get warm.

Let’s face it, the world is becoming ever more unpredictable as each day passes and modern conveniences have spoiled us. There are many different things that could occur that would leave you unexpectedly stranded out in the open and exposed to the elements.

The ability to start a fire without matches or a lighter is a skill that distinguishes the men from the boys when it comes to prepping. That said, there are three basic ways to start a fire with sticks and one unique way using willow and chaga.

  1. Hand Drill Method

The hand drill method of fire making is the simplest and oldest way to start a fire. It uses friction to produce heat and eventually a coal which is then used with your tinder to start your fire. The type of tinder that you use to start your fire is very important so that you can transform the ember produced into an actual flame.

But be warned, the method is simple but it will be very hard work and many people give up before they are actually able to get an ember hot enough to start a fire.

Lay a dry piece of wood about ½ to ¾ of an inch thick on the ground and cut a V notch in one side.

Place a piece of bark or a leaf beneath the notch for the hot coal to fall onto so you can pick it up.

Make a small depression in the board near the notch.

Make a spindle about 2-foot long and the thickness of your thumb or little finger and shave any bumps or branches off. If you can find fireweed, it makes a great spindle.

Before you attempt to start your fire, gather your tinder into a bundle and have it ready. The best tinder consists of dry materials that will ignite easily such as wood shavings, dry grass or leaves, or cattail fluff. You want to create a nest of tinder that you will lay the coal into so that you can then transport it over to where you will build your fire.

This video really gives some great details about how to select your wood, the best thing to use for tinder, and how to position your hands and body for best results when using the hand drill method:

When you are ready to begin, kneel on the ground near your fireboard. Put one knee behind with your front foot on the far end of the board to hold it in place while you work. Stand the spindle up with the working end in the depression of the fire board and hold the other end between your hands, one of each side of the spindle.

You will need to then start to roll the spindle between your hands very quickly while pushing downward at the same time. Your hands should move up and down the spindle. You must keep the momentum going until you begin to see a bit of smoke. Once you see smoke, continue twirling with downward pressure until the tip of the spindle is glowing red and an ember forms.

Once your ember forms, bump the board so the ember falls through the V notch onto your bark or piece of leaf. Transfer the ember to your tinder bundle and blow on it gently until you have a flame, then transport to your fire pit.

  1. Bow Drill Method

Another method of fire starting is the bow-drill method. It’s an age-old method that has long been taught to boy scouts, military men, and survivalists for many decades. The bow drill method uses friction to create heat to then ignite your tinder. It is not a method where you can simply learn the steps or watch it done on YouTube and then rely on it to start a fire in a survival situation where your life depends on staying warm.

Experienced survivalists will tell you that the bow drill method is one that must be practiced repeatedly in order to be able to be confident of your ability to use it to start a fire in a survival situation. The bow drill method is similar to the hand drill method and also requires that you gather your materials in advance, before trying to start your fire.

If you plan to use the bow drill method, it’s best if you can create your bow drill kit in advance and carry it with you in your bug out bag. A bow drill kit consists of the bow and drill, your spindle, a fireboard and pan. You will also need string or cordage that is approximately ¼ inch thick. Experienced survivalists will also carry a bit of tinder in their kit as well just in case dry material is unavailable when needed.

Select the proper wood, preferably softwoods (birch, willow, spruce, pine, or maple). Avoid using hardwoods if at all possible as they require far more physical exertion. When possible, let the wood you will use to create your kit dry out in the sun for a week or two weeks in a shaded area. Do not use pressure treated wood for any part of your kit as it produces dangerous fumes when heated.

Your bow will be made from a green branch about the diameter of your thumb. It should be slightly bowed and the length of your chest to your hand if your arm is stretched out in front of you. Shave off any knots or uneven areas of the branch and cut a two-inch notch in each end with your knife. The cordage, rawhide thong, or leather you use should be 1 ½ times as long as your branch. Slip one end of the string through each notch and knot the string using a knot that won’t come undone easily.

Unlike your bow, the fireboard will be made from dead wood that is dry and not green. If your fireboard wood is damp, it will reduce your likelihood of producing the coal as described in the hand drill method, and is essential for fire starting. It should be about one-foot long, about ½ to ¾ of an inch thick and 2-3 inches wide for best results. To test for the correct hardness of the fireboard, use your thumbnail to make an impression in the wood.

Once you have your kit prepared, your campfire prepared with kindling and larger sticks to one side, prepare your tinder bundle as previously described and then you’re ready to begin. There are some great tips and step by step instructions in this video:

Lay the fireboard on the ground, again placing one foot or knee on the end will hold the board in place. Wrap the spindle into the cordage of the bow, you should be able to hold the spindle with one hand and pull the bow back and forth with the other hand to cause the spindle to spin against the depression in it.

Many experienced survivalists will rub the rounded spindle end against their forehead to oil it so there is less friction between the top of the spindle and the palm of your hand. You can also use a handhold or cap on the spindle top to lower the friction on the palm of their hand and allow for more downward pressure. Begin pulling the bow and let the string twirl the spindle while you push downward with your top hand.

Once again you are watching for the smoke to begin and then the ember or coal to form. Once it’s there, let it drop through onto your bark piece or leaf and put it into your tinder bundle. Once in the tinder bundle, blow gently until you have a flame and then transfer to your camp fire stack.

  1. Making a Fire Plow

A third method of fire starting also uses friction but with a bit of a twist. Rather than using a spinning motion, the fire plow method relies on a back and forth sliding movement to create friction. You will still use a spindle and a fireboard as in the previously described methods, however you will carve a rut or trough into the fireboard so that you can slide the spindle back and forth quickly until your produce the friction needed to get a hot ember.

  1. Unique Reverse Fire Plow Method

Below is a really unique method of fire starting without any cordage and using only a piece of willow branch with a steep pitch and Chaga, a mushroom. Chaga is a type of fungus which typically grows on birch trees and other hardwood trees. It looks like wood, it’s brownish black and hard. Check it out for yourself below:

Important Fire Starting Tips

  • Use strong cordage that won’t break easily or be used up quickly in case your string has more tension than needed.
  • A leather strip will grip your spindle better when using the bow drill method.
  • Your spindle should be evenly sloped at the bottom end and should be as straight as possible. A crooked spindle can in fact keep you from succeeding.
  • Take care with the size of the notch in your fireboard and where it’s located to ensure your spindle doesn’t jump out of the hole when you are spinning.
  • It’s important to select the right wood for each piece of your fire drill kit. Wood to make your bow must be green so it will flex a bit and not snap.
  • Carry a book on how to identify trees in your EDC kit so that you can more easily select the correct wood to use.
  • Moisture in your wood is the enemy when you are trying to start a fire using friction. Make sure wood has had sufficient time to dry out.

Troubleshoot by Powder Color/Texture

  • Color of the powder produced in fire starting is created by how fast you drill whereas the consistency of the powder is created by the amount of downward pressure you are applying.
  • If you are getting light brown dusty powder but no smoke, you don’t have enough heat so you should drill faster and apply more downward pressure.
  • If you are getting light brown powder that seems fuzzy, it means the pressure is okay but you aren’t drilling fast enough
  • Dark brown or black powder that appears curly indicates you should drill slower but with more pressure.
  • Crusty dark brown or black powder means you are pushing down too hard and drilling too fast.

Using a friction method to start a fire is a true survivalist skill and not one that many people can do successfully on a reliable basis. Even the most experienced survivalists will tell you that they struggle with this method when conditions are wet or windy. It’s imperative that you learn the basics first.

Dan’s note: in addition to the ways Megan shared, we also have a few fire-starting hacks in a dedicated article (starting at #17). Using potassium, chlorine or even gum wrapper.

No matter which of these three fire starting methods you choose, you absolutely must practice the entire process repeatedly in order to be prepared for any survival situation. The more you practice your chosen method, the better you will become at gauging the correct positioning, speed, and pressure. Keep practicing over and over until you feel you could start a fire using your chosen method in your sleep.

You need to become confident and skilled in adjusting your speed and pressure in normal conditions to start a fire. The last thing you want is to be stranded in a survival situation where conditions are wet or windy, trying to remember the order of the steps. With enough practice, starting a fire with sticks will be almost as reliable for you as using matches or a lighter.

Which method of fire starting have you used?

About Megan Stewart

Megan Stewart
Born and raised in NE Ohio, with early memories that include grandpa teaching her to bait a hook and watching her mom, aunts, and grandmothers garden, sew, and can food, Megan is a true farm girl at heart. For Megan, the 2003 blackout, the events of 911, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, spurred a desire to be more prepared for whatever may come along. Soon to be living off-grid, this mother of four and grandmother of nine grandsons and one granddaughter, is learning everything she can about preparedness, basic survival, and self-sufficient homesteading. She is passionate about sharing that knowledge so that others can be increasingly prepared to protect their families.

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    Charlotte Lithgow


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