Here are the three most popular methods on how to start a fire with sticks.
- Hand Drill
- Bow Drill
- Fire Plow
Each method has its pros and cons, but to be successful, you must diligently follow specific instructions. It’s hard enough to be successful as is (more on this later), but without employing proper techniques, it can be all but impossible.
In this guide, we will describe each of these three methods in detail and provide simple-to-follow videos to show you exactly how to start a fire with sticks. But first, we should talk about WHY this survival skill should be learned.
Why You Should Learn How To Start A Fire With Sticks
What’s the first survival skill you think of when you hear the phrase “Wilderness Survival”?
I hope critical survival skills such as water procurement and debris shelter building come to mind. And I bet you also thought about fire starting as well.
Why? Because fire is so freaking useful in wilderness emergencies. Warmth, signaling, cooking, protection from animals…and also hope.
Fire and survival go together like bullets and guns. There’s just a special place in the human heart for fire and survival.
For instance, when all hope seems lost in the wild, a fire will spark some much-needed inspiration to keep you going.
It just feels like, “if you can make a fire…you can make it”.
Or as said by the blind priest in the classic movie Frankenstein, “Fire Is Good. Fire Is Our Friend”.
Sure, fire is good; fire is our friend; but a fire is easy, right? Just whip out your $1.50 gas station Bic, hold the flame to wood and presto you got yourself a blazing, warm campfire.
But let me ask you this; “Do you always have a lighter with you? Have you ever forgotten to pack one? Did it get confiscated by TSA airport security?”
The truth is, matches get wet, lighters run out of fluid, and both are notorious for going missing when you most need them.
But sticks; yes sticks, can be found nearly anywhere.
Learning how to start a fire with sticks is not a survival skill you want to be forced to use. But it’s a skill that every prepared survivalist should master.
Being able to start a fire, build a shelter, and craft survival weapons from natural raw materials is powerful. The ability to survive with only the resources you can scavenge from the wilderness is called Bushcraft.
And Bushcraft skills are what wilderness survival is all about.
These skills are not just useful for survivalists; even if you’re a camper, hiker, backpacker, hunter or angler starting a fire with sticks is an essential survival skill you should practice.
It’s one of the few basic self-reliance skills that might someday save your life. So it’s time to learn this skill; Just In Case.
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How To Start A Fire With Sticks: Friction
Starting a fire with sticks, in its simplest form, boils down to harnessing the physics of friction. Each of the three methods shares this friction concept.
So let’s go through the general idea of how friction creates fire and then we’ll dive into the details of the specific methods.
Preparation Is Crucial
If you get the preparation right, you’ll drastically increase your odds of success. Preparation includes:
1 – Procure the proper materials.
- Sourcing a dry straight stick
- Finding dry flat wood to make a fire board (or fire hearth)
- Creating a dry and very fine tinder bundle
- Creating a bunch of kindling
- Having a bunch of dry sticks
The main thing in common in this list are that you must use dry wood. If you select wood with moisture, you are putting yourself at a significant disadvantage. Don’t underestimate how important this step is. You get this wrong; you’re destined to fail.
So the key to getting this right is to select sturdy wood with very low moisture content.
Why? Because moisture is fire starting’s kryptonite. The more moisture in the wood, the more friction will be necessary to build an ember, and the less chance of success you’ll have.
Seasoned woods are ideal, but any thoroughly dried-out wood will do.
2 – Stage the materials.
You need to have your tinder bundle and kindling staged in such a way that the materials are nearby and ready to be employed.
Much of this is fire starting 101.
The process of going from ember to fire is called “working a fire up the ladder.” This is how it works:
- You begin with a heat source or flame. For this ember or flame to grow you need very dry and very fine tinder.
- Then this tinder bundle provides enough fire and energy to catch larger more robust materials such as kindling.
- Then finally, the fire is strong enough to catch small dry sticks and logs.
This is how you go from a small ignition source to a roaring fire.
If you skip these preparation steps you’ll find it much more difficult to get a fire going (unless you have a fire accelerant – such as gasoline).
So before you begin, collect some dry kindling: old plants, bits of cured wood, dandelion fluff, old stalks, dead grass. This will act as your tinder bundle. In general, the finer the tinder, the more flammable.
Don’t underestimate this step. If your tinder bundle is not dry and fine enough, you’ll struggle to transfer fire from your hot ember to the tinder bundle.
Also, gather larger twigs and sticks to feed the kindling.
Kindling is wood (sticks) slightly larger and most substantial than tinder.
Flammable materials such as dry cedar bark, pine shavings, and needles, are all great kindling options. All those resinous dried soft woods that burn fast.
You’ll add these slower burning hardwoods to your fire after you’ve got it going using your tinder bundle.
That’s it. Here’s a quick recap:
- You find all the proper materials (dry stick, dry board, dry/fine tinder material, dry/fine kindling materials, and small/dry sticks)
- Prepare materials for ideal setup (fire drill setup and fire starting materials setup)
- Create massive amounts of friction using one of the three techniques discussed below
- The friction buildup will turn the friction point from wood into hot ember
- Quickly transfer the hot ember into your tinder bundle and blow (this ignites your tinder bundle)
- Grab the kindling and use the burning tinder bundle to ignite it
- Keep adding larger, dry sticks to create a long lasting fire
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Making Fire with Sticks: Hand Drill
The simplest way to create enough incendiary friction is with a setup called a fire drill.
A fire drill looks exactly like it sounds. It’s a drill made with sticks and wood. The overall setup mirrors the design of a drill press you would see in a metal fabrication shop.
It’s a combination of a long, straight, dry, sturdy stick with one end sharpened to a point and a flat piece of wood. The stick’s sharp tip is set down at a perpendicular angle onto a flat piece of wood called a fireboard.
But before drilling, being successful with this method begins with the proper material selection: fireboard and sticks. As we touched on early in this article, the wood materials must be dry. The drier, the better.
Once a fireboard and stick have been procured, it’s time focus on creating an enormous amount of friction.
Now with this fire drill setup, you place your open hands on either side of the stick. Palms flat, stick between palms and you rub your hands together making the stick twirl.
The twirling action of the stick then transfers rotational energy via friction at the point of contact between stick and fireboard.
Pro Tip: Placing your foot on the fireboard will hold it steady while you are twirling.
With a hand drill method, the friction is created by twirling the pointed stick with your hands while at the same time adding downward pressure through stick into the fireboard.
The combination of spinning and pressure, over a period of time, creates the friction buildup needed to create a hot ember.
Pro Tip: Make sure you make a small notch in the fireboard for the tip of your fire drill stick to rest in. That shallow notch is where you’ll focus the friction to create a hot ember. The notch also helps to ensure your drill stick doesn’t wobble all over the fireboard.
You’ll also need to add a side notch on the board. The reason for the side notch is that when you are creating the friction the hot wood fibers need some oxygen and also need a place to build up. Without a notch, the hot wood fibers have nowhere to build up, and it will take much longer to create a hot ember.
Once set up, the process is simple (but not suggesting it’s easy).
Just give this setup enough friction (energy) to turn the contact point of the stick and board into a hot coal or ember.
And a hot ember is the Holy Grail of creating a fire with sticks.
This sounds simple, right? Well, it is, in theory, but here’s the catch.
While rubbing your hands together to twirl the stick, you also have to push down to create pressure. Because without downward pressure, you won’t be able to create enough friction to turn the point of contact into a small hot ember.
Significant amounts of friction are created only by the combination of 1) fast rotation and 2) downward pressure.
And significant amounts of friction are necessary.
It takes a tremendous quantity of twirling and pressure over time to create an ember hot enough to light tinder.
So you’ll need to twirl a lot.
And then twirl, twirl, twirl and twirl some more until the end of the fire drill rubbing against the fire board produces a whisper of smoke.
When you see that whisper of smoke, you’re not done but you’re making progress. You’ll need to dig deep and twirl with even more vigor.
If you pause to rest, even for a second or two, the friction you’ve worked so hard to build up will be lost. So no breaks. If you want to succeed, you must keep twirling…
The goal is to twirl until the tip of the fire drill becomes hot enough to grow into a small, very hot ember.
Once you have an ember, you can stop twirling and transfer the coal from fire board to tinder. You don’t need to rush here, a good ember will be useful for a couple of minutes, but also don’t waste time.
Place the ember into the tinder bundle and blow on the ember to give it some oxygen. Oxygen will stoke the ember and help it to transfer the ember’s energy into the tinder material.
If successful, the tinder bundle will begin smoking and will eventually burst aflame. Then just work your way up the fire ladder from ember to fire.
Congratulations! You have now successfully started a fire with sticks using the hand drilling methodology.
Now if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good video is worth at least 100 times that. So here is an excellent video that goes through the details on how to start a fire using the hand drill method.
As simple as this method seems on paper, it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
To be honest, this is one of the most challenging ways to start a fire with sticks and requires a ton of determination.
Why? Because not only will the contact point become affected by the forces of friction, so will your hands.
Your hands will quickly become hot and sore. If your hands are not used to this sort of abuse, they will soon become blistered and bloody as well. And that’s the rub.
Often the pain in your hands becomes too great to continue before you can establish a glowing ember.
It may become so painful that you will swear, curse, and give up in a heap of sweaty, frustrated agony.
So can a fire be started with a fire drill setup using only your hands? Yes, it is possible, but unless your calloused hands are accustomed to this sort of abuse, it’s not probable.
However, all is not lost.
The way I see it, you have two options to help improve your odds of success.
- If you have another person with you, you can trade off twirling. For this to work you have to transfer twirling duties quickly. Because every time you stop (even for a second or two) you lose hard earned friction buildup. However, if you can transfer quickly, you will allow your hands and muscles a break. Which over time may allow for a faster, more successful friction buildup.
- Make a simple tool and setup modification to take your soft, weak, fleshy hands out of the equation altogether.
Making Fire with Sticks: Fire Bow
Another way on how to start a fire with sticks is with the use of a fire bow. You may recognize these from movies of a certain time period where the heroes fashion a bow designed device from a branch and some twine.
They give the fire bow a few smooth pulls, and moments later fire jumps to life. Again, it’s not as easy as it looks.
The directors of those sorts of movies edit out the hours of toil and sweat and instead hop right to the best part – when the fire starts.
A fire bow is composed of a sturdy branch but, in this case, you want it to have some moisture. This helps prevent it from snapping while you are drilling for friction. The sort of branch you are looking for has a slight C shape to it, like a bow.
Yes, you can buy a fire bow and practice with it at home, but we are talking about ruggedly living off the land for a time. Blue light specials won’t save you.
Try making a fire bow at home from natural material so you know what to do in the event of wilderness survival.
So once you have your bow-shaped stick there are a few more steps to create a fire bow. Next, you need some string. Most string materials can work, twine, shoestring, etc. However, I keep paracord with me at all times because it’s the perfect material for this task.
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Worst case, if you don’t have shoe strings or paracord, you can tear a long strip of sturdy material from your clothing. Not ideal but you can make it work.
Another wilderness option is to find some tough, flexible vines, like grape vines.
The length of cordage you need is roughly one and half times the length of your fire bow.
Now fasten the cordage to each end of the fire bow, at the tip ends.
Pro Tip: A fire bow fire drill works better if you select a stick that is larger in circumference than the one you’d twirl in your hands. This helps give the bow cordage more area to grab which helps smooth the twirling process.
Now since you’re not twirling with both hands and are instead using only one hand on the fire drill, you can use the other hand to apply a stabilizing bearing block.
This is a piece of wood (or shell) held comfortably in your hand and placed on top of the fire drill to keep it steady as you twirl. If using wood as the stabilizing bearing block you’ll want to add a natural lubricant to it. A lubricant helps to prevent the bearing block from building friction and working against your twirling efforts. Some fresh leaves work for this or a crushed worm or slug can work as well.
As before, make sure you have a tinder nest with easily ignitable materials on hand, ready to catch the coal you create.
Now you’re ready to drill for fire. The fire drill cordage is looped once around the stick so you can twirl it by moving the bow in a back and forth motion like you are sawing.
The fire bow string twirls the fire drill, so its point rubs against the fireboard, creating the fire-producing friction.
You hold the fire drill steady in place with your free hand placed on top of the hand-hold, keeping the fire drill from dancing all over the fireboard.
The fire bow has the following benefits over hand twirling alone:
– It’s way easier on your hands.
– You can create more downward pressure and maintain a similar twirling rate. This is due to the free hand pushing down on the stick through the stabilizing block.
– When one hand gets sore, you can switch hands, which should help maintain a fast twirling rate and pressure without tiring as quickly.
Everything else remains the same. Friction–>hot ember–>tinder bundle–>kindling–>small sticks–>logs–>FIRE.
Here’s a video that shows this method in a way that is easy to follow:
Making Fire With Sticks: Fire Plow
The third way on how to start a fire with sticks is by employing a fire plow setup. A fire plow uses the same physics of friction but in a slightly different way.
With a plow, the necessary friction develops from sliding back-and-forth, instead of rotational.
So to accommodate sliding, you create a trough in your fireboard.
This trough is where you place the tip of your stick. Then you push and pull the tip of the stick down into the fire board at a 45-degree angle. So the pressure slides the stick along the trough. Doing this quickly, repeatedly, and forcefully, creates the friction build up necessary to create a hot ember.
Everything else from preparation to “working up the fire ladder” is essentially the same.
Here’s a video on using Yucca to build a fire plow.
Now is the time to take the knowledge of how to start a fire with sticks and put it to some use. The best way to learn is to practice. I just supplied the first half of the equation, now its time for you to supply the second half.
And once you’re successful, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Happy Drilling & Plowing.