Fire starting is one of the most important primitive skills for human survival. But depending on the tools available to you, it can be a tricky task.
Maine survivalist Ryan Holt relishes the challenge. For him, fire starting — and teaching others about it — is a passion.
“The first time I ever made friction fire, the second that fire ignited into flame — I get goosebumps when I talk about it. I can’t explain it,” Holt said. “It was like remembering something really primitive, something ingrained in our DNA.”
Holt has demonstrated his fire-starting skills many times as a contestant on the reality TV show “Naked and Afraid,” which airs on the Discovery Channel. On the show, he and other contestants rely on fire and its many uses while surviving for weeks in remote wildernesses around the globe.
“Fire is life when you’re out there,” Holt said. “It’s protection. It’s warmth. It’s used for cooking.”
Prior to starting a fire, it’s important to collect and prepare the materials to feed it, Holt said.
Dry wood of all different sizes, from tiny sticks to logs, should be organized beside the location where you plan to build a campfire. These will be used, smallest to largest, to build up your fire once it’s started.
In addition, you’ll need tinder, which is dry, flammable material that will ignite into flames when touched by a spark or ember. Paper is most familiar, but there are many materials that make good tinder.
Many people are familiar with using paper as tinder, but there are many other materials that make good tinder, including a few natural materials that are readily available in the wild.
Birch bark is one of the top natural materials for tinder in the Maine woods, Holt said. The smooth, paper-like bark is highly flammable, especially when separated into thin layers and thin strips.
“When you’re working with your tinder, you want as much surface area as possible,” Holt said.
Fire is the result of a chemical process that requires oxygen. Therefore, it makes sense that tinder with more surface area — and thus exposure to oxygen — burns more easily.
Cedar bark can also serve as an effective tinder, if scraped off in stringy pieces. Holt does this by holding his knife perpendicular to a tree and rubbing back and forth. The bark shaves off and tangles into what resembles a ball of hair.
Dried jute — a plant that does not grow in Maine — also makes for great tinder. It’s found in many premade survival kits and is sold online in the form of twine or rope.
And dryer lint and cotton balls are commonly used at tinder. Some survivalists even coat these materials in Vaseline, which is flammable petroleum jelly. They then store these tiny tinder balls in plastic baggies or small containers, such as pill bottles, to be used in a survival situation or simply to start a campfire.
How to make a friction fire kit
Many convenient fire-starter tools exist, including matches, gas-filled lighters and spark-producing devices made of magnesium and steel. But in some survival scenarios, none of those tools are available.
On a recent episode of “Naked and Afraid,” Holt found himself in that very situation. For the challenge, which took place in the African savannah, he was only allowed three survival tools: a pot for cooking, a bow (and arrows) and a knife. No fire starter.
His only option was to produce a friction fire, which isn’t as simple as “rubbing two sticks together.” Holt searched the landscape and used his knife to craft a bow drill, which is a prehistoric fire-starter tool made of wood and natural cordage. Through friction, the tool converts kinetic energy into thermal energy.
“I had to make a bow drill kit out of all natural materials while I was out there on day one, before nighttime fell because you’ve got lions, leopards and hyenas roaming around you,” Holt said. “You’re not staying out there without fire.”
Holt breaks a bow drill kit down to five components: 1. a fireboard or hearth; 2. a bow, with a cord; 3. a spindle or drill; 4. a handhold or capstone; and 5. a coal catcher.
Using dry, dead wood to create this tool is important, he said.
The first component, a fireboard or hearth, is a board or piece of wood that’s been carved to be flat and just a few inches thick. Placed on the ground, the fireboard is the object that produces sawdust and eventually a coal, when bored into by the spindle.
The spindle (or drill) is a round, straight wooden post that usually measures over an inch thick in diameter. The length can vary from 8 inches to the length of your shin. If especially short or long, it may be hard to handle. The very end is carved to be slightly tapered, coming to a point at the center.
A bow is used to spin the spindle. To make this item, you’ll need a long, skinny but strong branch that’s relatively straight and about the length of your arm. Cordage is fastened to each end, spanning between in a tight line. You can simply wrap the cordage around one end so you can readjust the tautness of the line as needed.
The next component is a handhold or bearing block, which is an object that’s held at the top of the spindle to keep it upright and in place as it spins. This object is sometimes carved out of green wood, which is less likely to burn. It can also be made of clay or a stone that’s the right shape to hold the top of the spindle. With a circular indent in the center to hold the spindle, it’s held on the top of the spindle by the fire-starter’s non-dominant hand.
“You want all of the energy and friction to go down into your fireboard,” Holt said. “You don’t want it to go up into your handhold. So if this is a piece of wood and you’re using natural materials, in order to get as much of the energy going downward, you need to sort of oil up or grease this block in your hand.”
In survival situations, Holt has rubbed the end of the spindle on the side of his nose to coat it with natural oils from his face. He’s also bunched up green grass and leaves and placed them between the spindle and handhold, using the plants’ oils.
The last component needed is a small flat piece of material to catch the saw dust and ember created by the bow drill. Holt uses a square of leather, but you could also use a green leaf or flat stone, anything that won’t burn quickly and you’ll be able to pick up. This is placed under the fireboard, directly under where you’re spinning the spindle.
How to use a bow drill
Once you’ve compiled your tinder and kindling, and you’ve crafted a five-piece bow drill kit, it’s time to start a fire.
To start, Holt carves a small circle or divot in his fireboard near the edge. He places his spindle in the divot, then uses his bow to spin the spindle back and forth, burning a hole into the board with friction.
To use the bow, he wraps its cord once around the spindle so it’s held tightly, the cord taut between the two ends of the bow. Then, with the spindle standing vertical — one end on the fireboard and one end held by the handhold — he moves the bow back and forth, horizontal to the ground. The spindle spins back and forth as it moves from one end of the bow to the other.
When using the bow, Holt kneels behind the fireboard with his right knee on the ground and his left foot on the board, steadying it.
“It’s really all about body position and bone support,” he said. “So my ankle, my shin bone, my knee, my head, everything is in complete alignment.”
This position and the movement doesn’t come easily. It needs to be practiced.
Once a circle has been burned into the fireboard, Holt carves a V-shaped notch from the center of that circle to the edge of the board. This is a space for the sawdust to fall through and collect on the coal catcher.
He then continues to spin the spindle on the fireboard, in that same spot, creating enough friction to drill into the board and form a pile of sawdust, and eventually, create enough heat to light that dust and create an ember.
The ember is coaxed to life with oxygen. Then, once burning red, he transfers it into a nest-shaped bundle of tinder. If blown on gently, the bundle quickly bursts into flame.
From there, all that’s left to do is build up the fire with your kindling, using tiny sticks and working your way up to larger pieces of wood. Before you know it, you’ll have a toasty campfire.
Related: Ryan Holt talks about his experience on ‘Naked and Afraid’