Mastering Primitive Fire Starting

Fire starting is an important life saving technique. For basic survival needs it is in the top three. If you plan on going on a camping trip for a week or weekend, backpacking or hiking trip, it's easy to start a fire with "modern" available items like a box of matches or a butane lighter. But if an unknown disaster strikes and you have no way of replenishing your matches and butane, you will be in trouble.

In a long term disaster what happens after the matches are gone and the butane or lighter fluid runs out? There are other alternative and clever methods dating back to the origin of man. I would like to focus attention on a simple method when all modern sources are gone and items like ferrocerium fire sticks, etc. are exhausted.

Fire starting is an important skill everyone should master. Starting a fire can and will save your life in a disaster scenario. A fire is used to provide for cooking, heating, lighting, and security.

There are many ways to start a fire but in a long term disaster, the more popular ways will not be possible so you have to improvise and come up with a sure way of getting a fire going.

Some means of starting a fire are:

1) Matches - limited supply and hard to make.

2) Zippo type cigarette lighter - fuel runs out even if not being used - flints wear out.

3) Bic type butane lighter - limited butane reservoir, non refillable, and a limited supply - flints wear out.

4) Ferrocerium rod - will get thin and break after repeated use.

5) Plasma Electric - internal battery has limited charges.

6) Battery and steel wool - battery won't last long and steel wool is limited.

7) Fire pistonMaking a $1 Fire Piston - seems promising.

8) Flint and steel - See Creek Stewart's page and video here. Certain skill level required.

9) Bow and spindle - See Creek Stewart's page and video here. Also here. Takes a good bit of practice but doable.

10) Wood Plow - Lots of force and muscle to use it.

11) Solar (magnifying glass or Fresnel magnifying lens) - See Creek Stewart's page and video here. Will last forever.

All the above have advantages and disadvantages

What I want to focus on is a reliable way to start a fire many years after a major disaster that took the way of life down. (I'm speaking of after all the matches are used up, all the butane or gas is gone, all electricity including batteries are gone, your ferrocerium rod is worn thin and broken.)

What is left? Only natural items like wood, tinder, flint, steel, sunlight. Only items from 8 through 11 will be able to be found as raw materials almost anywhere in the world.

I would like to narrow it down to the fastest way of getting a fire started. Less than 5 seconds typical with little effort. In dangerous situations you won't have time to gather sticks, flint, wood and enough skills to get a fire going very quickly. Exposing yourself to the outdoors and elements have to be quick.

I find that a magnifying glass or better yet, a Fresnel lens is the best of all methods. Note that Fresnel is pronounced "frey-nel" as the "s" is silent and the accent on "nel". A Fresnel lens is a type of composite compact lens developed by the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788–1827) for use in lighthouses. (source Wikipedia) The Fresnel lens I will be demonstrating is a flat, flexible piece of plastic. They can be purchased in various shapes and sizes from or Ebay. They can even be found in your local Dollar Tree discount store. One can even find an old junked projection TV that has a large Fresnel screen.

The goal is to get a good quick flame going to start a campfire, cookstove, light a candle or an oil lamp as fast as you can. The sun may only peek out of the clouds for less than a minute so it's so important to get the fire going quickly. Late morning to early afternoon are the best times the sun will be out and very hot. Later in the afternoon the angle of the sun and haze will slow the time a fire can be created.

There are two sizes of Fresnel lenses that will be demonstrated. One is a credit card size and the other is a 7X10 plastic sheet. The credit card size can be purchased from Just search "credit card magnifying lens". The nice thing about both sizes is they are lightweight, cheap, and can be carried in your bug-out bag or in the case of the credit card/business card size it can be carried in your wallet. The most important thing its to keep it clean and free of scratches which will diminish its performance. The credit card ones usually come in a plastic carrier envelope to protect it.

You can also see a YouTube video showing how to start a fire with the credit card size and at the end of video there is a way you can obtain a free one from Creek Stewart.

The object of this page is to show how easy it is to get a fire started. The only fuel needed is a bit of dried grass or a dry leaf.

My YouTube video shows just how fast you can get just a flame going. What is not shown is the next step, the tinder, kindling, and small twigs and branches to keep the fire going.

Another of my videos showing how a credit card size Fresnel lens can start a fire in about 20 seconds.

My latest video showing how to start a fire in two seconds! With the credit card size Fresnel lens.

Some important hints in getting your fire started

One think I must stress, I don't recommend some easy combustibles like dryer lint, cardboard, cotton and Vaseline, battery and steel wool, etc. Only natural reoccurring materials found in nature because if society collapses and years go by, those modern items won't be around.

A small Fresnel lens is cheap and portable. The only thing to remember is that it should always be kept protected in a vinyl or cloth pouch to keep scratches from forming. Abstain from even wiping it clean with your fingers. Your dry skin on your fingers will cause scratches and enough of them will seriously diminish its performance. When you ge a new credit card it may come in its own Tyvek® pouch which will provide reasonable protection.

The Fresnel lens will easily get a glowing ember in a matter of a second or so. It is getting it to an actual flame that involves a bit of skill. You can go two ways. 1) Put the glowing ember into a "birds nest" of tinder, blow into it to get it to ignite. 2) Get your combustible material like a crushed dry leaf or sprig of dry grass tightly wrapped and use the Fresnel lens to create a flame directly, bypassing the coal-to-tinder method.

In either case you must have ample tinder, pine cone, or shredded wood fiber ready to transfer to if starting a hobo stove or campfire.

My surefire method is to find a very dry oak leaf, crush it up into very small pieces. Place ball of crushed leaf into a larger uncrushed leaf so you can shield it from even light winds and are able to transport the flame to your tinder pile. An alternate method is to take a sprig of long dry weed, fold it over a few times, twist or ball it up and place it in a leaf. If you live in another part of the U.S. or other country, you will have to experiment on different dry material to see what works best.

When holding the lens, make sure the rough side is facing the sun. If a leaf isn't usable, I use a nice flat piece of sycamore bark that can shield the wind and transport the flame.

If you are hiking, backpacking, or camping and need to start a fire in damp or rainy weather, plan in advance and while along the trail, while dry, search for a few dry leaves or dead grass, stick it in a Ziploc® bag and into your pocket. This will give you a good dry starter fuel if you eventually get caught in the rain. If possible, while dry, grab enough twigs and small branches to carry with you too. This will get your fire going quickly when conditions aren't ideal.

Before times get bad, or if you're just backpacking, practice makes perfect. Go into your woods or some place where you can safely practice fire starting, and practice, practice, practice. You must be confident you can get a fire started in a short time. If you just read and memorize these instructions without ever actually starting a fire you may be surprised how hard it could be to get a fire started.

Managing a continuous fire

Depending upon how long a disaster lasts and the time of the season will depend on how long you must maintain a continuous fire. In hot summer weather you may only need to have a fire maybe three times a week for cooking and hot water for washing. Eating better, you may need one every night. Will you keep a fire going the whole 24/7 time or will your supply of fuel limit your burning time? Obviously, cold winters means you will have a woodstove going the whole time. In the summer you could maintain an outdoor campfire continuously as long as you have enough wood but in a disaster you don't want to attract attention with smoke from the fire.

Starting a fire two or three times a day may diminish your fire starting tools and fuel fuel in no time. A magnifying glass or Fresnel lens only works during the day and not with an overcast sky that could last for a week or so. Matches will soon run out. Bic or other lighter will run out of butane and flint unless you have an ample supply. Plasma lighters are reliable but no one knows how long the electronics or battery will last. Ferrocerium rods will work until it is scraped thin and break.

So managing a fire is important. Will you just keep a candle or oil lamp lit for long periods of time? Candles and oil will eventually run out.

Other off-site links:

How to make char. Char is a charcoal like cloth or other material made from cotton or other combustibles that has most of its moisture and...have been "cooked out" or removed and if a spark is introduced, it will glow indefinitely and if introduced to tinder, it will grow into a fire.

Why ferro rods aren't perfect - Ferrocerium rods are an excellent way of starting a fire in many adverse conditions but most people don't know the most efficient and quick way of getting a fire.

A home made cook stove is called a "hobo stove" and instructions to build one out of a #10 can is on this YouTube Video from David West.




Copyright ©2022 Rick C. Ver 0.20 April 30, 2022