How to start a fire with sticks

I was fascinated by fire when I was a kid. I wasn’t dropping matches in trash cans or anything but I loved the fact that I could harness the power of something as significant as fire simply by rubbing two sticks together. My grandparents could keep me away from lighters, but they couldn’t hide all the sticks.

By the time I was 10 I knew how to start a fire with a bow drill until a dramatic near-accident (I’ll tell you about it later) made me move on to the other fire starting methods. 

I can start a fire with sticks using each of these techniques but as you’ll see, I have some pretty strong opinions about which methods I prefer.

Before you get started

The ability to start a fire with sticks is one of the essential wilderness survival skills to master in preparation for any number of worst-case scenarios. It can absolutely save your life. 

I can teach you how to do it, but understand that building a fire with sticks is not an easy undertaking. Reading and memorizing the steps isn’t enough. You have to go out, find a safe place (out of earshot from any children whose vocabulary you don’t want to expand) and sweat through the process yourself until you’ve mastered it.

Once you’ve acquired and successfully applied your new fire-making knowledge, give yourself a pat on the back and a shot of whiskey. You’ve earned it. Then go out and buy a lighter.   

Even if you can build a fire with sticks, in an emergency it’s best to simplify any process that you can in order to conserve energy and brainpower. We are lucky enough to live in a time in which you can buy a fire starter at every corner convenience store. They even come in a variety of colors. Buy and carry one. 

Preparation for all three methods

All three methods of building a fire with sticks rely on rubbing two sticks together with the appropriate speed and force to create friction and produce tiny pieces of smoldering wood embers. These pieces will be so small, they’re better described as “hot dust.”

You then introduce these small charcoal pieces to your tinder bundle (also known as a tinder nest) in order to produce a flame. Once the tinder is fully aflame, you use it to ignite larger sticks known as kindling which you, in turn, use to ignite the main meat of the fire, the bigger logs (or “fuel”).

Whichever method you choose to make your spark, you must complete the following three steps before you begin. 

Step 1: Create a tinder bundle

The tinder bundle is especially critical as it is that little ball of magic that turns a tiny spark into a full-on flame. 

You can create a tinder bundle out of anything flammable, dry and stringy. Dead grass, clothing lint, finely shredded tree bark, pine needles, thin wood shavings and strips of dry paper all fit the bill. You are looking for easily ignitable materials. 

If you’re out in the wilderness and you left your clothing lint back in the lint trap of your dryer, you can create tinder material with a knife by cutting bark or other fibrous wood materials into very thin pieces and strips. 

The goal is to create a lot of surface area, giving the material a greater chance of catching fire. It is also wise to vary the thickness of the various flammable materials. Even the smallest wood dust can catch a spark but, in order to sustain the flame, you need larger strips as well. The biggest can be up to a half-inch thick.

You need a fair amount of this material, more than enough to fill your two cupped hands. 

When you have collected enough, use the largest of the flammable materials as a sort of frame and build inward with the smallest pieces (down to the very dust) in the middle. It should resemble a bird’s nest upon completion, hence the term “tinder nest.”

Be sure to keep your tinder dry while you complete the other steps. You’ve seen the look on a kid’s face when the ice cream falls off his cone? Magnify that by about 100 and that’s what you’ll look like should your tinder fall into a puddle while you’re looking for kindling.   

Step 2: Collect kindling

Kindling is the intermediary step in the fire-making process between the yahoo moment of seeing a bright, orange flame and the ‘ahh’ moment of putting your feet up next to a roaring fire. 

Kindling can be any thin, dry sticks or wood splinters that range up to the thickness of a pencil. It is important that they are as narrow as possible to provide sufficient surface area in order to catch and sustain the flame from your tinder bundle.

The wood you choose as your kindling is very important. Avoid green wood which is still attached to the tree. Dead wood, so long as it is dry, is preferable. A good rule of thumb is that the easier a stick is to snap, the drier it is. If it bends rather than breaks, it will be much more difficult to ignite.

If you know your tree species, you can seek out dead pine trees. Pines contain a resin that is highly flammable, making them a great kindling resource.

You can also increase the likelihood of a successful fire by carving your kindling into “feather sticks.” This is a pretty simple process if you have a sharp knife handy. Make a shallow slit in the wood and push your blade towards the base as if you were whittling. Stop before the end of the stick after you have a small curl. 

Repeat as many times as you can without breaking the stick. Your stick should resemble a feather and will now have much more surface area to catch the flame from your tinder material. 

Step 3: Collect fuel

You also need to collect the “fuel” or larger wood pieces that will sustain your fire after you’ve managed to ignite the kindling. These are the bigger pieces of wood. If you can get these going, you’ll be roasting marshmallows (probably imaginary if you’re in survival mode)  and singing songs in no time.

Like kindling, the larger logs need to be as dry as possible. If the environment you’re in has just experienced light rains, it is possible to peel off wet bark with a knife, hatchet or sharp rock to reveal dry wood underneath. 

Remember that you’re not looking for huge logs yet at this point; the risk is too great that you might smother your flame. Look for branches slightly thicker than a baseball bat. A large log added to a fire that’s not burning hot enough to sustain it will put you all the way back to Step 1. 

If you are in a survival situation, make sure to collect enough wood to last you through the night. Waking up cold to a smoldering fire that you have to restart in the dead of night isn’t pleasant.

Step 4: Build a fire lay

Once your tinder is nested and your kindling collected and feathered, it is time to build your “fire lay” (these terms make this process sound so much more pleasant than it will be in a survival situation.) 

A fire lay is a structure that you will build out of kindling to receive the flaming tinder nest.  That makes it sound a little more complicated than it is. Basically, it is just how you arrange the sticks that you want to burn. 

There are people who take this kindling architecture quite seriously and they’ve given a lot of colorful names for various fire lays. There’s the council fire, the cross ditch, the pyramid, the log cabin, the star and probably the most common, the teepee fire. 

You can probably picture what these arrangements look like just by their names, but the truth is, you don’t need to build any sort of perfect structure as long as you remember two things:  Fire goes up; fire likes oxygen.  

If you arrange the kindling with a roof to catch the flames as they rise and enough space between sticks to fuel the flames with oxygen (but not so much space that a wind gust can blow it out) you should be good.

Then you can name the structure you build after yourself. There’s not a lot of room to boost your ego in a survival situation, so take this opportunity. Imagine how proud you’ll feel as “The Doug” fire lay bursts into a powerful blaze and provides enough heat to keep you warm and toasty through a frigid night.

Make sure the fuel logs are close by but don’t add them to the fire too soon. A kindling fire is still a very fragile thing and can easily peter out if you’re too quick with the big logs. Keep some extra kindling off to the side in case your kindling fire is holding a flame but not yet blazing. You can stoke the fire with extra sticks before adding the big stuff.

Methods for starting that magical spark

Now that you’ve prepared your tinder nest, collected kindling and fuel logs and have arranged your fire lay, you have a choice to make. Which method will you use to create the smoldering-hot, little charcoal flakes that will spark your fire?

We are building friction fires, so all three methods are going to involve a lot of rubbing, and not the fun kind. Unfortunately, this is how to start a fire with sticks. It can expend a lot of energy and if you’re my age, you’re definitely going to feel it in the morning.

Read through the steps for each method and decide ahead of time which will be your go-to in an emergency. If you are serious about working on your survival skills, practice until you’ve perfected at least one of these methods.

Fire plow method

The fire plow method was my favorite during my slacker teenage years because it’s the simplest setup for building a fire with sticks. Plus it didn’t cause me any adolescent humiliation (see below). 

This is the fire-making method Tom Hanks successfully uses in Cast Away, which I rather enjoyed. There are definitely some inaccuracies but he showed some decent survival skills. Tom Hanks also did a movie called Inferno that I never saw but I don’t think he starts the fire in that one.

Fire plow step-by-step instructions:

  1. Find or create a wood slab with flat surfaces on either side. This will be your fireboard or “hearth board.”
  2. Carve out a long, fairly thick groove or trough into the fireboard’s surface.  
  3. Find a stick that’s straight and about as thick and long as a heavy-duty screwdriver.
  4. Wittle one end of your stick into a point that is almost as wide as the groove in your base log.
  5. Put a piece of bark or another dry receptacle at the bottom of the base log to catch any hot dust or embers that escape the trough.
  6. Find a comfortable position above the log – you’ll be in this posture for a while.
  7. Start rubbing the pointed end of your stick through the groove in the log, placing downward pressure on the stick. Start slowly, increasing the speed as the wood heats up. You’ll begin to see black dust or flakes forming.
  8. Keep rubbing until you see wisps of smoke at the bottom of the groove. 
  9. Pause to allow the black, smoldering dust to get a little oxygen. The hot dust should stick together a bit. 
  10.  Blow gently on the black dust flakes and they’ll begin to resemble tiny glowing embers.
  11. Transfer the little embers to the middle of your tinder bundle.
  12. Close the tinder bundle around the embers.
  13. Blow gently into the bundle until you see the bundle catch fire.
  14.  Place the burning tinder bundle in the center of your fire lay.

Hand drill method

The hand drill method is the most masochistic method on this list and I stand by that statement even though I have literally set myself (ok, my pants) on fire after using one of the other methods. 

I include the hand drill method on this list only because when people picture how to start a fire with sticks, this is the method they envision. I don’t think an article entitled “How to Start a Fire with Sticks” would be complete without it. 

If you don’t have heavy calluses and enjoy keeping the skin on your hands, don’t use a hand drill. Start a fire with either of the two other methods.

The hand drill method is the combination of the worst aspects of the other two methods. You have the more difficult preparation of the bow drill method with all the physical labor of the fire plow method. 

Also, by the way, hand drill is the method that Tom Hanks uses UNsuccessfully in Cast Away.

If you are practicing your survival skills, I would skip this one entirely. The risk of injury to your hands is too great. Since your hands are the keepers of your disposable thumbs, they are pretty critical to your success in any situation. 

You’re still reading? Do you really want to do this? Either you don’t trust me or you really enjoy a physical challenge. Either way, here’s how to start a fire with sticks if you hate yourself:

Hand drill step-by-step instructions

  1. Find or carve out a fireboard (otherwise known as a hearth board) that is flat on both sides.
  2. Find a long, straight stick and remove any knots. This will be your fire drill or fire stick.
  3. Whittle a dull, rounded contact point into the end of the fire drill. 
  4. With your knife, dig out a hole in the fireboard that’s the same width as your drill. 
  5. Work the fire stick into the hole and spin a few times to ensure a proper fit.
  6. Cut a notch in the side of the hearth board to the edge of the hole you just carved. The hot dust you create will build up in this groove.
  7. Put the fireboard down on a flat, dry surface and place something under the notch to catch the hot dust.
  8. Find a comfortable position in which you can hold the board steady (I put it under my left foot).
  9. Insert the fire drill into the hole in the hearth board.
  10. Put your hands on the top of the stick, one on each side with the stick in the meat of your palms. Keep your fingers straight out almost as if you are praying to the fire gods above.
  11. Rub your hands together as if you are cold (you probably are) or as if you were a cartoon villain contemplating the demise of your nemesis. Muah ha ha!
  12.  Apply downward pressure as you spin the fire drill back and forth between your two hands, making sure it remains firmly in the hole in the hearth board.
  13.  Pray to whatever deity you have the most faith in.
  14.  Mitigate the searing pain in your hands by adjusting which part of your hands comes in contact with the stick as you continue to rub.
  15. Generate enough friction to create heat.
  16. Continue the drilling process past the point where you first see smoke, applying more pressure until you have a small pile of smoldering black dust in the groove on your board.
  17. Add the black dust to the center of your tinder bundle.
  18. Lightly squeeze your tinder bundle and blow on it until it bursts into glorious flame.  
  19. Now that you have a fire burning, tend to your poor hands, you masochist.

Bow drill method

The bow drill method requires the most prep work but the least effort once you are ready to go. If you’ve properly executed the setup, the actual fire-starting process with a bow drill is pretty easy.

If it didn’t carry some emotional baggage for me (see below) I’d probably use a bow drill all the time to start a fire.

Bow drill step-by-step instructions

  1. Find a fire bow – any strong, flexible, bow-shaped stick. 
  2. Find a bowstring; if you don’t have any rope or string handy, a shoelace should do. Tightly tie the string to both ends of the fire bow.
  3. Carve out or find a stick to serve as the spindle or bow drill. The straighter the stick the better. It should be less than a foot in length. 
  4. Carve both sides of the bow drill into dull points.
  5. Find or carve a hearth board that is flat on both sides.
  6. Locate anything that can serve as a stabilizing, bearing block. You will use this to create pressure on the top of the drill. It could be really hard wood or stone. Some survival knives actually come with one in the handle. It just has to be hard and as frictionless as possible.
  7. Gouge out a hole in the hearth board just wider than the point on your drill.
  8. Work the bow drill into the hole to give the hole more depth.
  9. Carve a notch from the side of the hearth board to the edge of the circle.
  10. Put the hearth board down on a flat surface with a strong piece of bark under the notch in order to catch the hot dust.
  11. Bend the fire bow to create a little slack in the string. Make a loop in the string and insert the bow drill. 
  12. Get comfortable above the bow drill.
  13. Put pressure on the bearing block.
  14. Work the bow back and forth which will spin the drill in the hole.
  15. When you see smoke, apply more downward pressure while spinning more rapidly at the same time.
  16. Continue until you have a pinch of smoldering black dust collected in the notch.
  17. Add the black dust to the center of your tinder bundle.
  18. Lightly squeeze your tinder bundle and blow on it until it bursts into glorious flame.  
  19. Add the flaming tinder to your kindling.

Now that you’re warm and toasty

Since you have completed reading my “How to Start a Fire with Sticks,” I can only assume that you are now a master fire starter and are sitting comfortably next to a roaring fire. Well done! 

Now that you’re warm, you’ve got time for a quick story about how pride and fires never mix and how quickly your creation can turn on you. Fire can save your life, but it can humble you, or worse, in a hurry. 

Maybe you can build a fire but you can never own it.

I was about 10 or so and spent most of my time with my grandpa who only went indoors for meals. He and I were going ice fishing with one of his buddies on Rose Lake. 

I’d just read a book about starting fires with sticks and had successfully practiced the bow drill method a few times on a concrete slab under the little creek bridge. I was confident and, with a little tinder nest smooshed into the pocket of my coat, I was prepared. 

Before my grandpa had even drilled the first hole in the ice, I had my little bow drill strung up and was in the fire pit, feverishly working over my tinder.  

By the time all the tip-ups were out and everyone was heading back in, I had my kindling going. As they started to sit down, it was an actual fire. I’d never known such pride before and probably never will again. I stood above my fire and basked in my accomplishment.

Suddenly I caught a glimpse of some rapid movement. It was my grandpa’s friend, yelling something I couldn’t understand and running straight for me. Before I knew it, he had form-tackled me hard into the snow. 

He literally knocked me out of my boots. 

From where I was on the ground, I could see one of my boots in the same spot where it had been while my foot was still in it. Now it was completely ablaze.

I looked down and saw that my snow pants were also on fire.

It dawned on me that this old man who was now aggressively rolling me through the snow might be saving my life or at the very least saving me from a hell of a lot of pain. 

Grandpa didn’t say anything. He just walked onto the ice and collected the tip-ups so we could head home. I never heard him mention the incident. I had to explain my melted boots and pants to grandma. I’m pretty sure she’s responsible for the story making the rounds amongst my neighbors and cousins. 

Everybody laughed about it but I had learned my lesson. To this day, no one is more cautious around a fire than I am.

I blamed the bow drill method for my near-accident. I perfected the fire plow and, yes, even the hand drill before I finally went back to the bow drill a few years later. 

Use these methods or any other fire-starting process for that matter at your peril. Keep an eye on your pride and your boots.

And one last thing — don’t forget to completely extinguish your fire once you’re done. There are so many wildfires these days that I think half the Western U.S. must be composed entirely of tinder nests. 

Don’t be that guy on the news who burned down a national forest trying to prove he could start a fire.

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