Fires: methods of ignition

February 11, 2019

There are many ways to start a fire. We look at the pros and cons of some of the main ones.

fire steel and striker with sparks
Author: Muddy Faces

Age Range: 6+

Duration: less than an hour

Location: anywhere

Time Of Day: any time

Season: any

Tags: bow drill, fire, firelighting, flint and steel

Category: bushcraft & survival

Introduction

There are a multitude of ways to ignite a fire and many tools to help you to choose from (Muddy Faces stock a range of fire lighting resources). Here we give a brief summary and a few pros and cons of each.
One of the key points in fire lighting that applies to all methods of ignition is to have a good supply of dry tinder and kindling ready to use. Whatever method of ignition you won’t be able to ignite a pile of damp logs!
Look at our creating and maintaining a fire activity for more information about preparation.

Environmental considerations

Is there anything to consider from a ‘leave no trace’ perspective? Or anything else that could have an environmental impact?

  • clear up and ‘leave no trace’

Health & safety considerations

Follow your usual operating procedures and carry out appropriate risk benefit assessments. Some considerations particular to this activity include:

Matches

Matches are an easy way to ignite a fire and having a tub of waterproof matches in your store for emergencies can be useful, but fire lighting with matches lacks challenge.

Standard matches

Pros: simple way to ignite a fire
Cons: easily become damp and ineffective when being used out doors and ineffective in wind and rain

Waterproof matches

Pros: have extra long heads that will burn in wind and rain
Cons: need to be used and stored with caution

plastic container of waterproof matches

Lighters

Pros: like matches you can create an instant flame
Cons: they are difficult to use for children. The top of the lighter can get hot when the flame is going for any length of time. With some types of lighters the flints can get damp and not work so well if at all

Note from Liz, founder of Muddy Faces: “I have a rechargeable turbo lighter with a flick up lid for “just in case”. I have had it 10 years and its never run out as I hardly ever use it. Consider rechargeable lighters and avoid single use plastic ones.”

Ferrous rod fire steel

Fire steels all work by striking a steel surface against a ferrous rod to create a spark – for more information check out our how to use a fire steel activity which gives an overview of the different types available.

Pros: fire steels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, including ones that are better for use with smaller hands if you’re working in Early Years. Can be used in wet conditions
Cons: the ferrous rod will eventually wear away and need replacing or it may break. It can oxidise if not used for a while or kept in damp conditions

selection of different firesteels

Traditional flint and steel

See our traditional flint & steel activity for more information and instructions on how to use.

Pros: experiencing a traditional and more challenging technique
Cons: needs to be used with char cloth, higher skill level required, fewer sparks created compared to fire steel

traditional flint and steel, steel in right hand left hand holding flint and charcloth

Magnifying glass (solar ignition)

Using a glass lens (convex) or even a tiny plastic magnifying sheet and holding it in between the sun and some tinder will cause ignition to take place.

Hold the lens close to the tinder and then move it towards the sun slowly to create a tiny pinprick-sized focal point of light (photons) on the tinder.

Pros: learning that comes from experimenting and exploring the physics of light (optics); it is fun (Liz: “I spent hours as a child using a lens for pyrography – solar art”)
Cons: only works on a sunny day, most effective if used with char cloth

magnifying glass

Parabolic mirror (solar ignition)

Like using a lens or magnifying glass, the parabolic mirror works by concentrating the photons of the sun into a focal point to ignite tinder.

Pros: fun to experiment with and explore the physics
Cons: you will need sunshine!

Image: © Copyright Glyn Baker and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

a parabolic mirror in a park, reflecting tress, houses and sky, upside down

Friction – bow drill & hand drill

Using a bow drill is an advanced fire lighting technique using friction. A bow drill uses a bow to rotate a spindle of wood into a base board. The heat generated from the friction is used to ignite the tinder. The type of woods used is very important to the success of the process. Dave Watson from Woodland Survival Crafts often runs interesting courses on bow drills.

The hand drill method is like the bow drill but you use both hands to rotate the spindle, rather than a bow.

Pros: a challenging traditional method, using natural materials
Cons: advanced technique and requires a lot of patience and effort

bow drill held in hand, hand holding stick with string from bow base wood held down by foot

Fire piston

Creating ignition by air compression – amazing!

Check out how to use a fire piston on our Bushcraft & Survival skills information page.

Pros: awe and wonder! simple and reliable device that can be used in moist conditions
Cons: expensive

fire piston product