Fire is key to our success as a species and – in prehistoric times with limited tools – knowledge and expertise to be able to make fire was essential to survive. It warms us, cooks our food, gives us light and energy, protects us, and sometimes harms us. Hours can be spent around a warm campfire, gazing into its flames and listening to its crackling noise. It can help set the tone for a deep and meaningful conversation, or a great story. Nowadays, we can control fire at the touch of a button, flick of a switch, or even via an app on a mobile device. Yet how many of us feel confident we could summon the awesome power of fire without these modern tools? Whether it’s on a family camping holiday, on a wild expedition, or in a situation of real need and emergency, when our lives and those of others depend on it, could we deliver? Read on for the know-how you might need one day.

So, let’s get to it. In this article are some techniques to start a fire using the most minimal of tools. Bear in mind that whilst you may feel like The Human Torch (Johnny Storm) after learning these, fire is dangerous and you should always start a fire in a controlled environment and only when you have the right permission (not in a protected natural area or where the land is susceptible to the fire spreading out of control - take the Amazon as a recent example). In the same way that you should know how to start a fire safely, you should also know safe techniques for how to put them out. To begin with you will need to come prepared and should definitely make sure that you are carrying tinder with you – and not the app either! (It makes us sad that we have to clarify that!)


What Can I Use For Tinder?

This will be key to starting any fire, even if you had matches! You don’t need huge amounts of it, but the tinder you do have should be fine, dry material that is very easy to light. Any of the following work well:

  1. Rope fibre that is teased apart
  2. Thin threads from clothing
  3. Balls of cotton soaked in Vaseline.
  4. Wool and / or animal hair
  5. Very small twigs, lollipop sticks.
  6. If you have the luxury of being in the woods, bark and cattails. However, in the desert we probably won’t find these materials.

*NB. Some people even buy tinder kits but these will tend to have in them what we have described above.



How can I use flint and steel to start a fire?

One of the most famous ways to start a fire without matches is to use flint. Rubbing steel and flint produces sparks which, if you have the right tinder, can start the lighting of your fire. A tiny glow from your tinder and some smoke, blow onto it to get the embers going and there you have it. Again, flint and steel would need some preparation beforehand, as you would have to have a flint and steel kit on you. The good news is that these kits are small, robust, and relatively cheap. It also doesn’t matter if they get wet (which isn’t true of your tinder). One additional thing to mention is that you can also buy flint and steel kits which have a magnesium strip. You shave off some of the magnesium and this serves as your tinder.


How to use a magnifying glass to start a fire

What if you don’t have flint and steel? Do you have a magnifying glass instead? If not, perhaps you should think about taking one with you. Again, small ones that rotate in and out of a vinyl or leather case are fairly inexpensive and very portable. Even a small plastic pharmacy magnifying glass would do the trick. You can add it to your kit list when heading into the wild without worrying about weight or space. Remember you need lots of sunlight for this technique. MCX specialises in desert adventures – relying on sunlight to start a fire with a magnifying glass is usually a safe option. But sometimes it gets cloudy, even in the desert!

For this to work you need to position the magnifying glass correctly between the Sun and your tinder. When you hold your glass horizontally you will see a circle of light form on the ground beneath it. You should then move the glass, and tip it in the direction of the Sun so that the circle of light gets as small, concentrated and as round as possible. It should get brighter as the light gets more concentrated. You may get some smoke without flames, in which case you may need to blow on the embers whilst holding the magnifying glass in place, to get it going better. You may also try using some different tinder.



What can I use to start a fire instead of a magnifying glass?

Here are some alternatives:

  1. If you don’t have a magnifying glass a clear plastic bag (like the airport security ones) filled with water can also do the trick. The more spherical the bag the better.
  2. A mirror can also achieve the same thing.
  3. The lens from binoculars/telescopes
  4. The lens from a camera
  5. A pair of glasses

OK these ideas are great but what if I’m stuck in the wild with really nothing. No glass, no flint, nothing. Well, one option is to use friction, something you may see a lot in the films, however this technique is perhaps the most difficult and requires hard wood, soft wood and is easier with two people. Our video on how to make fire with bushmen Timeh and Nixau illustrates this technique superbly. You need to make a pilot hole in the soft wood (with a v-shaped groove leading out of it to one side, to allow sawdust to escape and not smother your embers). The thin hardwood spindle, cut into a sharp point, then needs to be spun many times and quickly in the pilot hole, generating friction. Your spindle needs to be a long, straight piece of wood with not too many notches and bone dry, and need to be the right diameter. When spinning by hand you need about 20 inches of spindle (5 with the bow method). When spinning by hand you need to start spinning at the top of the spindle, then work your way down rubbing your hands together with the spindle, putting on lots of downward pressure.


Remember this technique is all about technique, not brute force. If you have the right wood, the right spindle and the right conditions you can get an ember after resetting about 6 - 12 times. If it takes longer you probably don’t have the right conditions. Rubbing the hard wood against the soft wood generates hot sawdust embers. You should then transfer these onto your tinder, and blow on it gently. You may need to do this several times.

How to light a fire with sticks - the fire plough technique

The fire plough technique is similar to the above. The wood must be BONE dry which probably isn’t a problem in the desert! You need one hard stick, which you whittle down to a sharp flat edge (like the tip of a spear). You then have to make a long groove all the way along a long piece of hardwood. At the end of the groove make another groove perpendicular, and fill it with your tinder, so that the sawdust embers from your rubbing are pushed onto the tinder. This method is exhausting and challenging, but perhaps the simplest (you just need two pieces of dry wood and a pocket knife).

Or finally, you can make a fire saw. You need dry bamboo for this. Split it in half lengthways down the middle. Place one piece (curved downwards) on the floor and stuff your tinder in the hollow space underneath. Take the other half and saw above where you have stuffed your tinder, in a perpendicular motion. This is also exhausting! And you need bamboo. Maybe in China?


How Do I Put Out The Fire Safely?

Wherever you are it is absolutely essential that any fires you have made are completely extinguished and left in a 100% safe way. Use the points below for tips and as a checklist:

  1. Allow your wood to burn down completely to ash if possible.

  2. Pour lots of water on the fire. Not just on the red embers, but on all of them. Stop when you no longer hear the hissing sound.

  3. If you don’t have water (in the desert) the best alternative is to stir dirt and sand into the embers with a spade and bury the fire.

  4. Scrape any remaining sticks or logs with your spade to remove any embers and make sure there are no embers still smoking or smouldering.

  5. Keep stirring sand/dirt into the fire until it is cool.

  6. Remember if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave. Don’t leave your fire until it is completely out.




If you'd like any further information on these techniques or would like to learn more about desert survival more generally, stay in touch with MCX on our social media channels and make sure you are on our mailing list to receive the latest articles. And if you haven’t yet experienced what it is to walk across a desert and breathe in some of the world’s most achingly beautiful places, get in touch with MCX and plan your first expedition. We look forward to hearing from you…