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How to Start a Fire With Sticks (Step-by-Step)

Fire is extremely important for camping and other outdoor activities, including survival. There are several ways to start a fire, but knowing how to start a fire with sticks can come in handy in a pinch.

If you plan on camping off-grid, you need to have the skills to start a fire with just sticks. Sticks are plentiful and easy to find. However, matches can get wet, and lighters can run out of fuel.

Being self-reliant in the woods is a must for backpackers. Starting a fire with friction is one of the most essential skills when camping.

All backpackers and survivalists should bring waterproof matches and a fire starter to be prepared. But if these items are forgotten, lost or spoiled, you will need to rely on starting a fire with just sticks. 

You need fire to cook food, boil water, stay warm, and deter animals from being too curious. This post will go over four different ways to start a fire with sticks. 

Campsite rules safety

Before we get too excited about starting a fire, let’s talk about safety. First of all, are you even allowed to have a fire where you plan on camping?

Check with the forest service for fire rules and regulations. Do you need a permit to camp at your desired location? 

Be aware of the upcoming weather, especially how windy it may be. Also, if it recently rained or might be raining, that may affect the wood and tinder you planned to use to start your fire.

Choose a safe location

Once you have determined that you can legally start a fire in that location, find a safe area for your fire.

Be sure the fire will be 8-10 feet away from any grasses, bushes, trees, or anything that could catch fire. 

The ground needs to be cleared of any grasses, leaves, or debris that could encourage the fire to spread away from its designated location. 

You may often find a previous camper’s fire pit of rocks; make improvements if needed. If not, you will need to build your own fire pit to safely contain the fire. 

Dig a shallow pit to help with wind and put your fire a bit lower for safety. Line the firepit with medium rocks and fill the holes with smaller rocks. Do not be lazy with building your firepit. Try to make it as solid of a wall as reasonably possible. 

Materials needed to start the fire 

Now that you have a safe home for your fire, you get to gather supplies for your fire. But, of course, these items must all be extremely dry, or your fire-making process may be complicated. 

If you know you will be at a wet campsite, you can opt to bring along some tinder of your own. This isn’t cheating; this is smart planning. But, of course, it would need to be lightweight and small if you are backpacking.

All backpackers and survivalists should bring waterproof matches and a fire starter to be prepared. But if these items are forgotten, lost or spoiled, you will need to rely on starting a fire with just sticks. 

Tinder

Tinder can be different materials; they need to be very dry and light up quickly. Such materials can be pieces of paper, small twigs, wood shavings, dry bark shaved into dust, dry grass, cotton balls, and dry leaves. 

Kindling 

Kindling needs to be more substantial and a bridge material between tinder and fuelwood. These materials are usually bigger sticks or pieces of wood cut down. They need to catch on fire pretty quickly from the tinder fire because it won’t last very long.

Kindling can also be dry bark, pinecones, and larger wood shavings. Kindling is material that cannot be skipped or overlooked. Tinder fire will burn out before fuelwood can catch fire, so you must not skip the kindling.

Fuelwood

Fuelwood is the meat of your fire and is the last layer of your fire. This consists of wood logs, lots of them. Depending on how long you need to fire to burn, different sizes are needed.

If you need your fire to last for hours or overnight, you will need bigger logs. On the other hand, if you only need a fire for a quick meal or just to get warm for a bit, choose smaller pieces of wood.

Keep in mind that you need to put your fire out in an appropriate amount of time. Larger wood will take much longer to burn down and can be unsafe if not totally cold. 

The hand drill method

The hand drill method looks simple and is what most people imagine when starting a fire with just sticks. This method involves rotating the spindle (stick) quickly and repeatedly until the friction creates embers where the bottom of your spindle meets the fireboard (a piece of wood). 

That being said, it can be challenging and take some time. All of these methods will take practice and tons of patience. 

The hand drill method involves a spindle and a fireboard. The spindle needs to be a stick about 1-2 feet long and wide as your thumb. 

The spindle needs to be rounded on both ends, especially the end that will rub against the fireboard. If one end of the spindle is slightly larger, this should be the end against the fireboard.

The spindle needs to be very dry, smooth, and straight. Keep in mind the spindle works in the hand drill method by your hands rubbing the spindle back and forth quickly. 

Imagine rubbing your hands together as if you are cold. Now do this as fast as possible and with a spindle between your hands. Now you can see why you want a smooth spindle. The hand drill method is tough on your hands. 

Next, you will need a fireboard. The fireboard needs to be a piece of wood about ½ to 1 inch thick and long enough for your foot or knee to be on one end. It needs to be a flat piece of wood so it doesn’t wobble during the process. 

You will need to carve out a depression or notch in the fireboard to house the end of your spindle. Next, carve out a small V-shaped wedge next to this other depression. The V-shaped area will house some of your tinder. 

Now that you have your supplies, you can begin the hand drill method. Place your knee or foot on one end of the fireboard, be sure the board is on a flat surface and doesn’t wobble.

Next, take your spindle and place it into the depression or notch you had carved out. Then, gather your patience and start rotating the spindle as fast as possible between your hands.

Start at the top of the spindle and increase speed as you slowly travel down the spindle. When you get to the bottom, quickly bring your hands back up and continue the process.

You should see some dust begin to form along with some heat from the friction. Keep the process going until you see smoke. 

Once you see smoke, gently blow on the area to encourage a flame. At this point, you can quickly add more tinder to the fire, not too much at first. You don’t want to suffocate the new fire. 

Be sure to have all your kindling and fuelwood ready to add to your fire when it’s time. Remember this may take several tries, be patient with yourself. The hand drill method can take 10-30 minutes, so get started before it is too dark outside. 

The bow drill method

The bow drill method involves using a bow instead of your hands to create friction. You will need a bow drill (thicker spindle), a bow, fireboard, cord, and a socket (handhold). 

The bow drill method is much easier on your hands than the hand drill method and is the most effective way to start a fire with sticks. 

The bow drill needs to be a stick about 1 inch thick and about 1 foot long. It needs to be straight and sturdy. It should also be rounded on the end towards the fireboard and slightly pointy on the other end.

The bow will be made of a slightly flexible stick (green stick) about 2 feet long and no more than 1 inch in diameter. Bend the stick to form a bow (half-moon) shape and tie some cord to both ends of the stick. 

The cord should be no thicker than a bootlace. You can even use your bootlace if you want. Make sure the cord is tight enough to keep the bow shape. 

You will also need a fireboard. This can be the same as the fireboard used with the hand drill method. 

The socket or handhold is either a rock with an indentation in it or a hard piece of wood with an indentation in it. This should be easy to hold with one hand. The socket is used to put downward pressure on the top of the spindle.

Now you are ready to make some fire. First, wrap the cord of the bow around the spindle one time. Next, place the end of the spindle into the fireboard notch with the tinder ready. 

Next, place the socket (handhold) on the top of the spindle, and apply downward pressure. Simultaneously, move the bow back and forth, causing the spindle to spin on the fireboard.

Once the tinder starts to smoke, gently blow on it and then carefully transfer more tinder and move it to your fire pit. Be sure to have all of your kindling and fuel wood ready to go. The bow drill method can take about 10-15 minutes at the most if you have had prior practice.

The fire plow method

The fire plow method is similar to the others in that it involves friction, but instead of it being rotational friction, it is forward and back motion. I like the simplicity of this method and would use it second to the bow drill method.

This method is laborious like the hand drill method but is easier on your hands. You will need a sturdy straight stick (spindle) about 1 inch in diameter and about 1 – 1 ½ feet long.

You also will need a fireboard that is about 1 foot long with a carved-out trench going down the length of the board. The trench does need to stop a few inches from one end, where you will have a small pile of tinder. 

You can place a foot or a knee on the fire board to steady the board and have leverage. The fire plow method is better than the hand drill method because you can use upper body strength instead of just your hands. 

Next, you will place the spindle at a 45-degree angle to the trench and quickly run it back and forth along the trench. Again, go as quickly as you can, and hopefully, you will see some smoke at the end where the tinder is.

You then can transfer this to your other tinder and get your fire going. Again, have all your kindling and fuelwood waiting and ready. 

The fire thong method

The fire thong method is the last method we will discuss. It also is probably the most difficult but still an option.

You will need a piece of wood that is long, dry, and a few inches wide. Dry to find a dead or very dry branch for this. Cut it down the middle the long way, about ½ way down.

Then use a rock to keep the split end open. You will also need some rope or tough cord, something flexible but strong and won’t break with friction.

The rope must be long enough to get the needed speed to create friction. You will take the rope and run it in between the split. 

Place tinder in the crook of the split, close to the rope. Lay the wood down on the ground. Be sure the ground is free of debris and grasses that could catch fire.

Place one foot on the non-split end of the wood and pull the rope back and forth through the split (thong). The friction created by the rope rubbing against the wood should start to smoke. Ideally, the smoke and heat will light up the tinder. 

I don’t like the fire thong method because the wood can break while pulling the rope. Also, the wood is weak from being split, which might happen. 

Benefits of using sticks

Using sticks to start a fire can be quite a challenge but a necessity if you are a backpacker or avid outdoors person. Matches can break or get wet, lighters can run out of fuel. What if you didn’t pack a fire starter?

It could be life or death for a solo backpacker who cannot build a fire. Fire is needed for cooking food, boiling water safe to drink, and warmth. It also can be used to signal for help and keep animals at bay.

If you can start a fire with sticks, your chances of surviving a dangerous situation just got a whole lot better. Tinder, sticks, and wood are everywhere when you are out in the forest. Sure, you may have to do a little hunting for dry materials, but the alternative is much worse.

How to avoid building a fire with sticks

Obviously, starting a fire with just sticks is much more complex than other methods. Still, it is clearly a good survival skill that all hardcore campers should have. 

That being said, fire can be made by much easier means with a bit of planning. 

Matches can be waterproofed by dipping them into wax should be stored in a dry bag or ziplock bag. Firestarters are very affordable and small. A Ferro rod fire starter and a magnesium bar are two types of fire starters you can bring along.

All of your fire-starting materials and tools should be kept in a dry bag. You can bring tinder from home if you choose to. Cotton balls are a great tinder to pack along. They take up hardly any space and weigh nothing.

FAQS

How long does it take to start a fire with sticks?

This process depends on how dry your materials are and how much practice you have had. It can take 10-20 minutes, depending on the conditions, skill, and materials. The method also plays a significant factor. For example, the hand drill and fire plow can take longer than the bow drill method.

How to start a fire with sticks and string?

Starting a fire with sticks and string can be done using the fire thong method. There are several versions of this method, and they are pretty tedious. See above for detailed steps using the fire thong method.

How to make a fire when it’s raining?

When it’s raining, making a fire is difficult enough, but if you also have to use sticks, that can be another challenge. You may have to do more hunting than usual for dry tinder and sticks. You also may have to shave off wet parts of wood to get to dryer sections. If you think you may encounter any rain at all on your trip, it is best to pack a fire starter kit.

Conclusion

As you can probably imagine, it takes a lot of practice to start a fire with sticks. So before heading out into the wilderness, try all the methods out and see which works best for you. 

Then, head to your backyard and practice, practice, practice. The last thing you want is to be in a challenging situation, and all you have done is read about these methods. 

Keep in mind, the conditions will be significantly different while camping. It may be wet, dark, and windy. Therefore, always bring along matches, a fire starter, and some small, lightweight tinder from home. Toss all this in a dry bag, and hopefully, you can avoid using only sticks to start a fire. 

And always, practice fire safety. Put out your fire completely when you are done. Stir up the coals with dirt and water until the fire is totally out. 

If you have all the skills needed to start a fire with whatever is available, you can rest easy. And as always, you can camp s’more, worry less.  

Steve and Kris
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Steve and Kris are avid campers, outdoor lovers, and founders of Camp S'more Worry Less. When they are not camping, they enjoy other outdoor activities, including fishing, kayaking, and hiking with their family. Read more.

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