Starting a Fire Without a Match: Harder Than it Looks

Humans have been starting fires without matches longer than with them. Can our modern man measure up?
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Humans have been starting fires without matches longer than with them. Can our modern man measure up?

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Illustration by Jacob Thomas

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

I’d argue that for many men (and more than a few women), there is no badge of merit, no boon of confidence more desirable than starting a fire without a match. “I can build fire from nothing” seems like a great way to win anything: cocktail-party chatter, free drinks, a date, your life on a frigid night.

Wilderness warriors might have access to mosquito-size blowtorches now, but knowing you can use the knowledge of your Cro-Magnon forebears to bring forth a blaze from nothing more than your hands, sweat, and a couple of sticks feels like the pinnacle of self-reliance. I hope never to find myself in a survival situation without a Bic, but if it happens, I won’t be the guy with hypothermia.

Admittedly, I’m a little obsessed with emergency fire making. I’ve sparked a flame from flint and knives, with cell- phone batteries and steel wool, and a spate of other improvised tools. During a survival course, I even used a fire bow (see right) employing friction to generate a glowing coal. But I cheated: The tools were built for me; all I had to do was saw like a maniac until my exhaustion birthed an ember. I’d never lit a fire using items pro- cured in the field by myself.

So when it came time to zero in on a technique this time around, the choice was easy. I decided to return to the fire bow—partially out of pride (could I do it without help?), and also because it provides a natural mechanical advantage over simply rubbing two sticks together using only your hands. Plus: YouTube is littered with bushcraft survivalist tutorials that make it look easy.

On a dry afternoon (no sense battling rain on my first try), I headed into the Washington woods, vowing not to emerge until I’d warmed my hands over a matchless fire. Procuring raw materials from the forest floor proved easy: a flat, thin plank for a fireboard; an inch-thick, 8-inch long spindle; a palm-size chunk for the handhold; and a curved stick perfect for my bow. To mimic a survival situation, I used a bootlace for the bowstring.

I then used my knife to whittle and refine my tools: I cut inch-diameter divots in both handhold and fireboard to hold the spindle and a notch in the fireboard’s hole for the coal to fall out into my tinder bundle. I hacked at the ends of the spindle to create rounded points. I noticed my rough-hewn fire bow kit lacked the lacquer-smooth polish of the premade set I’d used years before; mine still had bark, and the fireboard, made of old spruce wood, seemed to crumble easily. But, in a nod to my Cro-Magnon ancestors, I hadn’t shaved in a while, which I thought might make up some of the difference.

With set made, I recalled the position and form I’d learned in survival class—and which I’d seen repeated by the khaki- and-camo bushcraft gurus on YouTube. I placed my left foot on the board and right knee on the ground, with left wrist braced against my shin and my hand firmly gripping the handhold to press the drill into the board. I picked up the bow with my right hand and started sawing.

Immediately, the spindle popped out of the loop in the bowstring and clattered away. No problem—just use more pres- sure and loosen the bowstring. I returned, drawing the bow back and forth with speed, only to see the shoelace spinning around the spindle instead of turning it. Damn. Tighten the bowstring again, but not too much. Finally, a spinning spindle: But instead of producing a smooth, smoking coal factory, my spindle juddered and bounced in its notch. Sweat poured into my eyes and my back twitched. Keep at it, caveman, I thought. Life or death. You are the master of nature.

SH#$!

I spat and kicked at the grass after my drill blew open the notch, shredding the fireboard’s edge. After carving a new notch and applying another two hours of labor, I’d produced a pinch of tan saw- dust—not the fine, black powder that precedes a life-giving ember. But the sawdust felt a little warm to the touch. Positive reinforcement. I got back to work on a fresh set of blisters.

As detailed as YouTube tutorials are, they can’t convey the interplay of wood and spindle—when to speed up, slow down, back off, or add pressure. One does not simply walk into the woods and conjure a fire without practice.

Over the course of another two hours, I received a lone, faint sign of encouragement: a wisp of smoke escaping my borehole like a strand of spider silk. I ignored the cramp in my forearm and sawed with renewed vigor . . . until the shoelace started sliding on the spindle again. I dropped to the ground, vowing now to trade in my fire bow and beard for hair gel and a martini.

In prehistoric Europe, early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both had access to fire, showed signs of intelligence, and com- peted for the same resources. We don’t entirely know why one species won out over the other. But I’d like to think that it was because if my Cro-Magnon cousin had access to a pocket blowtorch, he’d have been smart enough to use it.

The Verdict : FAIL

With better materials and more time, I’m sure a motivated hiker can conjure fire from nothing. But I think I’ll start packing three lighters.