33 Ways to Light an Emergency Survival Fire

There are plenty of ready made fire lighters available to purchase on the market. They have varying degrees of efficiency and ease of use. In other words, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Some can be relatively costly although cheaper alternatives can be found. 

There is something to be said, however, about making your own tinders/fire lighters. Doing so can help you develop a deeper understanding of the principles of combustion and how they are applied fire lighting. Depending on your choice of component materials, home made fire lighters can be very cost efficient. This can be particularly relevant if you use them on a very regular basis.

1) Vaseline and cotton wool - The classic combination for the ultimate budget friendly fire starter. Simply rub some Vaseline onto a cotton wool pad. This can be stored in a zip lock bag or water proof container, for transportation or long term storage. The vaseline will not evaporate, so will be ready to go when you need it. To use, simply tease the fibers apart and ignite with spark or flame. 

2) Wax card - Thick card or paper that is dipped/saturated in wax. This will not take a spark as easily as the cotton wool dipped in wax, however, if done properly, wax card is waterproof and this may be an advantage in some circumstances/environments. 

3) Tinder Fungus - Also know as bracket fungus. This must be harvested, cut into strips and then dried. Once fully dried, the working surface need to scrapped (to expose fine fibers) and then ignited with a spark or flame. This works well for dried grass tinder bundles. Once the fungus catches a spark it will grow into a progressively larger coal/ember which will generate progressively more heat, to the point that dried grasses e.t.c. will catch alight. 

(Photo: By George Chernilevsky - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10577678)

4) Home Made Wet Fire - A variation on the cotton wool and vaseline method. This simply involves a third stage which is to dip the vaseline saturated cotton pads/balls into natural or synthetic wax. This produces hard fire lighting pellets which are less "sensitive" to mechanical action and moisture. 

5) Charcloth - This can be made using any natural, cotton material. To make char cloth - place some cotton material, cut into strips, into an air tight metal container (old mints tin e.t.c.). Make sure the container is not absolutely air tight (otherwise an explosion may occur). Light a fire. Once the flames have died down, place the container into the fire. After a minute or so, you will begin to see smoke (but which is actually steam) coming out of the air gaps. Once this vapour is no longer being emitted, your char cloth may be ready. Allow the tin to cool and then open. The cloth inside should now be completely black and very easy to tease apart. This char cloth should take the slightest spark which will grow into a large ember.

(Photo: By Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64403922)

6) Birch Bark - Due to its high resin content, bark from the Birch family of tress burns extremely well. It also burns hot and clean plus it smells really good! Peel this off of more mature trees, as it is a lot harder and less resinous when removed from saplings. Rough up the fibers and ignite with spark or flame.  Once a large glowing coal or "ember" has developed, place it into a tinder bundle (this is the technique most used in conjunction with tinder bundles).

7) Hair, fur and feathers - All contain natural oils which burn easily. Not necessarily pleasant smelling when burnt but not toxic. May be lit with spark or flame. May be difficult to source at certain times of the year. 

8) Pine Pitch and Sap - Extracted or gathered from pine trees. To make pine pitch, place the wood in an air tight metal container, preferably with a tap a the base. Light a fire around the container. When the temperature gets high enough, the pitch will begin to seep from the wood. After an hour or so of heating, you should be left with a viscous, black liquid (the pitch). This can be used as an adhesive or as a waterproofing agent. Also has some medical applications. Use the pitch as a flame extender on fiberous materials.

9) Potato Chips - Due to the high fat and carbohydrate content, these will burn for  a surprisingly long time. Should be ignited with a flame. Probably best to just eat it and find an alternative tinder.

10) Jute Twine - A great natural form of tinder. Simply fluff up the fibers and ignite. Will catch alight with a spark or flame. Also makes for a good tinder bundle.

11) Candles - A candle is a great form of flame extender. Easy to transport and carry. Ideally lit with a flame but can be lit with a ferrocerium rod (fire steel) if necessary. Easy to store and transport. Fluff up the fibers to light.

12) Dryer Lint - A great free source of tinder. Use as cotton wool (with regards to fire lighting!). As the lint is likely to contain synthetic fibers, it will burn a little hotter than cotton wool.

13) Cat Tails - Perhaps counter intuitively, a good source of tinder which can be found by bodies of water such as ponds, lakes and slow moving rivers and streams. Harvest the large seed pods and preferably, allow to try. Interestingly, even in relatively humid conditions, the seed pods remain dry inside if in tact. Break the seed pods apart, fluff up the fibers and ignite with spark or flame. Not long lived but will produce a decent burst of heat.

14) Steel Wool (and 9v battery) - Try obtaining the finest grade of wire wool possible. The finer the grade, the easier it will be to light. Wire wool will easily light with a flame. Interestingly, it is also possible to light wire wool using a 9 volt square battery. Simply touch both contacts simultaneously against the wire wool. Essentially, this will create a short circuit and will begin a chain reaction which is fairly quick. This can also be carried out using two AA batteries in series.

15) Brasso -  This is basically wire wool treated with chemicals. Much more flammable than wire wool alone. Also comes conveniently in a durable tin, making it easy to transport and store.

16) Tampons - Try and source the ones shrink wrapped in foil with no applicator included. The can be cut and the fibers teased out. Interestingly, each tampon is made up of the equivalent of 9- 10 cotton balls/pads but is extremely compressed so is very convenient to carry. Can also have some medical applications. 

17) Flint and Steel - Traditional carbon steel with a squared edge produces sparks when struck against a pyrite rock such as flint. The sparks produced are not as hot as those produces with a man made fire steel so the tinder will have to be of the highest quality (very fine and very dry). Ideal to use in conjunction with char cloth (see above). 

18) Spanish Moss/ Old Man's Beard - Readily available in many forests and woodlands, Old man's beard (botanical name Tillandsia usneoides not to be confused with Clematis) is a flowering plant which grows parasitically on trees, particularly in Southern climates. This needs to be very dry but will take flame from a spark.

Taken from Wikipedia

"Spanish-moss has been used for various purposes, including building insulation, mulch, packing material, mattress stuffing, and fiber. In the early 1900s it was used commercially in the padding of car seats. In 1939 over 10,000 tons of processed Spanish-moss was produced. It is still collected today in smaller quantities for use in arts and crafts, or for bedding for flower gardens, and as an ingredient in the traditional wall covering material bousilage. In some parts of Latin America and Louisiana Spanish moss is used in Nativity Scenes.

In the desert regions of the southwestern United States, dried Spanish-moss plants are used in the manufacture of evaporative coolers, colloquially known as swamp coolers (and in some areas as "desert coolers"). These are used to cool homes and offices much less expensively than using air conditioners. A pump squirts water onto a pad made of Spanish-moss plants. A fan then pulls air through the pad and into the building. Evaporation of the water on the pads serves to reduce the air temperature, thus cooling the building."

Photo: By Gh5046 at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703776

19) Pine Needles - Waxy and resin containing, dried pine needles burn very quickly and hot. Will need to be lit with a flame or ember. Have a large amount ready before you begin the lighting process. 

20) Ranger Bands - Also known as chopped up inner tubes (from tyres). Also useful for securing/strapping equipment together. A small section will burn for 30 seconds to a minute. Best lit with a flame. Very smoky, producing acrid smoke.

21) Pine Resin/Wood Shavings - Heart wood (the wood from the heart of the tree, ususally pine) which is saturated with sap/resin is a great, natural fire starter. If you are lucky enough to happen upon some, be sure to harvest it. If shaved finely enough, it can be lit with a spark. 

22) Alcohol prep pads - Alcohol which is proof at 150 or higher is flammable. Think Christmas pudding. Prep pads will burn fast so have a good tinder bundle ready. Prep pads should easily light with a spark or flame.

23) Crayons - These can be simply set alight with a flame. Alternatively, try rubbing the crayon on a fibrous material then lighting the material. The waxy crayon will act as a flame extender. 

24) Vegetable Oil and Wick - This uses the same principle as Vaseline and cotton wool. Saturate the wick (this could be jute twine, cotton, etc) with the oil (olive, vegetable, sunflower or even animal fats such as tallow). Leave a little of the wick slightly drier as this will help it take a spark.

(Photo: (https://modernsurvivalblog.com/alternative-energy/do-it-yourself-olive-oil-lamp/) There is a full set of intsructions of how to build such a lamp.)

25) Sheep's Wool - Contains lanelin which is a fatty/oily excretion found naturally on sheep's wool. It helps to keep the wool water proof and also helps with bacterial control. It smoulders when lit and can be used as a fire starter. If sufficiently dry, it will take light from a spark.

26) Cramp Balls - Used in a similar fashion to Bracket Fungus (see above). Turns into a nice bright coal. 


27) Foil Chewing Gum Wrapper + Battery - This works along the same principle as steel wool and a battery. Touch both terminals of the battery simultaneously with the chewing gum wrapper to start. You are simply short circuiting the battery.

28) Dried Ruminant Feces - Grass eating animals such as horses, cows, elephants and rhinos produce solid fuel for your use. That's right! A dry pat makes for a great tinder bundle and throughout history these have also been used as a fuel source for cooking and heating. 

29) Duct Tape - Cut small strips off and light. The combination of adhesives, plastic and fibers burns well. If cut up finely enough, it will take a spark.

30) Dried Orange Peel - Contains citronella, a natural oil. Smells nice when burnt. Burns nice and hot. 

31) Hand Sanitizer - Contains <70% alcohol so will burn. Good multi use item. Try adding it to dry tinder as opposed to burning it by itself (burns out quickly).

32) Break Fluid/Glycerol & Potassium Permanganate - The classic combination of potassium permanganate and glycerol. Mixing the two together triggers a chemical reaction which burns hot. No flame or spark necessary. This will also work if you replace glycerol with sugar (just apply a little friction to the two mixed together to get the process started).  

Photo:Adam Rędzikowski, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

33) Drinking Straws - These can be filled with vaseline and cotton wool and then sealed with a heat source. These make for compact and waterproof fire lighters. Can also be filled with fuel or similar. Alternative use - fill them with salt/spice/sugar/liquid soap.

Always carry a fire steel and lighter when exploring wilderness areas. You will never be wet and cold!

Also, check out our article on making a pocket survival kit here 

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have any further suggestions, we will update the list to include them. Thanks for reading.