HomeCampingCampfireHow To Start A Fire With Sticks – 3 Primitive Methods That Work

How To Start A Fire With Sticks – 3 Primitive Methods That Work

How To Start A Fire With Sticks

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We’ve all seen it in the movies…and, I’m sure most of us tried to do it at some point when we were kids.

I’m also pretty sure none of us succeeded.

Yes, I’m talking about rubbing two sticks together to start a fire.

It’s not quite as straightforward as some of the movie depictions would have us believe. But it can definitely be done.

Actually, there are a few ways you can do it.

I’m going to show you how to start a fire with sticks in three different ways, so you can try it out for yourself.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have all the knowledge and skills you need to light a campfire, no matter where you are.

Ready to get started? Let’s jump straight into it!

Friction Is The Key

Before I show you how to start a fire with sticks, let’s talk a little bit about how it works.

You see, each of the methods I’m about to show you have something in common.

They all use friction to ignite a flame.

If you create enough friction with the right setup, and the right wood, you can create an ember. When you add oxygen into the mix by carefully blowing on the ember, you can ignite a flame, which you can then use to light your campfire.

For each method, you’ll need to use wood that’s as dry as possible. If the wood has a high moisture content, you won’t be able to create enough friction to create an ember or ignite a flame.

The Hand Drill Method

hand drill setup

The first method we’re going to go over is the hand drill method.

You’ll need to gather:

  • A fireboard
  • A spindle (the stick)
  • Firewood

When it comes to firewood, like with any campfire, you’ll need 3 kinds. Tinder, kindling and larger pieces of wood.

Tinder is a bunch of small sticks, dry grass and other dry vegetation. It ignites easily, but burns quickly. It’s used to get your fire going.

Kindling refers to medium sized sticks, twigs and pieces of wood. Kindling is the middle man between the tinder and the firewood. Your tinder lights your kindling, and your kindling lights your larger pieces of firewood.

The larger pieces will burn slower, keeping your campfire alive and burning for some time.

Again, make sure that the wood you’re using is as dry as possible, otherwise it won’t burn well, and the smoke will almost be enough to suffocate you.

You may also need to split the wood with your hatchet to get it down to the right size.

Likely, you will need to also make your own fireboard by splitting a nice log down to size.

Step 1: Prepare Your Fireboard & Spindle

A fireboard is a flat, dry piece of wood that’s about a half inch to an inch thick. Make sure that it’s stable when you lay it on the ground. If it wobbles, you’ll have a hard time drilling your spindle into it.

Before you get started, the first thing you need to do is cut a small triangle – or V shape – out of the side of your fireboard.

Next, drill a small, shallow hole where the point of the letter V is. This is where the tip of your spindle will rest while you’re drilling.

Speaking of your spindle – you need a long, straight stick with a pointy end. Make sure you pick a stick that’s made of sturdy wood so that it doesn’t break while you’re drilling.

You can use a pocket knife to sharpen the end of the spindle, and cut off any uneven bits so that it’s as straight as possible.

Step 2: Assume The Correct Position

Getting an ember burning is going to be a whole lot easier if you’re in the right position.

Put your fireboard down on the ground and kneel down onto it, holding it down securely with your knees.

That way, you can keep the fireboard in place, and easily use your body weight to apply pressure while you’re drilling.

Step 3: Start Drilling

Now, here’s the hard part.

You’re going to have to do quite a bit of drilling before you see any smoke, let alone an ember.

Take your spindle and place it between your palms while they’re pressed flat against each other. Place the pointy end of the spindle into the hole you created in step 1.

Rub your hands together quickly to spin the spindle, and at the same time push the spindle down into the fireboard by moving your hands up and down as you rub them together.

When you start to see smoke, don’t stop!

You’re not quite there yet. Keep rubbing even quicker and pushing down even harder, and you’ll soon see a small ember form on the fireboard.

You did it!

The hard part is done, but don’t relax just yet.

You still need to light the fire.

Step 4: Ignite A Flame

Once you have a burning ember, place it underneath your tinder bundle.

Then, blow gently onto it. At this point, you should start to see a flame, and the dry tinder should start to catch fire.

You can then transfer it to your fire pit and add your kindle. Once that’s lit, you can lay down some larger sticks and pieces of wood – just like you would if you were building a campfire any other way.

And there you have it.

Remember, patience is key. This isn’t a method you can use to get a campfire going quickly and easily. Be prepared to put in some time and elbow grease – but keep at it and you’ll eventually end up with a roaring campfire to light up your campsite.

The Bow Drill Method

woman using a bow drill to start a fire

Next, we have the bow drill method.

Like the hand drill method, it takes a good amount of time and effort to get a fire going.

That being said – the bow drill method is a heck of a lot easier on your hands than the hand drill method, so there’s that.

On the other hand, you also need a few more requisites. Nothing you can’t find around you in the wild, though.

To start a fire using this method you’ll need:

  • A fireboard
  • A stick
  • A fire bow
  • A bearing block
  • Firewood

You’ll need a fireboard, a stick, and firewood – just like you did for the hand drill method. But this method uses a couple more things, too.

See, instead of twirling the stick between your hands, you hold it down on the fireboard with one hand using a bearing block. With the other hand, you use the bow to twirl the stick, pushing downwards onto the fireboard.

You’re effectively doing the exact same thing, just in a slightly different way, using a few additional tools.

Step 1: Prepare Your Fireboard, Stick, Bow & Bearing Block

Like I said, the fireboard and stick should be prepared in the same way as for the hand drill method. Cut a V shape and shallow hole in your fireboard, and sharpen and straighten your stick.

To create your fire bow, you’ll need a curved, almost C shaped stick. Ideally, you want it to be a bit thicker than the other stick you’re using.

Take whatever string or rope you have available and tie a length of it from one end of your C shaped stick to the other. Paracord works really well, but you can use just about anything from shoelaces to tree vines, if they’re strong enough not to snap.

For your bearing block, you’ll need a small, thick block of wood with a hole drilled into it where your stick can sit comfortably.

You’ll need to lubricate the hole so that the stick can spin freely as you twirl it with your bow. This can be done with a dab of petroleum jelly. If you haven’t got any, you can use grass, fresh leaves, or even a slug if you have the heart to crush the poor little guy.

Step 2: Start Drilling

Position your drilling stick in between your fireboard and your bearing block. Hold the bearing block firmly to keep the stick steady.

Then, take your bow with your other hand and start rubbing it against your stick, while moving it up and down as you do so. Imagine you’re sawing through the stick with your bow – it’s that kind of motion.

Again, this is going to take a while, so don’t give up if it isn’t happening straight away. Eventually, you’ll start to see smoke, and just like with the hand drill method, this is your cue to speed things up.

Keep drilling harder and faster until you have a nice, hot, burning ember on your fireboard.

Step 3: Ignite A Flame

This step is exactly the same as the previous method.

Take your burning ember, place it under your tinder bundle, and blow gently.

By blowing on the ember you’ll be able to ignite a flame, which will get your tinder burning. Then, add your kindling and firewood logs to get your campfire in full swing.

And voila!

Time to get the marshmallows out.

The Fire Plow Method

And finally, we’ve got the fire plow method.

The last 2 methods we talked about used a twirling motion to create friction. The main difference with the fire plow method is that it uses a back and forth motion to achieve the same result.

For this method you’ll need the following things:

  • A plow board
  • A stick
  • Firewood

Again, the stick and firewood remain the same as in the previous 2 methods we looked at.

The only difference is in the fireboard. This time we’ll be using a plow board, which is fairly similar, but a little bit different, as we’re about to see.

Step 1: Prepare Your Plow Board & Stick

Take your stick and sharpen it with a knife. Cut off any bits and pieces to make the stick as close to perfectly straight as you can.

Then, take a flat block of wood, like a block you’d use to make a fireboard for hand or bow drilling. Instead of cutting out a V shape and a hole, you want to carve out a trough down the middle of the block.

Your trough should be about a foot long and an inch wide.

Step 2: Start Plowing

Place your plow board flat on the ground, and slide your stick up and down the trough at a 45 degree angle.

Once you’ve created a nice amount of dust, start plowing more vigorously, until smoke starts to appear. You probably get the picture by now, but again – this’ll take a while. You’ll definitely break a sweat before you manage to produce any smoke.

Once it starts smoking, keep plowing until the dust catches fire. That’s your ember, and it means you’re ready to light your flame.

Step 3: Ignite A Flame

Transfer your burning dust onto your tinder bundle, and blow gently until you get a flame.

If you read step 3 of the previous 2 methods, you already know the rest – kindling, firewood logs, marshmallows, etc.

And that’s all there is to it.

Just make sure to maintain a 45 degree angle while you’re plowing. That’s definitely the key to success with this method.


burning campfire

If you don’t have any experience starting a friction fire, you’ve probably still got some questions.

I don’t blame you – starting a fire with sticks is tricky business.

Don’t worry, though. I’ve still got a couple more nuggets of knowledge to share with you before we wrap things up.

Here are the answers to some of the questions that pop up most commonly.

Which types of wood can you use?

First of all, the wood that you use to create your fire starting instruments needs to be as dry as possible. If there’s too much moisture in the wood, you’re destined to fail.

If you aren’t using the same type of wood for your fire stick and fire board, make sure that the wood your stick is made of is harder.

Some examples of wood species that are good to use include:

  • Willow
  • Sycamore
  • Yucca
  • Bamboo
  • Cottonwood
  • Dogwood

Any of these species, or other species with similar characteristics should work well. Just make sure you don’t use wood that’s toxic to burn – like spruce, poplar or alder.

How long will it take to start a fire using these methods?

Whenever you’re learning to do anything new, it’ll always take you longer in the beginning.

Starting a fire with sticks is no different.

A lot of people get discouraged and give up too quickly, not knowing that all they need to do is keep persisting.

You might have to drill or plow for as long as 15-20 minutes before anything happens. But the next time will be a bit quicker, and the time after that. Eventually, you’ll be able to start a fire in as little as 5 minutes.

If you get really good at it, you might even manage to do it in as little as 30 seconds. But that takes some serious skills.

What can you do if you can’t find any dry wood?

If it’s been raining, or you just happen to be in a particularly damp location – you might not be able to find wood that’s dry enough.

Don’t worry – there’s still hope.

If you’ve got a hatchet, you can try chopping off the bark and outer layers of wood until you get to the dry wood in the center.

Chop it into small, thin pieces to use as kindling. Once you have a small fire burning, you can place some more wood around the fire to dry it out.

What Now?

Who would’ve thought, huh?

You really can light a campfire with nothing but two pieces of wood.

As you can see, all of these methods are fairly similar. They all use sticks to create friction to create fire. The only difference is exactly how that friction is created.

All 3 methods are a lot of work, but practice makes perfect – so don’t give up!

And once you’ve got your fire up and going, all that’s left to do is sit back, relax, and roast up some tasty campfire treats.

To see some awesome campfire recipe ideas, check out this campfire cooking article we wrote.

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