How To Start a Fire With Sticks: 3 Easy Step-by-Step Guides

Written by: Ash James

Learning how to start a fire with sticks is possible, and you don’t have to be a survivalist expert. It does take a little preparation and time to get it right, especially on your first try, so it’s good to practice in advance.

If you’re heading out into the wilderness, knowing how to start a fire with sticks can be a life-saving skill. Check out our step-by-step guide for the three basic methods for fire starting in the wild. 

How to Start a Fire with Sticks

  • The best DIY methods for how to build a fire are the hand drill method, the bow drill, and the fire plow.
  • Rubbing or spinning two pieces of wood together creates friction.
  • Collect different-sized sticks for your fire.
  • Build a fire nest for your smoking ember to create flames.
  • Follow our step-by-step guide to light a fire with sticks.
How to start a fire with sticks instructions

What You’ll Need to Start a Fire With Sticks

You’ll need a couple of things to follow this fire making tutorial. We’ll go through everything in detail below, but these are the basics for starting a fire.

  • Tinder for the nest.
  • Kindling.
  • Wood for hand drill.
  • Ember pan.
  • Fuelwood.
  • Rocks for a fire ring.
  • A good tactical knife to prepare the wood.
  • About 6 feet of string for the bow drill method.

Also Read: How hot is a campfire?

How To Start a Fire With Sticks — Step by Step

Before you make a fire, remember that you’re responsible for its safety. If it’s windy and dry, making a fire might not be permitted. All states may also have different regulations, and some public parks won’t allow fire-making at all.

You’ll also need to put the fire out to make sure it doesn’t spread uncontrollably after you’ve left it. Even if you can’t see flames, the fire can pick up from the embers. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave unwatched.

1. Starting a Fire With the Hand Drill Method

One of the best-known ways of fire starting with sticks is the hand drill method, and you’ve probably seen people do it on Survivor. It’s relatively easy, but it does require a little preparation—and some upper body strength.

Follow these steps to start a fire with the hand drill method.

Step #1: Collect Tinder To Make a Nest

The first step is to collect material for your fire, starting with a tinder bundle where you’ll put your burning ember. For this, you’ll need some flammable, dry materials like grass or hay. You can complement this tinder nest with pine needles if they’re dry enough. 

If you have access to a newspaper, you can use it as tinder. Some people carry a little bit of dryer lint when they’re camping to help them make a fire. You can also search your pockets for some lint—the softer and finer, the better.

Step #2: Gather Different Sized Sticks for Kindling

When you’ve got the nest, it’s time to find some wood to act as kindling for your fire.

You’ll need the wood to be dry, so don’t just look to the ground where the wood might be damp. If the tree is still standing, the wood is likely less humid.

Pay attention to the trees around you to see if there are any dead branches. The bark may be crumbling off, and there are no leaves. The sticks should be brittle and easy to snap, and the inside should be white instead of green.

A resinous type of wood, such as birch or pine, ignites easily. It’s ideal for making fire with sticks, even if you can’t find completely dry wood.

You’ll need to look for several different sizes. First, find some thin matchsticks that easily catch fire to use right after the tinder nest. The finer the material you find, the easier it will be to extend the ember and create a fire.

Next, go for about pencil size and then finger thickness, moving on to larger sticks that maintain the fire for longer.

How to start a campfire

Step #3: Clear Area for the Fire

Cleaning up and securing your fire is crucial for safety. Make sure to clear an area of at least 3 feet to reduce the chances of the fire spreading. 

Wipe away any dried leaves or debris that could catch fire from the area so that you’re left with non-flammable dirt before you start. To make sure you’ve limited the fire to a small space, put some large rocks on the ground. 

Step #4: Prepare Wood for the Hand Drill

To start a fire, you’ll need to prepare your instruments.

For a spindle or hand drill, you’ll need to find a straight stick that’s about the width of your thumb. The ideal length should be at least from your wrist to your elbow, but it can be longer. What’s most important is the shape, because a straight hand drill will allow you to spin more efficiently.

Scrape the bark off the stick and let it dry before use, if possible. You should also remove any roughness off the surface with a knife or sandpaper. If you don’t, you’ll notice it on your hands pretty soon!

The hearth board can be a small piece of wood, but it needs to be at least twice as wide as your hand drill and about ½ inch thick. About 2 inches wide is fine. It can be 5 to 10 inches long, and more length will give you more stability.

Carve the bottom of the hearth board so that it’s flat. It needs to sit comfortably on the ground without moving. 

You’ll need to use your knife to drill a hole on the hearth board that’s a little smaller than the tip of your spindle. It should feel rough to move the spindle in the hole to create enough friction.

Then, you’ll need to carve a small, V-shaped notch on the side of the hole that reaches the side of the fire board. The notch shouldn’t be so big your drill will slide out, but big enough to get the ember out easily and let in some air into the hole. 

Step #5: Place Hearth Board on Ember Pan

You’ll also need a small ember pan to generate the fire. It should be a flat piece of wood so you can place it under the hearth board, and small enough to manage. Place the ember pan right below the fire board, so that it’s under the hole where you’ll put the hand drill.

Step #6: Pin Spindle Into the Hearth Board

Place one end of the spindle onto the fire board, pinning it right on the hole you carved out. Take a comfortable position, sitting on the ground. To secure the hearth board, you can keep your knee on it to prevent it from moving away as you spin.

Step #7: Spin the Spindle Between Palms

Place your palms on both sides of the spindle and start moving it back and forth. Focus on keeping the spindle between your palms, spinning from the base of the fingers to the heel. This way, you’ll be able to control the force you exert and put some downward pressure on the spindle. 

Keeping downward pressure on the hand drill is crucial to get enough friction to make a fire. It also helps you keep the hearth board on the ground without moving it. 

Spin as quickly as you can. Your hands will likely move down if you’re applying pressure correctly. This is completely fine, just move back to the top and keep going with as little of a break as possible.

When you see smoke starting to arise, you’re getting closer to ignition, so keep going. When the ash that falls off keeps smoking on its own if you remove the stick, you’re at the right spot.

Step #8: Use a Twig To Dislodge the Ember and Leave on the Ember Pan

Pick up a twig that’s small enough to fit in the V-shaped notch. Carefully move the ember to the pan using the stick. Don’t rush through this, as panicking might make you lose the ember. 

Also, don’t blow on the ember yet, because you can easily put it out. Instead, follow the next step to turn the ember into a fire.

Step #9: Use Tinder To Make a Nest

Pick up the tinder you’ve collected and make a small nest for your ember. Just pile them together for a tinder nest that’s at least the size of about two fists. Use the smallest pieces of kindling, such as dry grass, for this part, and put the softest pieces, like lint, in the middle. 

If you’re uncertain about your firewood’s dryness and how long it’ll take for the fire to catch, make a bigger nest. It should be large enough to give the fire a good chance to develop. It’s also better to have a large nest so that when the fire catches, you don’t burn your fingers. 

Step #10: Place Ember Into the Nest 

Carefully remove the hearth board and place the ember into the center of the nest. You should still be able to see it smoking and burning. 

Step #11: Gently Squeeze the Nest and Blow

Now, gently squeeze the nest together to get the ember to touch your kindling. It shouldn’t be so tight that you’ll put the fire out before it starts, and you’ll still need the air to be able to flow. 

Blow on the nest or wave your arms up and down. It shouldn’t take long for the fire to catch, so watch the nest closely and be careful not to burn your hands. 

Step #12: Place Nest on the Ground and Turn It Towards the Wind

When you’ve got flames, put the nest on the ground. If you’ve got any wind, put the flames towards it to spread the flame to the rest of your kindling. Now, you’ll need to act fast to add more wood to prevent it from going out.

Step #13: Add Kindling To Build the Fire

Start adding the kindling you collected, from the smallest to the biggest. This way, you’ll feed the fire easily and slowly reach a sustainable flame. 

Add the next size of kindling when you’ve got the previous ignited and burning well.  Be careful not to suffocate the flame by throwing too much on it too fast or making a fire that’s too big to control.

RELATED: Propane Camping Fire Pit Options

2. How To Start a Fire With Sticks Using the Fire Plow Method

The fire plow method is another ancient way to make fire with sticks and requires the least preparation of the three. It essentially consists of rubbing one stick against the other, but there’s a technique to get it right.

Step #1: Collect Your Firewood and Prepare the Area

First, you’ll need the wood for your fire, as well as the tinder for your nest. Find dry grass, bark and other small kindling, as well as sticks of all sizes. You can organize the kindling by size, so it’s easier to move on from one size to the next when you’ve got the fire going.

Always remember to prepare a safe area for your fire. Clear out any inflammable twigs, leaves and grass until you’ve got a spot that’s mostly dirt and will keep the fire controlled. Use some rocks to restrict the area.

Step #2: Find the Right Tools

It’s time to find your instruments for making the fire. You’ll need some wood as your base and another, smaller piece to create friction.

Start with a dry, straight, and long tree branch if possible. You’ll need about a foot and a half of straight wood to work as your base. It should be long enough so that you can keep your leg on it to keep it in place.

Then, you’ll need another piece of wood to rub on it. Make sure it’s long enough to get a good grip; about a foot is usually enough. The most important thing is that it’s not too soft or too frail because you’ll need to exert force on the stick for a while, and you don’t want it to snap.

Step #3: Prepare the Tools

Prepare the two pieces of wood to make your tools. 

First, make your base by cutting out a flat portion from the top of the bigger stick to build your fire. Carve a thin, straight track on the top.

For the other piece, you’ll use to rub on the base, carve a beveled edge at the bottom. It should be about the same size as the track you carved on the other piece, so it doesn’t fall off or move around.

Step #4: Rub the Pieces Together

Sit down and pin the base to the ground using your leg to keep the wood from moving around. Take the thin stick and place the beveled edge on the track you carved out. 

Rub the smaller piece of wood back and forth over the other. You’ll need to do it fast to get enough friction, so try to pick up the pace as much as possible. You should soon see a pile of dust starting to form, but it might take longer to get a decent fire going.

You’ll likely get a good workout from this technique and notice your arms getting tired, but don’t get frustrated. It does take time and patience to create enough friction, and you may need to try different types of wood before you get the fire going.

Step #5: Make a Nest and Put the Ember Inside

When you get a small, smoking ember going, it’s time to make a tinder bundle or nest. Use dry grass and other pieces of tinder you’ve been able to collect. Take the bottom piece of wood and place it carefully inside your tinder bundle. Squeeze the tinder nest together gently and blow on it to ignite it.

Step #6: Add Firewood

Leave the tinder bundle on the ground in your selected spot and start adding kindling, beginning with the smallest twigs and moving on to bigger sticks. 

3. How To Start a Fire With the Bow Drill Method

The fire bow drill method is similar to the plow drill but a little easier, especially if the wood you’ve got is a little damp. Using a bow makes your work more effective, so you won’t tire yourself as much.

You will need a little bit of string to make the fire bow, as well as a hearth board and a drill.

Step #1: Prepare Your Drill

Start by preparing a fire drill and hearth board, just like with the fire plow method. For this, you’ll need a couple of pieces of wood of different sizes. 

The fire drill should be a long, straight piece of wood that’s at least the length of your arm from the wrist to the elbow. Preferably, go for a stick that’s about the width of your thumb and the length of your whole arm.

Scrape off any bark and try to get the wood as smooth as possible. Otherwise, you won’t be able to move it, and the fire bow will get stuck. Cut off a bit of wood at the tip to make it pointy but not sharp, so it sits better on the fire board.

Step #2: Make a Hearth Board

You’ll also need a hearth board to rub the fire drill, or spindle, against it. 

With the tip of a knife, carve a round hole on the hearth board. The hole should be about the size of the drill. You’ll also need to cut the V-shaped notch on the side of the board, with the tip reaching the hole you carved.

Step #3: Find an Ember Pot

The ember pot can be any flat piece of wood that’s small enough to slide under the hearth board. You can carve a bit of wood off the top to make it more of a plate so the ember doesn’t fall off. 

Alternatively, you can use a piece of bark or a large leaf. Anything slim will work, as long as it’s not fragile enough to break and make you lose your ember.

Step #4: Find Wood for the Bow

For the fire bow, you’ll need a flexible piece of wood about the length of your arm and about the width of a finger or two. It shouldn’t be dry like the firewood because you don’t want it to snap when you’re exerting pressure. Also, if it’s too bendy, you won’t be able to use much force when moving it.

Step #5: Make the Bow

To make the bow, you’ll need to attach the string. You can use a thin rope or long shoelace, or any other type of string that’s strong enough.

Tie the ends of the cord onto the bow. Make a tight knot on one side and a loose one on the other because you’ll have to adjust it to the fire drill.

Then place the drill, or spindle, in the middle, rolling the string around it once. This way, when you move the bow forward and back, the drill will spin around. 

The hardest part is getting the string tension just right so that the drill doesn’t pop out but moves smoothly. Adjust the knot you left loose at the end of the bow until it feels tight. You’ll likely have to make adjustments as you go because the string will get looser when it stretches out. 

Step #6: Find a Handhold

You’ll also need something comfortable to put downward pressure to create friction on the drill without drilling a hole in your hand. The spinning upper end of the stick will harm your palms if you don’t use something on top of the spindle to protect yourself.

Look for a flat stone bearing block or a piece of wood that gives you a good grip. Ideally, the bearing block would be a little smaller than the size of your fist, so you can put your fingers around it. It should also have a small dimple or hole, if possible. This will keep the drill from sliding out of place.

Step #7: Assemble Your Bow Drill

Now you’ve got all the parts of your bow drill together, and it’s time to assemble it. Sit on the ground, place the ember pot down and the hearth board right over it. Put your leg over the board to keep it in place.

Then, place the drill over the hole you’ve made on the hearth board and the handhold over it. You should have one hand over the handhold and another on the bow.

Step #8: Move the Bow 

Start moving the bow back and forth, keeping the pressure on the drill to keep it in place. Try to keep the bow horizontal and at about the middle of the drill. If it starts sliding off or the string of your bow gets loose, you can stop for adjustments.

Learning how to start a fire with sticks is hard work, so prepare to spend a while working before you’ll see ash starting to gather. Then, you’ll see smoke begin to rise from the drill, and the dust will get darker.

When the dust pile starts to smoke, you’ll likely have an ember. Remove the drill and inspect it. If you don’t have an ember yet, keep going.

Step #9: Put the Ember Inside the Nest

When you’ve got a smoking ember, you’re good to go. If it’s stuck inside the hole of the hearth board, use a stick to get it out on the ember pan. Then, put it inside the tinder bundle and gently blow on it to get a flame. 

Place the tinder bundle in your designated fire area. Add your kindling, from the smallest to the biggest, and enjoy your fire.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does It Take To Start a Fire With Sticks?

If you’ve had some practice and the wood is dry, you should be able to start a fire with sticks in 20 minutes. The first couple of times it will take a little longer, even double the time, especially if you haven’t made preparations. Collecting firewood, as well as carving out a hearth board or ember pan, can take another 15 minutes.

What Is the Best Wood To Make a Friction Fire?

A soft type of wood like pine and cedar is good for fire making, as is resinous wood, such as birch. They ignite and burn faster than hardwood. Just make sure that the wood you pick isn’t poisonous to touch. Learn about the plants in the area before you go camping to improve your chances of starting a fire.

What Is the Best Kindling for a Fire?

Dry leaves, grass, and small twigs make for good kindling. If you want to improve your chances of getting a fire started quickly, you can keep some char cloth or fine dryer lint with you. Try to collect kindling of different types and sizes, going from the thinnest toward the thickest as your fire progresses.

What Can I Use Instead of Kindling?

If you don’t have kindling, look for anything dry, small and inflammable. Newspaper is excellent, but not available in the wild. Try to look for pine needles, bark or wood shavings if you don’t have sticks or grass.

how to start a fire

The Bottom Line

Learning how to start a fire with sticks isn’t as easy as people often assume, but it’s an extremely useful skill to learn. If you’re going out to the wilderness often, we recommend practicing it in advance so you’re prepared for a survival situation.

Even the most experienced outdoor experts can find fire starting with sticks in some situations difficult, especially if the wood is damp. Don’t get discouraged; just take your time and stay patient, and you’ll get there.

And don’t forget to put out the fire before leaving it or going to sleep to prevent accidents.

Tell us what you thought of the tutorial in the comments and share if you enjoyed it.

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Ash James

Ash has always loved camping, fishing, and being outdoors. His idea of a perfect day is finding new trails to explore, driving to a remote location, and camping off the beach with Karyn and their two kids. He's pleased to share the knowledge and skills he's learned over the years. You can find out more about Ash here.

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