4 Alternative Fire-Starting Techniques From a Survivalist and Overlander

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Shoulder season is here, and with it, the cold, damp weather that makes a warm campfire essential for staying comfortable outdoors. It’s time to brush up on your campfire-starting skills.

Once you’ve refreshed your kindling-making process and packed your hatchet, knife, spade,—or better yet, your COMBAR Pro—lighter and extra toilet paper, the question remains: What happens if your typical fire-starting gear isn’t available? Maybe you forgot it. Maybe it fell from your overlanding rig while driving.

Do you know any alternative fire-starting techniques to use in a survival situation?

We’ve tapped into the expertise of seasoned adventurer Trevin Baker, a mechanical engineer, veteran, overlander, survivalist, surfer, hiker, and maker, to outline four alternative fire-starting methods. These are at least handy to know and could be life-saving in a serious situation. Below, Trevin explains four non-traditional ways to start a campfire when your go-to tools aren’t available.

Note: Three of these methods require a car (or items you'd likely only find in a vehicle). One requires a bullet.


How to Become a Survivalist

My name is Trevin. In my former life as a member of the US military, I had the pleasure of attending both the SV-80 Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base and SV-87 Arctic Survival at Eielson Air Force Base. I’ve hiked 140 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, hiked several other PNW trails, including Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier, and summited Mount Adams. Every summer, my wife and I spend most weekends camping or enjoying the outdoors, and we love every minute of it—even the ones where we end up surviving more than thriving.

In my youth, I was drawn to fire and became a bit of a pyromaniac. I was acting out against my parents, who had moved us from Texas to Florida, and started to light random items on fire after school. During my rebellion, I found an abandoned couch in the woods. I started playing a game of “let’s see how long I can keep it on fire then put it out,” which turned into “THE COUCH IS ON FIRE! RUN!!!” I was grounded when my parents found out, but that pyrotechnic debut paved the way, eventually, to 1st place finishes for all the survival fires we were tasked to build during my SV-80 and SV-87 survival schools.

I never caused any serious harm with my little pyro obsession, and I’m happy to say I’m now a fully functioning adult who knows how to quickly start a survival fire.

survivalist Trevin Baker checks the dampness of a freshly sawn log
*Trevin checks the moisture level of the wood using his face. This technique can be used if your hands are covered or too cold to assess the wood.


Fire Starting Basics 

The most important part of starting a fire is understanding the basics. You need fuel, air, and a spark.

The fuel is the most important to understand, as it has the largest impact on the success of your fire. It must be dry if the fuel is wood or other organic combustibles. Typically, you need to gather four different sizes (diameters) of fuel: pencil lead, pencil, thumb, and double thumb. You’ll also need the initial tinder that will start the fire. This can be dry birch bark, a cotton ball smeared in petroleum jelly, or a big handful of moss and leaves. 

Airflow is important, too. You can smother your fire without it. Too much airflow, though, and you won’t be able to spark or sustain your fire. Digging a hole in the ground or building barriers around the fire will provide a good location to sustain a fire. To be able to adjust the amount of airflow, use two sticks, one crossed over the other, on top of your firebase but under your tinder. You can lift the lower stick to allow more airflow (a hole will appear where you had the stick placed). Set it back down to decrease the airflow (closing the hole). Speaking of the base, you want to lay down dry or near-dry sticks in a 1-foot by 1-foot square as your base for a survival fire. Keep the sticks close together to support your two airflow sticks and the tinder.

As for the spark, this can come from a number of places—matches, a lighter, a flint, a battery and steel wool—whatever you have that can cause a spark. A flint and steel typically work well in very cold and harsh environments where a lighter will not arc. High-end waterproof matches can also be a lifesaver in harsh conditions and are a safe addition to any pack since they’re lightweight and small.

Emergency Fire Starter Kit in Capsule

Emergency Fire Starter Kit in Capsule

Emergency Fire Starter Kit in Capsule

*The COMBAR capsule fits inside its hollow handle and can house mission-specific kits, including emergency fire-starting materials.


Essential Tools for Building a Fire

A solid fixed-blade survival knife is always the first thing I grab, and I always keep flint and steel with me. On hikes and overnight trips, I like to keep waterproof matches and a small ziplock bag of cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly with me. These cotton balls are lightweight and don’t take up much room but will save me if we have a very bad experience out on the trail.

A lightweight saw and hatchet are also very helpful, especially when overlanding. Trees falling over the trail are common, which a saw can make quick work of. Having a compact saw stored in the handle of the COMBAR Pro has made life easier. It saves a ton of space and allows me to keep all the tools I need with me. Of course, the saw and hatchet are extremely useful for preparing firewood, too.

*Using a drop-point survival knife to shave tinder.


Trevin’s Four Favorite Alternative Fire-Starting Techniques

***A word of caution: These are intended to be used in survival situations and are risky to perform. Do so at your own risk!***  

1. Gunpowder from a Bullet

For this method, take a single round of ammunition, such as a 9mm bullet, and take the bullet out of the casing. Dump the gunpowder into a folded piece of paper. Strike an arc into this pile with your tinder over the top of it.

What materials are needed?

Pliers, a single round of ammunition, another set of pliers or vice of some kind to hold the bullet, and a piece of paper to hold the gunpowder.

The steps:

  • Grip the bullet itself with the pliers and hold the casing. Be careful not to put pressure on the primer of the bullet!
  • Pry out the bullet from the casing, wiggling it out.
  • Once it’s out, dump the powder into the folded piece of paper.
  • When you’re ready to ignite it, arc it into the gunpowder. Be careful when doing this, as it can ignite quickly.

Are there situations where this technique is most relevant?

If you’re low on good tinder sources, this can be very helpful to ignite your pencil lead-sized pieces of wood. The paper-wrapped gunpowder makes for a very effective tinder replacement.

Environments where it won’t work?

Wet environments.

Additional Tips:

I recommend picking an easier technique before you try this one, if possible.

campfire in a portable steel pit


2. Jumper Cables Connected to Steel Wool (or Arced Together)

What materials are needed?

Jumper cables and a car battery. Steel wool if you have it.

The steps:

  • Note where the cable ends are located and separate them, so the positive does not touch the negative.
  • On one end: Connect the positive cable to the positive battery lead. Connect the negative cable to the negative lead.
  • On the other end: Carefully connect the negative lead to the steel wool.
  • Position your steel wool over your tinder and ensure it is ready to light.
  • Connect the jumper cable's positive end to the steel wool's other end. The steel wool will heat up and burn, igniting the tinder.

Are there situations where this technique is most relevant?

When you have no other option to arc your tinder, or if your tinder needs extra heat to ignite.

Environments where it won’t work?

Extreme wet conditions.

Additional Tips:

You can try briefly arcing the two ends of the jumper cables directly, but this is risky and not recommended.

overlanding essentials including jumper cables


3. Paper On the Hot Exhaust of Your Vehicle

What materials are needed?

Paper of some kind (cardboard, newspaper, toilet paper, or other). A running car.

The steps:

  • Find the hottest part of your exhaust; this will be near the engine at the exhaust manifolds. These can be very hot, so be careful.
  • Take your paper and press it against the manifolds until it combusts.
  • Carefully and swiftly transfer this to your tinder pile to start your fire.

Are there situations where this is most relevant?

If you have a car but are missing all fire-starting materials except paper.

Environments where it won’t work?

Very wet or windy.

overlanding truck parked near river


4. A Grounded Spark Plug 


Use a spark plug from Your Vehicle, or keep one as a spare, connect one of your spark plug wires to it and ground the body of the spark plug somewhere on the vehicle that’s safe. The spark plug will arc with ignition, and you can light your tinder with this.

What materials are needed?

Spark plug, vehicle engine.

The steps:

  • Pull out one of your spark plugs or obtain a spare.
  • Connect your spark plug wire with the vehicle engine off from one of the engine’s cylinders to the spark plug you pulled out. You will want to wear gloves or use a rag to insulate your hands.
  • You will need to ground the body of the spark plug to the vehicle chassis or some other metal component that’s connected to the frame and/or negative battery terminal.
  • When grounded and the spark plug wire is connected, the spark plug will produce an arc with the vehicle running. The vehicle will run rough since it’s missing a cylinder, but this will start a fire by using the arc to ignite tinder.
  • Be aware that if you do this, the cylinder without the spark plug wire connected will be shooting extra fuel in the combustion chamber, and you may need to empty that chamber before running the engine for long periods. Do this at your own risk!

Are there situations where this is most relevant?

Extreme survival situations where you must have a fire and are willing to temporarily disable your vehicle to do this.

Environments where it won’t work?

Extreme wet and cold may not be as easy to reproduce, but it can still work.


Pro Tips to Keep in Mind

If you’re headed into the wilderness during the colder months or in areas where it will be less than 50-degrees Fahrenheit at night, remember these principles and carry the bare essentials: flint and steel, matches or a lighter for your ignition device, and an easy tinder such as cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly. 

Practice making survival fires once a year just to stay fresh, and remember that you may be cold, alone, and shivering when you need a fire the most.

Remember you need four sizes of fuel: pencil lead, pencil, thumb, and double-thumb. Gather piles that fill up a bundle in each hand. This will be enough to get the fire started, and you can build this into a bigger fire that will keep you warm, dry out you and your gear, and give you a signal for others to see if you need a rescue.

tending a campfire with the COMBAR Pro Titanium


Parting Words

This list of alternative fire starting techniques is not comprehensive. Far from it, in fact. If you have other survival fire-starting techniques, we’d love to hear from you on social media. Send us a message at @aclim8gear on Instagram. 

Follow Trevin on Instagram @dukeengineeringsolutions or @trevinthetraveler  on Facebook. 

Want more survival content? Check out 5 Winter Survival Tasks Using the COMBAR Pro Titanium.

Looking for overlanding pro tips? Check out Overlanding? Keep These 5 Essential Items In Your Emergency Kit.


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