There are many stories in the greek mythology about gods, heroes and monsters, but there’s one, that deserves to be remembered:
the tale of the Titan Prometheus.
This benefactor of mankind stole fire from the gods and gave it to men to help their poor lives.
This ‘careless action’ angered Zeus, who condemned him to an eternal punishment and the men, with the pandora’s jar, to all the evils…
but that’s another story…
The fire, in this myth, is a supernatural thing that helped the humanity to pave the way for progress and civilization.
The importance of fire
Many centuries ago, for the ancient greek, fire had a fundamental role for humanity.
Today, In modern times, we have forget the importance of fire.
It was fundamental for the development of human culture.
Stories and report were listen and told around flames of the campfire.
The men have passed down their knowledges in this way.
Think also about this…
Some animals can use or make simple tools, but only the man can transform raw materials…
This skill has evolved together the abstract thought by the fire.
With the fire the man control the light so he changes his perception of the world, of the day and of the night.
This new adventure of humanity starts during the the Lower Paleolithic Age.
Homo Erectus probably had the skill to control it, there are interesting archeological evidences about that.
How was fire lightning discovered?
What fire lighting techniques were used by our primitive ancestors?
It’s possible that, as many great discoveries, it did happen by accident.
There isn’t only one explanation, certainly the life of our ancestor was different from our lives because they lived surrounded by nature and from nature they learned all.
If we look at ethnology, among hunter-gatherers and primitive tribes, there are two main techniques to build a fire: fire by friction and fire by percussion
Primitive fire by friction
There are different friction methods in the world, but the simplest (*note – they require great practice, the word ‘simplest‘ is used only because they don’t require many tools) are the hand drill [watch a video] , the fire plow [watch a video], the fire saw [watch a video] and the fire thong [watch a video].
If you have watched the videos posted before or other videos on youtube, perhaps you have noticed that these methods belong to specific areas of the world, they are not suitable for some environment.
Other friction techniques and the fire piston
There are others reliable and very efficient primitive methods that work in many different environment but they are more complex than the listed before:
the bow-drill [watch a video], the pump fire drill [watch a video].
There is also another good method that uses a rapid compression to ignite a tinder: the fire piston [watch a video].
Primitive fire by percussion
One of oldest technique that the man used to shaping the stones was the percussion.
Our ancestors used hard cobbles, bones, antler as an hammer to remove flakes from flint and make their first tools.
Using a pyrite or marcasite nodules, instead other type of cobbles, in combination with a flint…that action can produce small hot sparks!
So from that starting point, with a good tinder…the fire arrived [watch a video]!
Fire making: an essential survival skill
Nowadays we have lost many primitive skills, in some cases, we have forgotten who we are.
I think that experiencing old ways of life really can help us to reconnect with our world and our nature.
To know how to start a fire is one of the most important skills in the wilderness.
Fire is a radiant heat source, it cooks meal and sterilizes water, it is a light in the darkness, it give hope of security.
First of all keep in mind the combustion triangle, the success of your work depends on three elements: fuel, oxygen, heat.
Only a right combination of these parts causes a fire ignition.
When you are in the outdoor you must be able to give to this theory a concrete form.
Your environment could offers useful resources, but sometimes it’s not simple to find them immediately.
It gets more complicated in harsh weather conditions.
For these reasons it’s important to carry different fire lighting tools and tinders, however without a good experience these could become ineffective.
It’s very important to practice your fire lighting skill.
Follow the general main steps to build your fire:
- with your favorite lighting tool ignite a tinder;
- place the ember in a dry tinder bundle;
- blow in to obtain the flames;
- use some kindling to fuel your fire;
- add piece of wood to maintain your fire.
You don’t need to go in the wild to learn that, you can test your skill near your home.
Try to build a fire, in all weather conditions with a minimal equipment, in a primitive way and experiment uncommon materials!
Unlike our ancestor, today we have many different tools to help us to build a fire, below you can find a very simple list of actual fire starting system.
Flint and steel
This was the method used from the Iron Age until the invention of matches, it’s an historical way to light a fire with percussion: a piece of high carbon steel is struck again a piece of flint to generate sparks. These sparks will ignite a tinder like char cloth or amadou
In the early Nineteenth century the invention of matches was a real step forward for development of new way to light a fire, and it take the place of flint and steel.
Today there are also windproof and waterproof matches for the outdoor.
One of the most common fire lighting system.
There is a wide range of choices of lighter, from the cheap and simple Bic/Clipper to the best windproof lighters, it’s always a good idea to have one of these in a survival kit in combination with other fire lighting tools.
Swedish Firesteel and other modern sparks methods
The most reliable fire starters, when they are scraped with an angled edge, produce many hot sparks, very useful to ignite a tinder.
Lens and Parabolic mirror
Two different tools that can be used for the same purpose, they concentrate the sunlight to ignite a material.
These types of fire starting method use a chemical reaction that produces fire.
Foraging tinder and timber
Bushcraft is not a single discipline but it involves a wide range of skills.
Knowledge not only helps us to reconnect with nature but it can save our lives in the wild.
For these reasons important to learn about your area’s natural resources including useful tinders and good timbers.
If you recognize a good tinder or an useful timber, collect enough of them for your needs, or store them in a dry place for your next adventures.
There are various trees species used by men around the world for fire craft, I list here only few names (there are many list in the web, search for your area):
I suggest to try yourself also with non-common timber to find what is the best combination for your environment.
It must be said that there are two different groups of tinders:
natural ( provided by the nature) and man-made.
This kind of tinder sometimes needs to be processed.
Here is another short list of some of the famous tinder around the world.
It couldn’t be obviously exhaustive.
- Abandoned birds nest
- Birch bark
- Cattails, Typha latifolia – head
- Chaga fungus, Inonotus obliquus
- Clematis Vitalba
- Common reed, Phragmites australis
- Crampball fungus, Daldinia concentrica
- Dandelion seed head, Taraxacum officinale
- Dry fern
- Dry pine needle
- Fat wood
- Tinder fungus, Fomes fomentarius
- Lime-Tree/Basswood, Tilia inner bark
- Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera inner bark
- Punk wood.
You could potentially use any natural dry material (grass, leaves, …) that could be transformed in a fluffy mass, in shawings or… in fuzzy sticks.
Man made tinder
There are so many types…
They could be improvised with our common everyday stuff, for instance, synthetic textiles, paper towels, duct tape (have a look there) etc…
Some of the commons survival tinder are:
- the ranger rubber band – very easy to make! Take a bicycle inner tube, cut it in band or rings. Done! They can be ignited easily in wet condition with a lighter
- cotton & vaseline, see my old post
- the char cloth, if you are interested in one of the historical man made tinder, look below to read the process, it’s easy to make.
Take a metal tin, open a small hole on the top (A).
Fill it with cotton, linen, yute, natural cordage ( 😉 ok… the name of this tinder is char cord instead of char cloth) (B).
Put it on the fire(C-D).
You should start seeing smoke from the hole that you made.
Wait until the smoke ended.
Remove the tin from the fire.
Wait until the metal become cold.
Open it.. the charcloth is made!
*Note. if you see flames in your tin, remove it from the fire and extinguish it!
Where should you store your tinder?
Let’s make make a round leather pouch…
The ‘Prometheus’ pouch!
When you find a tinder, you can use a simple shopping bag, a ziplock bag or a light dry bag, to preserve it from the moisture.
However, if you like a traditional way, you could make your own natural tinder bag!
I have been inspired for this project, by history and other ideas found around the Net
Unlike other ideas published before (the medieval possible pouch or the bushcraft pouch), this round pouch is without doubt, the simplest.
You don’t need to sew, but only a pair of scissors, a pattern, a leather punch and… creativity.
Making the pattern
Fold twice a newspaper (See the image below n. 1-2-3 ) .
For my pouch I used a round pattern with a radius of 22 cm.
If you want to follow my model, mark your paper with a pencil at 22 cm on
You don’t need a big compass to unite them with a curved line, here is a trick for you.
Tie your pencil with a string in same measure of the radius, place the opposite end in a corner of your paper and hold firmly.
Now you have a guide to draw your curved line (n.4).
With the scissors cut out the shape (n.5).
Open the folded paper shape… You have a round pattern!
Cutting and making the pouch
Place the pattern over a piece of leather, copy it with a pen, use the scissor to cut your circle.
This will be your circular pouch!
It’s time to make the holes for the string!
I’ve used a leather hole punch tool to make 56 holes at regular intervals round the perimeter of the circle.
The size of these holes will be the same of your string.
Now waterproof your bag, use animal fat or shoe grease.
Remember to repeat this treatment other times (example after a walk in a wet environment).
This action will help your leather to maintain your tinder dry.
Take a leather string, shoe lace, paracord and feed it through the holes to make a sort of ‘running stitch’.
Pull the string, your leather circle will become a pouch!
Cut the excess of your string and make a knot.
If you like, you can add a plastic stopper for your drawstring.
If you prefer to realize a custom stopper, make a first piece of wood, antler, leather with two holes (like a button) and a second with only one, this system will keep closed the bag.
What to carry in your ‘Prometheus’ pouch
Consider it a multi-carry pouch and store inside a collection of essential tools for fire lighting to cover any contingencies.
Obviously, it’s not the best solution for an ultralight backpacker, it has other and different purposes, I think that this pouch and its content can be used also as an educational material.
I can show you what my pouch actually contains, but there are not always these items inside, look the image below.
As you can see, there is a small tinder pouch, it’s made in the same way that i’ve explained before, with a small radius.
This pouch contains Lime-tree (Basswod) inner bark, it’s a great raw material to make cordage and works well as tinder!
The metal tinder box… it was a candy tin… I trash the candies then I removed the paint with sandpaper to make a ‘pioneer’ style tinder box.
Inside it there are always a steel striker, two piece of jasper, a small metal tin with char cloth.
The birch bark is not an autochthonous tinder for me… but i want to try this amazing way to start the fire! I bought that in a flower shop (?? it’s used to make decorations).
The bow drill socket it’s made of a piece of cherry tree that i found years ago.
The ‘classic’ swedish firesteel with my custom deer antler handle.
The tea candle an inexpensive light ad heat resource that could be used also to practice the ignition with firesteel!
The lens is another way to light a fire in sunny days, but also an useful tools to observe the nature.
Jute twine is a ‘low impact’ natural cordage and work very well as tinder.
Pieces of pine Fat wood that i found during a walk;
if this resource is shaved, it become a very good tinder for sparks fire lighting methods
A small piece of Tinder fungus to try old ways to light a fire.
As i said before, this is my actual content, but you can put inside also a lighter and remove other stuff to customize and adapt it for your needs.
Now it’s time to go into the woods….
Have a nice adventure!
Ciao, Bye, Tschüß, Salut, またね！
Some useful Resources
Nicolas Joly, The Early History of Fire, Popular Science Monthly Volume 10 November 1876 (1876).
Ray Mears, Essential Bushcraft. A handbook of survival skills from around the world, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003 – Amazon link
Andrea Mercanti, Manuale del Trapper, Club degli Editori, 1979 – Amazon link