As a former Iraq War vet, I am an outdoor enthusiast and have had my share of survival tests including the dry scrub wilderness of the Middle East. Now while that isn't necessarily pleasurable, I do enjoy visiting local places, such as national parks and the wilderness of the West and Pacific Northwest. I'm also a regular airsoft milsim player, a form of simulation play with realistic looking replica firearms. This keeps me outdoors a few weekends a month in wooded areas and large swaths of backcountry. Every now and then I come across a situation where I need to start a fire whether to cook or for warmth. Some of the airsoft events I go to last multiple days, and you have to make do with whatever is in your bag. The nights can be fairly cold and a hot drink or warm soup can make a big difference. A few times, I have been without the ideal tools and forced to improvise. Here are a few ways I've learned to make a fire from materials on hand when a match is nowhere to be found.
Preparation and Basics: First, you will need dry tinder in a location isolated from wind or rain. Things that will suffice for tinder include: bark, birds nests, rope, dead leaves. Then make sure the area where you're starting the fire is free from strong winds and you have at least a 5 foot area clear of dry brush and other combustible materials. (you don't want it to get out of your control). The tinder pile should be piled a few inches high, and your combustible sources arranged from ease and speed of combustibility. Once the tinder is ignited, let it burn till the flame is larger, then place dry leaves or bark on top. Once the bark is ignited you can move to sticks and then thicker pieces of wood.
1. Come Prepared: If you are in an area prone to excessive moisture, it is wise to be a prepared. Purchasing a Firesteel, commonly known as a magnesium firestarter in the camping section of your local sporting goods store shouldn't cost you more than 10 dollars. They generally are small and rectangular, some are cylindrical. These are better than matches because moisture isn't a concern. In other words a wet, rainy night won't become a wet, rainy cold night because they can work wet. First, use your knife, rubbing slowly to shave off some of the magnesium into a pile. Place the metal on the pile of tinder. Next, holding the knife perpendicular to the surface of the firestarter, scrape it quickly and lightly to generate sparks, the spark should be hot enough to ignite the tinder/magnesium mix quickly.
2. Sun and Glass: This next method I have is if your group knows they're going to hunker down in one location and it's still bright out. You have to use any piece of convex glass on you, and focus it like a magnifying glass onto the tinder. A pair of sunlglasses, sometimes someone's eye goggles, even some rifle optics or lens covers will suffice. I personally use the lens of my tactical flashlight, as it screws off easily and I don't have to sacrifice or break any equipment to use it. You should face the optics towards the source of light, and with some patience and testing you'll ignite your tinder quickly.
3. Battery and Wire: The next method involves using a battery and some wire. This is optimal for use at night when you can't use a lens. Take a battery (AA, 9volt, etc) and attach insulated wire to both ends, (I usually carry some extra wires for my airsoft electric guns to do field repairs.) next you have to touch the two ends of the wires together to create sparks, place the wires on top of the tinder to ignite.
4. Flint and Steel: A more primitive method is with a Flint and steel. It's similar to using a Firesteel but much more skill based. If you happen to have a used matchcase, the flint at the bottom is a great source but if you are not able to access even that, a stone will work. The stone should be hard edged and struck with a carbon steel object such as a knife (Most tactical knives are carbon steel, stainless steel does not work). The striking should be done in a downward motion to appropriately direct the sparks. Once the tinder is smoldering, gently fan to bring oxygen to fuel the flame. Continue adding fuel to strengthen the flame.
5. Fire Plow: If you have absolutely none of these tools but a lot of gumption and elbow grease, you can try a fire-plow. The fire-plow is a friction method of ignition. You rub a hardwood shaft against a softer wood base. The base should be about 16î long on the longest side. To use this method, cut a straight groove in the base and plow the blunt tip of the shaft up and down the groove. The plowing action of the shaft pushes out small particles of wood fibers. Then, as you apply more pressure on each stroke, the friction ignites the wood particles. This requires a lot of patience and repetitive motions, be mindful not to slip, as you can get a nasty splinter from being a little inattentive.
Fires are a great way to make the outdoors more livable. You can boil water, cook food, and the smoke will keep the bugs off you. Speaking of smoke, I've even used it as a trap to lure in enemy airsoft players! I'd wait out in the side away from the fire, and I'd ambush them as they come to investigate the source of smoke (I of course never leave the fire unattended, its always within my line of site with a large canteen of water handy next to it) Just remember to respect the fire and always keep it as small as you need it. Also, I always clear it with the Airsoft event planners, or local forest officials to see if it's permissible to start a fire.