Flint and steel have been used in starting fires for centuries. In the days before matches were invented, flint and steel offered the ability to start a fire without having to carry a hot coal wherever one traveled (and worrying about losing it or having it go cold). Starting a fire using flint and steel takes more skill and preparation than simply striking a match. Try carrying large quantities of matches into the wilderness, or stockpiling thousands of matches in your disaster preparedness kit. Even if the weight and volume of your matches do not discourage you, you are faced with the problem of keeping them from getting damaged by moisture (or other storage concerns). Flint and steel overcome these problems and provides the survivor with the means of starting a fire that is more reliable than matches (if he/she is skilled enough to use it).

Knowing how to utilize primitive methods of survival (in my honest opinion), are key skills to learn as part of your outdoor/survival preparedness. Getting a fire going by using the primitive flint and steel method can be a very rewarding experience. The Flint and Steel method brings to mind images of a self-sufficient frontiersmen in the wilderness. Once you have practiced and become confident enough to own the skill, you become an outdoorsman with a unique skill set. You may be surprised, but most people are not able to build a fire without the use of matches or other modern-day accelerants.

The kit I am showcasing in this article is the ‘C Steel and Flint Set’ from Self Reliance Outfitters. This is a basic kit that is easy to learn with, and will last you quite a long time. If you’re not confident in finding additional flint, chert, or quartz to strike the steel with, you can purchase additional pieces of flint from Self Reliance Outfitters.

Primitive Fire using Flint and Steel
The C Flint and Steel Kit

Kit contents of the C Steel and Flint Set:

  • C Shaped Steel Striker
  • Flint Stone
  • Lampwick Char Cloth – Lampwick is ideal for igniting your tinder bundle in damp and less than ideal conditions. Because it’s thicker than a piece of cotton from a T-shirt, it will hold the ember longer allowing the tinder to get hot enough to ignite.
  • Stainless Steel Tin – Can be used for charring additional material. Used Altoids tins work great for this. For my personal tin, I drilled a small hole in the top and then applied two coats of High Temperature Black Spray Paint to both the lid and main body. The properties of this paint allow heat to distribute more evenly and also help with cleaning off sticky residue from camp fires.
Primitive Fire using Flint and Steel
Charring tin prepped for the field.

Successfully starting a fire using flint and steel requires a few basic steps.

  • Making Char Cloth
  • Finding Tinder Material
  • Constructing a Tinder Bundle using the tinder material you gathered
  • Striking the flint and steel
  • Igniting the tinder bundle

Making Char Cloth:

Creating char cloth is the process of burning 100% cotton fabric without oxygen. 100% cotton must be used, as fabric with any trace of synthetic material will not char properly. Old, worn out, cotton t-shirts are a great source of cotton for char cloth. To create char cloth, first, you must prepare the small metal tin by punching a 1/16″ hole in the lid with a small nail.

Cut your cotton into pieces approximately 2″ by 3″ and loosely place eight to ten pieces into the tin. Close the lid tightly and place the tin onto the hot coals of your existing fire.

During this process, you will soon notice smoke and a small flame coming out of the nail hole in the lid. Continuing watching until the flame goes out and the smoke dissipates. At this point remove the tin from the coals. Do not open the tin until it has cooled down (about 5 minutes). Opening the lid too soon may cause the cloth to burn up.

After the tin has cooled sufficiently, carefully open it to examine your char cloth. The finished product should be uniformly coal-black and somewhat fragile. Fabric showing any brown is not completely burned. If this happens, repeat the process.

Finding Tinder Bundle Material:

Tinder is probably the most important part of primitive fire making, since poor or damp tinder will make your fire starting difficult, but not impossible. Examples of natural tinder are thin juniper bark, inner bark from a cedar or cottonwood tree, dry or dead grass, dried flower heads, sagebrush, etc. Many people get hung up on being able to identify specific materials. What it really boils down to is the properties of the materials. You want a material that is dry and provides a large surface area, dead grass and flower tops are the easiest things to find. Your tinder should be roughed up to make it as thin as possible.

Making the Tinder Bundle:

Take the fine, roughed-up tinder materials and place them together to form a loose bird’s nest shape. Once you have the basic shape of a bird nest take all the loose materials left over and place them into the center of the tinder bundle you just created and shaped.

Depending on your access to wooded areas to find and collect material to practice with you can also purchase already collected tinder. This is a great option for those just starting out. Not only is it already collected for you, but it gives you an example of what to look for and collect when in a woodland environment. Dragon Fire Tinder provides a great product for this very reason.

Striking the Flint and Steel:

For me personally, I hold the C shaped steel in my left hand. Then I hold the small chunk of flint in my right hand. Strike the flint against the steel edge with a forceful downward glancing motion. As the flint strikes the steel, sparks will fly. I keep my charred material in the tin and strike aiming at the pile of material inside the tin. Watch the cloth carefully at this point. When a spark lands on the char cloth it will begin to glow red! Pull the piece out that is glowing red to use with your tinder bundle. If any other pieces are glowing red from the sparks, just put the lid back on and they will stop burning from lack of oxygen.

Igniting the Tinder Bundle:

Place the glowing char cloth into the center of the bird’s nest tinder bundle. Gently close the nest up around the glowing cloth. While holding the bird’s nest up in front of you (at nose level) begin gently blowing on the glowing ember. When the tinder begins to smoke, blow harder until the tinder bundle bursts into flame. Carefully place the burning nest into the center of the wood in your fire pit and continue gently blowing until the fire catches.