Imagine this: You’re stranded in the middle of an unknown island. There’s no cellphone signal. No shelter. No nothing. The cold breeze is starting to blow as the night approaches. You felt chilly. You looked around and find nothing but some twigs, dried leaves, and pieces of wood. Hopefully, you’re wearing shoes with laces, and this might be the key to your survival as temperatures drop.  How? By making a Bow drill.

Controlled Use of Fire

Since the Early Stone Age, when the Homo erectus discovered the controlled use of fire, humanity’s life had never been better. Meats were no longer eaten raw. Nights were no longer dark, and forests were cleared for planting and made it easier to spot game.  A fire was also security as most animals are deathly afraid to approach anything burning. It was indeed one of humankind’s first great innovations. Indeed, it can be said that Mankind has not only survived in a Fire-Ecology but has thrived in it. With all the inventions and innovations that we’ve made, you can start a fire with a snap of a finger. We have match sticks, lighters, heck, even a magnifying glass. But what would you do if you didn’t have any of those in hand?

Going back to the makeup scenario, here’s what our Native American ancestors would’ve done to start a fire (and you can do, too): Bow drill.

Exhibit in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photography was permitted in the museum.

What You’ll Need

The first thing to do is gather all those twigs and woods around you. You’ll need to find:

  • Socket: a small, flat wood that fits inside the palm of your hand
  • Fireboard: A rectangular board that’s at least four fingers wide and a thumb thick.
  • Spindle: a long, thin piece of wood
  • a curved piece of wood
  • your shoelace (or any other cord)

Let’s get to work!

Start making the bow by tying the ends of the cord to the tips of the curved piece of wood. It should look like a bow.

Get your long, thin piece of wood and single-wrap the cord to it.

Get your fire board and try to create a shallow hole or dent on its body. Perhaps you could use a swiss knife or a sharp stone, whatever is available. Creating a notch on the surface of the fireboard makes it easier for you to hold the spindle in place later on. It would also help with creating smoke and fire.

Place the tip of your spindle on the fire board’s notch while the other end of it should be on the socket that’s secured in the palm of your hand. It should look like this:

Bow drill, as used for fire starting. Photo; Wikimedia Commons

With everything in place, start moving the bow drill in a sawing motion. The spindle and the fireboard should create friction and start producing smoke. It’s all a matter of creating friction so be patient and keep a steady pace. Continue with the sawing motion until smoke starts to billow, and you could add dry tinder or anything that would encourage the fire. Once the tinder begins to ignite, blow on the flame gently while you add more dry leaves and twigs. Once the fire is pretty stable, feed the fire with dry wood and secure the area with rocks, unless you want to start a bush fire. Unfortunately, you don’t have marshmallows to toast, but you’ll be warm for the night, and hopefully, rescuers will see the fire and smoke from afar.

In the military, there is a saying that “One is None and Two is One.”  It means that having just a piece of important gear will not be enough.  It will break and you need a backup to ensure that you will have one functioning piece of gear when you need it.  Fire is so important to safety and survival in the field that it warrants having as many back-ups as you can carry. It’s not a bad idea at all to have a fireboard and bow drill with you whenever you are out in the field for an extended period of time. So make one, get good at using it and keep it in your pack. You can thank us later.

Carry On.