You are transported to a forest. How long until you make a fire?

You have no tools, just the clothes on your back. Could you make a fire? How would you do it and how long would it take?

Most likely, I’d freeze to death or be eaten by wolves.

The movie Castaway shows Tom Hanks believably making a fire using friction. It certainly can be done, and by unskilled people. But they need some intuition and a lot of patience.

I’ve made a fire drill and have gotten the panel hot, but not generated embers I could get a flame from. I do believe that given time and the imperative of necessity, I could get fire from it, but making the apparatus without tools is a tugh proposition. Allow youtr hypothetical person a pocket knife and the odds go up immensely. You can use stone “tools” or “found” metal scrap to do it, but it’ll be a lot cruder and take longer.
If you doubt the capability of making a friction fire, I point out that making a fire by this means to light ceremonial St. John’s Day fires was traditional throughout Europe for centuries (See Frazer’s book The Golden Bough). For that you had squads of people, though, and they had tools.

How long it would take would depend on what you had (and exactly where you were plunked down). Give an inexperienced person 6-12 hours and I think they’d succeed. They’d hate you for it, though.

By the way, if you search for this on the internet, you find scads of sites telling you how to fo it, including lots of videos. Most of these assume you’ve got a knife. I don’t doubt that there are people who can do this in a matter of minutes, if they’re properly equipped. Or you can do it if you can find the appropriate materials without need for a knife (softwood piece with a groove, hardwood stick to rub in it), but the time is going to vary significantly with what you have to work with and your knowledge and skill. I’m putiing myself down for about 4 hours.

I would just die, I have no outdoorsy skills at all. I’d be eating all of the poison berries and trying to pet the wolves

I have made sparks by rubbing stones, as a kid. Some hard stones around and I would do it.

It may take 10 minutes to 30 minutes, I guess.

You can find a safe place to stay, and can try to insulate yourself by dry leaves and so on, enough for a night. Then you can try to make fire.

This made me laugh. Probably because one of the times when I’ve seen a wolf in the wild, I tried to feed him my tuna sandwich.

Friction fire enthusiast checking in (several hundred friction fires using dozens of different materials in various natural environments under my belt). Twice I’ve made fire on the spot in the woods using only natural materials collected as I go, plus a pocket knife. Without the knife, shaping the pieces of the hand drill sets would’ve taken maybe an hour each instead of five minutes (making notches in wood is particularly tedious with improvised tools). The actual making of fire takes a couple of minutes, from starting the drilling to a roaring fire, given dry, warm conditions (not likely in a true survival situation).

In my opinion, unless the scenario in the OP takes place in an extremely dry environment, the inexperienced person has no way to succeed. Making fire by friction doesn’t take just perseverance and a desperate need for heat and light. Many little things have to be just so for the method to work. Getting wood hot by applying muscle is dead easy. Creating a wisp of smoke by rubbing two dry sticks together is doable by any fit person. But, unlike most people assume, there’s a huge leap from smoking sticks to an actual ember.

If the two pieces of wood are incompatible in terms of dust quality, no ember - no matter how much smoke pours out. If the woods are not shaped just so the wood dust collects into a single spot for ignition to take place, no willpower will overcome the flaw. Moisture is a big hindrance to impromptu attempts at friction fire. Most materials in most environments are simply too wet to work as is, even if workmanship and technique is flawless. Details like whether the hearthboard is 1/2" or 5/16" thick (totally dependent on the properties that particular piece of wood has in relation to the other particular piece of wood in the set) may easily make or break the try.

Few things wear a person down as quickly as trying the get an ember from two sticks. The hypothetical inexperienced, fit person in the woods has a couple of real tries to succeed before muscles give out, blisters pop and desperation sets in. Even an experienced, fit person has to expend energy wisely from start to finish to succeed in friction fire under field conditions.

Having trained dozens of motivated people in the hand drill method, I’ve never seen anyone with good enough a technique to make it on their own. I’d estimate, given an excellent pre-made set and intense hands-on coaching, maybe one person in ten succeeds in creating an ember without further training sessions. Having done it is only half-way there, though. The tiny ember has to be transported into a just-so tinder nest, pre-made and bone-dry, and blown into a flame. No small task, as there’s every chance of killing the ember before it grows, especially when out of breath and shaking from exertion. Blow too little a couple of seconds too late, and the ember dies. Fail to squeeze the nest gently just as it starts to open up from the heat, and the ember breaks down etc. Myriad ways to mess it up, as in every step of the way.

Making fire on the spot would have been a challenge to a hunter-gatherer, as well. Friction fire materials were traditionally collected from specific spots in specific times of year, collected and cured in advance and taken great care of. The Hadzabe of Tanzania, for instance, get their fire sticks from one particular slope of a mountain, up to 60 km from their hunting camps. No sticks growing nearer will do.

The fire plow, as depicted in Castaway, is the most difficult, skill-dependent friction fire method there is. Any other method would have been more realistic, although not by much. The scene itself was realistic, all the way to the crucial moment. The feeble output by Hanks, the hearthboard, rocking this way and that, the sound of wood getting polished instead of wearing down, next to no smoke…just what a beginner would look and sound like. Then, BAM! Fire, out of the blue.

The European folk methods of making a need-fire, as presented by Frazer, were dependent on heavily-worked, pre-made wooden implements and plenty of manpower. Even then, the components had to be just so.

I’d say it is more likely for a totally inexperienced driver to take a manual-transmission car through heavy city traffic without stalling once and then parallel-parking succesfully, without coaching, than an inexperienced person to succeed in making friction fire in the woods, solo.

ETA: The ‘patent’ combination of a hardwood stick rubbing a softwood groove is an old wives’ tale that kept me from succeeding for a long time. For maximum friction (= heat), two pieces of wood of equal hardness work infinitely better.

Very interesting, thanks!


Since the wolves are busy eating all the rest of you, maybe it’ll buy me some time to invent a computer with an internet connection so I can watch YouTube videos of how to start a fire, because I’m pretty sure that would be easier than actually doing it, according to Toxylon.

I learned how to do this when I was ten, in the Cub Scouts.

Heh, I’ve done it years ago, and I agree - the hardest part is having the right woods to use, and having them really, really dry. When I did it it was with materials that had been pre-selected and dried for some time at my grandfather’s cabin. I don’t think it would be possible if you had to find your own materials in the woods and make the fire that very day. For one, in most climates when trees die they are damp and immediately start to rot. It is only under special circumstances that they die and dry out to the seasoned dryness required fpr making a friction fire.

That’s even if you know the technique and are a good hand at carving a fire-drill.

Mind you, I usually carry around a small magnifying glass in my pocket - I probably could make a fire with that in a matter of minutes, on a sunny day. :smiley:

Do the glasses on my face count? If so, I’m good to go.

Would that help? ISTM that they would burn your face if they could be used for starting a fire.

Yeah, pretty much me too. I might be able to start a fire in a situation where I don’t actually need one: i.e., if there’s lots of dry brush, and there isn’t a high wind, and it isn’t raining or snowing. But in a situation where I need a fire or else I die?

Brother, I die.

Depends on the location of the forest. Easy, if it’s in Colorado.

It would take a while. First thing I’d do is look for flint. Finding none, I’d look for quartz. It’s pretty common, I’m sure I could find a rock that would produce sparks when struck. I’d waste time trying to light a fire that way before realizing friction was the way to go. However I could sharpen the quartz sufficiently to make a simple knfe. Assuming I could use some clothing to make a cord I’d make a bow to spin a stick. Otherwise I’d waste more time trying to make it out of plant fiber. The really hard part will be finding dry tinder. Hopefully there’s some sunshine and I can dry out something. I’d try hair, wood shavings, bits of clothing if it’s allowed. I’d say it would be at least a day, and probably two or three before I was successful.

Just occurred to me, my hair is long enough to make some decent string. Just knowing that might get me to making a bow faster.

I prefer carbon steel personal knives over stainless steel partly because striking sparks from one with an appropriate rock is so easy. Flint, steel, and charcloth are the easiest. I’very done the drill thing and came away unimpressed at my chances of making it work in a wet, cold, dark emergency.

Don’t you have shoelaces?? :smiley:

I’m really starting to hate the way this tablet auto-corrects the word I’ve into the name I’very.

To answer the question, I’ve started fires many, many ways, but friction isn’t one of them.

I have close to zero confidence in my ability to make a fire with just the clothes on my back. So I’ll say it will take me 5-6 days. Hope it’s not too cold!