You may never find yourself alone on a desert island, hungry and cold, looking for a way to cook and keep warm and a way to, maybe someday, signal search planes flying far overhead.

You may never need to know how to create fire without a lighter or matches (or that little push button on your outdoor grill.) Lots of people, believe it or not, never do.

But it came in handy for Tom Hanks, didn't it?

Here are a few non-traditional ways to start a fire when you need one.


Some campers and outdoorsmen carry flint, or bars of magnesium, that they strike or scrape with steel (say, the blade of a pocket knife) to create sparks. Places like retail chain REI carry them. They work well.

You can even start a pretty good fire this way without traditional tinder. Just slather a small square of cloth in petroleum jelly, then drop the ember from your flint or magnesium bar onto it.

The problem — you've probably caught onto this already — is that if you were just catching a quick overseas flight for your job at FedEx, then you probably wouldn't have any of that in your pocket. Tom Hanks didn't.

So you'll need to get more creative...

Rubbing two sticks together

Two members of the Masai tribe in Kenya start a fire using sticks and frictionTwo members of the Masai tribe in Kenya start a fire using sticks and friction. (Photo: Paul Banton/Shutterstock)

This is the preferred method of buckskin-wearing, jerky-chewing, bearded frontiersmen everywhere. And, yes. Tom Hanks, too.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as it sounds. This method is all about creating friction. To do that, one stick has to be pushed hard and quickly into the other stick (usually it's more like a board) to create an ember.

The most common way this method is employed is with a hardwood stick — experts call it the "spindle" — held perpendicular to a softer-wood base. The spindle is twirled into a notch in the base until the softer wood starts to smolder.

You can twirl the spindle between your hands to get the speed going. But you need to put a little down-pressure on it, too, to keep up the friction in that direction. So a lot of fire starters recommend using a bow — made of another, pliable stick with a shoelace or some rope between the two ends. Wrap the string of the bow around the spindle, hold the bow in one hand, push down on the spindle with the other hand and commence a sawing motion.

One other option of note here is called the "fire plough," popularized in the movie "Castaway" by — you guessed it — Tom Hanks. It's the same principle. In this one, you scrape a stick along a groove in the base until enough friction is created to spark the wood.

An important note: Have some flammable material handy while you're working to create that spark. Some dried sticks, leaves ... basically anything that burns. Put some under the base, where you're trying to get that spark. Add it onto the fledgling fire, slowly, until you have a rip-roaring inferno.

It's embarrassing to work that hard, finally get a spark and then realize you have nothing around to burn — even if you are alone on a desert isle.

Battery and steel wool

It's a little unclear why someone would be carrying this around but not a lighter or matches ... but whatever. If you ever — ever — find yourself in need of a fire and you have some steel wool and a battery, you're in luck! Even better if it's a 9-volt battery.

Simply rub the steel wool against the battery until the electrical charge between the two terminals — connected by the fibers of the steel wool — sets the wool to glowing.

It happens pretty quickly, so remember: Have that kindling ready to go.

Magnifying glass

A person starts a fire with a magnify glassPhoto: Dave Gough/flickr

This won't work on a cloudy day. And, unless you're an entomologist, it's a little strange to be carrying around a magnifying glass.

Still, it’s an option. It's as simple as getting a beam of sunlight reflected through the glass in such a manner that will light the tinder. You have to hold the glass very close and very still. It might take some time. But it can be done.

Chocolate and a Coke can

So you're a teenage boy and you need a fire. Every teenager has a soda and a chocolate bar nearby, right?

This is another weird one that has seen plenty of play on the Internet. It evidently works, too.

The chocolate is slathered on the bottom of an aluminum can — it doesn’t have to be a Coke can — then rubbed off with a cloth or paper until polished. The can should be buffed enough so that the surface is as close to a mirror as possible.

After that, it's just a matter of reflecting sunlight off the makeshift mirror onto the kindling.

It's unconventional. But if you're in a pinch, we think even Tom Hanks would approve.

Related on MNN:

4 ways to start a fire (when you really need it)
Here are a few ways to start a fire when you need one.