This was originally published in Issue 7 of The Bushcraft Journal where I’ve been writing a series of articles on fire lighting.  It’s a fantastic magazine and well worth the price.

I’m going to continue with last issue’s theme of methods of ignition.  When I teach fire lighting this is generally where I start off.  Seems obvious doesn’t it?  But actually the method of ignition isn’t the first step in lighting a fire, fire lighting is all in the preparation.  Rather than cover that ground again, take a look at my article in Issue 2.

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south eastAnyway, I start with methods of ignition and the first method I look at is matches.


Two questions often come up when I take a bunch of matches out of my fire lighting box: “Isn’t that cheating?” and “Surely you don’t need to teach people how to use a match?”.  To the first question:

No it isn’t cheating (nor is it easy); using a match is a valid way to light a fire and for many of us was our first experience of creating a flame.  Richard Graves devotes more text to lighting a fire with a match than he does by friction in his ‘Bushcraft Book No. 5 – Firelighting’.  And the ability to get a fire going quickly might stop an enjoyable experience turning into a survival situation.

Do people need to be taught how to strike a match?  Almost certainly yes.  Many people, and not just children but an increasingly large number of adults too, have never lit a match and have no idea how to do so.  And why would they, modern life seldom requires the use of a match.  Most matches have ’Not to be used by children’ written on them, and whilst we don’t want any accidents or injuries, I think we should teach our children how to carry out simple tasks such as this competently.

When I was a boy I did use matches about the house and one thing my mum always told me was to strike the match away from me (this is often written on match boxes).  Now this is a sensible thing to do, it reduces the chances of setting fire to yourself for one thing!  But outdoors I find this method doesn’t work too well.  There are two main reasons for this.

The first is simple, striking the match away from you can mean the match isn’t protected from the wind and is prone to being blown out.

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south eastThe second reason is that to strike away from themselves, people tend to hold the match half way along its length between their index finger and thumb; this is the weakest part of the match and striking it this way can easily lead to the match snapping, especially if your manual dexterity is hampered because you are cold, wet or just tired.  Instead I typically use a couple of techniques.

Striking towards myself

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Here I hold the match in my dominant right hand and the box in my left.  I hold the match between my middle finger and thumb and place my index finger on top of the match head (plenty of people hold the match between their thumb and index finger and put their middle finger on the match head; try both and see what’s most comfortable for you).  I place the match on the far end of the striker and bring it back towards me.  Remember to move your index finger just before the match lights!  Because the match travels backwards, it’s simple to draw it into your cupped hands and stop it from blowing out.

Striking downwards

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

For this method I hold the match in the centre between the thumb and middle finger of my right hand.  I place my index finger on the end of the match and my ring finger next to my middle finger.  The striker is in my left hand pointing downwards.  The pressure of the strike is almost straight down meaning that it is unlikely that the match will break.  And again, it’s a simple matter to cup my hands to protect the match

Controlling the flame

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Once you’ve lit your match you need to control how fast it burns.  If you hold the match vertically with the head of the match uppermost, there won’t be any fuel to burn and the match will go out.

Because fire likes to burn upwards, if you hold it with the head of the match downwards, there will be plenty of fuel and most likely a big flame but the match will burn out quickly.

If you hold the match at a shallow angle, the flame can burn upwards, and have plenty of fuel.

Lighting the tinder

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

Of course striking the match is only half the story, from there you need to actually light a fire.  We can take advantage of the fact that fire likes to burn upwards by taking the match to the bottom of the tinder.  Hold the match so that the head is a little below the tinder you’re trying to light, maybe 8 – 12mm.  This should mean that the tip of the flame is directly on the tinder.

As I said at the start of this article, I don’t intend to discuss all the upfront preparation that needs to be done before we get to this stage, look in Issue 2.

Pros and cons

Matches have some advantages for fire lighting.  For one thing they’re still common and easy to get hold of; they’re cheap and they’re lightweight.  Whilst I’ve talked about lighting tinder above, you can also use a match to light first stage kindling (that matchstick thin, bone dry stuff) which can speed up your fire lighting or dispense with the need to collect tinder.  I’ve also used matches on feather sticks when it was raining hard and the feather sticks became damp from the moisture in the air.

But undoubtedly they also have a number of disadvantages.  They are difficult to use in wind and/or rain.  I recently left a box under a tarp on a damp day and both the heads of the matches and the strikers took in moisture from the atmosphere so that they were almost unusable within a few hours.

To get around this susceptibility to moisture, many people dip the heads of matches into petroleum jelly or molten wax.  Unless you coat the entire match, water can still potentially travel up the wooden part and turn the head to mush.  And you need to remove the wax or petroleum jelly to use the match, which whilst pretty simple to do in most circumstances might not be if your cold and wet or in a hurry.

An alternative is to use a water tight container; test just how water tight it is by dropping it in a bowl of water for an hour and then check the contents are still bone dry.  I bought a purpose made ‘military spec’ container a few years ago.  Needless to say, as ‘military spec’ it was massively overpriced and green.  Be careful if you put it on the ground, you may never find it again!

I’ve also used 35mm film cases and even a couple of shotgun cartridges; the latter gives no real advantage but does look quite cool (although you need to dab petroleum jelly around the top to get a good seal).

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

There’re lots of matches out there!

In the UK when people talk about matches they generally mean ‘safety matches’.  But there are many other types of matches on the market; as with my article on fire steels I don’t intend to write a buying guide here, just provide a few pointers.

I remember when books of matches were commonplace; hotels, bars, restaurants would give them away as advertising, but I don’t know when I last saw any of them, certainly not in the UK for many years.  Because they’re made of cardboard and aren’t rigid, I found the ‘strike towards’ method worked well.

‘Strike anywhere’ or ‘non-safety’ matches are ones that will strike on a wide variety of surfaces and not just the striker on the box.  I’ve only ever used these types of matches in the UK and they won’t strike anywhere, they need to be used with an abrasive surface such as a piece of stone.  The ones I’ve come across in the UK seem to be more susceptible to moisture than regular matches.

BBQ matches or cook’s matches are the extra-large matches.  I quite like these; they are more robust and less likely to break, there’s more of the match to hold if you’re cold and there’s more fuel to burn as well.

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

I’ve also got a bunch of weather proof matches, sometimes called storm matches.  These are matches that you can theoretically immerse in water and still use.  Unfortunately, many of these are sold in a cardboard box with the striker on the outside, so your match might be ok, but you won’t have a striker to light it on.

I’ve also got weatherproof matches in a water tight container, but again with the striker on the outside.  Now I understand why – there is a chance that a match could rub against the striker on the inside and ignite.  But a fire needs oxygen and we’re talking about a small, watertight (and therefore airtight) container.  If you’re concerned about this, you could just put the striker in a separate watertight container, or wrap it in a piece of paper or clingfilm first, or even simpler, cut a bit off the end of the striker so that it is shorter than the matches and can’t rub against the heads.

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

More recently I came across storm matches with a striker on the neck of the waterproof container, so the striker is protected from water but not in a position where the match can rub against it, which seems a good idea.

fire lighting with matches | bushcraft | Kent | London | south east

With all of that said, I’m not particularly keen on weather proof matches.  Whilst they will re-ignite in windy weather they don’t seem to produce as much heat as safety matches and more often than not when the flame reaches the wooden part of the match, it goes out.

Don’t take my word for any of this- get out there and try it for yourself.  Remember be safe and responsible with your fire lighting.

We teach how to use matches on our 1 Day Fire Lighting Course, our as well as on our 2 Day & 5 Day Bushcraft Courses, the IOL Bushcraft Competency Course and also our 2  Day & 5 Day Survival Courses.

About Gary

Lead Instructor at Jack Raven Bushcraft, teaching bushcraft, wilderness and survival skills to groups and individuals.

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