This article on using electricty to light a fire was originally published in The Bushcraft Journal issue 11 published in October 2016. As it’s now completely free there’s no excuse for not getting a copy!
Using electricity to light a fire
When I’m teaching electrical fire lighting methods, I often use the analogy of an electric toaster to explain what’s going on. If you look down into a toaster, you’ll see that it has rows of metal coils on either side. When you turn on the toaster, electricity runs through the wire coils. If the wire has enough ‘resistance’ (and a toaster is designed so that it has just the right amount), the flow of electrons is slowed down, the wire gets hot and glows orange/red. And it’s this heat that toasts your bread (or crumpets, I like crumpets!).
With this knowledge in mind, we can take advantage of the heat created through electrical resistance to light a fire.
Wire wool and a battery
Probably the easiest way to demonstrate electrical fire lighting is to use a piece of wire wool and a 9v battery. I use 000 grade wire wool which, as a useful aside, can also be ignited with a fire steel. Somewhat ironically, the only place I use a 9v battery is in a smoke detector at home.
Stretch the wire wool and then simply touch the bottom with both terminals of the battery.
The wonderment this creates on people’s faces is priceless, but unfortunately we don’t have a flame.
To create a flame what I often do is create a sort of inside out tinder bundle by wrapping the wire wool around a piece of cotton wool, a bit like an ice cream cone, and then touch the battery to the end of the cone.
A little bit of blowing and the cotton wool ignites.
I don’t carry either a 9v battery or wire wool when I’m in the woods and so this method isn’t very practical for me. But a big part about knowing different fire lighting methods is that the principles can be adapted depending on your situation and what you have to hand. The more you know, the more likely you are to be able to get that fire lit.
Back in my youth, from around 14 or so, I would routinely spend 4 or 5 days at a time wandering around on Dartmoor. Those of you of a similar age might remember that the torches back in those days were big and most of that bulk was down to batteries. Nowadays we generally have torches with LED bulbs that use AA or AAA batteries, which at 1.5V aren’t as effective in conjunction with wire wool.
None the less we can use these smaller batteries together with some metallic sweet wrappers. Chewing gum wrappers are ideal because they have a thin paper backing, and it’s this paper that ignite
Firstly, you need to remove the chewing gum and then cut the wrapper in half along its length.
Now cut the wrapper so that it’s much thinner in the middle. To understand why this helps, think of a wide river that narrows, the current becomes stronger as the river gets narrower. This is basically what happens when we cut the chewing gum wrapper, the narrow section increases the resistance, which as we discussed in our toaster analogy, slows the electrons and creates heat.
Hold the wrapper to either end of the battery and it should start to smoke quite quickly followed by ignition. The real trick is getting the burning wrapper into some tinder before it goes out again, because it doesn’t burn for long!
I have a hand torch that uses 2 x C123 batteries; these are 3V batteries. It’s one of the batteries from my torch that I’m using here. I don’t chew gum but a wrapper in your fire lighting kit weighs next to nothing.
Most modern mobile phones are sealed units and the battery isn’t easily accessible; you would need to break the phone to get to it. I have an old mobile phone with a removable back. I use it because the battery lasts almost 2 weeks before it runs out, which is ideal if I’m in the woods. But I can also get to the battery easily.
It’s a little trickier than using a 9v battery, but still relatively easy.
I’m guessing most of us don’t carry a car battery in our fire lighting kit, but none the less, it might be that you’re with a vehicle. Rather than creating sparks with a car battery and then using those to light a fire, use a single piece of wire from one battery terminal to the other; use a short piece of wire that just reaches. Cut away some of the insulation from the wire and wait for it to glow red (much like our toaster example) and use this heat to ignite your tinder.
As always, don’t take my word for any of this, get out there and try it for yourselves!
We teach how to use traditional flint & steel, as well as a host of other methods of ignition, 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. You can see plenty of photos from all of these courses on our Facebook page.