No matches, no lighters: do it like they did in earlier times

If you're ever stranded overnight in the bush, the best way to keep your spirits up, stay warm and repel prowling animals is to build a hearty campfire. And if you've neglected to bring matches, you can still salvage your reputation as an ultimate survivor by building a fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together. Like every worthwhile skill, lighting a fire without benefit of matches or a lighter takes some practice. But if you follow the right steps, you'll start a fire 100 per cent of the time.

The problem with starting fires in the bush is that we tend to need a fire the most when conditions are least favourable. Windy, cold or wet weather makes the job more difficult, so invest some time in selecting a sheltered site and gathering the following materials.

  • Bow: For this you can use any tough, bent stick that's roughly two feet long. You'll also need a length of cord or a leather thong to string the bow (a nylon fish stringer or leather shoelace works nicely). Tie it to one end of the bow, pull it taught and then tie it to the other end.

  • Drill: Find a tough, hard, straight stick about half an inch thick and a foot long. With your knife, sharpen the drill at both ends. On the business end, make a five- or six-sided point so that it will generate plenty of friction as it spins.

  • Socket: This component fits over one end of the drill and allows you to hold the drill down while you're spinning it back and forth with the bow. A palm-sized stone with a natural socket in it is ideal, but unless you've had the presence of mind to keep one in your pocket, you're not likely to find one in an emergency. The next best option is to use a pine knot with a shallow hole bored into it to accept the tip of the drill.

  • Fireboard: Here you'll need a flat piece of softwood, the drier the better. A piece of cedar shake works well. An abandoned shack will probably yield some dry lumber. Failing that, the inner wood of a dead tree (preferably balsam) will be dry enough. The fireboard can be any size, but let's say a foot long, half an inch thick and five to six inches wide is best. The crucial detail is the notch, which you carve on the edge of the fireboard. The notch is a narrow incision shaped like a keyhole. At the top of the notch use your knife to make a conical hole that's large enough to accept the tip of the drill, but small enough that daylight barely shows through.

  • Tinder: After you've assembled a good pile of dry firewood, put some serious effort into gathering several handfuls of fine tinder. Dry lint from the pockets of your jeans makes good tinder, as do mouse nests, woolly cedar bark, finely shredded birchbark and dead grass all mixed together. Make sure the tinder is compressed enough that hot coals won't fall through. Also have at the ready, on the spot you intend to build your fire, a pyramid of dry twigs, birchbark and leaves in which to place the tinder after it has been ignited.

Laya wide strip of bark on the ground and place the fireboard over it, making sure the keyhole is over the bark. Kneel down on one leg and place your foot on the fireboard to pin it down.

Insert the business end of the drill into the tiny hole and wrap the thong once around the drill. Cover the top end of the drill with the socket and hold it down with one hand.

With your free hand, rotate the drill by slowly drawing the bow back and forth, violin style. You'll find it easier to hold the drill perpendicular and steady if you brace your hand firmly against the leg you're not kneeling on. Steadily rotate the drill faster and faster until you see smoke rising from the hole. As the volume of smoke grows, further increase the speed of the drill.

Soonenough, a pile of black powder will have fallen through the keyhole and collected on the bark chip beneath the fireboard. Gently lift the fireboard and pour any residual powder onto the bark. Lay a clump of tinder on top of the bark, then raise it and blow gently into the tinder. There will be a small ember inside the black powder, and when you exhale, it will glow red. Close the tinder around it and blow harder. When the tinder bursts into flames, insert it quickly into your ready-made pile of dry twigs, birchbark and leaves, and build your campfire.

If you practise the whole procedure on a summer day, you'll work out the kinks and be prepared to create a fire under more adverse conditions. And here's your benchmark for proficiency: famous Canadian wildlife author (and co-founder of the Boy Scouts) Ernest Thompson Seton could regularly start a fire using this method in less than 60 seconds.