Fire Piston: A Never Fail Way To Build A Fire In The Wilderness
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Fire Piston: A Never Fail Way To Build A Fire In The Wilderness

Fire Piston: a simple and effective way to start a campfire without matches when stranded in the forest. A wilderness survival tool that may save your life.

Fire Piston: Build a Fire Without Matches

You are lost in the woods. It is getting cold and dark. Survivalists say that you should start making camp for the night at least two hours before the sun goes down. Shelter is the first and most important thing you will need. Staying dry and warm is important and you may definitely need a fire for the night. An old saying goes that for a campfire in the woods you should gather two or three times more wood than you expect you might need. Then, gather two or three times that amount again. You do not want to be scavenging for firewood in the middle of the night to feed a dying campfire.

You should seek any available wild foods around you, such as wild leeks and fiddlehead ferns (both in the springtime,) milkweed (year 'round) and Cossack asparagus (cattails.) If you are near a stream or pond, look for crayfish. They are easy to catch and when cooked (boiled, fried or baked) they taste a lot like shrimp!

You can make some sort of hand-tool like a primitive stone hand-axe for cutting vines to make a shelter or bust apart a rotted log in search of grubs. Maybe you brought some form of signalling device like a whistle, mirror or home-made smoke bomb.

But what about building a campfire? Maybe you have matches, maybe you do not. One could find two rocks and bang them together to maybe create a spark. Or rub two sticks together for awhile. Good luck with that!

Assuming that you do not have a reliable fire-starter, here is a simple and very effective tool that one should carry on their person for camping, hiking or hunting expeditions called a Fire Piston.

What is a Fire Piston?

A Fire Piston is a small wooden device which consists of two pieces. A block of wood with a hole drilled in it, and a piston ramrod of the same diameter with a comfortable striker handle at one end. More reliable than matches for building a campfire because matches lose their ability to ignite over time. They draw moisture.

If the matches accidentally get moist they won't work, or might not work at all (try lighting a fire with matches in a light drizzle or in a heavy damp fog.)

A Fire Piston by contrast relies upon the heat of compressed air, and works every time.

Drying the matches out will likely not help them much but even if it does, you need a fire now. You might use 10 or 20 matches to build one fire if you are fighting the elements of wind and rain/humidity. Once the matches are used-up, that's it. They're gone. What you need is something that works every time and is virtually inexhaustible in its ability to start fires. You should have a Fire Piston.

What exactly is a 'Fire Piston'

Fire Piston, a simple fire-starter device

A fire piston is a simple device that uses compressed air to ignite a small dot of tinder (such as charred cloth) which creates a glowing ember that can be transferred to a handful of other tinder material and used to start a kindling fire.

How to Build Your Own Fire Piston

Building the Fire Piston is Easy

Using a hardwood 'core' (Fig. A in the diagram below) you drill a hole almost completely through the length. The 'core' can be a simple hardwood block (or other material such as a plastic block) approximately 4 1/2 to 5 inches long, with the shaft through its length that is at least 4-inches long. You want one end open and the other end closed.

A knob (Fig. C) will serve as the Fire Piston handle. Drill a hole partially through that as well.

Using a half-inch diameter manufactured hardwood dowel rod (Fig. B) and of the same diameter as the holes you just drilled, insert a few drops of glue into the knob handle and insert the dowel and fully seat it. Allow to dry. This forms the ramrod, or plunger. Hardwood dowel rods can be bought at most hardware and do-it-yourself outlets.

The fire piston rod needs a small hollowed tip, a place for 'charcloth' or whatever you are going to ignite. A small piece of cotton cloth, a tissue, anything flammable. This is where your hot ember will be created.

         Fire Piston:explode view showing the three main parts.

A rubber O-ring installed near the tip will ensure a good tight fit. A small groove to accommodate the rubber O-ring can be carefully scored using a fine hacksaw blade.

A little lubricant (oil, Vaseline, grease, etc.) is rubbed onto the O-ring to ensure a air-tight fit and smooth insertion and withdraw action. The pressure of the compressed air in the tip of the core section will actually drive the ramrod back out after punching it in, so be prepared and don't aim this towards your face when using.

Stuffing a small quantity of a combustible material into the hollowed tip will be your incendiary material. This can be a bit of soft punky dry tree bark fiber, a shred of cotton from your shirt or a small sacrificed snippet of shoelace if necessary. You need a fire to survive in the cold woods at night. There are always things around you that will burn. You can always ties your boots a few eyelets shorter if necessary.

With a small wad of the combustible material inserted into the split end of the ramrod, insert this end into the core.

Set the core on the ground and using a quick downward punch on the handle knob to drive the piston into the core, the charcloth ignites. Quickly withdraw the ramrod. Transfer this smoldering ember to your handful of dry tinder (dry grasses, punky dry wood, fluff from milkweeds,or cottonwood fibres, etc.) and gently blow on it until it turns to flame. Introduce this to your kindling wood and voilà! -You just built a fire using the fire piston!

The ramrod and hole in the core must be of a very close tolerance. If air escapes too easily, the hollow tip and tinder may not become hot enough to ignite. If this is the case, a tight-fitting O-ring can be used on the tip near the end, or waxed dental floss can be wrapped tightly around the end of the plunger to close-up the gap tighter. If too lose, you will not be able to quickly withdraw the ramrod and retrieve the smoldering fiber wad. The temperature reached at the end of the rod during compression can exceed 600 degrees Fahrenheit which more than enough to ignite just about any material used.

A YouTube Video of a FIRE PISTON

Fire Piston devices are very reliable and if carried aforethought when you hike or travel in your car, this device may save your life if you are cold and lost in the woods, stranded and need a campfire. Unlike a pack of matches which once used up are gone, this can serve for many uses over and over again.

(all graphics by author)

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Comments (10)

This is too cool and really innovative.


I wonder if it would work to build this out of pipes but instead of having the end completely sealed you put a pressure valve on the end so it compresses the air to heat it and then blasts it out the end so you don't need to worry about pulling the tinder out before it burns up.

Does not need to be overly-complicated. The pressure must not only be high, but created fast. Punching the plunger downward by hand serves this function. This device could be made from a block of plastic with a clear plastic plunger rod instead of hardwood. The principle is similar to a manual bicycle pump; compression of air causes heat. In the case of the bicycle pump the compressed air is being forced into the inner-tube or tire being inflated. In the Fire Piston, the energy is concentrated upon the flammable cloth at the end of the piston. The burning ember on the end of the piston will survive for several seconds, -long enough to transfer to a tinder bed of bark, cloth or dried mosses. This is a really fascinating (and simple) invocation.

Good article, I like your pictures. This would definitely come in handy for building a fire, especially if you're lost in the woods and cold.

I've had a few PMs already about 'what about those phosphorus ignition sticks' for starting campfires and so forth. -It's like inexperienced cave-explorers; they tend to bring only one source of light on their cave exploration. One small flashlight. Drop it, lose it, get it wet,it fails, -they're in the dark. While I'd still carry waterproof matches if hiking through the mountains on an overnight strip, I would want to carry more than just those for starting a fire. Always good to have an alternative way to build a fire. For those whom do not wish to make one, pretty sure they sell these too. The one I saw was a plastic bar with plastic piston and did exactly the same thing. That one has some sort of 'pressure relief valve' at the bottom for allowing the piston to be stored fully-seated into the block. In the absence of this relief valve, one might risk shoving this thing in and upon letting go, the compressed air kicks the piston away over their shoulder to be lost.. :-o

Awesome idea! I'll see if I can get someone to make one for me. Thanks!

Proof that the Ideal gas law works. I love thermodynamics! pV=nRT

That is fascinating! Can you make that char-cloth from the video?

Tweeted, FBed, Buzzed, and voted! Great article!

One of my best memories of my dad was his interest in survival skills. He talked about it a lot and had all kinds of books and paraphenalia. He would have loved this. He was an outdoorsman and hunter.