19th Century Fire Starting with a Modern Twist


Using this 19th century fire starting technique with a modern twist might make you understand the past more than you’d think.

19th century fire starting

A proven 18th century fire starting technique with a modern twist can keep your fires burning for long periods of time.

When I think about the mountain men, longhunters, and other adventurers, it’s hard not to be impressed. These men used a dash of technology, combined with a hard earned Rocky Mountain College degree, to live in the wilds for extended periods of time. For example, the mountain men of the rendezvous period only got resupplied once a year with a new outfit. These woodsmen didn’t have the luxury of forgetting something on the list and running back to the store a few weeks later. The rendezvous was it. If they didn’t buy it then they had to go without it, make it, or see if they could trade for it.

It is a time which, in my opinion, is a nice blend of technology and a working knowledge of the world. They had luxuries like steel knives, steel tomahawks, wool blankets, and metal cookware that made their lives easier.  On the other hand, even with a few pack horses you could only drag along so much stuff across the landscape. In order to survive a full year, the mountain men also needed a working knowledge of the land around them. Dressing deer hides, making clothes, finding food, and learning to barter, were all skills they needed to succeed for a year at at time. One implement pivotal to the men’s survival was an everyday 19th century fire starting tool; the flint striker.

Flint and Steel Fire Starting

Natural materials

A few natural materials for starting a primitive fire.

The flint and steel fire making method is a great long term fire starting method. Although it was not exclusive to the mountain men, it does serve as a representative symbol of their lives. With a little bit of technology (the striker), a little bit of natural material (char and tinder), and a good deal of know-how, the men could light fires all year with no problems. Although these rugged men had other methods of fire starting available, the flint and steel was most widely used and was a very easy process to learn.

Lighting a flint and steel fire takes only five ingredients. These ingredients are; a steel striker, a piece of flint, charred material, good tinder, and some knowledge. Four of these are easy to procure, and one takes a bit of experience. To make the fire you simply strike the flint against the steel to create a spark.  Your goal is to land the spark on your char. Good char will catch the spark and create a glowing ember. If you’ve got good tinder, you just drop the ember in the tinder and blow it to life. It’s a very straight forward process if you’ve got experience with primitive fire making. Learning to make a flint and steel fire is not extraordinarily difficult.

The Modern Twist

Personally I’ve found the most difficult aspect of starting a flint and steel fire to be getting my sparks to land on the char. In my own defense, most folks using this method are using char cloth. I use char cloth and can catch sparks easily with it. Lately though, I’ve been using charred punk wood to start my ember. This material would have been much more likely to have been used as a fire starter by mountain men, as cloth came at a premium. The problem with punk wood is that it doesn’t catch a spark as easily as charred cloth does. What I decided to do next may not sit well with hard core traditionalists out there.

Ferro rod and char

This fire starting kit combines the old and the new.

In order to create more sparks I sometimes employ the use of a modern ferro rod. These rods are very effective and greatly used by survival and bushcraft folks today. A ferro rod throws many sparks at a much hotter temperature than a flint and steel striker. When working with charred wood this comes in handy. I simply cast a few sparks into my char tin and get an ember going in just a few seconds. After that, the process is just the same as creating a flint and steel fire.

Blending the Old and the New

Although the ferro rod/char combination is not a traditional 19th century fire starting method it is still nice to know. Whether using a flint striker or a ferro rod, I prefer this concept for several reasons. One, it doesn’t require excessive gear. A simple steel, or ferro rod, and you can make fire all year. Two, both devices are fool proof. These tools work every time you use them and are nearly impossible to break. Lastly, although both use a bit of technology, the main ingredient is natural material and a skill set. Even though a ferro rod is pretty advanced in the chemistry department, it’s not something you can just start making fires with. You still need know how, knowledge of natural materials, and the right touch to get a fire going.


The mountain men needed tools that worked for a full year without fail. This fire starting system truly emulates what they needed.

Again, the ferro rod/char fire starting method is not a traditional 19th century fire starting technique. However, it can be a good way to get started using other char materials rather than cloth. It is also a great tool for anyone interested in long term survival. Finally, I personally don’t feel like it is a total disregard for the mountain man time period either. The mountain men were interested in traveling light, starting fires, and having all they needed for a year’s time. The ferro rod fits all of those requirements remarkably well. It may not be the 19th century fire starting method the mountain men used, but perhaps the means of making fire for the 21st century mountain man.

If you like learning about the ways of the mountain men, you might enjoy this piece about Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.



2 thoughts on “19th Century Fire Starting with a Modern Twist

  1. Pingback: Build and Atlatl and You Build a Piece of Living History | Soft Tracks Outdoors

  2. Pingback: Understanding the Mountain Man Possibles Bag | Soft Tracks Outdoors

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