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The Problem with Bow Drill…is Not What You Think

Several months ago, one of my apprentices posed the question: “If you had to make a bow drill kit to make fire right now, what would you use to make a cord for your bow?”

The question was asked during an Apprentice session at our field site: at 9500′ in the Upper Montane of the Colorado Rockies.

(See below for the ‘survival’ answer.)

My response was also a question:  “Would I need to use a bow drill, or is the goal simply to make a fire, given any ‘natural’ means available?”

Granted the freedom of making fire from the land, given natural methods, I’d have chosen a hand drill technique.  Likely, I’d have headed for that willow patch by the creek to gather materials.  Or maybe the shrubs in the meadow.

The bow drill is the most widely-taught (and by some descriptions, “easiest”) method of making fire by friction.  So it’s often thought-of as the ‘best’ way to make friction fire.  But I’d like to offer an alternative viewpoint.

The ‘best’ method of friction fire is the one based on the:

  • Ecology/materials in your area
  • Time of the year (life cycle of plants/trees)
  • Comfort/Experience levels you have with multiple methods

For instance, the spindle of a bow drill is typically carved-down from a solid piece of wood.  (See Gone Feral’s Youtube channel for videos on making/using the bow drill.  Or join The Pack.)  But that requires the appropriate wood and tools, plus a few minutes of time.  (Not to mention the other pieces of the kit – 4 parts in total, plus a string.)

Conversely, a hand drill requires just a spindle and fireboard (hearth), typically harvested from shrubs.  It can be produced with little as a stone flake (or your teeth!).  But harvesting ‘annuals’ requires doing so at the proper time of year.  (Summer through Winter, given climate, growth cycle, and dryness.)

So, given the question at our field site (in September), I wouldn’t waste time producing cordage for a bow drill when I could make an entire kit (from the proper materials at the right time of year) for a hand drill.  [Here are ‘8 Tips to Improve Your Hand Drill‘.]

But that requires knowledge & experience with multiple methods of producing fire.  It’s why different technologies/methods developed in different places around the world:  It’s why the fire plow and fire saw developed in Southeast Asia and the Pacific but are virtually unknown in North America.  It’s an example of why indigenous people were the experts of their place.  They knew what worked.  So when you want to learn about fire-making, look to the Natives of your area.  They figured out what worked.  Bow drill may, very likely, not be your best choice.

Here along the Front Range of Colorado, a yucca spindle and cottonwood (root) fireboard was the popular choice for making fire – by a hand drill technique.  Just because bow drill works in one place doesn’t mean it’s best everywhere.  (Which is partly why we see ‘experts’ failing at making fire on popular TV shows, while placed in tropical environments when they’ve trained in North America.  Failure sells commercials.  Especially when you’re naked.)

Note:  When you ask a question, the above is what goes through my head before I answer.


Check out my comprehensive, 10,000-word article ‘How to Make Fire with a Bow Drill‘:

How to Make Fire with a Bow Drill


The Problem with Bow Drill

The problem with bow drill is NOT that it’s difficult to make fire.  (With practice, under ideal conditions you can bust a coal in 30 seconds to a minute.)  The problem is that it’s often resorted-to as the ‘best’ way to make fire.  B. F’ing. S.  Resort to what worked in your area pre-historically.  (Although, given the influx of invasive species plus climate change, we can look to alternative methods as well.)  The problem is that it’s often ill-chosen.  It’s often NOT the right choice.  The choice of bow drill is the failure.  Look to what works(ed).

The ‘Survival’ Answer:

Given the question of what to make ‘cord’ from for my bow drill (in a survival situation) in descending order:

  • My ‘Ranger’ bracelet
  • The hem of my shirt
  • Your shoelaces
  • Your hair
  • Your skin
  • My hair




To learn more about primitive skills, bushcraft & survival, try out a free two-week trial of our online, place-based, independent study program THE PACK.