When the world plunges into darkness and batteries have long since been drained of life, knowing how to make a primitive DIY torch is an essential survival skill to have in your arsenal. Let there be light!
How easy is it to build a DIY torch that burns for hours and isn’t a danger to use?
This is an important question to ask ourselves. So many people are preparing for a possible collapse nowadays, any smart prepper should be seriously considering how they’re going to have light for months on end, if we lose power on a long term basis. There are a number of back up power options out there, but the ultimate backup is something that doesn’t rely on electricity at all. It’s one of those old-school survival skills that works under any conditions. That’s right, we’re talking about knowing how to make a torch from scratch.
There are a number of backup power options that might help you in the short run – emergency generators, solar power, and so forth. But ultimately nothing is as guaranteed to work as knowing how to build a DIY torch. This is a fallback skill that nobody can take away from you.
Electricity Does Have It’s Place, But you Need a True Backup
Solar power isn’t exactly disaster proof. For example, in the event of a nuclear bomb going off, or a super volcano eruption, or even a large hurricane or storm – all these scenarios involve extended periods without sun as it’s blocked out by either ash or clouds. Similar ideas are applicable to emergency generators – they can malfunction, or get damaged in a disaster, etc. It’s not the best idea to have disaster plans that don’t work in certain kinds of disasters. While finding a way to supply electricity can definitely be a part of your planning, you need a secondary back-up, and that’s where torches come in. Also, don’t forget that most power supply systems aren’t portable, so if you’re in a situation where you’re forced to be nimble and move around to stay safe, you might have to leave your backup power behind.
A true ‘survival’ style lighting source is paramount to having a sustainable, long term solution for visibility and warmth in the evening hours. The only true survival style lighting is fire, because with some knowledge and some elbow grease, you can have a fire under almost any conditions.
Light the Way By Learning How to Make a Torch
Prior to the modern age, some of our ancestors used lard or blubber (whale fat) as oil to fuel their lamps and torches. While our technologically advanced lives today don’t look anything like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we can turn to a few modern tools to build our own survival torches.
A torch is made up of three main components. Fuel, wick, and handle, and there are many variations of torch that you can improvise with materials that you have. We’ve picked what we think works best, but keep in mind that at it’s most basic, a torch is a stick (handle), with one end wrapped in some kind of fabric or material (wick) that has been soaked in some kind of oil (fuel).
If you don’t have access to the materials we recommend, it should be relatively easy to substitute other kinds of oil or material – for example, you could use lard and toilet paper as a fuel and wick. It won’t work as well as what we recommend, but it would work.
How to Make a Torch (Basic Steps)
- Choose a fuel. You can use vegetable oil, kerosene, or some other kind of fuel. The more flammable the fuel, the more you need to be cautious about safety. That’s why we prefer vegetable oil.
- Choose a material for your wick – fiberglass or kevlar ideally, but cotton and tissue paper can work in a pinch. The ideal wick material absorbs liquid but isn’t easily flammable.
- Soak the wick material in your fuel.
- Locate a medium sized stick – in the wild, you’ll want to find a green stick or branch.
- Wrap your fuel soaked wick material around the top of your stick.
- Secure the wick to the stick with (ideally) steel wire or whatever wire-like material you can get your hands on.
- Light the wick
Those are the basic steps of how to make a torch. Read on to really learn the details about the process and why we prefer certain materials over others.
How to Build a Torch: Choosing a Fuel
Vegetable Oil Is Cheap And It’s Safer To Use Than Kerosene
Those living in third world countries don’t have the luxury to buy vegetable oil in large quantities, or they simply are so accustomed to using kerosene that they aren’t aware that there are safer and better fuels available. We in developed countries have the ability to buy vegetable oil, and we can buy it in large quantities, and safely stockpile it without fear that our entire home is going to explode should it ever be set on fire (and vegetable oil can’t be set on fire — not unless it’s heated up first to 450 degrees). So, there’s little risk with a stockpile of vegetable oil.
After researching the concept behind primitive torches, and then looking closely at what’s still around when it comes to torches, it turns out that there really aren’t many common uses for torches nowadays, other than a backyard “Tiki” torch which commonly burns a citronella fuel.
Plus, those flames are pretty small in those backyard Tiki torches, and most of us, when it comes to using a torch, would probably prefer something that gave off heat and light on about the same scale as a small campfire.
Vegetable Oil is Cheap, Safe, and Gives Big Flames in your DIY Torch
If you drop a match on kerosene oil it will ignite. It is highly flammable and thus one reason it has caused many fires and burned down many cabins and shelters in decades past.
Vegetable oil on the other hand will not do that. You can drop a match on vegetable oil and the match will go out — the oil will not ignite. If you knock your torch or lantern over, though the wick may still be burning, it’s possible that even the wick will be put out by any vegetable oil that spills on it.
This makes it clear that vegetable oil is a much safer alternative to kerosene. That’s why we prefer vegetable oil as our fuel.
How to Build a Torch: Choosing a Material for the Wick
Wicks can be made of many different materials. In a pinch, if you’re caught in a disaster, you can even use your clothes (cut up or torn up into strips). The key thing to keep in mind is that it is NOT the wick that is burning – in fact, it is generally better if a wick is made from a material that doesn’t burn easily. You’re setting the fuel on fire, not the wick. The wick is there as a vessel for the fuel. That’s why materials like fiberglass or Kevlar are better than paper or cotton – because they’re less flammable.
One of the materials we recommend for a survival torch wick is fiberglass. The good thing about fiberglass is that it can be used multiple times, which can’t be said about cotton wicks. Obviously they don’t last forever, but if you’re using the same fuel you can reuse them. Fiberglass is also great because it’s pretty affordable.
Another possible option is Kevlar. As it turns out, real fire torches are still used by entertainers such as fire jugglers and circus performers. You might ask how they get their props to stay lit and not burn out or use up fuel too quickly? They use Kevlar.
It turns out that Kevlar makes a great material for use as a wick and is commonly used by today’s fire jugglers and those practicing “fire poi” (fire spinning). A 3 foot roll of Kevlar can be cut into several small wicks; each wick you cut from this 3 foot roll can be used a few times and burn for several hours in total. Like fiberglass wicks, Kevlar wicks can also be used multiple times.
Whatever material you choose for your wick, the first thing you’ll need to do is soak them in vegetable oil for at a minimum of a few hours, though you can simply leave your fiberglass or Kevlar wicks soaking in a small jar of vegetable oil and then use it a few days or weeks later, whenever a situation arises where it’s needed. It probably makes sense to leave your wicks soaking in your fuel and just covering it up, so that you’ll be ready to assemble a torch whenever it’s necessary.
How to Build a Torch: Assembling the Parts
A simple fire torch can be a medium sized stick (the greener the stick the better!), 2 – 4 feet in length, with a vegetable oil soaked wick (either Kevlar or fiberglass) wrapped around the top end. Fire jugglers use two bolts to bolt their wicks to their decorative metal torches; that’s simple to do also if you have a power drill and a couple bolts and nuts. When it comes to survival though, our fire torches don’t have to look so neat; just some steel wire wrapped tightly around a wick will also keep it in place. This is probably the kind of basic DIY torch that you think about when you imagine making your own torch.
When using steel wire for a fire torch, use wire made of stainless steel vs galvanized steel. The reason is this: When galvanized steel is heated by fire it releases toxic fumes. Galvanized steel is steel with a zinc coating in place to protect from corrosion; not only are the zinc fumes toxic, there can also be small amounts of lead present within the coating on the galvanized steel, which can also produce toxic fumes.
Should I Use a Fuel Base or Not For My DIY Torch?
Using a fuel base can provide you with several hours of torch use at a time, for just one torch. Having a fuel base is definitely superior to not having one. Several torches can ring your campsite with light and even keep intrusive wildlife at bay. In a survival situation though, where you are carrying a torch around to travel by night or even for exploring caves (which comes with many dangers and is too much to go into in this article), then you can use the same techniques that professional fire jugglers use for their torch. Here’s how to do it:
If you’ve already pre-soaked your wicks in vegetable oil, then use those. Otherwise, cut several inches from a length of fiberglass or Kelvar wick and soak it in lighter fluid, kerosene (paraffin) or even Coleman fuel. You need an easy-to-light fuel if you haven’t pre-soaked your wick materials. After your wick is soaked, use it to wrap the head of a long stick or poll and secure it with stainless steel wire (wrapped tightly around the wick); and now it’s ready to light. Remember, although vegetable oil takes longer to get going, it will burn longer than most other more flammable fuels. It’s also cheaper and safer.
Building a Fuel Base for Your DIY Torch
Like the popular backyard Tiki torches, you’ll need a small container (fuel base) to hold the vegetable oil that the wick will supply it’s fuel from. While a person could use a commercially produced Tiki torch, our goal is to teach you skills that you can put to use in real life situations. The tiki torch you have stored away in your basement might not always be on hand in a disaster.
In a survival situation you may need to build your own fuel base for your torch from materials you can gather. An empty soda can will work (use a knife to make the opening larger for your rolled up wick) and even a small beer, wine, or soda bottle can also be used (the opening needs to be big enough for a rolled up wick to be snug in the top of the container; keep in mind that the thicker you roll your wick, the larger the flame, and the longer the wick will last).
Remember that steel wire? Use it to secure your fuel base (small container holding your fuel, which the wick rises up from) to the top of the stick you are using for your torch.
Caution: If the wick does not fit snuggly in the fuel base, oil will drip out if you hold your torch at an angle. That’s is why a thick, rolled up wick is important for your homemade torch; it will plug the top of the container and keep vegetable oil from spilling out if your torch is held at angle for a few moments.
For the most part, though, exercise caution and keep your torch held vertically.
Whether you’re using a fuel base or not, in either case, simply hold the end of the stick to a fire to get it to light. Vegetable oil is a good fuel because it only burns at high temperature, that’s what makes it so much safer than kerosene.
If you don’t already have a fire going to light your torch with, an easy way to light your torch is to find some newspaper or some other easily flammable material, cover it in vegetable oil, then light it. Then hold the end of your torch to this flammable material and it should get going.
Learn Life-Saving “Outside the Box” Bushcrafting Skills
Knowing how to make a DIY fire torch is a useful and potentially life saving skill. It gives you additional mobility that others won’t have after the sun has set. It also gives you a tool that can be used to scare predators away. But knowing how to make a torch is just one skill among dozens (if not hundreds) of extremely useful primitive survival skills that could mean the difference between life and death… especially if you or your family end up stranded in the wilderness. That’s why I highly recommend you watch this video about some of the primitive bushcrafting skills that the US Army teaches members of the special forces.
The three most important wilderness survival skills are making fire, improvising shelter, and finding water. Do you have enough expertise in all three of these areas to be able to confidently say that you’d be able to succeed at all three quickly and efficiently in a time of crisis?
If your answer is no, don’t worry. 99% of people can’t even do one of those things, let alone all of them. You know who can? Navy SEALs. British Special Air Service. US Army Special Forces… But thanks to the internet, nowadays you can access special survival knowledge and techniques that were previously known only to special forces guys. In this video, retired Master Sergeant Brian Morris from the US Special Forces outlines some of the unique bushcrafting skills taught to spec ops guys that almost nobody else knows about.
In the wilderness, you want to do things as quickly and easily as possible. Every ounce of energy saved improves your chances of survival. This is especially true for members of the special forces – typically any bushcrafting they need do is in advance of an actual mission. They need to save energy for the fight… so they find creative, “lazy” ways to achieve their survival goals. Now you too can learn these special ops wilderness skills by watching this video.
What Your Homemade Torch Should Look Like
Large flame burning from wick at the top
Rolled up wick long enough to reach to bottom of small container (fuel base) holding vegetable oil
Steel wire clamping small container to stick or pole (2 – 4 feet in length)
How To Put Your DIY Torch Out Safely
Place small metal can over the top of your torch’s flame; the can should fit snuggly over the top of the flame (where the wick sticks up from the fuel base) and your flame should be abruptly snuffed out. This is the same way that a commercially produced Tiki torch works.
How Much Wick Do I Need For a Homemade DIY Torch?
By our estimates, we can take a 6 inch strip of fiberglass or Kevlar wick on a weekend camping trip, build a blazing survival torch and still have several weeks left of survival torches just on a small roll or length of material.
Packing Heat Resistant Gloves
When it comes to things like using fire torches, working with burning wicks, etc., as long as you exercise caution you can do this without getting burned. As an added precaution though, heat resistant gloves give you the added protection of handling burning or hot materials with out risk of burning your hands.
As an added benefit, heat resistant gloves may have multiple uses in long term survival or living life off the grid. Primitive oven building, using wood stoves, using kilns; each of these has a valuable role to play in living off the land, allowing you to cook foods (primitive ovens), heat homes and cabins (wood stoves), and melt metals (kilns). These kinds of gloves are also usually quite thick and durable, which allows you to protect your hands when working with wood or performing other everyday survival tasks.
Creative Uses For Homemade Torch Techniques
Learning survival skill like how to make a torch aren’t just a list of instructions. Using the knowledge in this article, you can improvise a number of different types of torches and fires that might have a wide variety of useful applications. This is the mindset that you should take when learning new survival skills. Don’t just learn the step by step of the skill itself, but think how else it might be applied in a slightly different situation. Think about how you can achieve the same results with different things available to you as well. A large part of being able to survive in a genuine disaster is being able to improvise with what you have. Here’s an example of the techniques above applied in a slightly different way:
Build A Reusable Candle Tin Campfire
1 gallon of vegetable oil (can last you several days of use)
Stainless Steel Wire (26 gauge should work fine or an even thinner gauge can work would be my bet)
Need a campfire in a hurry? Use six “candle tins”, each filled with vegetable oil with a fiberglass wick propped up in the center, and then group these six candle tins together in a circle.
With six of these burning, you now have an instant campfire, no fire wood required. Since there is no risk of burning ash falling on trees or brush in the vicinity of your campfire, this should be legal to use in an area where campfires may presently be banned due to drought or fire danger to a national forest.
When it’s time to put your “campfire” out, put each of the six lids back on each candle tin, and each of your wicks will be instantly snuffed out.
Since the vegetable oil will have heated up while each candle tin has been lit, let each one cool for a few minutes before handling with bare hands (or just have those heat resistant gloves handy and these tins will be safe to handle).
Why Not Just Stock Up On Batteries And Use Flashlights And Lanterns?
Even if you manage to build up a six month supply of batteries, at some point your flashlights and lanterns are going to stop working.
Still, it does make sense to have a good flashlight on hand. What you want is something durable, lightweight, and bright. We like the Streamlight 88031. If you get a few of these plus a bunch of batteries you’ll be good to go on flashlights.
Alternatively check out our entire list of recommendations for the best survival flashlight here.
As for lanterns – in decades past kerosene lanterns were common, but the problem with kerosene is that it’s expensive to stock up on as a long term lighting option; plus, it’s extremely flammable and can be dangerous to use on a repeat basis. Many cabins and shelters have been set ablaze accidentally when a kerosene lantern has been knocked over.
Then there’s the fumes; even small kerosene burning lanterns produce dangerous fumes that take 1.5 million lives every year in third world countries where kerosene use is still common today.
That’s why we strongly prefer vegetable oil as a fuel of choice for building your own torch.
When Using A Torch, Always Exercise Caution
Like anything that has to do with fire or heat, exercise caution at all times and you now have a new skill to add to your growing arsenal of survival skills, one that can provide light and even heat in an emergency or long term survival following a collapse of government or major natural disaster. We gave a number of other articles that also deal with making fires for light and warmth. You might be interested in learning how to start a fire without matches or equipment. If you’re stuck in cold and wet conditions, we also have an article about starting a fire in wet conditions. Additionally, we also have a roundup of the best survival lighters if you’re wondering what kind of lighter to take into the wilderness with you.