The ability to start a fire, any place and any time, is one of the most important survival skills there is. We use fire for so much and it is so central to our survival needs, that building a fire is considered one of the two essential things to do, when setting up a camp.
Pretty much any survival instructor will tell you that you need two primary and two secondary fire starting methods in your bug out bag or survival kit. They then go on to teach you all sorts of different ways to start a fire, many of which are difficult enough, that you will never use them unless you don’t have any other option.
That’s not to say that it’s not worthwhile learning those difficult fire starting techniques. As I said, being able to start a fire is one of our most important survival skills. Since you can’t always be sure you’ll have what you need, knowing a variety of ways to use unexpected things that just happen to be where you are is valuable knowledge to have.
But that doesn’t mean that we should be looking at starting fires the hardest way possible at all times. Rather, other than for training purposes, we should do everything possible to ensure that we don’t need those difficult methods to start a fire. We should ensure that we are always ready with some easy method which will work in any conditions. In other words, if it was practical to carry a flamethrower, then that would be the ideal fire starter to carry. But it’s not.
Unfortunately, some of the most popular fire starters out there are not necessarily easy to use. Disposable butane lighters are touted as the best primary fire starter there is, because they give you as many as 1,000 lights per lighter; much more than matches do. But good luck trying to light a cigarette with that lighter if there’s even the slightest breeze, let along starting a fire.
For a secondary fire starter, the most common thing out there is the Ferro Rod. All kinds of survival gear comes with a built-in Ferro Rod, so that you always have a fire starter with you. But while the Ferro Rod does work, there are much easier secondary fire starters to work with.
Keep in mind that whatever fire starter you use has got to be able to work in all conditions. That means you need to be able to start a fire in a rainstorm with it. If it can’t do that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s next to worthless, because that’s when you really need it to work.
Primary Fire Starters
We only call things primary fire starters if they are the main way that we will start a fire. Based on that, I guess if someone regularly uses a bow drill to start their fires, that would be a primary fire starter for them. But that doesn’t make it a primary for the rest of us. Rather, things we call primary fire starters need to be easy to use and dependable. Basically, that limits it to matches and lighters.
The problem with both of these is that they are affected by both wind and rain. So we need to find matches and lighters which will work in those conditions. Fortunately, they exist. We’re talking things that go far beyond the simple strike-anywhere, waterproof matches.
Solutions do exist, although they are not inexpensive ones, when compared to what they would replace. But we’re talking about your life here, so it’s worth spending a bit more, if it will help to make sure you survive.
My go-to fire starter is a stormproof lighter. The one I have combines a piezoelectric igniter with refillable butane gas. When the gas valve is depressed to allow the lighter to burn, it also causes the igniter to strike. As long as the valve is depressed, the igniter continues striking. So if the wind blows the lighter out, it reignites immediately. This makes it impossible to blow out. Since the igniter is piezoelectric, it doesn’t need to be recharged.
The one thing that this lighter is not protected from is cold weather. Butane freezes at a fairly high temperature, so if you’re out in the cold, the gas might not flow. The solution to this problem is to carry the lighter in your pocket, where your body heat will keep it warm enough for the gas to flow.
There are other stormproof lighters which are sometimes referred to as “Tesla lighters.” These are electric arc lighters. When the button is depressed, two pairs of electrodes create a pair of continuous sparks or “arcs” which can be used to ignite tinder. Since there is no flame, they can’t be blown out. These lighters are rechargeable, which could be problematic in a survival situation, unless you carry along a solar charger of the type used for recharging a cell phone.
Like the stormproof lighter, stormproof matches are designed in a way so that they can’t be blown out by the wind. They will also stay burning underwater for several seconds. They accomplish this by making the head of the match go halfway down the matchstick. That gives about 12 seconds of definitive burn that can’t be put out.
This differs greatly from a waterproof match, in that the waterproofing which is applied to a waterproof match only protects it from being submersed in water. It doesn’t help it to stay lighted in the wind or rain.
Secondary Fire Starters
Any fire starter which does not qualify as a primary fire starter is considered a secondary one. This means that there are a lot of them out there, some good and some not so good. As with the primary fire starters, the important part is having something that is easy to work with and will work in any weather conditions.
Secondary fire starters fall into four basic categories:
- Sparkers (produce sparks) like the Ferro Rod
- Friction (produces a glowing ember) like the bow drill
- Solar (focusing the power of the sun) like a magnifying glass
- Electric (producing heat by passing current form a battery through something)
Looking at this from the viewpoint of finding easy methods which are reliable, the following are the best out there.
The BlastMatch or it’s smaller cousin, Sparkie, are similar to a Ferro Rod, with the exception that the striker is spring loaded and the rod is a magnesium and ferrocerium mix. Magnesium is highly flammable, burning at about 3,000°F. So this fire starter sends a shower of hot burning sparks into the tinder, rather than just a few hot sparks. The increased number of sparks, along with those sparks actually being burning magnesium, greatly increase the chances of this sparker igniting your tinder.
The metal match is an old fire starter that’s been around for years. It consists of a block of magnesium, with a Ferro Rod embedded into the side. In use, shavings of magnesium are scraped off with a knife onto the tinder. Then the Ferro Rod is used to strike sparks onto the magnesium, igniting them. This greatly increases the chances of the sparks igniting the tinder and greatly reduces the need to blow on the glowing sparks to fan the smoldering tinder into flame.
If you find the Metal Match difficult to work with, an alternative is to carry some magnesium powder with you and use it with a Ferro Rod. You can find magnesium powder online, including on eBay.
We all tried using magnifying glasses to start fires when we were kids, mostly trying to get dry leaves to burn. Rarely did that work much more than to burn a hole through the leaf, if it even succeeded in doing that much. Mostly the problem was the quality of the magnifying glasses we were using. They just weren’t big enough.
You’re probably familiar with Fresnel Lenses, even if you don’t know them by that name. They are the flat plastic magnifying glasses with concentric circles molded onto one side. Being flexible, they are great for a bug out bag, as they won’t become damaged. But just like those magnifying glasses we used as kids, size matters. A credit card sized Fresnel Lens isn’t going to do much, but one the size of a book will.
You can buy larger Fresnel Lenses which are designed for people to use in magnifying small text so that they can read it. if you happen to find one of the old transparency projectors used in schools and meetings, there’s a Fresnel Lens under the glass, which you can scavenge out of it.