If there’s anything that says “survival” to most people, it’s the ability to start a fire. I know that might seem a bit silly to you and I, considering that it’s actually a rather basic survival skill; but the average American can’t start a fire worth beans. If you don’t believe me, check out the people in the neighboring campsites the next time you go camping, or a friend trying to start a fire in their fireplace. It can make for great entertainment.
Survival instructors add to the mystique around fire starting as well, collecting fire starting techniques, like they’re trading cards, and taking pride in showing the most unusual to their students. It’s almost like a competition between them, as each tries to outdo the next with the quantity and rarity of their fire starting techniques.
But are all those unusual techniques really worth learning? I mean, does anyone really want to have to start a fire by rubbing two dry clichés’ together when they’re caught in a survival situation? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have something sure-fire, which will work with a lot less effort?
There are two sides to that argument and both are valid. A lot depends on the actual survival situation that you find yourself in. What may be best in one situation, may not be usable or even available in another. So in that case, it wouldn’t be the best solution possible. So, it’s a good idea to know as many fire starting techniques as possible; but at the same time, we should us the easiest method we can find when we are in that survival situation. Survival is hard enough, without making it any harder on ourselves.
I’m a firm believer in the KISS principle – Keep it Simple Stupid. And if anything, that goes double in any survival situation. The thing is, when you’re in a survival situation, you can’t afford to do things the hard way, for a number of reasons:
- The extra time a hard way takes could take time you need for another survival task.
- The hard way may not be fast enough to ensure your survival. With fire starting, that may mean that hypothermia sets in, before you can get your fire started.
- Hard ways take more energy, something you can’t afford to squander in a survival situation.
- Doing things the hard way requires more thought and dexterity, things that you might find lacking in a true survival situation.
Besides, if you learn the hard ways to do things, you’ll always have them to fall back on, in times when you have no other option. But you may as well use the easy ways when you can.
Primary and Secondary Fire Starters
Survival instructors break down fire starters into two distinct categories, primary and secondary. Primary fire starters are those that you depend on; the ones that you will use all the time. Secondary fire starting techniques are everything else. Those that you learn so that you can impress your friends and neighbors, but you don’t want to have to use, unless you don’t have any other option.
Basically, there are two primary fire starting techniques and they are two of the most common techniques you’ll find. They are:
- Butane lighters
Now, we could get into details about what kinds of matches and what kinds of butane lighters, but let’s not bother. The fact of the matter is, not all matches are good emergency fires starters and not all butane lighters are. But, the point is, these are the two easiest fire starters there are. So whenever possible, they are the ones we want to use. Anything else is a parlor trick, except when we don’t have one of these primary methods to use.
So, What are the “Good” Ways?
There are three words that define good methods for starting a fire. They are “fast,” “easy” and “reliable.” When you’re in a survival situation, you’ve got to have methods you can use, which fulfill those two words, or you might not make it.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you get caught in a blizzard in the Rocky Mountains. You had gone hunting, fishing or hiking for the day, and you weren’t expecting any serious problems. But, like normal, the weatherman messed up and the snowstorm that was supposed to dump on Denver caught you instead, 8,000 feet above sea level and a couple of miles from your car. Snow starts drifting and you can’t see clearly enough to find your way. You’re in trouble.
In a situation like that (and I can come up with a dozen other similar scenarios), you need fire and you need it fast. You barely have time to find a place and some dry wood for your fire; you definitely don’t have time to find suitable wood and make yourself a bow drill. Nor do you have time to mess with a Ferro Rod, trying to blow some sparks into a full blaze.
This is why “good” is so important. Survival situations don’t always give you time to think things through or to dig for the necessary materials to try out your favorite method of fire starting. You have to act quickly and you have to get results. Hence my definition of “good” being easy and reliable.
So, what can we find that is fast, easy and reliable?
The old wisdom was to carry waterproof matches or strike anywhere matches in a waterproof container. I carried those for years. But there are two basic problems with that. The first is that you are limited to not many matches. The typical waterproof match container will only hold 10 or 12. The second is that both of those types of matches can be blown out by the wind.
StormProof matches are different, in that they can’t be blown out by the wind. Not only that, they’ll still ignite when they are soaking wet. However, unlike strike anywhere matches, they do require a striker. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a small price to pay for their reliability.
Piezo-electric StormProof Lighters
Unlike the stormproof matches, there are several different models of this particular item, made by different manufacturers. Basically, it’s a refillable butane lighter, usually with a waterproof case. But what makes it truly unique is that it is ignited by a piezoelectric striker. The striker continually tries to light the lighter, as long as you are holding the gas valve open. So, if the wind blows the lighter out, it reignites immediately.
This is a huge difference from the standard disposable lighter, which not only can be hard to ignite at all, but is easily blown out by the wind. Being refillable, you could put one of these in a bug out bag, along with a can of butane fuel, and keep on starting fires for years.
Of all the possible fire starters on the market, this is the easiest to use and the most reliable. That’s why a waterproof, stormproof, piezo-electric lighter is my number one fire starter. I carry them in both my bug out bag and my EDC survival kit.
BlastMatch and Accelerant
The third “good” fire starter I’ve found is the BlastMatch and its younger brother, the Sparkie. Normally, I’m not in favor of “sparkers” as fire starters, but these two are different. Rather than forcing you to work hard to get a few sparks, these provide a shower of sparks, every time you push the plunger down.
However, while these two devices work extremely well, I only consider them “good” fire starters when used with some sort of accelerant. As far as I’m concerned, if you have to blow the sparks into a flame, you’re working harder than you should. Using these along with something like the WetFire tinder cubes or cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly is ideal. They produce enough sparks to ensure lighting the first time, without having to work at it.
Should you find yourself without any form of accelerant and missing your primary fire starters, I still consider the BlastMatch to be one of the best secondary fire starters on the market.
A Word About Accelerants
I’m a firm believer in accelerants to get a fire started, especially when you find yourself caught in wet weather. I won’t bother to use them on a normal camping trip, when things are dry and I’m not really in a hurry to get a fire going. But if I find myself wet and cold, you can be sure that I will use the best accelerant I have available to me.
Remember, my definition of “gold” is fast, easy and reliable. That’s because I recognize that when I’m in a survival situation my cognitive and fine motor skills will be degraded. Therefore, it is necessary to use something that will ensure that I get a good fire burning on the first try. Accelerants help to ensure that.
For the same reason, I won’t use accelerants when I don’t really need them. I have 50 petroleum soaked cotton balls packed away in an airtight container in my bug out bag and a dozen in my EDC survival kit. But I won’t use any of them, until I really need them. That way, when I do really need them, I can be sure that they will be available to me.
A Couple of Mediocre Ways
There are always things that fall into the grey area between the good and the bad. These are things that are not good enough to be considered a really good way of starting a fire, but they’re really not all that bad. If you need a secondary means to have on hand for emergencies, these are the kinds of things you might want to try.
The Metal Match is an improvement on the Ferro Rod in that it is a block of magnesium, with a small Ferro Rod stuck to the side. The advantage of this is that you can scrape some magnesium shavings off, allowing them to fall into the dry tinder. Then, the Ferro Rod is scraped, dropping the sparks onto the highly flammable magnesium.
Compared to a Ferro Rod, this is a great method of starting a fire. The magnesium will burn readily, giving you a flash that should be strong enough to actually start some small coals within your tinder. It’s a lot easier to blow that into fire, than just using a hot spark.
Using a Lens
I think we’re all tried to start a fire using dried leaves and a cheap magnifying glass sometime in our childhood. That was just something we’d do back then. But if you were anything like me, you weren’t all that successful.
The problem wasn’t you and I, it was the lens we were using. Unless you have a good lens, you’re going to have a hard time using this method. The Fresnel lenses they sell, to go in your wallet, really aren’t good enough for use as a fire starter. You need a larger one. But that larger one should work reasonably well.
The Bad Ways
As far as I’m concerned, anything that is difficult to work with, typically takes multiple tries, or requires blowing on a spark to fan it into flame is a bad way. That’s not to say that I won’t learn as many of those methods as I can; I will. But I certainly don’t want to depend on them as my primary methods of starting a fire. All of them fall into the category of “I’ll only use them if I have to.”
Once again, my criteria here is based upon survival. If I’m depending on a method that is difficult to work with, I can’t guarantee my own survival. Can you imagine trying to start a fire in the scenario I mentioned above, if the only methods you have available to you are methods that require a lot of skill and finesse? Your skill and finesse might not stick around long enough to get your fire going.
For that reason, I consider the following methods to be poor fire starting methods. If you’re caught in a survival situation and you have to depend on any of these, you’re not going to get a fire started fast, easily or reliably.
The Ferro Rod
I’m not sure why the Ferro Rod has become so popular in the prepping and survival community. Perhaps it’s just because it’s cheap, so people like to give them away or add them to other pieces of gear as an “extra,” making their customers think they’re getting more for their money.
But the Ferro Rod is very hard to use. While scraping the striker across the rod will give you sparks, it won’t give you many. What you’ve got to do is to catch those sparks in some dry tinder and blow them into flame. While that’s better than not having fire at all, you could spend quite a bit of time trying to get a fire started, and if you don’t have dry tinder to use, you can basically forget it.
Personally, I try to avoid Ferro Rods altogether, although I do have a few. They are somewhere in the realm of last resort for me, as I have many better methods I can use.
There are a number of means of starting a fire using chemicals. Some mixtures simply burst into flames when put together. But there’s one huge problem with using that for starting a fire. Who is going to carry around enough flammable chemicals to start a fire with? While these fire starters can be highly effective, they’re just not practical.
Steel Wool and a Battery
I’ve enjoyed amazing friends for years with the steel wool and 9 volt battery for starting a fire. But that doesn’t mean I’d want to depend on using it as a means of fire starting in a survival situation. If I didn’t have anything else, I’d use it, but that’s the only time I would.
The basic problem, like with chemicals, is the ingredients. Who is going to carry around steel wool for starting a fire? Keep in mind, that no moisture can get to that steel wool either, as it will cause the steel wool to rust. Once rusted, it won’t burn. So if you’ve got it in a ziplock bag and the bag doesn’t seal right, you’ll end up with useless steel wool.
Then there’s the problem of the battery. I always used a 9 volt battery, but you can do it with a couple of AA batteries as well. But that means stealing the batteries out of your flashlight to start a fire. It also means that you’ll have good batteries that you can use. Something tells me that if you’re having to resort to using steel wool, your flashlight batteries are probably already a bit low.
The same can be said for any of the other methods that use a battery, like trying to start a fire with a gum wrapper. That’s a nice parlor trick; but I wouldn’t want to count on it.
Using a Parabolic Reflector
I remember seeing a couple of survival instructors teaching their students how to use a parabolic reflector to start a fire. One had taken a headlight reflector out of the car and was using that. The other had taken the reflector out of a flashlight for his parabolic reflector. In both cases, they were using dry grass for their tinder, and they did manage to get it lit.
But this looks to me like a really poor means of starting a fire. Who’s going to take a headlight out of their car and break the lens off of it, just to start a fire? If you’re that desperate, you probably don’t have the time to do that. You’ll end up freezing before you get it started. Besides, it assumes that you’ll have the tools available that you’ll need and the cost of replacing that headlight is going to make that the most expensive fire you’ve ever enjoyed.
Then There’s the Desperate
A couple of those methods I mentioned as being bad might more correctly be referred to as desperate measures, especially taking a headlight off your car to use as a parabolic reflector. I say that, because you really wouldn’t want to use them unless you didn’t have any other option. In that case, you would qualify as desperate.
Of course, if you’re at that point, that means there’s a risk that you wouldn’t get the fire started before hypothermia started setting in and you lost your ability to understand why you were starting the fire in the first place. Personally, I never want to get to that place.
I study these methods only because I recognize the fact that I might find myself in a position where I am thrust into a survival situation without any sort of survival kit, or even the things I normally carry in my pockets. While I do everything within my power to make sure that doesn’t happen, there is always the possibility that something could happen unexpectedly.
To me, any method that is extremely difficult to accomplish or would require a lot of practice before one became proficient enough to be able to use it reliably is a desperate method. Even though survival is my full-time work, I don’t have time to practice all these. Unless you are a survival instructor, I doubt that you do either.
So, what do I categorize as desperate methods?
More than anything, the various friction methods of starting a fire fall into the category of desperate means in my book. By friction, I’m referring to things like:
- Bow drill
- Fire plough
- Hand drill
- Pump fire drill
There are others, but this should serve to describe what I’m talking about. Not only are these methods extremely difficult to use, but they require that you find the right materials make the necessary pieces of the fire starter.
The fire piston is a neat little trick, where air is superheated by compressing it rapidly. When the piston is pushed down rapidly (slammed down), the superheated air will ignite, lighting a piece of charcloth or other tinder inside.
This is not something you could make out in the woods, if you were lost. It would require you to build it in your workshop and then take it with you. With that being the case, why would you bother? Like I said, it’s a nice trick, but I really don’t see it as anything more.
Flint and Steel
Once upon a time, using a flint and steel to start a fire was normal. Travelers would carry a piece of flint in their tinder box, sometimes sewn into a leather cover, and strike it against their knife, creating a spark. I believe this is where the idea of the Ferro Rod originated.
But like the Ferro Rod, all you get is one or two sparks at a time. You then have to blow those sparks into life, hoping that they’ll make start a coal and then a fire in your tinder. It works, but it’s extremely difficult to do. If your tinder is damp in the least, you can forget starting a fire this way.
Let Me Wrap this Up
I hope you didn’t get the idea that I’m just trying to be negative here; I’m trying to be realistic. I work under the premise that if I have to start a fire in a survival situation, then I really need a fire. With that being the case, I wouldn’t want to depend on something that’s not really dependable.
The way to ensure that I’m not caught in that situation, is to make sure that I have ample GOOD means of starting a fire with me at all times. I never walk out the door of my home without at least one good fire starter with me. The only time I’m without one, is when I’m on an airplane (they won’t allow me to carry one there).
When I say ample, I really mean more than ample. I don’t just carry one good fire starter in my EDC or bug out bag, I carry all three of the ones I listed. When it comes to fire starters, too much might very well end up being just enough. You never know how many fires you’re going to have to start.Do I really expect to have to start a fire in my day-to-day activities? No. But neither do I expect to have to draw my gun and stop a crime. Yet I carry a gun every day and have stopped two crimes with it. You never know when you’re going to have to stop a crime, and you never know when you’ll need to start a fire. Being prepared means being prepared, even when you’re sure that nothing is going to go wrong.