7 Common Types of Firestarters
One of the cornerstones of a survival plan is the ability to make fire at will. Fire has played a vital role in Humanity’s survival over the ages. Fire has given us warmth, warded off predators, cooked our food, signalled over great distances, been instrumental in the fashioning of tools and weapons, purified our water, been used as a weapon of war and ultimately been a mysterious force of power. However you look at it, fire is power. If you possess the ability to reliably make fire in any situation your chances of survival increase dramatically. From a preparedness perspective, you should always have a lighter and some waterproof matches in your vehicle along with a candle. It can keep you alive if you ever have to spend a night in your car. If you’re out on the trail, always carry at least two methods to make fire – I recommend a lighter and a ferro rod & striker (my personal favourites).
To make fire, you need to understand it’s basic principles. Fire needs three elements to form:
If any of the above are absent, any efforts to start a fire will fail. Over the centuries, the goal of someone starting a fire would usually be to create a spark or ember within a tinder bundle and coax it to flame. In more modern times, advances in metallurgy, chemistry and manufacturing, matches and lighters (as well as modern versions of ancient technologies) have given us the abilities to produce flame on-demand. These days, natural gas and propane are at our fingertips to heat our homes and water, create mood from gas fireplaces, produce flames on our barbecues and roast turkeys in our ovens. But if you take that away, how can you replace it?
To this end, I’d like to go over some of the ways you can make fire. Some are better than others, but all have their pros and cons. Let’s take a look:
1. Bow Drill:
This is essentially “rubbing two sticks together” and getting the fire from friction. If knowledgeable and practiced, you can get a fire going anywhere you can find wood. To build a bow drill, you need to fashion the following components: a board, spindle, handle, the string and, the bow itself. I will expand on this in a later post on fire-making.
Pros: Knowledge weighs nothing. You can do this almost anywhere if you know what you’re doing.
Cons: Doesn’t work well if wet. Different woods are easier/harder. Without cordage, high-skill level required to make the bow.
2. Flint and Steel:
This combination readily produced a spark which could be coaxed into an ember and then a flame within a tinder bundle. To use this method, you would hold the flint in one hand and, using the striker in the other hand, strike the flint piece while keeping the tinder as close as possible to the flint to catch the spark from the striker. Keeping the tinder on top of the flint is a good option to reduce the distance of travel for the spark. Higher-carbon steel strikers work best.
Pros: Has been a mainstay method of firelighting for thousands of years, is light-weight, works in more inclement weather.
Cons: Requires some skill to use, usually requires a prepared tinder to catch the spark.
3. Fire Piston:
A simple and old-ways method to create an ember by compression of air within a cylinder. By ramming a piston with a small amount of tinder in the end cavity the force creates heat and ignites the material. With the ember glowing, it can be carefully but quickly delivered into a waiting tinder bundle to begin a fire.
Pros: Durability and longevity (lasts almost forever), small, light-weight.
Cons: Requires fine tinder and a practiced hand to use.
4. Glass or lens:
The power of the sun can be harnessed and focused into a powerful ray of heat and light which can enable you to directly ignite flammable material. With the right angle and focus, you can burn leaves and grasses in your tinder bundle into a jolly flame. Tip: If trying to ignite something light in colour, darkening it with some dry earth, charcoal or a dark marker would absorb the light energy more readily. The magnifying method can be used with eye glasses, a clear plastic bag or a water bottle to achieve a similar effect with practice. Even a polished pop can base would work to focus the sunlight.
Pros: Very light weight. Is very fast in ideal conditions.
Cons: Requires direct sunlight, much easier in the hotter months.
5. Magnesium and Ferrocerium (ferro) rods with steel:
A more modern take on a classic. Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry (2000) describes Ferrocerium as “a man-made metallic material which gives off hot sparks at temperatures of 1,600 ºC (3,000º F) when scraped against a rough surface such as rigid steel”. In essence, it does what the old stuff did, but better. When coupled with magnesium shavings in a tinder bundle, this combination is highly reliable in modern survival applications to get a fire started. You just aim the rod in the direction where you want the sparks to go and push the scraper down in that direction, of pull the rod out from the scraper. Either way, you’ll get a shower of sparks which will hopefully get your tinder smouldering.
Pros: Can be very compact. Works when wet or cold. Very reliable. Lasts for thousands of strikes. Relatively inexpensive. Easy to use.
Cons: Ferro rods come in various qualities. Sub-par manufacturing can create poor performance.
6. Matches (waterproof, strike-anywhere, survival-type):
Matches are just so simple and, if kept dry, an almost sure bet to start a fire in a non-windy area. There are also special “survival” matches which are waterproof and windproof and will flare-burn for 15 seconds no matter the wind or rain.
Pros: Very compact, light-weight and inexpensive. Can usually start a fire with minimal tinder.
Cons: Must be kept dry – unless “survival” type, can be blown out easily.
7. Cigarette Lighter (butane or fluid):
This is the tops. The pinnacle of human fire-making achievement. Now we can carry fire in our pockets and can bring forth flame in an instant regardless of wind, cold, or even rain in some cases. A relatively inexpensive option, at the very least, you should have one in you vehicle and survival kits. Maybe even carrying one with you…just in case.
Pros: Inexpensive, reliable, makes flame and sparks. Durable. Lasts a long time.
Cons: Has finite fuel. Some can be affected by water on the striker preventing sparking.
I hope this gives you an overview of the 7 Common Types of Firestarters. In the next post, I will talk about how to use these fire starters with various tinder options to get your fires going. Regardless of which method you prefer, always carry more than one. Redundancy will always benefit you should a piece of your kit fail. My personal favourites: a Bic lighter and the Light My Fire- Army ferro rod and steel. Simple, easy, effective, reliable. But you be your own judge, test them out and make up your own mind. You should be proficient in as many as you can.
In the meantime, be safe. Plan, practice and survive…without fear.