In elk hunting, it’s the hope of bagging one that sucks us hunters out in crappy weather into remote mountainous areas. The day was bitterly cold in Idaho’s Selway wilderness, the snow was knee deep and there were miles between us and the nearest road.
What was the best method we could use to start a survival fire?
Back at camp, the first order of business was to start the fire. I took out my waterproof match container and tried to light a strike-anywhere match on the side. All the matches had been replaced a couple months ago, but not one of the 20 in the container would light.
Then I tried my backup butane lighter. Because of the cold, it didn’t work either. Luckily, we had backup matches, and the fire was soon thawing us out.
“So suppose one of us had gotten hurt and couldn’t move – what would we do to start a fire?” I asked my partner. We agreed it could have been fatal.
That frigid hunt was in 1993, and for years, I experimented to find a reliable firemaking method.
In 2002, as part of a project for Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, Oregon, Dr. Jim Grenfell and I set out to find the ultimate, practical fire ignition method that would work for the average person.
Criteria to be tested were: ease of operation, ability to use one-handed (in the event of an injury), reliability, widespread availability, durability, practicality and ease of carry. We ruled out any items that seemed to rely on expensive, gee-whiz technology.
Over the course of the next several months, we laboriously tested and re-tested conventional firemaking methods. When something showed promise after initial testing, we turned the Scouts loose on it. If the method survived the torture test, we’d ask average outdoors people to try and then comment on the materials.
Here’s what we found:
Fire bow or other primitive wood friction methods were not even in the running. In a survival situation, even if you have the time and skills to make and use a fire bow, you’d first have to find the materials to build it. If rubbing two sticks together to fire was easy, or even just moderately difficult, the native peoples would never have developed ways to carry a live coal between camps!
The people who depended on the friction method for twirling up a fire carried their own specialized sticks with them. Even in a forest, you might not be able to find dry, suitable materials to build your kit.
Matches: Best case scenario: You should be able to make one fire with every match, right? That points out a real problem with matches: there is a finite number of them, and when they’re gone you’re out of luck. And what if you use all your matches to make one fire because of a low skill level?
Every brand and type of match we tried was unreliable as a survival tool. But if forced to make a recommendation, I’d say the best match choice is stormproof matches. They work well under many adverse circumstances, but you can only carry a few (10, with striker strip) in a standard match case.
The advantage is that most people can strike a match, and you can get them anywhere.
The disadvantages are that matches deteriorate over time and fail, even if they’re waterproof. While coating the heads with paraffin or other sealants will work for awhile, that doesn’t make the matches dependable. Most regular book matches are useless if damp, or if they’re even exposed to moisture.
Another critical aspect is the abrasive strip on the match box or book. If it gets damp, wet or worn out, the matches won’t work. And one brand of match may not ignite on another’s abrasive strip!
Even strike-anywhere matches don’t necessarily light when struck on an abrasive surface. Try standing in knee-deep snow, during a snow and sleet storm and finding a dry, abrasive surface to strike a match on!
Butane lighter: I carry a butane lighter in my pants pocket, another in my jacket pocket and a third in my pack. If a quick fire is needed, the idea is to flic a BIC and get the job done. A standard BIC lighter, according to my tests, will have about an hour’s worth of flame in it. But I don’t trust any butane lighter, and you shouldn’t either.
The Achilles heel is temperature. The boiling point of Butane is approximately -0.5 C at sea level, according to answers.com (This boiling point will drop with an increase in altitude given the reduced pressure).
This means that as the lighter nears freezing, less gas will be vaporized inside of the lighter and will make it hard to light. And the higher in elevation you are, the less chance you have for ignition!
My experiments show that placing a butane lighter in ice water (33 degrees) disables it almost instantaneously. If the lighter is removed from a one-minute ice water bath, and placed in a 70 degree area, several minutes will pass before it is warm enough to function.
This time varies on the size, brand, and make of the lighter. If you warm the lighter in your already warm hand, it can take at least 90 seconds under ideal conditions, and probably closer to four minutes, to make it functional.
So, if you fall into an icy river, wade to shore and desperately need to make a warm-up fire, your butane lighter won’t work for what seems like an eternity. In a situation where your hands are freezing, you may not be able to warm the lighter quickly. Your cold, numb fingers may not be able to work the wheel, either. By the time the lighter is warm enough to fire, you may not be able to use it.
Any lighter’s durability is suspect. All it takes is one grain of sand in the wrong place and the machinery is disabled.
And don’t forget this little tidbit: if you inadvertently drop your butane lighter into a campfire, an explosion will follow!
A favorite of the survival shows, the magnesium block with a flint stick on top, has some merit. The idea is to shave off pieces of magnesium into a small pile, then ignite it with a spark from the flint stick. The magnesium block is waterproof.
The problem in the system is that it takes a long time to scrape enough shavings off the block to ignite, and it’s really easy to scatter the pile if you bump it or the wind comes up.
A magnesium block is OK, but not your best choice.
Zippo-style lighters: For a while, this appeared to be the winner. I filled my Zippo with lighter fluid to the saturation point, then sat down to see how many fires it would make before it failed. Over the next two days, (this is probably a comment on my social life), the total number of lights was 974!
When full of fluid, the Zippo worked immediately after a one-minute ice water bath. It came out the freezer overnight and fired on the second try. I sealed the hinge and opening with a piece of duct tape, and left it alone for a month, and it still fired.
But the Zippo-style lighter was wildly inconsistent in other areas. A fully saturated lighter dried out completely in three days in the desert. Having it sealed didn’t matter. And sometimes, for reasons I couldn’t figure out, the Zippo just wouldn’t light.
While you can fuel a Zippo with gasoline if need be, the system is too unreliable to recommend.
Ferro rods or sticks: I carry a ferrocerium stick on my key ring survival gear and have several in different parts of my gear. When used in combination with cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly, the system is nearly foolproof. Put the cotton balls in a plastic case or ziplock bag.
But it takes some effort to learn how to use it, and like anything, there is no substitute for practice. Using a flint stick with only one hand can be done, but not as easily as using a butane lighter.
At the end of all this research, Grenfell and I concluded that there is no ultimate firemaking tool, and you should never rely on just one type.
So here’s the best recommendation: take at least three different methods. Environment factors that might disable one method should not affect all of them. So, include a fire tool out of each of these categories:
Ferro stick, cotton balls and petroleum jelly: If forced to pick just one method of firemaking, this would be
it. With practice, the combination is quick and reliable. But without a lot of practice and experimenting, you probably won’t be able to use it with one hand. If you’re disabled or unconscious, an untrained person might not be able to figure out how it works.
Butane lighter: If you’re lucky and can keep your lighter warm and dry, a butane lighter may take care of all your firemaking needs. Many kids can’t operate a butane lighter without practice, so some training may be needed with your juvenile outdoor partners.
Stormproof matches: Most folks don’t need instruction on how to light a match, so it’s a good idea to include matches. Invest in premium matches that may work when you need them, and rotate your stock regularly. Be sure to take along the abrasive strip from the match box, and store all matches in a waterproof container!
No matter which firemaking methods you use, take along charcloth and firestarter in a waterproof plastic bag! If your Zippo or butane lighter leaks or runs out of fuel, you can use the wheel and flint to make a spark that can be caught on a piece of charcloth. Also, any other ignition methods that involve sparks can be used with charcloth.
Firestarter should be compact, durable and easy to carry. It can make the difference between dying of hypothermia or getting a fire going with damp tinder and kindling!
One last suggestion: Include a road flare in your survival gear. It is a fantastic signaling tool, burns for at least 15 minutes and will ignite virtually anything!
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