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Survival Firestarting

fireThe ability to start a fire is the most basic survival skill one can have. It becomes especially important in cold-weather and long-term survival situations. Modern man has several tools at his disposal to aid in the fire starting process, but all are not created equal. Let’s discuss some of the most popular methods and their pros and cons.

In To Start a Fire, Jack London exemplified the difficulties one faces when starting a fire in a seriously adverse survival situation. Since we always plan for the worst, our fire starting tools must be up to the task. All survival tools, including fire starters, should have the following characteristics.

– They should be capable of functioning in as many situations and conditions as possible. I refer to this as versatility.

– They should make minimum use of breakable mechanical parts. You need something reliable.

– They should be of a practical size for their given purpose. Portability is extremely important in a survival situation.

– They should be durable-something that can be used over and over again.

– Your tools should all have a long shelf life; they might have to endure harsh conditions in long-term storage.

Now let’s discuss the three most common types of modern fire making tools and see how each fares under the above criteria.

– Matches – Matches are the simplest modern fire starters. They are simple and contain no moving parts. They are small and extremely portable.They function well under most conditions, but not all. In wet and humid conditions, one must be extremely careful with matches, or you can quickly waste an entire box. As far as durability goes, you are limited by the number of matches you carry. Hope for one match per fire, but don’t plan on it. Also, matches leave something to be desired when it comes to long term storage. If not properly stored and cared for, matches can become damp and useless.

flint and steel

– Lighters – There are a variety of powerful butane survival lighters on the market. They function better than matches under most conditions. They are relatively small and portable. If properly cared for, they can be stored for long periods of time, and are basically impervious to water. Their durability is lacking since they are limited by the amount of fuel they contain.

– Flint and Steel (firesteel) – The modern method uses a piece of steel to ignite a shower of intense sparks (5000 degrees F) from a solid block of material, usually magnesium. Firesteel functions in all situations. If it becomes wet, it can easily be dried with material or in the open air. It uses no moving parts so it is reliable. It is small and can easily be carried in a pocket or pouch. One small block of the ignitable material will start somewhere around 5,000 fires. Plan on at least 10,000 matches and several butane lighters to do the same. Firesteel can be stored indefinitely and is immune to the effects of water and time.

Given the comparison of the three methods, it is clear that firesteel is the most reliable, durable, versatile, and portable. Though extremely simple to use, as with all your survival tools, you should practice using firesteel before your life is on the line. A great firesteel can be found at Short of that, a combination of lighters and matches should prepare you for almost any situation.

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  1. Great, love it – one more item to my list.

  2. There is another that works as long as you have sunlight……a lens of almost any kind….remember when you were a kid and you used a mgnifying glass to burn holes in paper, etc. Add a magnifying glass to your kit, it can also be valuable for it’s magnifying for visual purposes. Tom Hanks could have taken the lens from his watch or pager in “Castaway” and started a fire instead of injuring himself with the old indian rubbing sticks together.

  3. How do you start a fire if you have none of the above?

    • The first step in survival is being prepared, the basic reason this site exists. I have multiple lighters, fire steel, and most important the knowledge to make a fire without any of those. Information/skills are the what is needed when those resources run out. You can learn to start a fire with a bow drill then if you run out of resources or have to leave an area immediately because of safety and don’t have a lighter or fire steel your can stay warm, cook food, and make distilled water to drink. You tube has a lot of videos but you should practice by going out on camping trips where the skills are practiced. Start with a weekend trip and the work your way up to week long trips (keep in mind local trapping regulations) where you live off the land.

    • Another resource is a copy of the recently reprinted “Handbook for Boys.” This is the original “Boy Scout Handbook” published in 1911. In it you will find instructions for building log cabins, lean-tos, and other shelters, how to make and use bow and arrows, and several methods of match-free fire making. There are simple recipes that are great for basic camps, too. Some of the information on first aid and health are out of date, but I highly recommend this book for the fieldcraft information. A copy can be purchased or ordered at the local Boy Scouts of America headquarters, which should be listed in the local telephone book or online.

    • Brent find a coke can, a piece of chocolate, and a rag. Soften the chocolate to start rubbing the bottom of the coke can. Keep going in circles until its smooth enough to see yourself, (it takes about 1/2 hour to an hour) roughly. This parabolic mirror will focus the sunlight at a set measurement from the curve. Practice with it a bit, but it will get HOT FAST!!! So be careful around skin, etc. I’ve actually lit a cigarette in the winter doing this, so I know it works.

      The only limitation to ways to start / use a fire is your imagination!!!

      Good Luck!
      Shawn M.

  4. I carry a colman’s fire starter in my pocket everywhere i go a block of magnesium with a built in flint spark bar weighs almost nothing but i never have to worry about staying warm all i need is my pocket knife and some easily found tinder. if you want to make sure you can always take an old altoids tin and make a fire started kit with some cotton and one of these fire-blocks. add a piece of file or hacksaw blade for a scraper and you are set.
    another very inexpensive way to have peace of mind.


    • Don’t forget Vaseline and cottonballs. Great to have a few CB’s dipped in vaseline, being that it’s flammable. Works like a charm.

  5. A 9 volt battery and steel wool is another good the to add to your fire starter kit.

  6. Kindle….and lots of it….its what you need before you pull out all these cub scout handbook tricks.

  7. All of the above ideas are good, I have one more to add to the list. Dryer lint. It is very flammable and works very well especially with additional kindleing, as it goes up very quickly. Of course it would have to be dry, but it weighs absolutely nothing and if kept in a ziptop bag or tightly sealed tin as the Altoids tin mentioned above it would be a great addition to any fire kit. Best of all its free!

    • WOW, I just walked out to my dryer and cleaned the lint filter.(needed to be done anyways) I now have it in my survival pack right next to the zinc bar and water proof matches. Thanks for the great tip MamaWolfe

      • What is the zinc bar?

      • wow I never thought of that!
        thanks for the tip.

      • As a Girl Scout leader, we taught girls to light a fire (we still used a match but in order to get a passing grade, you had to use only 1 match) using a fire starter. Use a paper egg carton and fill it with dryer lint. Pack in as much dryer lint as will fit. I saved up old candles, crayons, parrafin, etc and melted it in an old saucepan just enough to melt it. Pour the wax over the dryer lint and then cut the egg partitions apart. The egg carton does not even have to be completely covered. Light the corner of one of these dryer lint wax balls and you will have a fire with one match. Everything is free. They are not heavy-we save them in a coffee can in the garage for camping trips.

  8. If a BSA office isn’t near Amazon is:

    Boy Scouts Handbook the First Edition, 1911 [Paperback] $31.46 +shipping

  9. firebow– takes a while but it works. I also made my own wax and pine shavings firestarters. Crayons are a dime a dozen at garage sales. Melt the wax and pour in pine shaving and compress in your hands tightly. WEAR “HI TEMP” Gloves very hot

  10. In Girl Scouts, we learned to make stick matches waterproof by dipping the tips in clear nail polish or melted parafin wax. It works great! I like the above remarks about different options. Thanks for the invaluable tips!

  11. I have some fire steels that I have in all of my survival kits, plus waterproof matches. Lens also work well but you have to have sun for them to work, fire bow and fire ploughs both work but require proper technique. What ever method you use practice and become proficient with it before you have to use them for real.

  12. Carbon Cloth and a magnifying glass works even in partial sunlight… very effective. Carbon Cloth is very easy to make… find an Altoid tin and poke a whole in it. Cut up 4 pieces of T-shirt small enough to fit flatly in the tin. Throw it into a your woodstove ahead of time and let it smoulder. Allow it to cool and it can store inside your wallet. Go to any good outdoor sporting store and find a flat mag. glass made of plastic which can store also very easily in your wallet. If your wallet is with you, you can make a fire wherever you go.

  13. Discard the altoid tin and just the carbon cloth goes in your wallet. Sorry… forgot to mention that.

  14. Don’t forget if you have a flashlight that the reflector can be used to concentrate the sun like a magnifying glass. I also saw where someone made a magnifier out of the bottom of a aluminum pop can.. the curved bottom was shined up with a rag ( or whatever you’re wearing..) and the concave shape was enough to focus the sun’s rays into a concentrated beam that would start fires… If you had a piece of aluminum foil… think of the possible objects you could cover with foil that would make a magnifier our should I say Magna-fire? Just a few thoughts to add onto this thread. Part of survival is knowing what you need and then having the creativity to make it out of commonly occurring materials.

  15. A fire piston can also be very handy. The one I found at the local sporting goods store was a little pricey (in my opinion) but could be very handy. It’s definately on my list.

  16. I’ve talked to people who have tested different “storm proof” lighters, and they tell me that they usually get the best results out of a standard bic lighter. Also, if you have limited matches, or the weather is bad, a way to extend your initial flame is a dryer sheet. The fabric softener in them is mostly wax and will burn even in the rain ( on a side note, if you use them often, take out your lint screen and rinse it under hot water. The wax accumulates on the screen and makes your dryer work harder)

  17. I’ve heated for over 20 years using wood or coal. Nothing works like “miracle fuel”! Originally I called kerosene “miracle fuel”, now I include coal oil. Also, for heat purposes, and to get it out there for people to read, coal put’s out much more heat than wood does, but it must be elevated above the ground to burn, with air coming to it from underneath. kindling’s great, paper’s good, miracle fuel is a lot better! Store yourself about 20 gallons of miracle fuel, it don’t go bad for starting fires, you’ll be glad you did and you might also want to get a couple of bottles of propane and one of those little adapters so you can fill your own little propane bottles like a Coleman propane lantern uses). I use a propane torch and miracle fuel to start my fires. The torch came with a flint scratch starter 9get some spare flints). And those Coleman propane lanterns…. they use way to much propane to be feasible. get some good quality (i prefer about 100 year old) kerosene lanterns. And on kerosene lanterns…. the fuel you get in the stores is around $28 a gallon! Crazy!!! the burn good ole kerosene like you put in a kerosene heater too, about $4 a gal. or less.

    I also scavenged a propane stove out of an old RV (free). Works great sitting in my kitchen with a copper line poked through the wall and connected through a propane pressure regulator ($18). 1 bottle of propane ($17) lasts this single man (who drinks coffee continuously) about 5 – 6 weeks.

    I’ll have to write somewhere in here how I also brought the 12v (solar power) water system from that same junk RV into my house and hooked it up too.

  18. We heat with wood and every fire I started in our wood stoves last year was done with a firesteel. No cotton balls with petroleum jelly, no fire started liquids or paste or paraffin logs. Just a firesteel and old fashioned tinder, kindling and the like.

    I’m not bragging at all. My point is that whatever you choose to use, use it exclusively and become proficient with it. If it’s butane lighters, use them and use them and get used to refilling them under all conditions. The same for solar reflectors.

    BTW, you can peel the label off of a 2-liter soda bottle, fill it with clear water and use it as a solar magnifier to start fires. Yes, it works, I’ve done it. I would rather whip our a firesteel and pocket knife but in a pinch, I have options.

    The key to building a fire is preparation. Take your time and practice. Make a commitment to build one fire a day for a month and you will get good at it.

  19. Good article! Always have more than one method of making fire in your bug-out bag.

    One point of observation: when it’s extremely cold and you’ve been subjected to the elements for a while, your hands can get pretty numb. Using a lighter can be extremely difficult. Even holding firesteel and a knife can be a challenge. I keep lighters, matches and firesteel in my BoB and I also keep a small amount of potassium permanganate and glycerol, too.

    A small nickel-size pile of potassium permanganate with a few drops of glycerol will ignite and burn long enough and hot enough to get tinder started. And you can get a fire going with numb fingers!

    Both potassium permanganate and glycerol are inexpensive, perfectly legal to own, and readily available.

  20. Dryer lint works well providing it is cotton. If you get wool or polyester mixed in, your lint will smolder and sometimes melt, but getting a good burn out of it doesn’t happen.

    Also, we don’t recommend the magnesium blocks … we teach Wilderness Survival Classes, and a there are a couple of good reasons for this. First, magnesium burns at 5000° … if you get any on your skin, you can’t put it out, and it will burn to the bone. Second, a lot of knives won’t spark on the strike bar of the magnesium blocks, because they are stainless steel. Most folks don’t check this out prior to an emergency situation, so they don’t know if their knives will produce a spark or not. We recommend a ferro rod and a cut off piece of cheap haxsaw blade for the striker. If it says “made in China”, you can be sure the haxsaw blade is the cheap steel that will spark … but you need to make sure this works before you need it.

    Lastly, as far as a butane lighter goes … great idea, but if it is really cold, it is really hard to get the butane warm enough to light from a spark. Combine that with a situation where you are going into hypothermia, are wet and have really cold hands that are numb and fumbling or shaking, and you got a self imposed death sentence, cause you aren’t gonna get that fire lit!

  21. Thanks to all for the great ideas.

  22. I was raised in a Girl Scout household and have continued as a leader and trainer as an adult. You will still need the ideas presented above to actually light the fire, but we always carried “fire starters” to conserve the number of matches used to start the fire – especially when having to use wet wood. The girls made fire starters at a meeting at the beginning of the year, stored them in large sealed coffee cans or thick plastic bags to be used all year long. We made them two ways: (1) Trench Candles – fold several sheets of newspaper in half lengthwise, place a long cotton string along the short end with and inch or two sticking out (a “wick”), roll very tightly, use more string to tie around to keep roll tight, dip both ends in melted paraffin. Use enough paper to make each “candle about 6″ long and about 1 to 1-1/2” in diameter. Place one trench candle underneath the tender in an A-frame and light both ends. By the time it burns, the wood (even wet!) will be lit. (2) Use cardboard (not foam!) egg cartons and fill them (solidly) with sawdust, dryer lint or a combination. Pour melted paraffin in each compartment. After cooling, tear or cut the small cups apart (2 together works the best). Use one or two sets in an A-frame fire by lighting the cardboard corner. Many Girl Scout badges and awards required a girl to start a fire with only one match – these certainly helped!!

  23. offthegridnews is a cute little site and I found the link/banner for it on Glenn Beck’s site. God Bless him for getting people thinking. I was thrilled with the name since we will be moving to very rural USA next spring to buy however many acres we can afford to pay cash for. 3-7 most likely and then we’ll be living in our 5th wheel while building our homestead/retreat. We don’t know if this property will even have electric or a well etc but it’s a start and we’ll have zero payments. With the title of this site, I thought I might learn some things here but the articles are very general and short. Enough to get people thinking though and I realize it’s a brand new site. I’ve been on prepper type sites for the last year and there’s plenty of info out there. I can see by the comments here that there are a lot of others that have been long time members/readers of survivalist/prepper sites. A lot of those sites have tin foil hat kind of people but very informative once you look past the conspiracy theories. I’m not going to put links here but they’re not hard to find and you will find one that suits you. There’s a couple of them with rational adults rather than armchair rambo types or paranoid nutjobs. You just have to search them out. There’s also sites that are self sufficient lifestyle, simple living based. Even some of the “green” sites are good if you can look past the social justice views or hippy commune style some may have.
    Very informative comments here though. Keep up the good work ladies and gents ;~)
    Hopefully the articles will start becoming more detailed.
    Personally I like the cotton ball and vaseline method. It’s something everyone already has. I use a magnesium with a small 2 dollar folding knife that has a half serrated blade. The magnesium was a free gift that came with a umm, large amount of garden seeds I bought off ebay. Hey, I’m poorboy. Who’s Bob? LOL

    • Hey Dwyatt,

      One of my favorite books I found is “The Self-Sufficient Life and how to live it” The Complete Back -To – Basics Guide by John Seymour. It is an excellent book and I think you will find it to be worth it.


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