As director of training for FieldCraft Survival I’ve tested all manner of fire starters and lit fires in every condition imaginable. Some fire starters I’ve used were great, and some were a liability. To help you avoid a dud, I put together a list of the best fire starters I’ve tested in my two decades of wilderness teaching.
How to Choose the Best Fire Starter
Where you set up your campfire and how you get there will also determine what survival tools you select as weight, space, urgency, and skillset should all be factored in. Since fire starting is also a fun skill set to practice, you may decide to pack some fire starters to hone your abilities in different methods. There are situations and conditions, such as cold and windy, when spark-based fire starters should be used. In other scenarios, rain, for example, going straight to flame makes sense.
What Is a Fire Starter?
A fire starter is a tool or device (or a combination of them) used to make a flame or spark that will start a fire. These days you’ll see a lot of cube or brick-type products designed to burn intensely to help ignite a campfire. In reality these types of products are fuel or tinder, not actual fire starters. Below I’ve assembled a collection of fire starters for your consideration. None of these should be carried as a standalone fire starter, and you should always have a P.A.C.E. plan that includes primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency methods of making fire. If one method should fail you, you’ll have backups on backups. With fire being important for cooking, purifying water, warming your shelter, signaling for help, providing light, and giving you emotional comfort and physical security, you should be deliberate with what you select and why. When you have your kit selected, avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket and spread it out over your person. Stuff a fire starter in a pants pocket, perhaps one around your neck, and one in your pack. That way you’ll always have a means of starting a fire even if you lose your pack, or one of your survival fire starters.
Tips on How to Use a Fire Starter to Build a Fire
- Never start a fire you cannot put out. Always have a plan to extinguish your fire.
- When you collect enough firewood, go out and get more.
- Slowly increase the size of your fuel. A good rule of thumb is to double the diameter in fire building progression.
- Learn to identify hardwoods vs. softwoods and when to use each in fire building. Softwoods burn hot and fast, and hardwoods create long-burning coals.
- Fire reflector walls do more for blocking wind than reflecting heat.
- Consider leaving “good karma” wood behind in your remote campsites at established fire rings. A small quantity of covered tinder, kindling and quartered logs will be appreciated by the next person.
- Teach kids how to start fires and emphasize safety. Better to give them guidance then let them have a bad self-taught experience.
- Tuck disposable lighters inside balloons and tie them for water resistance.
- Wrap duct tape around magnesium fire starters to catch the shavings on the adhesive. The tape will continue burning after the magnesium peters out.
- Never forget the fire triangle of fuel, oxygen, and heat. Inefficient burning can be remedied by addressing one of these three factors.
- Cook with hardwood. Softwoods with high resin content will leave a dark soot on your cooking pans.
- Training modifiers help build your skill level. Incorporate time limits, man vs. man challenges, cold, fatigue, and substandard gear. Train in harder conditions than you expect to encounter.
The Best Fire Starters for Your Next Adventure
Flint fire starters have been around for hundreds of years. Vern’s Flint and Steel offers one of the finest kits around for those who prefer to use this method. The Owner, Vern Hussey, makes each of his flint strikers by hand. Vern’s square bar stock produces excellent sparks when used with English flint. Throw in some jute twine, a small tin with a hole in the lid, and char cloth, and you have everything you need to start fires like the frontiersmen. Vern offers large quantities of flint and steel in sets for group leaders looking to pass on this skill.
A larger rod to throw that throws more sparks.
A simple Ferro rod fire starter can be used for signaling, a quick light, and, of course, starting fires. That makes them one of the best survival fire starters. This is more than just a ferro rod. The fireRod Xl has a length of duct tape and a compartment for tinder, emergency meds, or fishing gear. This fire starter is substantial, and thanks to the increased diameter of the rod, it throws more sparks than smaller counterparts. The aluminum handle makes gripping this tool easy even with gloves on. Given the size of this fire starter, I find it perfect for car camping, around the cabin, and in my canoe-camping kit.
Comes with a multi-function scraper to throw more sparks to get a fire going quickly.
With a standard round Ferro rod fire starter, you’ll find you create more substantial sparks as the round radius biomes flatter with use. Well, the folks over at Uberleben designed a proprietary hexagon rod that lets you start with flats from the start. Those flats measure 8mm and throw a considerable amount of sparks with the provided multi-function scraper. This ½” rod comes in two lengths, 3” and 6” for different needs and a leather lanyard connects the rod with the scraper.
UCO Titan Stormproof Matches take the concept of waterproof matches to a whole new level. Capable of burning even while temporarily submerged and in the strongest winds, these matches are meant for moments where you cannot compromise. They live up to the Titan name as they are significantly larger with more matchhead than wood handle. These fire starters will occupy more real estate as a tradeoff. That said, with a proper firelay, you will likely only need one to get your campfire going.
Solkoa Survival Systems Faststrike
This is a perfect pocket fire starter kit for emergencies. The sparks it throws will easily ignite natural or manmade tinder and it will ignite loose-leaf paper in a pinch. We’re partial to this one given the quality of the sparks it throws as well as the hacksaw blade scraper it comes with. The small rubberized handle is easy to grab with wet fingers. The Faststrike weighs only one ounce yet is capable of thousands of sparking scrapes.
There is no such thing as cheating if you absolutely need to make fire and cannot fail. If you happen to be in an emergency, there really is no survival fire starter equal to a flare. Burning at 2000 degrees for upwards of 7 minutes, the Orion Fire Pit Pro can dry out smaller fuel and help build the heat needed to ignite larger fuel. Since it is a self-contained unit, there is no need to ignite the Fire Pit Pro with a match, lighter, or Ferro rod. For the advantage these offer, consider the size and one-time use tradeoff. Ideal for immersion kits, emergency overnight kits, or anywhere the outdoorsman will encounter extreme wet weather, this fire starter stacks the odds in your favor.
Visit any country store, and you’ll find these strike-anywhere matches along with essential camping gear like cast iron pans, red and white table cloths, and cans of baked beans. They have phosphorus in the match head which allows them to be striked on rocks, or other rough surfaces. In some circumstances, going straight to flame is better than throwing sparks on tinder. These matches are perfect for around the fire pit or fireplace or are great for teaching beginners the art of fire craft.
“Clink.” The sound is unmistakable. Zippo lighters have been carried for decades. Despite the reputation for evaporating, the liquid and wick style lighter has an advantage over gas based lighters that are less reliable in the cold. Additionally, the metal body of a Zippo lighter is exceptionally durable. Not to mention, Zippos are simply fun, and they can be personalized and passed down for generations. I recommend putting a small length of electrical tape around the body and lid seam if you don’t use it frequently.
The guys over at Prometheus Design Werx are industry leaders in everyday carry gear, craftsmanship, and well-made tools. Recently, PDW released a premium titanium firesteel that uses replaceable ⅜” threaded Ferro rods. This firesteel has a texture to the handle body that resembles a pineapple grenade. There is a watertight container in the handle for tinder or small emergency supplies. This firesteel is not only functional, it is classy, and we can see this being part of a more refined EDC that will perform extremely well when needed and look damn good when it is not.
If you know the people from ESEE, you know you will be hard-pressed to find a more hardcore cadre of instructors that produce quality survival tools. They are no-nonsense and their kit is well thought out. We selected their fire steel for the multi-purpose nature of it. Designed as a steel for flint and steel fire-making, it also features a bow drill divot for emergency or primitive fire-starting needs. If you lose all your kit while hiking through the jungle, getting ejected from your raft, or having to bail out of a bush plane, you can still fall back on your primitive skills with this tool. We recommend attaching a length of 550 paracord to it since cordage is the weak link in bow drill fire starting.
The BIC company is great at making inexpensive products that work well. Their standard lighter will produce 1000 one-second fires. If primitive man knew how well a BIC worked, they’d leave their bow drill at home. For the cost of a cup of coffee, a person can purchase multiple BIC lighters and disperse them throughout their kit. I recommend prying free the safety feature to make sparking the wheel easier. Another tip is to slip some bike innertube around the lighter body to prevent losing it in your pocket and extend the flame with a source of tinder.
Weighing less than once ounce, bring this fire starter everywhere
Sometimes bigger is not always better. The BSA Hotspark is one of those fire starters you have no excuse to leave home without. Weighing less than an ounce, the BSA Hotspark is small enough to throw on your keychain, tie into a tucked away area in your pack, or worn on a neck knife until you remember you have it when you need it. This fire starter works best with premade tinder that will ignite with the smallest amount of sparks. Not only is this fire starter compact and easy to carry, it is also relatively inexpensive. It has been a staple tool in the scouting community and should be part of a layered approach to your preparedness.
Q: How to Use a Magnesium Fire Starter
Magnesium burns at 5400 degrees Fahrenheit and ignites wet or dry, which makes it a great tool for starting fires. The first step for using a magnesium fire starter is to use the spine of your knife to scrape off the magnesium onto a tinder bundle. You only need a small pile to start a fire. A small strip of duct tape will help collect it in the wind. Then throw sparks from a ferro rod or light the magnesium with a match.
Q: How to Use a Fire Starter
The first step is to prepare your kindling and fuel. Have dry wood from toothpick size to wrist size ready to go. Build a log cabin or teepee with your kindling. Then prepare your tinder and place it nearby. A cotton ball mixed with Vasoline is excellent tinder for a beginner. Strike your match, or throw your spark on the cotton ball. It will ignite immediately, and you can begin to build your fire.
Q: Is gas a good fire starter?
Gas is a terrible fire starter because it’s dangerous, combustible, and quickly burns out. Kerosene fuel would be better because it has a longer burn. But, if you learn the principles of fire building you don’t need an ignition source like gasoline that can cause serious injuries.
Final Thoughts on the Best Fire Starter
I personally everyday carry at least one ferro rod and lighter as part of my P.A.C.E. plan (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency). In my pack, I have redundant layers as well as matches. If I lose these methods in an emergency, I can fall back on my training and make a friction fire. Since fire expands our capability in the great outdoors, I never want to be without the means to make it whenever I have to.