What's the best fire starting tool
April 6, 2010 6:58 PM   Subscribe

What can I carry that will let me easily, consistantly and reliable make burning?

Following this thread, I want to start carrying some manner of fire making tool with me. But, being me, I want it to be the optimal fire making tool, where optimal means:

* Dependable: I want to know it will work, won't leak its fuel if it needs it, can take a few knocks and not break, won't get saturated and stop playing. Even better if it doesn't need fuel and won't wear out.

* Reliable: Make fire every time, even after long periods of disuse

* Portable: I'm sure a flamethrower would help. I'm just as sure even my BIG cargo pants wouldn't fit it

* Easy to use: I could have hypothermia while running away from a bear at night in the dark on the moon. I still want to be able to make fire.

I'm considering Swedish Fire Steels, Fire Tubes, Waterproof matches, Zippos, firebows and all the rest. Personal anecdotes would be awesome.
posted by Quadlex to Technology (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Strike anywhere matches, dipped in wax, kept in a waterproof container. That, and a couple of bic lighters.
posted by HuronBob at 7:08 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

My memory from being a smoker is that Zippos leak fuel quite quickly. On the other hand a disposable bic lighter will still make a fire after years of just sitting around. And simple paper matches will still work after decades.
posted by idiopath at 7:09 PM on April 6, 2010

your criteria seem to indicate that yeah, you want a Bic lighter. it's not a cop-out, either, it's a real answer that meets all your needs. they'll last years and years unused, can be banged to hell and back, fit in your pocket, IME don't leak, and they're dead simple to use.
posted by radiosilents at 7:13 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have one of these and a knife in my survival kit.
posted by procrastination at 7:13 PM on April 6, 2010

Seconding a disposable Bic lighter. It really is what fits all your criteria. And, if fall-over drunks can use one, you shouldn't have a problem with hypothermia.
posted by General Malaise at 7:15 PM on April 6, 2010

I recently discovered a box of odds and ends that I had never unpacked when I moved three years ago. One of the items in the box was a Bic lighter, which still worked perfectly.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:42 PM on April 6, 2010

I've used the magnesium bricks with flint on the side and striker before while backcountry camping. Good points: one will survive pretty much any kind of abuse; the magnesium shavings burn hot enough to start a decent fire from almost any tinder; a medium sized bar has enough magnesium for many uses. Bad: It may fail the "easy to use" test as it does take a bit of work and coordination to get enough shavings to ignite a fire. I wouldn't bet my life on one if my coordination was shot from hypothermia. I'd bring waterproof matches along as a backup.
posted by benzenedream at 7:43 PM on April 6, 2010

Disposable lighters are also dirt cheap, so you can have lots of them. Why carry one when three cost pennies and are of negligible weight? Keep one in your pocket, one in the car, one in your pack, one rolled up in your tent, one at the office, one in your garage, etc, etc.

"Portable" means you carry it with you. That's good.

But "ubiquitous" is better.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:45 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Zippos not only leak fluid, but they also dry out through evaporation.
posted by rhizome at 7:47 PM on April 6, 2010

Get a fire steel. Shelf life of gravel and it doesn't even notice water.

Zippos dryout, bics leak and both will get useless fast if you leave them in your car all summer. Five years? Forget it.

Even waterproof matches in waterproof containers will be useless if you don't have dry tinder.

Those magnesium blocks are neat but can be pretty tricky. Fire steels shoot out MANY more sparks. I've used them to get air-dampened paper towels lit (not wet but floppy from the humidity, hello Oregon!)
posted by codswallop at 7:50 PM on April 6, 2010

There's a company called Exotac that makes cool fire starting tools, and really awesome waterproof match containers. Really nice stuff.



Matchcap Waterproof Match Holder
posted by Diplodocus at 8:03 PM on April 6, 2010

How about a Zippo Emergency Fire Starter Kit? It's under $20 and comes in one (1) color (safety orange, of course).
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:08 PM on April 6, 2010

Bic lighters are really all you need, as other have said. They don't work for a couple of hours after getting wet though, so you'd need a back up kept in waterproof container.

With all the rest you're really just paying more, and making more effort, for image, to say, "Hey, look what a woodsman I am!" But that's cool too, nothing wrong with woodsmen and some kinds of survivalist imho.
posted by Some1 at 8:22 PM on April 6, 2010

This is a refillable lighter that takes Zippo-type fuel but has a screw-on cap with an o-ring to prevent it leaking and drying out. The fuel certainly lasts longer with no use than a regular Zippo but probably not than a butane Bic-type lighter, as others have pointed out. On the other hand, with the cover screwed on it's much more waterproof than a Bic. Then again, it requires two hands to unscrew, which is suboptimal when fleeing bears.
posted by enn at 8:54 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

As kids we used to use Magnesium to get into hijinks. It takes a bit of practice, but you can reliably start a fire with a small key-chain sized hunk of Magnesium and a flint.
posted by GilloD at 8:56 PM on April 6, 2010

While a fire-steel does have some attractive qualities (like the fact that you can get it wet, there's no way for it to leak, etc.), it's pretty damn impractical. They're not all that easy to actually start fires with, and you need tinder of some sort.

I gotta jump on board with the Bic crowd. If you're talking about actually using it frequently, keep it in your pocket. If you wanna be really backed up for emergencies, vacuum seal one and put it in your bag. You can get a vacuum sealer for pretty cheap these days, or just use one from a friend. The packaging won't take up much more room than the lighter does, and you can dunk it under water all you like.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:34 PM on April 6, 2010

There are butane Zippo lighters. I bought an insert to replace the guts of a fluid evaporating Zippo I had. It doesn't leak and is easier to use than a disposable butane lighter. Since the top is covered, and it is a metal case, it is less likely to be damaged compared to a disposable.
A cigar store will have a variety of lighters.
posted by llc at 9:49 PM on April 6, 2010

Nthing the cheap Bic lighter. Dollar a pop, put 'em everywhere you think you may need one, check 'em annually, job's done. During one of the changes between Daylight Savings and Standard time is the usual reminder here in the US, but YMMV.

I'm 30, so I'm younger than many but old enough to have seen a few things, and I've never seen a Bic-type butane lighter fail in storage. I've seen them damaged beyond repair or usability by intentional and unintentional incidents of physical violence, but never simply by being old.

I'd still keep a few waterproof vials of strike-anywhere matches handy to be on the safe side (old pill bottles from pharmacies generally work quite well), and maybe one of those magnesium-and-steel jobs if I were feeling really paranoid. Hell, even if the Bic loses its fuel, you can still use the flint to light whatever pine duff, lint, or birchbark you have to hand.

A data point: I made up a survival kit shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 2005. I just tested a lighter from it, and got a steady flame on the first flick.

You may also be interested in Rob Cockerham's Fire without Matches project.
posted by tellumo at 10:45 PM on April 6, 2010

On backpacking trips I always carry a Primus Power lighter and a tin of Maya Dust.
posted by theCroft at 5:15 AM on April 7, 2010

Waterproof matches in a waterproof container, along with several cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly work the best for me, but I've also used magnesium and steel and Maya dust.
Disposable lighters are good, too.
posted by pentagoet at 7:03 AM on April 7, 2010

Bics are great, until they get wet. Something like the Primus that theCroft linked to is what you're looking for; anything that produces a jet-like flame.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:02 AM on April 7, 2010

While I usually use a Bic lighter when camping, I've begun thinking about this question too, because I've had some problems getting the butane to gassify in cold situations. It's gotten so that the rule of thumb is "place lighter in pants pocket near crotch five minutes before needing flame." Tha's a problem, especially in the hypothermic bear-fleeing scenarios you're dreaming up.

Also, I get most of my lighters by finding them ("ground score!") and they all seem to have childproofing features now, which are a royal pain when you're trying to operate them with numb, clumsy fingers. Presumably, all of the happy customers above are paying actual money for theirs and choosing models without childproofing.

Loving the Fire without Matches link. I've tried & failed with a bow drill and hand drill, myself.

Local knowledge is a big deal. Here in the Rockies, we look for Utah Juniper because the bark shreds are kickass tinder. Other parts of the US would present different resin-rich evergreens or other stuff I don't know about. In Rescue Dawn there's a scene where the VC start a fire in about 10 seconds with 2 chunks of bamboo cut open and laid crossways. I imagine that the people who regularly used to start fires the hard way A) took care not to let the fire go out, and B) knew vastly more tricks than we do.

Oh, and there's always fire from ice.
posted by richyoung at 8:48 AM on April 7, 2010

Seconding the waterproofed matches and cotton-balls with petroleum jelly (I actually use Neosporin which is mostly petroleum jelly but if you get a cut or something, a supply of neosporin is good to have too). You can pack a small prescription pill bottle with this and have it with you at all times.
posted by The otter lady at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

richyoung - You can easily take off the childproofing mechanism. Very easily. It's just a piece of metal that covers the middle of the striking wheel. A key, or anything thin and strong will rip it right off.
posted by General Malaise at 9:29 AM on April 7, 2010

Update: yesterday I came across a "Neon" brand Bic-type butane lighter in a little-used drawer in my kitchen (it has enough work space for one person or two at the most, but enough storage for a kitchen at least twice its size). The lighter could barely sustain a flame when I lit it, and died within five or ten seconds.

Naturally (well, for me, anyway), I disassembled that lighter and an empty Bic brand lighter I had just drained a day or two ago, and the Bic was much better-built in every respect--the plastic was harder, the metal was thicker, the flint was longer, and even the childproofing was easier to defeat, as the Bic had the mechanism General Malaise mentioned above, but the Neon had some weird thing with the thumbwheels where they only engaged the bit that scraped the flint if you pressed down hard enough. That's the one part of the Neon that looked more reliable than the Bic, and the one aspect of both lighters I wanted to eliminate.

Bottom line: this looks like one of those instances where buying generic doesn't pay. Get a genuine Bic or similarly high-quality lighter. That Primus looks pretty decent, but it's also out of stock at the moment. Here's a link to Zippo's butane lighters. This product also looks interesting. I can't testify to the reliability of any of them, but I do think that even if you do buy a nice refillable butane lighter, you should still buy a half-dozen Bics or so. Odds are that at least one of them will work, but if you only have one nice refillable lighter and it doesn't work, you're completely out of luck.
posted by tellumo at 11:03 PM on April 9, 2010

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