These Colors Don't Run - Remember 9.11.2001 Equipped To Survive
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Fire - A Survivor's Best Friend

Fire Is Critical

The ability to start a fire is critical in most survival situations. Aside from the practical aspects of providing heat for various survival uses, nothing is better for your morale than a nice fire. Everyone's spirits are raised as the fire catches and the flames leap up. The worse the weather, the more important the fire is to survival, and conversely, the more difficult it can be to get going.

Most people without experience have considerable difficulty starting a fire in the wilderness, even in benign circumstances, let alone when resources are limited and the weather is uncooperative. It is a skill that needs to be mastered and practiced. An accomplished woodsman will not waste a single precious match or take more than a couple strikes of a flint to get a blaze going. Experience is the key.

For a unique perspective on the critical importance of these skills and the need to master them, please read "Fire and Rain," a brief commentary on the subject by Dr. André F. Bourbeau.

Fire making is too important and too often too difficult to rely on a single means to make a fire. It's best to always have back-up methods of fire starting. For fire starting, I pack two different types of equipment in my survival kits to provide redundancy: wind and waterproof matches and a "Spark-Lite" flint style fire starter kit which also includes Spark-Lite "Fire Tab" tinders. This is my back-up or the one I will use when there is no rush, saving the matches.

Strike One

Wood  Matches In any case, matches still provide the best combination of ease of use and reliability and should be your first choice. Paper matches should never be relied upon. Even if wax dipped, they are too unreliable to be considered for survival use. Only wood matches should be considered and even among these there are some which are less than desireable.

"Old fashioned" wood strike-anywhere matches or wood "kitchen" safety matches kept in a waterproof plastic or metal match safe (container) are a popular choice. The not inconsequential advantage of strike-anywhere matches is that they don't require a special striking surface. Safety matches always require their special striking surface, so that striking surface must also be included if you store them in a waterproof match safes. In some areas and countries, strike-anywhere matches are illegal due to concerns about inadvertent ignition. In many other areas they are, at best, difficult to find. Smoke/tobacco shops, hardware stores and camping/backpacking stores seem to be the most common local sources, though in some areas they are readily available at grocery stores. You can also find them online, but shipping expenses due to HAZMAT regulations can often be extreme.

Safety Matches matches can only be lit by striking on a specially prepared abrasive surface, while "strike-anywhere" matches can be struck on any rough surface.

The heads of safety matches contain sulfur and oxidizing agents such as potassium chlorate with powdered glass, fillers, colouring matter and a binder of glue and starch. The striking surface (as on the side of the box) contains red phosphorus, powdered glass or silica (sand), filler and binder. When the match is struck, the heat from the friction causes a small amount of red phosphorus on the box to be vaporized as white phosphorus vapour. The latter burns spontaneously in air and initiates the decomposition of the potassium chlorate which liberates oxygen. The sulfur ignites and lights the wood of the match.

The heads of strike-anywhere matches contain phosphorus sulphide, oxidizing agents, powdered glass to increase the friction and a glue as a binder. Since both phosphorus and sulfur are present on the heads of the strike-anywhere matches, striking these matches anywhere will generate enough heat of friction to ignite the phosphorus sulfide. The train of reactions thereafter is similar to that which is described above. (Adapted from a British Columbia Institute of Technology explanation)

Moisture is the enemy of all matches and unprotected strike-anywhere or kitchen matches are useless if they get wet. As an added precaution, you can coat them with a thin layer of lacquer or nail polish. Another trick is to coat them with wax (paraffin), though this old fashioned method has fallen out of favor due to concerns about melting on hot days and the general messiness of it all. One example we saw had matches inserted into the end of a piece of corrugated cardboard and the entire assembly was dipped in wax and then sealed in plastic film using a vacuum bagger.

NATO Wind/Waterproof MatchesNATO standard issue Wind/Waterproof "Lifeboat" matches by BCB (first on left in photo) in a sealed vial (a bit smaller in diameter than a 35mm film container and about as tall) are the best available, if not perfect, and make for an easy and quick fire. Cotton packing can serve as tinder. The vial helps ensure they stay dry and undamaged and also that they don't get lost or used up during normal fire starting operations. Each British made match is partially varnished and the incendiary material extends almost halfway down the match stick. They burn ferociously and very hot for about 11 - 13 seconds and are virtually impossible to put out, no matter how bad the weather.

Note: There is a trick to getting these matches to light easily without snapping them in two. Instead of drawing them to you, as you would with a normal match, you should strike them down onto the striker, as if trying to poke it through the top, with just a very little forward motion, not with a pulling motion you would normally use with a match. No, this is not intuitive, and no, there are no instructions on the vial to this effect.

Note, also, that the special striker material is on the outside of the vial, glued to the top. If it is wet, it tends not to work. Be sure to dry it out as best you can before using it.

Hurricane MatchesSecond choice would be the Swiss made "Hurricane Match" (2nd from left above) These come in a match box of 20 each. These are not quite as easy to light when wet, nor do they burn quite as hot, but they are adequate.

Others, typically simply marked as "waterproof" and also generally sold in match boxes, are poor imitations of inferior quality that don't work nearly as well. The differences are usually obvious if you compare them. (middle two above: Coghlan's Waterproof; Stansport Waterproof). Note also that if the special striker on the box gets soaking wet on some of the less expensive types, it is virtually impossible to light the match, a "catch 22" that could catch you unawares.

It should also be noted that all these matches are relatively thin when compared to common kitchen safety matches (far right above) and because they require a "firmer" strike to light, can be somewhat easily snapped when struck. Be careful to not strike them too hard against the striker and grip the match more towards the center than the end to prevent this from occurring. However, you must also be cautious about being burned since the incendiary material extends so far down the match stick. One solution is to use the pliers in your multi-tool to hold the match.

Another handy addition to your fire starting bag of tricks that is popular with many old timers are the trick birthday candles which don't blow out. That's a pretty nifty characteristic for a fire starter. These make a good complement to matches, particularly conventional matches, as the long burning, wind resistant flame can make starting a blaze a lot easier.


The most reliable way to start a fire, though not the easiest for those with little or no experience, is with a commercially prepared (artificial) flint and steel (your knife will do for the steel, though some such fire starters come with their own). This is a practically unlimited resource that won't run out and that works in any weather.

The artificial flint used for such purposes is similar to the flints used in traditional cigarette lighters, but it is a somewhat harder alloy in order to give off hotter and more long lived sparks. It is comprised of a mixture of metals and rare earth elements, by weight approximately 20% Iron (Fe) with trace amounts, less than 3% each, of Zinc (Zn) and Magnesium (Mg) and the remainder a combination of rare earth elements, 50% of which is Cerium (Ce), the remainder primarily Lanthanum (LLa) and Neodymium (Nd) and trace amounts of some other rare earth elements. These are alloyed at high temperature and then extruded into rods of various diameters. When scraped with a hard, sharp edge a thin layer is scraped off and the resulting friction heats the scrapings up to the point of ignition, giving off an impressive shower of very hot sparks. Note that this scraper doesn't have to be steel, but the edge does have to be hard and sharp enough to scrape with. A broken piece of glass can be very effective, for example. The back edge of many knives works as well as the sharp edge, if it hasn't been eased.

By comparison, natural flint is a very hard quartz mineral, harder than most steels, which when struck on a sharp edge by steel or iron creates small sparks by removing and heating up the softer metal. These sparks are relatively weak and few in number, so making a fire with these requires a fair amount of skill and special tinders. Natural flint is a real pain in the you-know-what to use compared to the man-made variety. Fine for those re-enacting the experiences of the Old West's Mountain Men and the like, but not very practical for us today. Some manner of man-made flint should be part of every survival kit.

The longest lasting artificial flints are the conventional 1/2 inch diameter by 2 or 4 inch long flint rod, usually incorporating a cap or hole with a lanyard attached. Sometims there will be a steel scraper attached to the lanyard. More expensive versions may be fitted with a bone, antler or wooden handle. A bit large for anyone focused on minimum weight or size, but you'll get a massive shower of sparks with these large rods. They will last through hundreds of thousands of strikes, so for a survival situation using them up is impossible.

The Ultimate Survival Technologies (FKA Survival Inc.) "Strike Force" (originally marketed by Gerber) is simply one of these flints together with a steel striker encased in a two part lastic case that also holds a commercial tinder cube. Its larger size does make it easier to use with heavy gloves on, but it is a bit bulky for most people to stick in a pocket, ready for any emergency. Other commercial flint variants you may find work well enough, but all of these can be difficult to impossible to use one-handed.

Spark-Lite (left) - BlastMatch (right)With the ability to start a fire being a primary survival necessity, a single-handed fire starter is an important asset. While a lighter, or even matches in many cases, can be used with one hand, when push comes to shove what you need is a reliable artificial flint style fire starter as your ultimate back-up. For a long time the Four Seasons Survival "Spark-Lite" (left in photo) was the only such product available. Then Ultimate Survival Technologies (FKA Survival Inc.) came out with their Ultimate Survival brand "BlastMatch" (right in photo) one-hand fire starter.

Click here for an expanded evaluation of these two fire starters in our "One-Handed Fire Starter Face-off."

Ranger Rick's Dog Tag Fire StarterRanger Rick's "Dog Tag Fire Starter" (left) is another one-handed fire starter introduced in 2002. It is similar in concept to the Spark-Lite. It is a bit more compact in some respects and was originally designed to be worn on a necklace. It also requires some minor assembly before it's ready for use.

Click here for an expanded evaluation of Ranger Rick's Dog Tag Fire Starter

The magnesium block by Doan (1 x 3 x 3/8 in.) with an integral 3/16 in. flint rod glued on top (also manufactured for other companies and for the military) is still popular, at least in part because it is widely available at the consumer level. Unfortunately, the magnesium is not necessarily as effective a tinder as you may be led to believe. While the flame from the magnesium shavings is extremely hot, this flame is also relatively short lived. Additionally, the magnesium scraping/shavings can be difficult to use as tinder in some circumstances because they are so light they tend to blow away with the slightest breeze. Moreover, scraping together a small pile can be difficult at times. So, the bottom line is that they work, but the magnesium tinder has some limitations that must be understood and dealt with.

Other fire starters incorporating flint and magnesium are made by Mag/Flint Firestarters, World Survival Institute and others.

The World Survival Institute (WSI) fire starters include slim rods of flint and magnesium glued end to end on top of a length of hardwood and come in a variety of sizes, all relatively small. A leather thong a hardened steep scraper/striker (a piece of a hacksaw blade). The wood can also serve as tinder. This is a more versatile design, but the wood must be kept dry to be of much use as tinder. While the flints are smaller, they will still give you thousands of strikes. There is a lot less magnesium than the block style offers, but it will do for plenty of fires, certainly enough for any typical survival situation.

Mag/Flint and others sell flint and magnesium fire starters with large rods of magnesium and a small flint attached with a handle affixed to the end, usually made of antler or wood. These are often seen at fairs and primitive survival gatherings. With the exception of the fancy handle, they are no different than the block style, with all the same advantages and disadvantages. The handle can make it easier to work with, but the difference isn't all that great. The handle tends to raise the price and size quite a bit.

Sparky fire starterIn a survival episode availability can be everything. A small piece of equipment, that still gets the job done, has the advantage that it will more likely be carried on your person, available if needed. For just this reason I particularly like the tiny "Sparky" model originally produced by Done Right Mfg. (UPDATE: Now out of business) Mag/Flint and WSI also offer similar models with essentially identical features.

It is small enough to keep with a set of keys or in your pocket, without being a bother. This mini fire starter incorporates a very slim flint rod glued on top of a quarter inch magnesium tinder rod (2 5/8 in. long), a steel scraper/striker, a nylon case and a key ring. According to the manufacturer it will give in excess of 1000 strikes. Even if that's an optimistic number, the point is it will do the job. For an even smaller package toss the scraper/striker. This allows the case to be cut down (you'll have to re-sew it). For strictly emergency use you can use a piece of shrink tubing to protect the rod, as I do for mine. Your knife will serve splendidly in the scraper/striker's stead.

Instant Flames

Many people prefer to carry a lighter and use that as their primary fire starter. However, any lighter demands a reliable back-up since they can leak or run out of fuel. If you pack one in a kit, be sure to protect the gas release button, if it has one, so it will not be depressed accidentally in storage. Current production lighters sold in the U.S. have a child safety lock which serves well to keep it from being emptied accidentally. A small disposable butane lighter (with clear reservoir so you can ascertain how full it is) or, even better, one of the butane fueled fire starters with an extended nozzle and piezoelectric ignition can make lighting a fire pretty easy, but they generally won't work if they get soaked and they also don't operate reliably in very cold conditions or if it is at all windy. Still, many throw a few BIC style lighters in their kits and in their pockets simply because 95% of the time they are adequate for the job and at the price, why not?

(NOTE for Pilots: BIC and Scripto both say their disposable butane fueled lighters will not leak at altitudes in excess of 25,000 ft., a question that is often raised.)

For extreme cold, an old fashioned style "windproof" lighter, such as the "Zippo," which uses standard lighter fluid works better, but they are still susceptible to being drenched and just how windproof they are is subject to debate. They also require regualr and frequent fuel replenishment as the fuel evaporates via the wick. For someoen using a lighter daily, not so big an issue, less practical to store one in a kit rarely accessed.

It's probably worth noting that the sparking device in these lighters can still be used as a fire starter, even if the lighter has run out of fuel. It isn't quite as easy to use them as such compared to a real spark generating device, but it has saved lives in survival circumstances.

An alternative, much more expensive, which also uses butane, is the "Blazer" series of small torches that come in a variety of sizes and produce an intense flame, 1,300 to 2,500 degrees F depending on model, hot enough to use for soldering. They can make fire starting a snap and can be otherwise useful as well. They all have piezoelectric ignition and use high pressure butane. These work much better at colder temperatures than a normal disposable or refillable butane lighter. They are, however, still somewhat susceptible to being waterlogged and are not windproof in the least.

Ratcheting up the expense some more, there are the Colibri, Windmill (by Essential Gear) and Solo so called "flameless" lighters. These also have piezoelectric ignition and uses similar high pressure butane. Like the Blazer Torches, the flame is extremely hot. The advantage it has is that they are "waterproof" and "windproof" and most have place to attach a lanyard to keep it from being lost. We put waterproof and windproof in quotes because the reality is that they are not submersible and if you cannot shelter the device in a gale, they will still blow out. In fact, the windproof part is really just the capability to immediately and automatically re-light if blown out, accompanied with a somewhat wind-resistant burner design. These have gasketed lids, but they serve mostly to keep them dry after an inadvertent dunking. Some individual units seem to perform better than others, with some users reporting they stay dry for them and others telling us their don't seal so well, worth checking if this is critical for you. These are probably the best choice, if a lighter is what you want or if you're going to be carrying a lighter anyway.

If you like the basic concept of these wind and water resistant lighters, but want something considerably less expensive, if somewhat less capable, BCB Survival offer their "Typhoon" lighter. It also has piezoelectric ignition, uses standard butane fuel and is designed to be relatively windproof. It is not, however, waterproof in the least. It will work after getting wet, but you must get it reasonably dry first, which could be difficult in some circumstances. A lanyard ring is attached.

Fire Foundation

The foundation of any fire is tinder, a very flammable material. Every fire built in the wilderness begins with tinder. Commercial tinder such as the Spark-Lite "Fire Tab," as opposed to natural or homemade, is generally the best, most reliable and easiest to use. It is available in many forms, but the best share one very important attribute. It must be very easily lit, even if it has been soaked in water. Some, like "Flamgo Tinder Cubes" and the similar Gerber Strike Force tinder cube must be kept in their airtight packaging or they will lose effectiveness, a drawback, in my opinion.

I've stuck with the "Fire Tab" (that comes with the Spark-Lite), a woven fibrous material impregnated with a dry waxlike substance, because it is compact and easily stored and used. This tinder can be compressed even more compactly for storage without adversely affecting its performance. It doesn't burn quite as hot as a few of the other commercial tinders, but this hasn't proven to be a problem. It has never failed to get a fire going for me, even under the worst conditions.

Some prefer the tinder cube style or "fire ribbon" which comes in a squeeze tube or compressed wood "fire sticks." There's also the magnesium tinder which comes as part of some fire starters, which advantages and disadvantages we have previously covered.

The most important thing is not what kind you carry, but rather, to have it when you need it and to know how to use it. The experienced woodsman will be able to find natural tinder in most wilderness environments; anyone else better bring it along. And, most experienced woodsmen wouldn't venture out without some tinder on their person, because they know how difficult it is, and what a pain it can be, to find good tinder when you need it the most.

A candle is useful for many purposes, including fire starting. They can also serve to heat a well insulated shelter. Long burning (8-10 hours) emergency/survival candles have long been popular and a good idea. Be sure the candles you procure are designed for these purposes. Lesser candles have a much lower melting point and will burn up quicker and melt in hot weather.

An alternative to a conventional style candle, which isn't very useful for fire starting, but works well to heat a small shelter or to cook on, is the "Nuwick" 120 hour or 44 hour survival candle in a can. These have multiple removable wicks and the amount of heat and burn time can be varied by the number of wicks used.

If you are flying over areas where firewood is scarce, a small multi-fuel stove that will burn avgas or jet fuel, as appropriate, will be welcome. MSR's "XGK II" is the best and the only one commonly available. Be sure to pack a filled fuel bottle in case there is no avgas left to use. White gas (Coleman Fuel) is the best. Store the fuel in an aluminum, not plastic, fuel bottle. Be sure to carry a maintenance kit and the instructions for use and repair of the stove as well.

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