I think it is fair to say that the ability to start a fire is arguably the most important aspect of survival. Fire allows you to purify water, cook food, avoid hypothermia, dry clothes, deter insects, keep away predators, and see at night. Dehydration and hypothermia are the two most common ways that people die in a survival situation, and fire helps with both of those threats.
Of course being able to use a ferro rod or make a friction fire are essential skills for a survivalist or prepper. That being said, I always want a good lighter with me to make things easier if possible. You never know when you may need to start a fire quickly in less than optimal conditions. A reliable lighter is the best way to do so.
There are several different types of lighters that are popular with survivalists, so it can be hard to decide which one is right for you. In this article I will cover the benefits and drawbacks of each style so you can make the most educated choice possible.
The Zippo lighter is a classic, it is made in the USA, and is what I used back when I have used since I was a teen. There are several advantages to a Zippo over other lighters. One is its durability. The Zippo is almost indestructible, and all Zippos come with a lifetime warranty.
Another selling point for the Zippo in a survival situation is its versatility. Not only can you refill the fuel as many times as you like, but you can use almost any flammable liquid. In a SHTF scenario finding fuel would be tough, so this feature is very valuable.
The fact of the matter is that you can use the same Zippo for a lifetime as long as you do not lose it. Between the refill capability and being able to replace the flint, it will never wear out. It is not waterproof, but just dry it out and you are back in business.
The functionality of the Zippo is great as well. I always loved that I did not have to hold down a gas button to light it or keep it lit. On a cold day when your hands are frozen it is nice to light it on your pant leg. The lighter is windproof so it is perfect for any outdoor adventures.
Zippos are priced reasonably these days and you can normally pick one up for under $10 if you shop around. The only real downside to this lighter is that is does not do well with high elevations. Zippos start to struggle at around 1000 feet above sea level.
Butane Torch Lighter
Butane torches are fairly popular these days and have some significant advantages and downsides. Many are made of similar materials to a Zippo and cost about the same, but I doubt they would last as long. Most have an electrical component that is not waterproof, and it is very hard to find one with a lifetime warranty.
However, they are windproof and actually allow you to shoot the flame straight down if needed. You do have to press and hold a button to keep the gas flowing, so warm up your hands first.
The other downside is that you have to refill these lighters with butane. This means that you may have a very hard time finding fuel once SHTF. I would imagine butane in stores would fly off the shelves if we were dealing with a major disaster. I have used them before and am not a huge fan.
Metal Match Lighter
I have seen these weird little lighters advertised on survival sites, but never knew much about them. It turns out they have some similarities to a Zippo. The main difference is that you run a metal match against a striker to ignite the flame. The match is screwed down into a fuel reservoir, so you dip the wick in fuel every time you put the metal match away. When you strike it, the wick at the tip of the match lights and stays lit for quite some time.
The flame does not keep going indefinitely like a Zippo because of the small amount of fuel you are using. Also, I would struggle to call these windproof. A strong wind would likely blow them out. The construction is all metal and would likely hold up well, but the wicks are cheap and have to be replaced frequently.
Just like a Zippo, you can use any flammable liquid for fuel. This feature moves it up higher on my list. However, there are two major advantages the metal match has over the Zippo. It is completely waterproof when closed, and each one only costs about $2. They do not hold much fuel so you would have to keep some on hand all the time.
USB Arc Lighter
These lighters are the latest technology and might be a good fit if you plan to keep a source of power with you. Anymore I carry a battery pack and a solar charger with me in most cases, and sometimes a crank charger as well. These lighters use no fuel and charge with a USB cable, so they will work as long as you have access to power.
It may not be the best option for a SHTF situation, but it is pretty handy for outdoor adventures. For the most popular models there is no need to press a button to operate the lighter. You simply open the top and shake the lighter. It will then shoot an electric arc across the gap. The lighter will stay lit for several second, or you can close the top to shut it off.
Of course since there is no flame, this style would have to be considered the most windproof of them all. This also means that altitude will not affect this lighter at all. Because of this I may take one on my elk hunt next year. I do not know of any other lighters that work above 10,000 feet.
This lighter has a lithium battery so it is designed to last a long time, but it is an electrical device. I have doubts about how long it would last getting beat up in the wilderness over and over. It also happens to be tied for the most expensive of the lighters we considered.
The Bic lighter is another classic, but the disposable kind. The best part about these lighters is that they are so inexpensive that you can buy bunches of them. If you buy in bulk you can get them for under $1. I had a friend in college that would buy 50 at a time and spread them all over his apartment so there was always one handy for him or any guests. If they got stolen or lost, it was no big deal
Despite being inexpensive, Bic lighters are surprisingly reliable. Occasionally one will break, but for the most part I never had any issues. They are not waterproof or windproof, so the Bics are not as convenient in that aspect. However, they push out their fuel with enough force that you can shoot a flame downwards about a half inch. It does not seem like a big deal, but when lighting a campfire that can make a huge difference.
Bic lighters sometimes have issues in the cold, and they do not do well with elevation. They cannot be refilled at all, so it is best to have several with you. One of the benefits of inexpensive disposable lighters is that you can put one in your pocket and a couple in your pack. If you are in a group you can give one or two to each person. This ensures that you have fire even if you get separated from your group or your pack.
High Altitude Floating Lighters
These lighters are just as expensive as the USB lighter and have some nice features. It is basically a modified butane torch. The lighter is a push button electric ignition with butane fuel. You do have to hold down the button to keep the flame going, but the flame is pushed out a couple inches which makes it easy to light campfires.
The main differences are that it floats and is waterproof. There are even cases of people running them through the washer and lighting it on the first try. In addition, you can adjust the mix of air and fuel to compensate for elevation. This lighter will work fine up to 8,000 feet above sea level.
The manufacturer claims this lighter is windproof up to 80 MPH winds. I do not care to walk around in winds of that speed, so I will have to take their word for it. There have been instances when the lighter would not light due to low quality butane. Of course this lighter can only be refilled with butane, so fuel sources are limited in a SHTF situation.
And The Winner Is…
When looking at the best lighter for a survival situation, there are several factors to consider. The most important ones would be reliability, ease of use, refill capability, and cost. Secondary concerns are performance in the wind, the ability to direct a flame downward, water resistance, performance in the cold, and performance at high altitudes.
After factoring all of these variables, I was forced to pick two lighters. You always want to have both a primary and secondary source of ignition, so my decision fits with that rule. To be honest, I just could not decide on one. This was based on the assumption that elevation would not be a factor.
My primary ignition source would be the Zippo lighter. You cannot look past its price, durability, and versatility when it comes to refilling the fuel. My backup ignition source would be the Bic lighter, and probably two or three of them. The cost just cannot be ignored, and the quality is pretty darn good. So there you have it. I hope this article has helped you make your selection so a flame is there when you really need it.
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