By The Coach, Contributing Editor
This article is written for the person that is new to the outdoors. It is a beginner article. I know the seasoned outdoorsman will probably know these skills but it is a good refresher.
There are few skills that I consider more important as knowing how to build and successfully light a camp fire. A camp fire can literally save your life.
A camp fire can be used to cook with, to keep you warm, dry your clothes, keep the wild animals away, signal with and keep the insects away and as a psychological comforter as well as many other reasons.
I can remember being a young boy, going camping. One of the things I really looked forwarded to was making s’mores, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs over an open camp fire using a freshly cut Willow branch.
My Grandfather told me that I had to learn how to build and successfully light a camp fire with just one (1) strike anywhere match. It took a while but I mastered the skill. I asked him, why just one match to light a camp fire. He explained that one day, being able to light a camp fire with just one match might save my life. It is almost time for me to start teaching my Grandsons this skill.
Whenever I go into the woods or during and post disaster, (hurricanes, etc.), I carry three (3) different ways to light a camp fire. If one fails or gets lost or does not work for whatever reason, you always have a back up to start your fire. Remember, one is none, two is one and three is even better.
This article will show you the many different ways to start a camp fire. I am sure there are many other ways to start a fire that I have not mentioned. If you have another way to start a fire that reliably works for you, great, use it. I know many of you already know this skill and like me have been building camp fires all of your life. This article is for the prepper that is just getting started and might want to know what options there is for starting a camp fire.
My favorite way to start a camp fire is still the strike anywhere matches. Some people call them kitchen matches. (Photo # 1) You can always tell strike anywhere matches because of its white tip. They are called strike anywhere matches because you can light them on almost any rough dry surface. If you plan on using and storing matches, this is the type of match you want to purchase. This is the only match that I use on a regular basis. I keep my strike anywhere matches in a brass match safe with a compass on top. (See photo # 1) The strike anywhere match is becoming harder and harder to find in my area of the country.
I keep the boxes of strike anywhere matches that I store in a good quality freezer zip lock plastic bag to keep them dry and the humity from getting to the match heads.
The other type of match is the safety match. You can only light them on the side of the box that they come in, on the dedicated striking surface.
The second item that I carry to start a camp fire is the “Bic” cigarette lighter with the flint striker wheel with the flame adjuster control. This is the ONLY type and brand name lighter that I use because they seem to be the most reliable lighter. (Photo # 2) The reason for this is if you run out of butane in the lighter, you can still generate sparks, to ignite the tender, to start you camp fire. Pezeo ignited lighters do not generate a spark that you can use to start a camp fire. Buy only “Bic” butane lighter and you will not be let down. NEVER carry a butane lighter as your single fire starting source. If the butane release lever accidentally gets depressed in your pocket or pack, ALL of the butane will be released. Then you would have to be proficient in starting a fire with just creating a spark from the flint sparker wheel on the lighter. It is always better to carry at least three (3) fire starting sources.
The third item that I carry to start a camp fire is a Magnesium Fire Starter. This is the one that I bet my life on. They have a way to produce a spark and tender all in one compact size bar. (Photo # 3) The Magnesium Fire Starter is my go to way of starting a fire when I must get a fire going under any condition. This device will start a fire in storming down rain or using wet tender. Some people hate these Magnesium Fire Starters because they say they cannot start a fire with it. The Magnesium Fire Starters do take a little practice.
The two reasons most people cannot start a fire with the Magnesium Fire Starter is:
- They do not use a carbon steel knife on the sparking bar to create a spark. Stainless steel does NOT work as well.
- They do not scrape a large enough pile of Magnesium. Make a fifty cent piece size pile of magnesium shavings, from the magnesium block, before attempting to start a fire.
First, using your knife, carefully scrape a pile of Magnesium, from the magnesium bar, onto a wind shielded flat surface. On one edge of the Magnesium Fire Starter is a black sparking flint type rod. Using a carbon steel knife, scrape the rod with your knife introducing the sparks that are created into the pile of magnesium. The resulting sparks catch the magnesium shavings on fire and those shavings burn a very intense, white-hot flame for a few seconds. Have your tinder close at hand. As soon as the magnesium catches fire, place your kindling on top of the magnesium flame. That is it!
The above pictured magnesium fire starter was purchased from “Harbor Freight” for under $5.00. Sometime, “Harbor Freight” places them on sale for under $3.00. You can purchase them in many different sporting goods and camping supply stores also.
One Magnesium Fire Starter can start many fires reliably. This is why the military packs these in all most all of their survival kits. The only other fire starting item that they pack in their survival kits is the Life Boat Matches.
DO NOT bet your life on any other fire starting item. Matches get wet or moist and do not light. Butane lighters leak butane in your pocket or pack and will not work when you need them the most.
The only reliable method of starting a fire besides the Magnesium Fire Starter is “Life Boat Matches”. Life Boat Matches also have Magnesium in them and they will burn, once ignited, and burn under most conditions. (See Number 3 below.)
DANGER: Once Magnesium starts to burn, there is NO way to put out the flame. If you get any burning Magnesium on you, it will continue to burn until there is no more Magnesium to burn. Burning magnesium has a flame temperature of 5400°F (2982°C). BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN USING THIS FIRE STARTER!
Other methods of starting a fire are:
- A magnifying lens. (Photo # 4)
Using a magnifying lens to start a fire takes a little practice but is fun.
I used to play with these as a kid.
The problem with a magnifying lens is you need sun light to start a fire. You cannot build a fire with them at night, when the sky is cloudy or in the rain.
2) Flint and steel. (Photo # 5)
This method takes a lot of practice to be able to reliably create a spark, catch that spark and then turn that spark into a flame. This is a good skill to practice and master.
3) Life Boat Matches, (also called Windproof Matches.) (Photo # 6)
Windproof matches are also waterproof. These are dangerous, highly flammable, and expensive – around $4.00 for 25 matches. Be VERY careful with these matches. Once you strike this match and the flame starts, it is almost impossible to put the flame out until it burns itself out on its own. These matches burn for approximately 15 seconds, so have your tinder and fire starting material ready and close at hand. I consider these matches are the only other reliable way to ignite a fire other than using the Magnesium Fire Starter mentioned above.
4) Spark Lite (Photo # 7)
I do not know why anyone would want this device when you can use a “Bic” butane lighter with a flint sparking wheel. The “Bic” butane lighter can create a spark just like this device at any time if you buy the butane light with the flint spark wheel in it.
5) 9v Battery and Steel Wool (Photo # 8)
If you take a good 9v battery and simply touch both poles to a piece of steel wool, it will catch fire.
Place the smoldering steel wool into your tender bundle and blow into it.
I don’t consider this in the fire tender category because it is the steel wool itself combined with the battery that actually makes the fire.
Two things to remember:
1) The finer the steel wool the better it ingites.
2) It only takes a tiny bit of steel will for this to work. Use just enough steel wool to cover both poles of the battery.
6) Fire Plow (Photo # 9) Very Difficult.
This photo was taken from a military survival manual.
While it is a good thing to learn how to do, there are MANY variables to starting a fire with this method. Even the professional survivalist has problems starting a fire this way and can take many hours to start a fire.
7) Bow and Drill (Photo # 10) Very Difficult.
This photo was also taken from a military survival manual.
While it is a good thing to learn how to do, there are MANY variables to starting a fire with this method. Even professional survivalist have problems starting a fire this way and can take many hours to start a fire.
8) Book Matches (Photo # 11)
Book matches are becoming harder to find. Book matches are also hard to light unless you know the trick. To light this match, first tear off a single match from inside the match book. Then fold over the match book cover. Place the match head on the striking surface and then place the match book cover over the match. Putting pressure on the match book cover, this places pressure on the match head and holds the match firmly in place against the striking surface. Then with your free hand, pull the match quickly from between the match book cover and striker surface. If the match is not damp or wet, this method almost always works. However, it is hard to keep the flame going, so light your tender quickly before the paper match goes out.
9) Butane Grill Lighters (Photo # 12)
If you have a Coleman stove or lantern, this is the only way to light them easily, as far as I am concerned. They just make life a little easier. I keep a new one inside my Coleman Stove. You can also use them to start your camp fire. This lighter uses a pezeo igniter to light the butane.
10) Ferrocerium Rod Fire Starter (Photo # 13)
These little rods are great for creating sparks to start a fire. They also take up very little room in a pocket survival kit. They do take a little practice with to become proficient with to start a fire. They can also be sewn into the clothing that you wear in the field so that you always have a way to generate a spark. These rods can be soaked in water and still generate a spark.
There are other methods of starting a camp fire but the above are the most popular.
You MUST practice with any and all methods of starting a fire that you plan to depend your life on, before going into the field or before a disaster occurs.
Practicing all of the above ways to start a fire is a very good idea but it does take a little practice to become proficient with them.
If you want to learn how to use any of the above mentioned ways to start a camp fire, just enter the one you are interested in, into a computer search engine, do an internet search and you will find more information than you need.
NOTE: In the first part of this article, I told you that my grandfather taught me how to start a camp fire. He was always able to start campfires in almost any weather. I never could figure out how he accomplished this.
After many, many camping trips and campfires, I ask him how he accomplished this. My grandfather laughed and said I use my special camp fire elixir. It works every time!
I inquired as to what his camp fire elixir was because I had NEAVER seen him use it.
My grandfather laughed again and stated, what I did not tell you about campfire starting is that after making my fire pit and placing my kindling in it, I put my special camp fire elixir on the kindling. It works every time. My grandfather then reached into his day pack and pulled out a yellow can of Zippo lighter fluid. He stated I just squirt some on the kindling when you were not looking. My camp fires start every time.
I told him that all these years he taught me how to light campfires and stressed how important it was to be able to start a fire that could save my life, he had been deceiving me. My grandfather responded, you can build a camp fire in almost any weather and are better for it. Now you know another way to enhance your chances of success.
My grandfather continued, “I have taught you everything you know about campfire building! But I have NOT taught you everything I know about campfire building!”
My grandfather was a very wise man. I really miss him.
NOTE: The Coach does NOT receive ANY compensation, from ANY company, for using ANY product, named in ANY of his articles.
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6 thoughts on “Fire Starters”
Great summary coach, you have covered all of the ‘basics.’
One very best way to learn this vital skill is for a patient parent to teach the young while they are in that inquisitive stage and eager to learn. My father taught me and I have reaped the benefit many many times. I made sure those skills were passed on to my children as well.
Kitchen matches are so ubiquitous it is easy to disregard their real value. We have multiple .50cal ammo boxes full of individually bagged and vacuum sealed kitchen matches (important if needing to distribute in wet weather. Mom hoarded matches in mason jars and when cleaning out her house, I found a jar from around WWII and the matches still worked (in the Texas panhandle, they were likely sealed in a very low humidity environment). I don’t recommend doing this but mom did find a method to preserve precious matches.
I went to a USG ‘survival school’ where we had to successfully use a fire bow to build a fire. Even with expert instruction, some never mastered the skill. Of course we were running a calorie deficit in cold weather and there were a lot of other things happening but it amazed me that some university graduates could not master a no technology fire.
You’re right, there is nothing quite like the zippo to start a fire. In fact, we keep a five pack just like in your photo in each of our rucks and in each of our vehicles. Great point.
Dad taught me how to split matches and all of the tricks. Whenever I build a fire, it evokes pleasant memories – hope it does for my over educated kiddos as well.
Dad’s magic fire elixir was cotton balls soaked in vasoline. In those days, 35mm film came in metal cans with a screw on lid, perfect for several lubricated cotton balls.
Everyone should read TO BUILD A FIRE, by Jack London. I read this in grade school and it left an impression.
I was a young adult when I learned the very best way to start a fire. The command, “Sergeant, get us a fire organized” always produced results.
I look forward to your series.
One cautionary comment about the Flint/Magnesium bar purchased from Harbor Freight. While fairly inexpensive….do not buy them!
The problem is that while the flint portion works just fine, and the “magnesium” portion works just dandy as a handle, the “magnesium” portion doesn’t actually work well as a fire starter/tinder.
I say this as one who bought about 40 of the Harbor Freight ones for my students, and suffered for it.
The brand that Harbor freight sells are made in China and are not made up of true magnesium bar for use as a fire starter. For the folks who have been around for a while, when you pick up one of these fakes, you can tell that there’s a difference. You might not be able to say, just why, but it feels slightly different than you are used to feeling. The difference is primarily in the weight and feel of the fake magnesium.
While you can get a brief spark & flicker from these fakes, it is nothing like the good hot and steady from using a real magnesium bar. The Coleman’s Brand appear real, as are the military ones. There are numerous other ones as well that use good magnesium, but unfortunately the Harbor Freight ones are the bad ones.
Once I realized that I had problems with the ones I originally bought, I started doing an internet search and found that others had similar problems (http://wildernessinnovation.com/2010/08/19/magnesium-fire-starters-caution-some-dont-work/).
Fortunately for my students, it didn’t affect them much since I don’t allow them to use magnesium to start fires anyways (this forces them to find and use better tinder). But it does allow those who have difficulty holding small objects, to use the (fake) magnesium bar as a handle. NOTE – The majority of my students are required to start a sustainable fire using only natural materials and a welder’s flint tip mounted on a 1.5inch long screw (since the welder’s flint is approx 1/4inch long, using the longer 3in long flint on the fake magnesium bar is already like breaking the rules for them! lol).
For my fire classes I use the Doan Magnesium Fire Starter. One of the best on the market. Another great piece of kit for a guaranteed fire is the Ultimate Survival Technologies StrikeForce® Fire Starter with WetFire™ Tinder. Will start a fire in windy and/or wet conditions. Remember to carry several ways to start a fire…. One is None, Two is One and Three or more is Key!
I’ve found that the “newer” version of the Strike Anywhere matches tend to skimp when it comes to the white tip. What I’ve done is go through the box and pull out the matches with the largest white tip then put two stick matches together and roll them up in a half sheet of toilet paper. I then dip them in wax. The TP soaks up the wax, making it a sort of candle to prolong the flame while igniting the tinder. The wax also makes the matches waterproof. Just peel off the wax from the match tip and strike away. Having two match heads helps ignite the match/candle.
“Next to knowing how to dress well, fire is one of the most important bush skills there are, because it is one of the few means available to make up most great deficiencies.”
i would like to add my 2cents:
~andbbmo wrote about the quality of magnesium bar fire strikers.
i have a few things to add about them.
1. Newer Mag Bars i have found have further quality issues than what he stated.
The flint striker is manufactured much smaller or thinner in diameter than the older models.
The flint strikers can easily fall out of Mag Bars…even in the old Models!
Remedy: Use Gorilla Glue and glue both sides of the flint down entire edge securing it to the Magnesium.
*i still swear by them and carry them, but glue the flint, test and practice to ensure you have quality magnesium,
and are proficient in their use.
Try to get older Mag Bars say from an Army Surplus that have the bigger sized Flint.
First, i want to say that yes, they do take practice, but it is not hard.
One cold night, on B.C. Canada’s Wet West Coast,
a long time ago,
i could not find my gear i had hidden the day before.
i used my “Mag Bar” which was always on my key chain, and my knife as part of my
everyday carry, to start my Life saving fire!
( i was getting bad hypothermia)!
Remember to always carry tinder in
a tinder box. (better yet, carry 1 tinder box in each front pocket, and more in your pack and web belt)!
*i also now carry fish line to attach to my Pack, and then tie it to a tree or other easily found landmark, so even without a light source my Pack is easily found.(it is also useful to use fishline to get to the crapper, and cooking area in the dark, which must be seperate and far away from your
bedding area, especially in Bear Country).
=great for night time trail marking/guiding
hiding/Guerrilla Camping-light O.P.S.E.C.
MY BASIC EVERYDAY CARRY
~i now carry a Light My Fire-
Fire Steel Striker on my Key Chain, which is my #1. fire maker.
( used between fingers it is also useful for self defence).
~i now, also carry a older quality mag bar on a key chain ring with a small sharpener and my Swiss Army knife all attached together in my front pants pocket, and my tinder boxes, AND 2 Bic lighters, one in each pocket.
~Remember Bics work like crap when wet or cold…
~i also carry the smallest sized made
Mini-Mag Light which is attached to a key ring and sometimes kept in pocket attached to the Swiss knife, but always when camping is kept on para cord around my neck.
Rounding off all these basic items,
with its own key chain attachment, is at least 1 small l.e.d. light on my main key ring.
* Note, that is everyday carry for my normal Life routine,
besides my S.A.S. Survival Tin, which i “try” to always have on me.
Camping has a much more encompassing set of gear including web belts, etc.
*Wal Mart and Canadian Tire sell cheaper quality Fire Steels than the Light My Fire Brand, and CAN BE O.K., but the same thing goes as for the newer Mag Bars… buy it…test it… and glue it!
Fire Strikers: Glue the fire striker flint to the plastic handle at base.
Mag Bars: glue the flint to the magnesium!
~O.O.O. Steel wool works well.
~There are many homemade ways to make tinder.
~Walmart sells many pretty o.k. Coughlans tinder products. Practice!
Make sure you can easily and fast
make a fire utilizing what you have, even when wet weather!
When out in the woods !ALWAYS! keep an eye out for dead fall-fallen logs and tree limbs, which could hold dried wood, and seek moss, etc.
Always carry tinder but also gather carry and protect( water proof) when out in the Bush, enough kindling to make a small fire!
~Keep fires small, keep close to it,
energy and wood use is less effort.
~ Keep an eye on it but keep your wood split, dry, under tarp, and rotate wood/ kindling near fire…
use the sun as much as can.
~Learn to make home made Char Clothe.
~ A Dakota Fire pit works well:
“initially more labor intensive than simply building a fire on the surface of the ground”.
“greatly reduces the amount of firewood required”.
~Those 4Hour fire bricks work excellent, i keep a few in my truck,
and i suggest everyone carry a small bow saw. You can easily get a fire going, and it will stay lit while gathering more wood.
(taking shaving or pre-cut smaller sections of fire logs is useful).
~Another very cheap and awesome fire making item i carry is those little “canned heat” thingy’s…
yes, you can put a steel canteen cup upon it ( use a few pebbles to lift the cup up off of the cooking base)…to cook or boil water… but instead, i keep it by, to put a stick in it
and get a small glob of it for fire making. A can lasts for a loooong time, and many fires.
( i always double wrap the can in plastic bag while storing it in my Pack). Also great for warming up your hands in a pinch.
~ It is wise to carry a small heavy gauge plastic sheet and twine that is used exclusively for protecting your fire wood and kindling.
Carry an oilskin or light weight tarp for shelter.
~A small thin strap, or bungy cord, or rope, and a dedicated small tarp for
hauling/carrying firewood is very useful for hauling longer distances to get it to your camp.
~Remember your Outerwear Clothing is your first and foremost best form of Shelter Protection, dress well,
carry fire making tools, and have some form of light weight but durable tarp and twine/rope to protect yourself from the wind, and rain.
~A Cheap Canadian Army Surplus Winter Sleeping Bag ;which has both a inner and outer bag in this System-2 bags in 1 really)…
with C.A.F. Bivvy Sack saved my life once, when camping out and hypothermic in the Deep Bush…
without a fire! -50C• + Windchill!
Have more Bag than you think need.
…i also suggest a Hennessy Hammock to keep your arse up of the ground.
i have many of those small light weight emergency blankets,
but i highly recommend getting
at least 1 of the heavy duty insulated type emergency blankets.
(They are a wee bit more heavy, expensive and bigger, but soooo worth it)!
Also, for Gathering and carrying tinder and kindling, i use a small M.S.R. waterproof bag, with a
carabiner which can be attached to your belt or pack. (Keep your firewood tarp/twine inside it).
i have a very small bow saw which is part of my irish knife on my belt,
( backup to my Leatherman wave and Swiss Knife).
and keep a slightly larger one (bow saw), in truck and 1 in Pack, including
my Axe, File, and wet stone.
i also, have my K-Bar marine corp Knife and Cold Steel trench Hawk, which i practice using for self defence, but also use for day to day Camp Living; (in truck or on belt/pack).
A Quality Axe and Knife are Bush Craft Essentials!
The fourth fire making item i carry is a Zippo.
Inside my Zippo i always have 2Extra wicks, and as many extra flints as i can pack in it.
(i keep the lighter full, but in normal Life every day carry of course i do not pack a can of lighter fluid. But i DO have a can in truck, lots at home,
and lots Cache Scattered.
~(In the trenches of WW1, a tiny wee Zippo Flint was worth a lot of $).
Hope this helps…
* Nice Article Coach!
Like i stated above, key chain rings,
bungy cords…belt clips are cheap, heavy duty, long lasting.
Also carry a few Carabiners of quality.
Cordage is very important.
*Also, for Cordage, carry fishing line, parcord and some
wire; some thin guage for snares, and repairs, and keep some heavy guage. Rope and twine are also very important. i also recommend a leather awl/needle thingy.
***i recommend purchasing the small sized:
SAS Survival Guide by John “Lofty” Wiseman
about $10.00 here in Canada available everywhere.
…in it he describes the S.A.S. Survival TIN and POUCH.
Customize your own to suite your taste and needs.
…the tin should be carried with you everywhere all the time, as part of your every day carry…
The pouch is light weight, and should always be near by.
“The more you know, the less you have to carry. The less you know, the more you have to carry.”
Somewhere along the path to manhood, I adopted a two match maximum when building fires. if I couldn’t get a fire to go with two matches, I did without. Taught this same philosophy to my children and now as adults when building a fire, they still remark with pride, ‘one match fire dad.’
The two match maximum when building a fire forces one to prioritize and organize fire building materials. After a while this becomes second nature.