How Long Do Lighters Really Last?

Every prepper buying now knows how important the ability to make fire is. For all the talk about utilizing primitive methods or retro tech, hardly anything is quicker and easier to do in a bad situation than simply utilizing a lighter.

Zippo lighter
a Zippo lighter

Lighters are indispensable tools in a survival kit, but compared to more primitive methods they are limited by the longevity of their fuel and components. This means that a smart prepper will ask “how long will my lighter really last?”

Zippos experience significant fuel evaporation and rarely last longer than a few weeks, with continuous burn time of about 10 minutes. Bic and other standard butane lighters have about an hour’s worth of fuel, and can last a couple of years unused.

Different kinds of lighter have different advantages for savvy folks, and it is worth knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each before committing to one or the other as part of your survival kit. We will talk about the perks and flaws of each throughout the remainder of this article.

Zippo Advantages and Disadvantages

The Zippo is an iconic lighter, and is firmly in the category of living Americana. But however cool and classy they are, these lighters are a century old at this point, and like every century old design they are definitely showing their age in the performance category, style notwithstanding.

Zippos function by utilizing a cloth wick that is routed through a stack of fiber batting in the fuel chamber. This wick delivers fuel to the chimney for combustion through capillary action and is ignited via a striker and flint mechanism.

Liquid fuel is poured into the fuel chamber over the batting where it is absorbed before being replaced in the lighter’s casing, or body. Flip open the top, flick the striker and presto, you have a flame emitted from that charming little chimney.

This design is simple, but because it is constantly exposed to the atmosphere and not sealed in any meaningful way the fuel experiences precipitous evaporation. In ideal circumstances, a full Zippo will be bone dry and useless in about 3 weeks, but almost no Zippo lives in ideal circumstances.

Being sloshed around from everyday carry and exposed to dry conditions means that most Zippos will dry out in as little as one to two weeks before they require refueling.

When fully fueled, you can expect anywhere from 100 to 200 lights from your Zippo before it starts to sputter. This equals about 10 minutes of continuous burn, though you should not depend on your lighter as a candle; prolonged burn can damage the chimney and striker.

Although all of this falls well, well short of the performance of modern butane lighters, Zippos do have some unique advantages, namely the fact they are capable of using multiple fuels, not just ronsonol. Zippos can be made to work using diesel fuel, kerosene and even rendered animal fat.

Pretty much anything that is liquid and combustible can be made to operate in a Zippo, and they’re simple mechanical design lends itself towards modification and user repair, important concerns for preppers.

Bic Advantages and Disadvantages

The modern Bic disposable lighter is no less iconic and ubiquitous than the classic Zippo, but it is still boldly a product of its era.

Made from a molded plastic shell and cheap, stamped metal components, Bic lighters rely on butane fuel kept in a sealed and pressurized vessel. Right up front, this affords the Bic lighter significant advantages in longevity over a Zippo.

When you flick the striker of the Bic while depressing the button a tiny stream of butane is released into the chimney where it is ignited.

Let go of the button, and the stream of fuel stops with the remainder being properly sealed inside the fuel chamber. It is this sealing mechanism integral to the design of the Bic lighter that provides such outstanding longevity, and you should expect a common disposable lighter of this type to keep its fuel no less than a couple of years.

Most Bic lighters will provide at least 1,000 lights before they run out of fuel, and 2,000 is far from out of the question. In fact, Bic lighters are so fuel efficient that a standard model can provide nearly an hour of continuous burn time.

However, you should never, ever keep a Bic lit for longer than about 30 seconds as the intense heat can damage the lighter and potentially rupture the fuel cell!

Although these lighters are disposable and non-refillable, this is hardly a concern considering their overall reliability and dirt cheap cost. You can keep a brand new package of Bic lighters in your bag or survival kit for less than the cost of a single can of ronsonol for a Zippo.

If your Bic lighter runs out of fuel or stops working, you can just ditch it and grab a new one. Although it is against the ethos of most preppers you cannot argue with the economy of these things.

The shortcomings of the Bic include being entirely reliant on a single type of highly refined manufactured fuel, butane, and their aforementioned disposable nature.

If your Bic lighter is out of fuel or otherwise malfunctioning, there is not much you can do for it or with it except perhaps salvage it for a flint and a few other components.

Stop Fuel Evaporation to Improve Useful Life

Whether you choose a Zippo, a Bic or some other lighter there is one thing you can do to universally improve fuel retention by slowing evaporation.

By sealing the lighter inside an airtight container you can prevent the volatile fuel from evaporating in the atmosphere, or at least significantly slow down the process.

You can use heavy duty Ziploc bags for this purpose or even especially designed cases or holders with sturdy, gasketed lids.

Zippos and other classic lighters benefit far more from this than modern butane lighters, as you might imagine, and Zippos still don’t do very well if they are allowed to tumble around on their side or upside down as the fuel can physically condense and leak out of them.

But especially for short-term use or survival purposes this trick is just the ticket for maximizing what could be sharply limited fuel supplies.

Conclusion

A lighter is a precious addition to any fire starting kit. But lighters don’t last forever, even when they are unused. Fuel evaporates and the design of the lighter will significantly impact this rate of evaporation.

Classically designed lighters like the iconic Zippo suffer from rapid fuel evaporation, and you will rarely have a load of fuel last longer than 2 weeks before it is gone.

Modern butane lighters like the Bic however benefit from pressurized fuel cells and can remain reliable and usable for upwards of 2 years.

There is definitely room for both in a prepper’s arsenal depending upon your objectives and what is most important to you. Take the time to understand the variables and think through the consequences before committing to one of these lighters.


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2 thoughts on “How Long Do Lighters Really Last?”

  1. Don’t throw away a Bic just because the fuel has run out. It can still be used to throw sparks onto char cloth or some other combustible material such a dryer lint. Only dispose of a Bic when both the fuel and the flint are no longer working.

    I found a Zippo lighter in about 25 feet of salt water off the beach on Okinawa some sixty years ago. I dried it out, added fluid and it worked. I used it for about 10 years but gave up smoking and so didn’t carry the lighter after I gave up smoking. It still works however. Every once in a great while I fill it with lighter fluid and try it out. I still get a flame. You are correct that an airtight container extends the life of the fuel in a Zippo. A small glass jar with a screw top works quite well. Not too handy for keeping in one’s trouser pocket, but works well in a get home bag.

    A Zippo can work to throw sparks onto char cloth or other combustible material. As a matter of fact, you can buy a Zippo that comes loaded with fire starter. The flint in the lighter ignites the fire starter. Don’t know what Zippo calls it but you can probably find it on Amazon.

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  2. Good information. I believe I’d be more apt to store some bic lighters and possibly even a few cheaper versions.
    I agree with Old Lefty that once their empty the sparks from the lighter can help with fire starting.

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