Sparklite Government Issue Tinder – $18.95/100 on Ebay
FireCrackle Fire Starters – $7.25/10 ($52/100) on Ebay
Self Igniting Firestick – $9.85/6 on Ebay
Ferrocium Stick & Striker – 99 cents on Ebay
Fresnel Lens Magnifier – $21.46/5 Pack on Ebay
One of the most embarrassing moments for a prepper is not being able to light your Rocket Stove with a butane lighter stick after half an hour. And since this has happened to me a couple times, it got me to thinking about what I would have to go through on the road, trying to cook dinner. Sticks, leaves and even pine needles on the ground absorb water. They may look dry, but try to light them and have them stay lit. So I went looking for firestarting help, and I found some pretty good options. The most important thing is that I tested them with a “flint and steel,” because matches get wet, and you run out of matches. In an afternoon of trying to start fires, I ended up with a sore arm and some good experience with what of my experiments worked, and which ones didn’t.
Regular readers of this column know that I find a lot of oddball stuff on Ebay, and this article is no exception, but at the same time I also try to go to Walmart and see what they have for cheap. Sometimes you can’t beat Walmart, and camping section is loaded with firestarting tools, waterproof matches, fuels, etc. I am planning an upcoming article on fuels as well, but for this one I wanted to focus on the firestarters, because for a lot of us, sticks in a Rocket Stove is really a free source of unlimited fuel, but you have to light it. I was surprised to find the huge array of products that you can buy just for starting fires. This is partly because there are now quite a few products that are for starting charcoal without lighter fluid. Of those alone there are dozens now if you look on Amazon, and I was able to test a pretty good one I found at Tractor Supply. For the most part, lighting fires with a “flint and steel” isn’t easy, period, but I did find some stuff that works great, and it is linked above. I also tried a sun magnifier, and I’ll get to that below as well.
The problem I see with lighting fires in a survival situation is that you can never have enough options, because you have no idea how long you’ll be lighting fires. i wouldn’t be using up gas in the lawnmower. Save it for your Zippo. I don’t know that there is even a match factory left in the United States. Personally I have a pile of Bic lighters in my survival stuff, and sparkers, and a whole case of matches. This article is really about not having matches, but don’t think I’m saying this is a first option. Lighting a fire with sparks and tinder, without any of these specialty tinder products, is really hard.
Magnesium vs. Ferrocium
I got really confused at first as I started to research this article because I know the old “flint and steel” tool as a “magnesium firestarter.” We’ve all seen them. They look like a silver block with a black rod on the side, and they come with a piece of steel. I had never realized that the brick part of the tool is the magnesium, and that you are supposed to scrape some of that off unto your tinder. Then you scrape the black rod to make the sparks. But if you look at the firestarting rack at Walmart, there is also just a black rod tool, and it doesn’t have the magnesium block.
The black stick is ferrocium. As you can see from the pictures, I chose to use one of the thick ferrocium stick starters for most of my tests. My experience so far is that I must not have firestarting mojo, because it isn’t easy to repeat a process whatsoever. The ferrocium rods, and this goes for the small ones and the big ones, don’t seem to have a formula for when they spark and when they don’t. I tried to scrape a little first, tried to scrape back and forth, angled the striker, fast, slow, long, short, etc., but sometimes the steel scrapes pieces off, and sometimes it sparks. This makes the rod wear away in large peels without much control over how much rod you are losing whatsoever. I don’t get it.
When the ferrocium sparks, it sparks big, especially with the thick ones. But that isn’t enough for some materials, even with repeated direct hits. On some of my tests I couldn’t get the tinder started at all, but the side of my test pan got scorched, and I could no longer hold the steel because it got so hot.
So lesson number one for me was that my firestarters need to start really fast. Otherwise I end up wearing away my ferrocium rod, and it really gets frustrating because I kept knocking the tinder pile away as I tried to get the sparks, or slivers, right on top of the tinder. So frustrating! I strongly suggest that you get a bunch of these things and go try them. Do not go buy these at Walmart though! The one with the green steel is on Ebay for 99 cents, shipped from China. You can also get ferrocium rods in bulk packs of 40 for about the same price.
And The Winner Is?
What I found was that in order to get something to light from just sparks, it has to have some whispy material to it, preferably a sort of plastic or natural fiber. My best find was Sparklite government issue tinder, which I found for – $18.95 per 100 on Ebay. They are light as feather, tiny, and they ignite with a hot spark reliably, every time. Sparklite is a plastic of some sort, and in short order it turns into a bubbling glob of burning goo, so be careful where you burn it. The nice thing is that if you are starting dried but damp wood or leaves, it burns for a while in order to dry the tinder out and start it. Hands down this is the best product I found.
My second choice is called the FireCrackle, made by a DIY Ebayer named James Tawatao, who actually has his own Youtube Channel, and I’m embedding the FireCrackle video here as well. They aren’t as cheap, $7.25 for 10 on Ebay, but he automatically combines shipping, so the cost of 100 would be like $52. They burn for significantly longer than the Sparklites, but they aren’t as easy to light. James has what I think is a novel idea for his firestarters. Rather than expect a material to be waterproof, he encases it in a pine pitch coating which is hard. You crack it with the back of your knife, and even if the firestarter got wet, you have a nice dry fuzzy thing that will catch from sparks.
I also tried his Self Igniting Firestick, which is $9.85 for 6 on Ebay. This is a really novel little product, and not easy or quick to make. James takes two strike on box matches and embeds them in the plastic shell with jute twine. You crack off the cap, and he has a little bit of foil and twine protecting the heads of the matches. Inside the covering tape is a little square of sandpaper to strike, and hey, they actually work. Note that the original “strike anywhere” matches were banned because the coating became labelled as hazmat, and the “green” ones stink. I have some.
My first test with James’ products was his FireBomb, which I didn’t have as much success with like he does on his video. But on watching the video again, I went back and tried another and pounded it out with a rock as well as he did, instead of just the back of my knife blade. The FireCrackle’s didn’t need to be pounded out that much to be frizzy. And the one self igniting firestarter that failed also didn’t need need to be pounded out to light right up from sparks. If you buy the FireBomb, the Fatwood Sticks, or the candle with the pitch covered wick, you really need to pulverize them to fluff them up properly.
Now for the losers. It was clear from even basic testing that commercial firestarters expect a flame to be present, from a butane lighter stick. The Duraflame products didn’t even ignite right away on putting a burning firestarter next to them. Total dud of a product for survival fires. The charcoal lighting Tumbleweeds that I got a Tractor Supply are a great product, but not for lighting fires alone from just a spark rod. They do roar in the Rocket Stove once they are lit, and they light right up when touched with a flame. Unfortunately I haven’t the Tumbleweeds for sale for less than $12 for 16 of them online. They were a monthly special and now they are on clearance, probably gone until next summer.
Surprisingly, one of things that actually worked reliably was the first firestarting material known to mankind. It is called Amadou, and it is made from a fungus that grows on trees. These days Amadou is mostly used for fly holders for fly fishermen, and they actually make felt hats out of it. I was able to get some of these felt scraps on Ebay (not cheap) and you’ll see my experiments in the pictures. They have found Amadou in old campsite excavations from a thousand years ago. Cool stuff.
I also tried some Fatwood dust, and Fatwood shavings from James. He gets these things going with just sparks in his videos, so maybe I just need practice. This is a man who takes firestarting seriously, and I really respect him for such a thorough job at making these products and making them accessible to the public. Fatwood is something I had never heard of before, and I have to say that my bags of Fatwood dust and shavings were left in a hot truck for a week or so in the Florida sun. As you’ll see in the pictures, the Fatwood does catch up to high flames really fast once it catches, but I was unable to get either the dust or the shavings going with just sparks.
This column is about a survival budget, not just surviving. I think James’ products are really cool, and I did buy some. But my first suggestion is to buy the Sparklite in bulk. I did, and I have already put a bag of them with a sparker and a box of matches with each of my cooking options for survival. I’m not throwing out James’ firebombs and fatwood dust. With wet wood they will come in really handy.
I will also mention here that I bought a big bag of pre-shaved magnesium, thinking that mixing it with the dust and shavings would give me and easy fire start. That is a big no, and the magnesium was a complete waste of money. In theory it’s a great firestarter, and I suppose it is better than nothing, but it didn’t help me start anything.
The same goes for steel wool and cotton balls. I have said many times in this column to beware of anyone who says “You can just…” when the give advice about survival. Those are comments I have seen on other firestarting articles, and they are not easy options.
The only other somewhat easy success I had was with what is called char cloth. You can Google how to make it. It’s pretty easy. You put squares, or a roll of cotton cloth in a sealed can, like an Altoids tin, and put a small hole in it. Then you heat the can on a flame until the cloth is black. It’ll take you a couple tries to get the timing right. The resulting black cloth catches with just a spark, and smoulders. If you cover the cloth with tinder, like the Fatwood shavings, it catches right up when you blow on it. Good stuff, and sustainable, because you can make new ones after your dinner as the stove burns down. James sells some Char Cloth and Char Rope, as to other Ebay sellers.
Making Fires with the Sun
I have been trying to make fires with a magnifying class since I was a kid. For years I used a big magnifying glass as a woodburner. But when it comes to making an actual fire with flames, and not just making wood smoke and turn darker, good luck. I’ve never been able to get it to go reliably.
That was why, when a “survival fresnel magnifier” came up on my suggested other items on Ebay (something GA could use), I laughed. But, because it is my job in this column to fail as well as succeed, I ordered some of the 2″ x 4″ size, which is meant to go into a survival kit. Then I saw the bigger size, 7″ by 10,” and ordered that too.
The 2 x 4 was a dud. In bright South Florida sun it did no more than smoke the Fatwood dust and shavings. Then I tried the 7 x 10, and OMG, it’s like a Light Saber. You can get a 5 pack of the large Fresnel Lens Magnifier for $21.46 on Ebay. I don’t suggest that anyone rely on these things, but check out the pictures. I even lit a regular stick off the ground into open flame in like 2 seconds. Go buy some! They won’t work when they are heaving spraying the Solar Radiation Management geoengineering trails, but hey, free fire when you can grab it is free fire. They totally rock so try them where you live.
Lots O’ Photos
This is as much a photo essay as anything, so please check out the long list of pictures and captions. If you haven’t tried to light fires from materials you pick up off the ground, try it. At least 3 times that I can remember it started raining just before I needed to go start looking for sticks for my Rocket Stove. You’ll see it isn’t easy. Any headache that you can save yourself cheaply I say is a headache you should plan to not have, and I would plan to grab some firestarters. Ten years early is better than one minute late.