Starting your Survival Fire

In a previous post (, we looked at the options for fire starting items in a survival kit.  Here’s a hint; don’t just buy (or make) a fire starting option, toss it in your kit, and expect that you will have fire when you need it.  Get extras of each item (which is consumable or can be worn out), and try them out, under the worst conditions you can reasonably set up.

Remember, in order to have fire, you MUST have 3 things – a fuel to burn, a source of ignition to start it burning, and oxygen.  Let us assume that the last one is not a concern, or you have worse problems than trying to start a fire.  The fuel, in most cases, needs to be scrounged from your surroundings, since it is too big and heavy to carry a useful amount in any but the biggest vehicular kits.  That leaves the source of ignition to concentrate on for inclusion in your kit.

As mentioned in that previous post, if you have the right lighter and/or the right matches, you have fire.  All of these include both fuel and a source of ignition.  Not much fuel, relatively speaking, but hopefully enough to allow you to get a ‘real’ fire started.  You probably don’t need much practice lighting your lighter or matches, but it would be wise to practice building the fire you hope to start.

With matches or lighters, all the difficulty of producing flame is theoretically taken care of, and once you have flame, starting anything else flammable burning is reasonably straightforward.  However, the other sources of ignition usually require ‘help’ to get flame; since they are not flame, they need something to convert to flame.  This help is ‘tinder’, that is, something reliably flammable when exposed to the source of ignition, that is, when raised to the temperature of the ignition source.  That’s right, all sources of ignition are a form of heat, whether chemical, electrical or mechanical (spark), friction or sunlight.  And in most cases, the ‘mixture’ of ignition source and tinder is tricky and subject to environmental conditions.  Cold, wind and/or water can ‘steal’ some of the heat from the ignition source or blow/wash away the tinder.  Thus the goal is to have the highest temperature ignition source, and the lowest ignition point tinder.  And practice, practice, practice until the combination is second nature and resistant to unfavorable conditions.

Practice is particularly necessary when starting a fire via friction, since this is a very skill intensive method.  Learn how if you wish, by all means, but consider it strictly a final backup option.  Using sunlight also requires practice and experimentation; it is fairly easy to char your tinder with a magnifying glass.  However, getting it (particularly if it is white in color, as much tinder seems to be) to burst into flame requires time and the right technique.  And very dark glasses to avoid eye damage or at least temporary degradation of your sight.

You sometimes can scrounge or ‘make’ tinder from things found in the environment, but these tend to be neither the ‘very best’, or resistant to the conditions of that same environment.  When practical, you want to have ‘better’ tinder ‘with you’ when disaster strikes.  Here are some (commercial) options which are somewhat water-proof or resistant.

Tinder-Quik.  This is a very nice ‘dry’ tinder which has been around for a long time.  It often comes in envelopes of ten, and does not require any special handling or appear to have an expiration date.  To use it, you ‘fluff’ it out from the end.  If conditions are favorable (the longest burn time in not needed), one can be cut in half and the other half saved for later.

Wet-Fire.  This is more recent technology consisting of a waxy lump in a sealed pouch.  The lump can be easily subdivided with your knife for starting multiple fires.  It would be wise to include a small zip-lock bag in the kit to store the unused pieces.  This stuff starts to degrade when exposed to the air, and has a five year life even when correctly sealed.  To use it, scrape and mash into ‘powder’.  It starts easily from most spark sources.

Fast-Fire.  This is similar to Wet-Fire, but the ‘lump’ is bigger.  There also seems to be a fair amount of air trapped in each pouch, so it takes up more room than is justified by the bigger product size.  It does not seem to have an expiration date though and does not warn about exposure to air.  It did not come with instructions, and trying to start a lump with sparks did not seem to be effective.  When the lump was scraped and mashed into ‘powder’, it did start then, but not quite as easily as did the Wet-Fire.  Again, it can be subdivided, and even though it does not suggest it in the non-instructions, I recommend a small zip-lock bag be included to hold the unused pieces.

Waxed Jute.  Jute is a natural twine which is a good tinder; the wax infused version is more resistant to getting wet and possibly burns better.  As with most tinders, the more surface area and the less density exposed to the ignition source there is, the better its flammability.  So, unravel a short length of jute into a ball of fibers.

All of these have potential.  I always include some Tinder-Quik.  My smallest kit has three, the next smallest has eight and all the others have at least fifteen.  If I have room, I’ll include some Wet-Fire since it performs in worse environments than the Tinder-Quik, AND a few Fast-Fire in case they are serious about that five year shelf life or for really nasty conditions where I need the extra burn time of a larger lump.  I fit in a bit of jute where ever I can, particularly in smaller kits with limited tinder.  If you want to decide between only Wet-Fire or Fast-Fire, I suggest getting a little of each and trying them to see how they work FOR YOU since your skills and equipment may vary from mine.

If you want a cheaper alternative to the Wet-Fire/Fast-Fire options, cotton balls smeared with Vaseline work fairly well and you can make them yourself.  Plus the Vaseline has some survival uses itself.  This methodology is a bit messy though; store the smeared cotton balls in a small medicine bottle or zip-lock bag.  There are other items you can get cheap which are pretty good tinder, such as dryer lint or 000 steel wool, but these are more sensitive to getting wet or damp.  If you go this way, make sure your packaging is waterproof and that you are protected from water when you go to use them.

There are some items which are relatively poor tinder, but do make good ‘kindling’, that is, they may not light easily from spark or heat, but can be easily started with a flame and then burn a fair length of time.  It is often good to add some of this with your primary tinder to increase the odds of starting scrounged kindling which may be wet or otherwise marginal.  Paper (waterproof), shavings from a stick of fatwood, pieces from ‘Lite-Load’ towels and the inaccurately named ‘Tinder cards’ are what I use, plus candles in cases where a ‘real’ fire is not needed or practical.

Now that we have an idea how to convert our ignition source to flame, let us check out some ignition sources.

If the sun is shining and you have a magnifying glass, this can work.  Fresnel lenses are cheap and easy to carry, but are not high enough power to be completely reliable.  A high-power regular lens might be more reliable, but harder to carry.  Make sure that whatever magnifier you carry WILL work with your tinder.  Because this method is tricky and subject to the sun being available, this should be considered a backup method of fire starting.

A more reliable source of ignition is sparks; the more of them and the hotter they are, the better.  There are a wide variety of ‘two handed’ options, ranging from the Bucklehead ferrocerium rod (and smaller) up to really huge ones which probably are not practical for most kits.  The bigger they are, the better they work and the easier they are to use, but the more space they take.  For small ones, attach a lanyard and use that to help make up for the lack of a handle.  Most come with a ‘scraper’; a good knife will work well too.  Under good conditions and with good tinder, you can usually get fire with a good scrape down the length of the rod, creating a shower of sparks into the tinder.  If this does not work, then many can be slowly scraped to create a small pile of easily ignited, hot burning shavings to receive the sparks.  This also includes the magnesium blocks with striking rods which are readily available.

beltbucklerod  Stock Photo

magnesiumbar  Stock photo

In an emergency, you may not have two hands available to you.  If practical, a ‘one handed’ solution is a good idea.  The ‘Spark-Lite’ has been around for quite awhile, and is a fairly decent solution.  Basically, it is a lighter without the wick or fuel.  You spin the wheel to get a spray of sparks.  It comes in a nice little case, which you can cram fifteen Tinder-Quik into.  As good as it is, there seems to be a slightly smaller, slightly better option available.  This is a brass version which I got from  I think the difference is that more of the wheel is accessible, allowing more sparks to be produced per spin.  Or maybe it uses a ‘better’ flint or stronger spring or some combination of these differences.  I think SOL makes a version of this too, but I haven’t tried it.


sparkwheel  Stock photo

Recently there has been the introduction of one handed flint bars.  This has the bar spring loaded, with a built in scraper.  To use this, you apply pressure to the striker, put the end of the bar next to your tinder, and press down the handle.  This produces a very effective shower of sparks.  One of the first examples was the ‘BlastMatch’; a smaller version, the ‘Sparkie’, is what I tried.  When it worked, I found it to be very effective, but it was a bit tricky to apply the right amount of pressure to the striker.  Too much, and it would not scrape along the rod and even occasionally dug a groove into the rod.  Too little and there were few, if any, sparks.  Practice, practice, practice.

sparkieStock Photo


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