Even more than a good knife, a fire starting kit is the most essential piece of kit to take with you when backpacking. The ability to make a fire, no matter the weather, either for food, for water sterilization, for warmth, or for protection from the elements or from wildlife, can be a life-saver. You might be wondering what is wrong with matches or a lighter. These are viable options, but matches can cease to work in wet weather, lighters can run out of fluid and don’t function in strong wind, so a fire starter is something we consider essential packing.
When buying a fire starter please always take into account the terrain and climate in which you are venturing forth. Traditional magnesium based fire starters are good for wet, snowy conditions, whereas ferrocerium based systems are excellent for dry weather walking. We strongly recommend having more than one on you at any time, and preferably one of each system to cover all cases. In the following we review the best fire starters.
Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter
The Gerber Bear Grylls comes with some nice extras. There is an attached lanyard which can be worn around the neck for ease of carrying, and also a built-in whistle, which can be used to alert your companions if you are lost, or to scare away wildlife. There is also a pocket survival guide, which contains some basic but useful information on best practice when in the outdoors. The Gerber also comes with a lifetime warranty, so you can rest assured about its long-term quality. The device’s handle is small enough to be unobtrusive, but its textured rubber inlays provides a firm grip. Attached to the handle is a ferrocerium rod, which when not in use fits into an aluminum sleeve. The sleeve also acts at the scraper handle, and it too provides plenty of grip. The Gerber performed adequately for us. We managed to generate sparks after a few strikes, and if you are looking for a cheaper firestarter, this could be of interest.
Survival Spark Magnesium Survival Fire Starter
The Survival Spark Magnesium Fire Starter is an excellent low-cost option for those on a budget. Not only does it come with a life-saving whistle, but it also includes a built-in compass, so no more walking in the wrong direction for two hours. The promotion for this Firestarter claims it to be windproof and weather resistant. The Firestarter works by first shaving off strips of magnesium from the magnesium stick sing the flat side of the scraper, then igniting the shavings by striking the stick with the serrated side of the scraper. This procedure works fine, and we managed to get a flame going very easily, but we did find that the shavings tended to disperse easily in windy conditions, so you might want to take that claim with a grain of salt. Nevertheless we found this firestarter to work well, and with its additional features, it provides excellent value for money.
Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel 2.0
This firestarter was first developed by the Swedish Department of Defence. The aim was to develop a firestarter that worked at high altitudes and low temperatures. The firestarter itself is very simple: a pyrophoric alloy rod and a stainless steel striker, both of which are tied together with a lanyard. This firestarter doesn’t come with any bells, but there is a whistle. The manufacturer claims that the pyrophoric alloy is superior to its ferrocerium competitors both in durability and spark temperature. We found that sparks were produced easily, and the FireSteel claims 12,000 strikes over its lifetime, 3,000 more than for the Gerber Bear Grylls ferrocerium rival. Once thing we did notice however was that the FireSteel was not the most comfortable to hold, but its light weight and minimalistic design were a great hit with us.
Holland Lightning Strike Fire Starter
We are big fans of light and small, which the Holland isn’t. In fact this is the biggest and heaviest fire starter on the list. It looks, on first glance, more like a portable flashlight than a fire starter. But for those serious about their camping, this fire starter is a must have. The Lightning Strike comes with a replaceable ferrocerium rod and a fire striker, but the key design innovation, and what makes the Lightning Strike stand out from the competition, is its unique anodized aluminium tube design. The tube functions as a funnel, so that when you create the sparks for your tinder, all the sparks are shot through the barrel onto the tinder. This means that there is no wastage with sparks flying everywhere, and the chances of igniting the tinder are increased, whatever the weather conditions. The large case also allows the Lightning Strike to carry a large supply of tinder; something often overlooked by even the most experienced of backpackers. Once you’ve exhausted the supplied tinder, you can either order more or simply use your own. The price will obviously be a drawback for those on a budget (there are some excellent budget options in this review), but given the quality of the materials, this fire starter is in our opinion the best you can buy.
The Überleben Zünden (which translates from the German as Survival Sparks), was a serious contender for Editor’s Choice, missing out narrowly to the Holland Lightning Strike. That is how high we rate this fire starter. German engineering is famous the world over and it is in full display with this fire starter. First off, the design and feel of the Überleben is excellent. The handle is made from a handcrafted hardwood and feels comfortable when gripping. The scraper is an interesting concave-toothed shape, which produced a very large density of sparks. The scraper also functions as a bottle opener, a ruler and a map scale. The rod is ferrocerium, and depending on the size option you choose, you can get from 12,000 to 20,000 strikes. We are not sure whether it is the ferro or the concave scraper, but the sparks we generated from this fire starter were by far the best of any ferro model.
Ultimate Surviving Technologies Spark Force Firestarter
When it comes to our backpacking equipment, we like small and we like light, and we therefore like the UST Spark Force. A lot. There’s no lanyard with this fire starter, just a small orange piece of string connecting the rod to the striker. It’s so small and light you can simply slip it into your pocket and forget about it. A keychain hole might have been useful, since this fire starter is so small that you can easily lose it. The rod is a standard ferrocerium model, but comes packaged in a black anti-oxidation layer. We had to scrape off this layering before we could generate any sparks, but this was a quick process. Generating the sparks took a little trail-and-error. You will have to practice a bit before you take this out on the trail. Best results were obtained when striking at a 45 degree angle. We found that a cotton ball worked best as tinder for this fire starter. For the price, you can’t really go wrong with the UST: It’s so small and portable that, even if you purchase a higher quality fire starter, this could be bought as an emergency backup.
Exotac nanoSTRIKER XL Ferrocerium Fire Starter
The Exotac nano is a super lightweight and small fire starter. It comes in a range of colors, including a very fetching brushed orange. The rod is standard ferrocerium, and the striker is made of tungsten carbide. We aren’t sure whether this has any advantages over the more usual stainless steel, but the Exotac sparked easily when used. The shell is made from an anodized aluminium body, and the ferro rod is also replaceable. We like that the rod is stored in an airtight container when not in use. This helps prolong the life of the rod and protect it from oxidation, which eventually renders a rod unuseable. There is a lanyard included, but you can also place the Exotac onto your keyring for easy travelling. The Exotac displays great engineering, and we really liked the range of available colors. Our only gripe is that it only offers 3,000 strikes. Obviously this is not a low number, and you can easily replace the ferro rod, but for the price, we would have liked to see a higher strike number.
Ultimate Survival Technologies BlastMatch Fire Starter
The UST BlastMatch comes in the same orange as its smaller Spark Force sibling, but whereas the latter’s USP is its size and weight, the BlastMatch’s USP is its ability to work only one-handed. We liked this option a lot. It allows you to keep one hand free, or, if you are in very cold conditions or if you have an injury or disability, it means only having to use one hand. The actual mechanism does take a bit of practice to get right. Unlike two-handed fire starters, you cannot strike the BlastMatch in mid-air. You have to have a surface onto which to strike the fire starter. And it helps if that surface is flat and dry. Please not as well that they BlastMatch does not come with any tinder. You will have to supply that yourself. We also found we need numerous strikes before we could light the tinder. This isn’t a criticism of the BlastMatch, but be aware that this device will take a bit of patience and practice to use correctly.
Zippo Emergency Fire Kit
Zippo is known the world over for their lighters, and that same technology is found in its Emergency Fire Kit. The kit comes with a Zippo flint wheel spark, some paraffin wax-coated cotton wool tinder, and a blister pack container. The container is water resistant and will prevent the cotton wool tinder from getting wet. The flint itself will provide, according to Zippo, up to 1,700 sparks, and can be replaced when worn. The operation of the kit is slightly different from a traditional fire starter. You place the tinder on the end of a stick, fray out the cotton and then use the flint wheel to ignite the cotton. The burn time of the cotton is around five minutes, and we found the flame stayed constant even in windy weather. Once the tinder is lit, you then place the stick into your pile of kindling. Viola, a fire. So with this Zippo kit, the procedure is light, then place, as opposed to place, then light. The Zippo Fire Kit works as advertised, and we like its overall packaging and water resistant container. The one thing we didn’t really enjoy however was the placing and fraying of the cotton tinder onto a stick. We found it a little fiddly, and at only five included cotton tinder pieces, it will not be long before you find yourself having to buy some more or make your own.
SE FS374 All-Weather Emergency 2-IN-1 Fore Starter
The SE FS374 is an ultrathin magnesium bar-based fire starter. Sporting a fetching brushed magnesium body, the SE comes with a magnesium rod and a serrated green striker. It certainly looks very elegant and will be a hit with the fashion-conscious. The SE also comes with a very nice mini-compass, so no more excuses for getting lost when on the trail. The SE works like other magnesium-based fire starters. Create a pile of tinder, use the serrated edge of the striker to make a pile of magnesium shavings, then use the striker again to create a spark to ignite the shavings. We really liked the look, design and feel of the SE. There are some nice little details, such as the detachable silver ball chain link. The one area where we felt it fell down was the striker. We had difficulty generating sufficient sparks to get a fire going. Still, if you want something eye-catching, ad given its incredibly low price, you could use this as an emergency backup to another fire starter.