According to Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus gave fire to mankind after stealing it from Mount Olympus. When Zeus found out, the thief was chained to a rock, where an eagle could feast on his liver every day, for the rest of eternity.
Fortunately for us, fire is much easier to come by today. With the simple flick of a lighter, or strike of a match, producing a flame is a breeze — even in the wilderness.
Anywhere you make it, a fire needs three elements: heat, combustible material and oxygen. These nine fire starters take care of those first two. All require a little more work than your Zippo, but since none are dependent on fuel, they’re more reliable in a dire situation. A fire can purify water, cook food, keep you warm, and scare away predators; to sum it up, having a fire starter on your person may help save your life.
Five Common Types of Fire Starters
Ferro Rod: Short for Ferrocerium, ferro is a relatively soft metal alloy made, most often, with a combination of iron and magnesium. These types of fire starters need to be used with some kind of striker tool — usually, a piece of edged metal that is literally scraped quickly against the ferro rod — in order to create a shower of sparks, which limits their versatility somewhat and requires the use of two hands. However, the benefit is that they make some of the hottest, brightest sparks and are quite easy to start fires with.
Flint and Steel: When people think of fire starters, this is usually what they're imagining. Typically made up of two parts, a piece of steel and flint (a form of quartz), these types of starters are usually operated by physically striking the flint and steel together, which actually shaves off bits of the steel and ignites them. They can be durable, but the sparks aren't as powerful and, therefore, not as easy to start a fire with when compared to some of the other options. If using this option, make sure you have some kind of tinder beneath in order to properly start that fire.
Lighter: Undoubtedly the simplest fire-starting tool, lighters are modern inventions (at least compared to the rest of these common types) that are easy to use with one hand and are remarkably reliable... so long as they have fuel in them, usually in the form of ignition fluid (like butane) or even electricity. Obviously, that means they're limited by how much fuel they have and, especially with cheaper disposable versions, they don't always work in inclement weather — especially wind and rain.
Magnesium Block: Operating on roughly the same principle as ferro rods and flint-and-steel fire starters (meaning they're meant to be used with an additional striker or striking surface), this variety differs in that the magnesium typically comes in a rectangular format, rather than a cylinder. The benefit to this is that it allows for a lot more surface area, meaning you can create a huge amount of sparks. The downside to these is that they can be a bit more unwieldy than their counterparts.
Matches: Typically made out of wood and tipped with a material or materials that can be easily stricken and ignited — usually on a sandpaper-like surface but strike-anywhere varieties can be used on a multitude of surfaces — these are amongst the most common and well-known fire starters around. However, they lack reusability; once you've used one, that's it. For fire-starting purposes, we recommend using a weatherproof variety, as non-weatherproof matches are essentially useless when exposed to even the smallest amount of moisture, but weatherproof ones can, in some cases, even be utilized in a torrential downpour.
- Requires Two Hands
The Idaho-based maker of this product's name is a German word meaning "to survive." The combo of a country known for efficiency and a brand with that gritty ethos manifests in one of the liveliest fire starters this side of a welding torch. Überleben’s perfectly balanced Sånft-korr ferrocerium throws a 5,500-degree F burst of sparks no matter the weather. The Fatty is the thickest of three versions, good for an incredible 20,000+ strikes. You also get a mil-spec 550 paracord lanyard (for toting and tinder) and a striker that doubles as a concave tinder scraper, miniature ruler, hex wrench and bottle opener.
- Unbeatable Convenience
- Includes Tinder
- Limited by Battery Life
It’s not just cars going electric these days. This sleek plasma lighter charges with a USB cable and features badass dual arcs that ignite flammable materials — like the included three feet of nylon tinder-cord — on contact. With a full charge, it’s good for 45 uses (seven seconds per use), and it works in any and all weather conditions thanks to a waterproof design. Bonus: an integrated 100-lumen light helps you find your way to your tent after those spooky ghost stories around the campfire.
- Incredibly Affordable
Inside Zippo’s pocketable tube you’ll find five Easy Spark Tinders that are capable of burning for up to five minutes and an easy-to-use flint wheel ignition for getting them lit. The container itself is both water-resistant and floats, and it's constructed using durable plastic with a textured grip and a convenient loop. Pro tip: attach some multipurpose paracord, which can even be used as tinder in a pinch.
- Keeps One Hand Free
- Not the Strongest Sparks
With just one hand, a person can create a spark with this flint-based fire starter. The device has an attached cover, which easily flips off to reveal a spring-loaded rotating flint bar. Creating a shower of sparks is simple: hold down on the thumb button (it’s part of the case) while pushing the flint bar against a hard surface. To create a fire, make sure it’s over a type of tinder. The BlastMatch is nice because it’s useful, easily fits in a pocket and doesn’t have many moving parts.
- Built-in First-Stage Tinder
- Can Be Used as Bottle Opener
- Awkward Shape
Despite all the talk of Greek gods in the intro, it seems like the Swedish might have the best handle on making fire. This bundle makes it easy because the first-stage tinder is built right into the magnesium bars. Shave some off, throw hot sparks and watch your fire come to life in rain, snow and high altitude. The three bars are good for thousands of fires and the striker can also be used as a bottle opener because, after starting a fire without matches or a lighter, you deserve a beer.
- Travels Easy
- Waterproof Case
- Not the Most Durable
This XL is a slightly larger version of Exotac’s original NanoStriker. With a marginally thicker ferrocerium and magnesium rod, and a larger tungsten carbide striking tool, the XL is easier to hold and can produce a hotter spark. The tiny tool fits on a keychain and can easily be screwed apart and then reassembled into the fire starter. When screwed together, it’s also completely waterproof.
- All-in-One Survival Tool
- Comes with Sheath
- Somewhat Aggressive
From a Swedish brand that's been making knives for well over a century, this one features a 3. 9-inch hardened Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel blade, ideal for carving, food prep and cutting tinder. The magnesium alloy fire starter, integrated into the ergonomic handle, pops out to generate a 5,400-degree F spark, works when wet and is good for around 3,000 strikes. To ignite, scrape the dull side of the blade forcefully against the fire starter. After you’ve successfully produced a flame, flip the knife over and start filleting that trout you reeled in earlier.
- Waterproof, Including Matches Themselves
- Incredibly Easy to Use
- Not Reusable
What makes these better than your average box of matches? Everything. To be honest, saying that these matches by UCO are stormproof may actually be an understatement. Once lit, they will keep their flame in high winds or heavy downpours. Hell, submerge them in water (briefly) or bury them in dirt and they’ll still stay lit. The carrying case they come with is hardy as well. It’s watertight, floats, and won’t crush under extreme pressure. In each kit, you’ll find 25 matches and a trio of striker pads.
- Simple Included Instructions
- Water- and Wind-Resistant
- A Lot to Carry
This fire starter comes in a bag — a waterproof and resealable bag. Included is a Fire Lite Sparker, 20 of the brand’s waterproof tinders (Waterproof Tinder Quik ignites) and fire starting instructions. The sparker has a flint wheel that produces a spark, and each piece of tinder will burn for two minutes and is impervious to both wind and water. In all, the kit weighs less than half an ounce, fits your pocket and is ridiculously easy to ignite.
In the wild, a simple fire can save your life.