When you get right down to it, survival essentially means maintaining a safe core temperature for your body. Everything we do is geared toward that end goal. We eat food to provide calories to keep our bodies running. We hydrate so we don’t get overheated. We seek shelter from the elements so we don’t get too warm or too cold.
The ability to reliably start a fire is a critical survival skill. The job is made much easier if you have the foresight to assemble a small fire kit to keep in your pack. It doesn’t need to be huge and, in fact, the smaller the better. Remember, ounces lead to pounds and pounds lead to aching backs.
What I recommend you have in your fire kit is a minimum of three different forms of ignition and three different types of tinder. I often say that prepping is all about giving yourself options and that holds true with a fire kit as well as any other aspect of survival.
Let’s start with ignition tools. Your primary source of ignition will likely be a butane lighter. Why? Because they are incredibly cheap and very reliable. I would caution you, though, to spend the extra dollar or two and pick up brand name lighters, such as Bic. The ultra cheap ones you’ll find sold three for a buck at gas stations tend to leak and won’t last very long.
Next on my own preference list is a ferrocerium rod and striker. A ferro rod will light thousands of fires and is very simple to use. Hold the ferro rod in one hand and the scraper in the other. Draw the scraper down the rod firmly and direct the resultant sparks to your tinder. Alternatively, you can hold the scraper steady and pull the rod back towards you. A ferro rod will work in all weather conditions, which is a nice bonus.
Old fashioned flint and steel work very well, but the sparks aren’t usually nearly as large and hot as you’ll get from a ferro rod. Mankind has been using flint and steel for hundreds of years, though, for a reason – it works.
Strike anywhere matches, in my opinion, should only be considered as a back up to a butane lighter and a ferro rod. You can only carry a finite number of matches and, at best, you can light one fire with each match. Plus, while there are water-resistant types, even ones that will light in a monsoon, it can still be rather difficult to get a fire going with a single match when the weather isn’t cooperating with you. Once you get the match lit, you can’t reuse it.
In my own fire kits, I carry one or more butane lighters, a ferro rod with striker, and a waterproof container of strike anywhere matches.
Now, on to tinder. It is important to include a supply of ready-to-use tinder in your fire kits as you never know what the conditions might be should the time come you need to get a fire going NOW. If it has been raining all day long, it could prove difficult to find dry plant fluff and such. So, carry a few different packages of tinder in your kit.
Cotton balls soaked with petroleum jelly is an old standby. They are popular because they work very well. Dryer lint is another common tinder, whether soaked with petroleum jelly or left dry. Some people have noted a bad or acrid smell when using dryer lint, due to the presence of human or animal hair and different types of clothing fibers. Personally, if my life is at stake, I’ll put up with a bad smell for a couple of minutes if it means I can get a fire going.
Charcloth is very easy to make, you can find an endless list of videos and articles detailing the process online. Just about everyone has a few old cotton T-shirts they could cut up to use as charcloth.
Jute twine is a dual purpose item. Any good cordage is always welcome in any survival kit. Plus, if you unravel a piece of jute twine and fluff it up, it makes for excellent tinder. It burns rather quickly, though.
Magnesium shavings burn very hot. A very common piece of kit is a block of magnesium with a small ferro rod attached to the side. The idea is you scrape off some magnesium, aiming for a pile about the size of a nickel or so, then light it with sparks from the ferro rod. What I’ve seen more and more people doing is scraping the magnesium ahead of time, filling small plastic pouches with the shavings. Not a bad idea, really.
My own preference is to use dryer lint and/or cotton balls, supplemented with jute twine and magnesium.
Creating a Fire Kit
What I also recommend is stashing a few small ziploc plastic bags in your kit. As you make your way through the bush, you’ll likely come across things like birch bark, dry moss, dry lichen, and other fluffy plant material. Gathering some of it and using it when you need a fire will help preserve your other tinder for times when such natural materials aren’t available.
The next time you are shopping at a thrift store, take a look at old camera cases. They make excellent pouches for storing your fire kit. At my local Goodwill store, these cases are typically priced at a dollar or less. The idea here is to put together a small kit containing what you’ll need to get a fire going when you need it the most, saving you time from searching through your pack for everything.