When you look at the list of the bare minimums required for life, you see air, water, food and shelter. Fire is not on that list, but it often will make the difference between living and dying. It provides light and warmth, and has important functions in acquiring water, food and shelter.
Plus it can be used for signaling, as a weapon or protection, a woodworking tool, and for some medical purposes. In addition to all its critical functions, a fire can be a real comfort to people who are in a tough situation.
Thus, acquiring the skills and equipment to make fire under any conditions should be a high priority. There are dozens of ways to do this; one of the most basic is by using matches.
Matches have a number of advantages: they are small, light, cheap, easy to use and if stored in a waterproof container should last forever. On the down side, they don’t work if they get wet and have problems in humid, wet or windy conditions.
If they get wet, you may be able to let them dry off and use them later, but that does not help when you need fire NOW. Don’t “wipe” off wet matches; the head material softens up when wet. Fortunately, their problems with water, humidity and wind can be reduced, making them a prime component of emergency supplies.
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History of Matches
Once primitive man found out about fire, probably from a lightening strike, he saw how useful it could be.
Coming up with ways to reliably create fire was a high priority throughout history. By 1800, “flint and steel” was the premier methodology.
Of course, flint and steel did not make “fire”, just sparks (FYI, the sparks are bits of the steel, not bits of the flint). Along with the flint and the steel, one needed some highly flammable tinder to help in turning the sparks into flame. This methodology was fairly reliable, but it did require a bit of skill and a fair amount of equipment. The world was past ready for “matches”.
Jean Chancel did the first serious attempt at a “match” in 1805. The fire was the result of the chemical reaction that occurred when the “match” was dipped into sulfuric acid. Interesting as a proof of concept, but it was hardly suitable for normal use.
Some attempts were made to integrate capsules of sulfuric acid into the match itself. These were lit by crushing the capsule. All attempts were expensive and dangerous, and as it turned out, a dead end.
By 1826, John Walker demonstrated a “friction” match, which was ignited by pulling it from a folded sheet of sandpaper. Unfortunately, these had a habit of throwing blobs of flame around, which was not looked on with favor.
Eventually these were improved to a point of commercial viability, going by the name “Lucifer” matches. They were hardly perfect, as they produced noxious fumes and random sparks. Nevertheless, they were a significant step forward in fire technology.
In 1830, Charles Sauria replaced the reactive chemical with white phosphorus. Although this resulted in a fairly effective and moderately pleasant to use match, there still was a problem.
The highly poisonous white phosphorus used caused serious illnesses in the people who worked in the factories making them.
There were attempts to improve working conditions at the factories, but these had limited success. Henri Savene and Emile Cahen did experiments with various phosphorus sulfides and in 1898 found one that worked as well as white phosphorus but was not nearly as poisonous.
Within ten years or so of this discovery, matches made with white phosphorus were banned in most countries; in the U.S., a ruinous tax was imposed.
These modern “strike anywhere” matches were popular throughout most of the 20th century, but did pose a danger from unintended ignition.
The U.S. government dealt them a severe blow in 2010 by putting them on the “hazardous” list and prohibiting shipping by mail or plane, and imposing strict (expensive) regulations for ground shipment.
The dangers of white phosphorus to those manufacturing the matches also were an incentive in the development of the “safety” match. These used the generally safe “red phosphorus” on a striking surface instead of in the match head, separating the two chemicals necessary for self-ignition.
Arthur Albright developed the process for manufacturing the red phosphorus and Gustaf Erik Pasch came up with the special striking surface.
Safety matches became generally available in the 1850s and have continued popularity to the present. Today the striker is mostly abrasive material and red phosphorus, and the match head is mostly potassium chlorate and filler.
Nowadays there are three types of matches more or less commonly available. These are “paper” matches, “safety” or “strike on the box” matches, and “strike anywhere” matches.
“Strike Anywhere” matches used to be pretty self-descriptive. If you can find the original red with white tip version, the heads contain everything needed to strike them and they literally can be scraped on most any dry, rough surface to start them burning.
In the “good old days” it was common for people who liked to show off to strike them by flicking them with a fingernail. As a kid, I would fire them from a BB gun, and when they hit the sidewalk, they would burst into flame. There is a word for something like this: dangerous.
As mentioned, in 2010, the government made it difficult and expensive to ship these. Do NOT order these online as it is likely they will be shipped illegally (because of the $35 hazardous substance fee), and could bring down a plane if they catch fire.
And you will likely get the new “safer” version which is less useful. Often with green heads, these reduced the amount of phosphorus compound to the point where they require significantly more effort to ignite than the original ones.
In addition, they reduced the thickness and durability of the stick to the point where if you use enough force to ignite it, the stick might break instead.
If by some miracle you can get ones which are up to the original specifications, keep in mind they ARE dangerous, and can catch fire by rubbing on each other, or their container, or even by impact.
These are something you might not want in your survival supplies, because even if they were reliable under survival conditions (even the good ones aren’t the best), having your supplies burn up is not a good result.
However, if you really want them, you may be able to find them at a store specializing in survival supplies, camping, grilling, fireplace or outdoors equipment, or hardware. And make sure you keep them in a sturdy, airtight, non-flammable container in case they should catch fire in your pack.
The container should be waterproof because like all matches, water will at least temporarily disable them. The original sticks were fairly sturdy and of a length which would burn long enough to be useful, but the match head burns quickly and thereafter is easily blown out by any wind.
Paper matches were very popular and common back when cigarette smoking was in fashion.
Since these use the “safety match” technology of separating the chemicals between the match head and the striking strip, they are much safer than “strike anywhere” matches. They are packed as strips of cardboard, sliced between each match, and fastened into a thin cardboard folder with the striking strip attached.
These are the most difficult to keep protected from water, and they have the shortest, most flimsy “stick”. Of course, these are also easily blown out by any wind.
The remaining choice is safety matches of various sizes, the most appropriate of which usually come in a small box with a slide out drawer, with the striking strip mounted on the side. The chemicals are separated between the match head and the striking strip.
The standard version of these has a short wooden stick that is fairly durable and can burn just barely long enough to be useful. As you might expect, these are also subject to being destroyed by water and blown out by any wind.
You can get these with a waterproofed head to address the water sensitivity or with an extended head to be wind resistant for a longer period of time. Best would be both enhancements, called “lifeboat matches”, and these are a viable survival option, capable of resisting damage from getting wet or being immediately blown out by wind.
One caveat: these can only be ignited with the matching striking strip, and that special strip can still be destroyed if it gets wet. It is best to keep even these waterproofed matches in a waterproof container, but it is critical that a striking strip (or three) is kept in a waterproof container.
Relying on matches as your only method of starting fires is unwise, as they struggle in harsh conditions. Each match provides exactly one, brief chance at starting a fire.
However, under normal conditions they are a top choice, so having some as one of several fire starting methodologies is a pretty good idea. The version which makes the best sense are the lifeboat matches.
I like the UCO “Stormproof” ones. They light easily, burn for at least fifteen seconds, and come in a box of twenty five with extra strikers from Amazon.
Even better, they also have available a waterproof container with a striker holder, twenty five matches and extra strikers for around $8.00. I found both of these at Wal-Mart for half the price.
By repacking them head to tail, I can usually get thirty in the UCO container. They are longer than the standard “strike anywhere” matches, so if you want to put them is a container which is too short, you’ll need to clip the end off the stick.
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
I notice that UCO now offers a new model called “Titan” which claims twenty-five seconds of burn. They also offer a bigger waterproof tube with striker holder for these, but it only comes with twelve matches.
The specs indicate the holder is significantly bigger than the original, so it is likely the matches are longer and thicker. The regular UCO matches are a tad big as it is, so I haven’t tried the Titans. Zippo has the Typhoon match kit which is another oversized lifeboat match and container set.
In a pocket kit, I add ten Stormproof matches in a small zip-loc bag with a striking strip, sealed separately to avoid any chance of lighting the matches while stored. In bigger kits, I have one or more of the UCO waterproof tubes of thirty with two separately sealed striking strips.
The other brands of lifeboat matches are smaller, but they don’t burn as long, or have as good a container or have extra strikers inside. If the striker is outside, it is subject to becoming unusable if it gets wet and then the matches are essentially useless.
I would only use one of these other brands if the Stormproof ones were not available or just could not be made to fit. In addition, I would find a way to put extra strikers in waterproof protection.
The Classic Alternative
If you prefer to go with strike anywhere matches and can find the good ones (it seems unlikely), use a waterproof metal container (“match safe”).
Unfortunately, the good Marbles style one I had as a Boy Scout was discontinued by the factory in 2000, and it appears that the Chinese copies available now are not up to those old standards (some people claim they can’t get them open, which would be a problem in an emergency situation).
Of all the match safes currently available, most get a disturbing number of poor reviews listing catastrophic problems. The best ones available these days seem to be the Exotac Matchcap for around $23.00 or the bigger Exotac Matchcap XL for around $27.00, both of which are too rich for my blood.
I still have an orange plastic match safe I’ve used in the past without the matches catching fire. But since I saw the photo of a box of the new (green) “strike anywhere” matches where one side caught fire during shipping, I am nervous about using that any more.
If I had to, I’d put a layer of cotton or other soft material at the end to cushion the match tips. And hope that the lack of air would douse any fire before it burned or melted through the plastic.
As for the strike anywhere matches (remember, ordering online should be avoided), I tried Big 5 Sports, Summit Hut, REI, Dick’s, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target and a surplus store without success.
Ace Hardware had the Diamond Greenlight version matches, which were not as useless as I had been led to believe.
Yes, the sticks are thinner, and yes, the phosphorous (actually the whole head) is smaller (and the head size varies significantly from match to match). However, compared to some old Ohio Bluetips I’ve had for at least twenty-five years, they worked about the same.
How well did the new Greenlight matches work? Of the first ten I tried, seven worked fine, one broke but not badly enough to prevent its use and two broke near the head so were next to useless.
The next ten, I used a slow, steady scrape instead of a flick of the wrist, and nine worked fine and one failed to light with the entire tip scraped off the stick.
The sticks burned readily, unlike the old Ohio Blues that have been sitting around exposed to the air for decades. Ohio Blues stored in the waterproof match safe didn’t have any problems with the sticks burning.
If I can find my old Marbles match safe or a decent metal one at a reasonable price, I’ll carry some of the Greenlights to use in addition to the Stormproofs for when their water and wind resistance is not needed.
I’ll be sorting them into the bigger head and smaller head ones, of course, and using the larger head ones for emergencies.
Fire is a key to survival, and matches are one of the better ways to get fire but they do have their weaknesses. I would not leave the pavement without a “fire kit” consisting of at a minimum, tinder with a sparker or ferrocerium rod, and some matches. And if I could, I’d include a lighter as well.
The rod or sparker will last “forever”, but without good, dry tinder is of limited use. The lighter is great, until it leaks or runs out of fuel. That is why I always also want to have some matches with me.
What are your experiences with matches in extreme conditions?