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The Best Survival Matches

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.

bedouin safety matches flickr public domain

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 1850’s 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.

Selection of Matches

Modern Matches

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.

Matches Comparison

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.

uco stormproof matches

Best Choice

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 for around $4.00 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.

uco titan stormproof

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).

Exotac MATCHAP Waterproof matches

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.

Conclusion

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?

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About John Hertig

John Hertig
While employed at a major computer firm, I took advantage of a number of club activities and classes offered to employees, including martial arts, advanced first aid, photography, rock climbing and wilderness survival. It is my nature to "tinker" and delve into the technical side of things. As a kid riding bicycles, I learned bicycle mechanics. Knife collecting let to throwing and making them, as well as leatherwork for sheaths. An interest in firearms led to combat competition, reloading and gunsmithing. The martial arts led to knife fighting and making and using primitive weapons.

7 comments

  1. Survivormann99

    Back in the early to mid-1980s, there was a restaurant that I frequented for lunch. Due to the high percentage of smokers at that time, there was always a small bowl of match packs with the restaurant’s name by the cash register. I wasn’t a smoker, but I always took two or three packs of matches as I left.

    Over time, I accumulated a serious amount of these free matches. I placed them in jars with the lids sealed, and stored them in my garage. There they remained.

    I checked some of these matches the other day. With the passage of time, the cheap card stock from which these matches were made had deteriorated. Each match was much too supple. They bent much too easily and the stiffness of the original match just wasn’t there. When struck repeatedly, some would ultimately light, but the ignition rate was poor. I probably should have simply tossed the lot, but I decided that there might possibly come a time when a 10-20% ignition rate looked pretty good.

    Of course, I have stored plenty of other matches and lighters over the years. Everyone should be doing the same.

  2. There was one thing I was shown in Boy Scouts for starting fires I didn’t see mentioned in this article.

    We used the old “strike anywhere” matches to make these nearly idiot-proof firestarters, but the basic idea and construction might still be something to play around with, using today’s available materials.

    The original recipe was to take about five, or six of the “strike anywhere” matches and tie them tightly together, heads together at one end of the bundle, using a goodly number of wraps of cotton sewing thread before tying a knot to keep it tightly bundled…making the wrapping at about midway between the end of the wooden ends and the bottom of the matchheads. Next, melt some candle wax and repeatedly dip the matchhead end of the bundles into the liquid wax (not too hot) far enough to cover at least halfway over the wrappong. Do this until you have a fairly thick coating of the wax over when done.

    There used to be “Merit badges” earned for certain skills attained, one was for fire starting….if you used matches to start your fire you were given the choice of using five “regular” stick matches, or ONE of these firestarters…..which took a good “swipe” to ignite the matches through the coating of wax, but once ignited burned like crazy and for quite some time….these things also ran burning, melting wax into and onto your kindling, resulting in a near-perfect, sure-thing fire every time….even when other methods might not have done so well. A few of these are well worth the effort of making and having at hand when you’ve absolutely GOT to have a fire. I used to keep about eight to twelve of these in a small glass jar….for when a match wouldn’t do.

  3. Interesting article on match history.
    I remember the days when just about any hardware or grocery store sold strike-anywhere matches.
    Now I just use what I can get and keep them in water/air tight containers. Every vehicle has at least one, including the RV. Also other fire starters.

  4. Hey good article, one of my top rants. Not finding suitable regular matches! When I was a kid I used to keep them as I found them. Man they are not what they used to be… I love the UCO, but they are expensive. They will be considered cheap when in real need though. I love quality and hate just making it, so am willing to purchase it and consider it insurance. I found these Maya matches out of Mexico, they are great! Have a big head and a great flare up. Found them in HEB in Texas. Still have lots. Maybe you can get them online thru HEB? They are reasonably priced. They are not strike anywhere. As far as lighters I have had several, I mean several lighters lose their flint. I mean no striker, none. so not a big fan of storing lighters. They were Bic, in storage for about 8 years….

  5. Here’s an update to my prior comment about the poor ignition rate of paper matches that I had stored in the early-to-mid 80s.

    Yesterday, I was rooting through an old Army footlocker filled with hunting/survival related items in the garage. In it, I was pleasantly surprised to find three boxes of “strike anywhere” Ohio Blue Tip matches.

    Imagine just how disappointed I was when not one, and I mean not one, of them would ignite when I struck them on the side of the box.

    These matches were not stored in an air proof container. They were stored, along with the paper matches, in a garage with low humidity, one with relatively mild summer temperatures and with winter temperatures that never reached the freezing point. Would they have performed better had they been placed in an air tight container? I don’t know.

    I am going to take all of the matches that I have presently and store them in a air tight container in the hope that this will preserve them–and I am also going to buy more lighters and commercial fire starters!

    One of my brothers came up with a good idea about the paper matches. He said that I should keep them because they will make good fire starters.

    • I found a box of Ohio Blue Tips I had in a footlocker in air conditioned and swamp cooled houses for at least 20 and probably closer to 30 years. The matches lit ok, but the stick would not burn. In the same footlocker was a plastic match-safe (waterproof) with some of the same matches in it, which lit fine and the sticks burned well too.

  6. I should have added to my last message, “Ask me thirty years from now and I will let you know if my experience with matches in air tight containers produced different results.” 🙂

    Seriously, this effort at humor touches on another issue, freeze-dried food. Every manufacturer seems to claim that its products have a 30 year shelf life. Of course, testing that claim is problematic.

    I did find a year or so ago that a can of freeze-dried fruit that I stored in the garage (a less than optimal location) back in the 1980s was very edible. It was so old that the label’s glue had failed and I could not identify the manufacturer. My best recollection is that I purchased it from a manufacturer that is no longer in existence.

    Every manufacturer makes claims about the storage life of products, knowing that either they will not be around to deal with angry consumers (particularly the smaller manufacturers who are more likely to come and go), or that few purchasers will be around to test their products anyway.

    All of this reminds me of a survival newsletter editor in the 1980s. A lifetime subscription to his 8 page newsletter was available for $10.00. What??? He included a warning that he had cancer, and that the subscription was for his lifetime, not the subscriber’s.

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