No prepper should ever set off without a fire starting tool as part of their kit. On your person or in your bug-out bag, you have to have a way, preferably more than one way, to start a fire in an emergency.
You can use a flint and steel, a ferro rod or other primitive methods. A meat and potatoes kind of fire starting tool is always going to be a good lighter.
Two of the most common and popular lighters in the world are the cheap, disposable, trusty Bic and the living legend that needs no introduction, the Zippo.
Even today, debate rages over which one is best suited for survival purposes. The Bic uses butane, a petroleum based product. The Zippo uses modified naphtha. Most preppers want to know which one lasts longer.
You can expect around 200 lights with a Zippo on a full fuel load. Your average Bic, on the other, hand will light around 1000 times with a full fuel tank.
A Zippo lighter will keep its fuel supply for about two to three weeks in normal conditions. But, most of the time, its fuel evaporates entirely in one to two weeks.
Contrast that with a Bic lighter which can maintain its fuel supply for a couple of years before evaporation slowly claims it.
The difference in longevity is startling. It is also not the entire story as far as the suitability of one lighter over the other for prepping purposes. How much fuel they hold and how long that fuel lasts is just one element.
Other factors are worth consideration. Things like repairability, durability and adaptability. Keeping in mind how many lights you can expect out of your fuel load, and how long the fuel will last, let’s read on and see what else you should consider before choosing one of these lighters.
Zippo Characteristics (And How Long They Last)
The Zippo is iconic in every sense of the word, a literal living legend. These heirloom-grade lighters are distinctly American, and remain very popular nearly a century after their introduction.
But that vintage prestige comes with a price: a century-old icon uses, quite literally, century-old technology and design.
Your typical Zippo carries fuel from the fuel chamber for the chimney for lighting by way of a wick that is woven through cotton batting which absorbs the fuel. Capillary action carries fuel to the chimney which is ignited by the striker.
There are no two ways about it: Zippos leak fuel like a hole in a boat, and this evaporative loss is exacerbated by dry conditions.
If a lighter is upended or left on its side, evaporation will accelerate. If you top your Zippo off, and I mean sloshing-near-the-top topped-off, you’ll get around 200 quick lights off of a full tank.
The design of the Zippo, while part of the charm, simply does not seal the fuel tank in any meaningful way, meaning that the volatile Zippo fuel, or ronsonol, always has an easy route of egress to the atmosphere.
But the Zippo still has a few tricks up its sleeve for preppers. Your Zippo will, in fact, function on many different kinds of fuel, even if the factory would tell you not to. You can use diesel, kerosene, gasoline and even rendered animal fat to keep your Zippo lighting.
This multi-fuel capability is a big boon in a survival situation. Something else to consider is Zippo’s simple design. Easy to service and easy to maintain means that the Zippo might practically keep functioning longer than a comparable Bic.
How Long Will Zippo Fluid Last?
Zippo premium lighter fluid has a quick evaporation rate and you’ll find that you need to fill your Zippo every couple of weeks whether you use it or not. If you use the zippo every day you will have to add liquid fluid to it every week.
The flint in the zippo lighter will last you around 5,000 sparks before you’ll need to replace it. Of course this is dependent on the quality of the lighter and how well taken care of it is. More commonly the part that you flick breaks down before the flint has been used.
Keeping your lighter topped up with fuel will ensure that your wick stays usable for at least two years. If you let the fuel run down low enough the wick will burn hotter and you’ll have to change it out every 6 months or so.
A zippo flame can stay lit for about 10-20 minutes before it needs refilling with lighter fluid. This is dangerous, however, since the intense heat will melt the glues holding the lighter together.
This lets flammable fumes and vapors escape which can be lit by the main flame and added oxygen.
Additionally, the packing material can catch on fire if left too long. Do not handle the lighter after this before it cools down as the components will be hot.
A full Zippo will last up to 2 weeks with regular use. Ensuring you keep your lighter topped up with fluid will extend the life of all the components inside the unit. Exposure to rain or other precipitation lowers the lifespan of these lighters.
Bic Characteristics (And How Long They Last)
The everyday, garden-variety Bic lighter is a disposable, butane fuel lighter that is non-refillable by Design. You weren’t supposed to repair a Bic lighter when something goes wrong.
If something breaks, the fuel runs out, or it just stops working, you throw it away and pull another one out of your pocket or out of the package.
This is an acceptable trade-off for most people, since the Bics are so cheap and even at this inexpensive price point your average Bic will give you over 1,000 lights.
Aside from a low price point, of most interest to Preppers is the sealed nature of a Bic. The tightly sealed fuel cell means very little evaporative loss occurs to the atmosphere in the same amount of time compared to a Zippo.
Sure, a damaged seal or busted valve may lead to fuel loss at a faster rate, but this is rare.
Chances are at some point in the past or some point in the future you will have happened upon a Bic rolling around in the floorboard of your car or tossed in a drawer at your house.
Upon pulling it out to try experimentally don’t be surprised when it lights up on the first try!
But, let’s say you can’t just go get another Bic off the shelf. What if that Bic is all you have? You have no way to refuel the lighter from the factory. Furthermore, Bics only work with butane fuel.
The lighter is not designed with any serviceable parts, even the parts that you can service are typically held in place by metal stampings and not easy to repair without breaking things even more.
The bottom line is, if anything goes wrong with your Bic you’re supposed to just toss it out and get a new one. That’s probably still okay: you can get Bics by the barrel full.
How Long Do Butane Lighters Last in General?
Butane lighters can last several years if they don’t get rusty and the gas depression level isn’t pushed. With general usage you can expect to get up to 6 months on a single full lighter. If you are using it several times a day for longer periods then you’ll have to refill it every few weeks.
The flint in a BIC lighter will last up to 4,000 strikes under optimal conditions. A full tank of lighter fuel can last you up to 1 hour of continuous burn time.
Keeping the lighter lit for a long time will end up causing damage as much of the lighter is made of plastic and can be melted if the flammable liquid ignites. Most butane lighters can be refilled multiple times throughout their life, only to be thrown out when the flint has been used up.
How Long Do Plasma Lighters Last?
Plasma lighters, also called arc lighters and electric lighters rely on a lithium ion battery for fuel. These windproof lighters use electrodes to overload and arc causing a bolt of electricity that is extremely hot.
On average you will have to charge these lighters about 1,000 times until the mechanisms stop working.
These types of lighters can go for about 3 days on a single charge if you’re using it all day. Casual users will have to charge their lighter every month or so with weekly usage.
Stretching Your Fuel
One simple trick will help your fuel last the longest in any lighter, but especially in a Zippo, is to seal it up. If the fuel cannot reach the room temperature open-air, it will vaporize far more slowly.
This can drastically increase the time needed between refuelings. A Bic lighter sealed up in a heavy-duty plastic bag will last for years.
One option for Zippos is to make use of a form-factor specific sealing case with a gasketed lid. While this makes the lighter a little bulkier it does keep it usable at a moment’s notice.
Additionally, you can keep the form factor and flippable lid of the Zippo and marry it to the best of modern lighter technology by removing the classic insert and replacing it with a butane one.
It goes without saying that if you’re carrying a Bic, you should be carrying three more in your pack. They’re so affordable there’s no reason not to.
If you carry a Zippo as part of your kit, you might want to consider keeping it empty, and taking along a small can of fuel. This will allow you to top off when you need it, and provide you a ready supply.
So Which is Best?
A properly functioning Zippo will only maintain its fuel load for a total of about two weeks in average conditions. A fully fueled Zippo will light around 200 times before it goes empty.
A Bic that is functioning correctly will keep its fuel load for a couple of years in most conditions and will reliably light around a thousand times before heading to the trash can.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.