It is common knowledge that fire is needed to survive, whether that be in the wilderness or even at home.
Fire is used for warmth, cooking, washing, and a multitude of other uses in our everyday lives.
Learning to start a fire is almost a rite of passage for those looking to go camping or live off-grid.
It’s one of the fundamental techniques that you learn in all outdoor youth programs. Everyone should know how to start a fire in an emergency.
Luckily, modern innovations have taken the guesswork out of lighting the fire, which is why there are a ton of firestarters available commercially.
Knowing how long a particular firestarter will last you is important. There is a variety to choose from and they work in different situations.
Ferro rods and magnesium bars can last between 3,000 and 10,000 strikes depending on the size and quality. Flint and steel can last upwards of 3,000 strikes. Blast matches last up to 5,000 strikes and fire pistons can last a lifetime if properly cared for.
The examples above are some of the popular and more readily available fire starters on the market, but anything that creates a flame can be used.
Household items such as BIC lighters, matches, and fire starter sticks are other ways you can start a fire, but they have restrictions.
Let’s look a little deeper into the benefits of each type.
Fire Starter Types And How Long They Last
Here is a breakdown of the different fire starter types, how they work, and how long they are estimated to last based on regular usage.
This doesn’t account for manufacturing processes, individual components, and quality so keep that in mind when you’re purchasing one.
Not every firestarter is considered equal in terms of quality.
Ferro rods consist of two parts, a man-made alloy called ferrocerium and a striker that is usually made of carbon steel.
The combination of the harder metal striking the Ferro rod generates sparks that can reach up to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ferro rods come in a variety of sizes and the amount that they can be used is dictated by that. On average, expect to get between 5,000 to 10,000 strikes out of one of these rods.
In some cases the striker will wear out before the rod does, so it’s always good to bring a steel knife as a backup.
Magnesium Fire Starters
A much more common alternative to a Ferro rod is a simple bar of magnesium with a piece of flint attached to it.
The idea is to use the back of your knife or another scraper to shave off the magnesium bar. Magnesium can take a spark very well and burn up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The magnesium shavings are usually ignited by a flint rod, but you can also light it with a match if that’s all you have.
Something to keep in mind is that wet magnesium shavings won’t take a spark as well as dry shavings and wind can easily blow your shavings pile away.
On average, a magnesium fire starter will give you about 3,000 strikes, and it becomes harder to shave the metal off as the bar gets smaller.
Flint And Steel
One of the oldest methods to start a fire, flint, and steel is still widely used today. This fire starter consists of a piece of flint being struck by steel to generate sparks onto dry tinder.
The nice thing about flint and steel is that you can find flint naturally which makes it a resource you don’t necessarily have to pay for.
The steel striker is generally used around the knuckle and a closed fist is what you use to hit the flint.
With such aggressive action, the steel striker can become dull and not able to throw sparks as it once did.
It’s difficult to identify the average number of strikes since flint comes in all different sizes.
However, one could argue that you can get at least 3,000 strikes out of one steel striker before having to replace it.
Blast matches are an old technique wrapped in new technology for easier use and the ability to use it in a variety of situations.
Essentially it’s a flint bar and carbide striker in a plastic housing that uses springs to create a shower of sparks.
This lets you plunge the blast match into your tinder and the sparks will escape onto it.
It can be used with one hand and has a high success rate of light, compared to the multiple strikes a Ferro rod would take.
The accuracy is better than other firestarters because of how you push the blast match into the tinder, compared to other firestarters where the sparks may not hit where you want.
These are sizable fire starters that will give you around 5,000 strikes, which is usually when the flint bar is expended.
Also called a fire syringe, a fire piston is designed to compress air which causes your tinder to ignite. They’ve been used for a long time and are an almost infinite source of firestarter.
Essentially you have a tube and a plunger with an o-ring inside of it and when you press down on it hard it will compress the air in the tube, heating it up and causing your tinder underneath it to ignite.
A fire piston works best when used in conjunction with char cloth because of how easily it lights.
A fire piston is going to give you north of 10,000 strikes and actually, you could easily double that and still have some life in it.
As long as you take care of it a fire piston is almost inexhaustible. The only thing you might have to replace is the o-ring on the inside in case it fails.
Friction Fire Kit
A more primitive way of starting a fire, a friction fire kit can still get the job done with a little elbow grease.
Also known as a bow drill, this technique has a few components needed for it to work.
You’ll need a slab of wood with a tapered hole inside called a notch, a round stick shaped like a dowel called a spindle that can fit inside the depression in the slab of wood.
A bow is formed with a stick and some string that will spin the spindle.
Next, run the bow back and forth on the spindle and the friction of the spindle in the notch will shred the wood into sawdust and ignite into an ember from the friction.
This type of fire starter will last as long as the components will. You could get anywhere from 50-to 100 uses out of a friction fire kit.
It does take a little bit of work and a bow drill won’t create an ember if it’s wet, but it’s an effective way of starting a fire in nearly any situation.
The nice thing is when any of the components break from wear and tear, you can simply fashion new ones using resources you find outside.
Household Fire Starters
These are items that most people have in their houses and are also very convenient to have on you.
The number of times you can use these varies greatly, but they are excellent to have as a backup or in your emergency kit to use in a pinch.
Most if not everyone has multiples of these lying around their house or garage. This should be included in everyone’s kit as they have a large capacity for fuel and work in a variety of situations.
Be careful with these kinds of lighters because they will not work when wet which is not good in a survival situation. On average these lighters will be good for 1,000 uses.
Matches are in almost every household as well and they are a staple in survival kits.
There are different types of matches such as waterproof matches, wind-resistant matches, and long burning matches.
Obviously, these only get one use per match but luckily they come in boxes of 100 or more.
Micro Butane Torch
These are included in this list because they use an alternative fuel source that is refillable.
They are small torches that use butane to produce a powerful flame that makes lighting fires easy. The butane is easy to pack with you and these torches can light damp tinder.
While they last as long as you can put fuel in them, micro butane torches can be used for several camping trips, multiple times during the trip without having to be refilled.
While this list of fire starters gives you a general idea of how long each will last, some factors need to be understood in terms of getting the most out of your fire starters.
A lot of these items will not work when wet and that’s why it’s important to have a combination of items to be able to use them in various situations.
For example, having matches and a Ferro rod or fire piston would be a good combination to have.
The quality of the fire starter is important because if the product doesn’t perform as advertised, it can be a danger in a survival situation.
The number of times you can use these fire starters is also defined by the quality of the materials used to create them.
Maintaining your fire starters is often a second thought since they are used for only one thing.
An example can be found in the fire piston, which will last much longer if you keep the tube cleaned regularly.
Ensuring that you are using proper techniques when handling a Ferro rod or magnesium bar will keep your equipment in good shape and not prone to snapping, or developing rust.
Having a sharp knife or striker will stop you from gouging the rod and wearing them out unevenly.
In the end, it really boils down to what will you use primarily, and what will be your backup.
Most campers and survivalists will have up to 3 alternatives to their main fire starter and since they are all relatively small and lightweight, it only makes sense.
Perrin is an adventure guide and naturalist currently living a nomadic life in the Canadian wilderness. His education and expertise is in wilderness survival and wildlife tracking. He enjoys teaching people about the outdoors and has managed large groups on expeditions.
With several accredited certifications, including being a wilderness first responder and a leave no trace expert, Perrin believes it is important for all of us to reconnect with the natural world.