It’s hard to believe that the Ferro rod wasn’t the first type of firestarter that uses combustible elements to start a fire.
Magnesium has been used to start fires for hundreds of years and it is the seventh most abundant element in the world and is usually found inside the earth’s crust.
How exactly do you turn a solid compound into something to start a fire? Well, the answer it turns out, lies in science.
This guide will explain the fundamentals of a magnesium firestarter and how it still reigns supreme in the world of combustibles.
What Are Magnesium Blocks and Strikers?
Magnesium is a chemical element that burns hotter than a Ferro rod and lasts a lot longer, making it more suitable for starting a fire in adverse conditions.
It is commonly used by survivalists, preppers, and the military as they are economical and reliable. Most keen outdoor enthusiasts will keep one of these in their kit as a backup when all else fails.
You won’t find magnesium as a free element in nature, it is highly processed and weighs about ⅔ the weight of aluminum. This extreme weight reduction makes the transport of this compound very easy.
While the block itself isn’t flammable, the shavings and powder are, creating brilliant white flashes that are resistant to being extinguished.
When ignited, the shavings can reach temperatures of 3100 degrees Celsius.
Often companies will incorporate magnesium into their Ferro rods manufacturing process, boosting their ability to light a fire.
This is why it was popular in incendiary bombs during World War II since it was bright, could produce high temperatures, and couldn’t easily be put out.
The Components of a Magnesium Firestarter
There are many variations of a magnesium firestarter available on the market.
The most common version is a block of magnesium for scraping and a built-in Ferro rod that can cause the spark to ignite the shavings.
What To Look For in a Magnesium Firestarter
They are simple tools to use but manufacturers love bringing value to their customers so there are some features that you might want to keep an eye out for when you go to purchase one.
1. How Many Strikes it Can Manage?
Expect to get around 3,000 strikes for your average magnesium firestarter, although the bar itself can last for longer.
High-quality products can go beyond 10,000 strikes. If you have a Ferro rod available you can just order the blocks and use the rod to start the shavings.
2. If it’s Easy to Grip
A block of magnesium is easy to hold yet can be cumbersome when trying to shave parts of it off.
Additionally, the Ferro rod in some of the blocks can be difficult to strike if you don’t have a nice straight edge on the back of your knife.
3. Other Handy Features
Survivalists are always on the lookout for tools with multiple uses and manufacturers have recognized that.
Look for additional bonuses such as a compass, lanyard, or emergency whistle.
How to Start a Fire With A Magnesium Firestarter
Ready to get started using your magnesium firestarter? Here is a step-by-step guide to help you get your fire started.
1. Gather Your Resources
Ensure you have all of your tinder, kindling, branches, and logs squared away and ready to use.
The magnesium shavings won’t burn forever and they might go out as you’re scrambling to get the wood you need. It’s best to lay them out in piles of increasing thickness for easy addition to your fire.
2. Prepare the Tinder
If you’re using birch bark as your tinder you want to fluff it up or scrape it with the back of your knife to expose as much of the little fibers as you can.
More fibers mean that they will take a spark a lot easier which leads to less of the magnesium bar being used.
3. Magnesium Shavings
The next step is to carefully take your knife and scrape shavings off the bar into a little pile on your tinder.
Magnesium is very soft and will shave easily, even keeping the dust in the pile is advantageous as it will all ignite.
Try to keep the size of the pile between a nickel and a quarter-sized. Remember to block any wind since it can blow away your shavings before you can light them.
Once you have your magnesium, and tinder ready to go it is time to use the attached Ferro rod to shoot sparks into the pile.
Using the knife’s spine, you can scrape it along the Ferro rod to create sparks. Make sure the edge is sharp as a rounded spine won’t work.
Some magnesium bars come with handy scrapers that can make the job easier.
4. Build the Fire
Once you hear the sputtering and crackling as the shavings ignite you’ll notice a bright white light coming off it.
It does require a little work to get a good amount of sparks off the rod so don’t be shy. The tinder should catch and you’ll be able to work your way up the wood pile afterward.
Pros of Using A Magnesium Firestarter
As with many firestarters you want to balance the good with the bad. Luckily, magnesium is so versatile that there is no reason not to have one in your kit.
1. They Can Get Wet
You can use them in the rain without any issue starting them. even if you submerged the block in a lake and tried starting a fire with the shavings you would have no issues.
2. Burns Extremely Hot
Even with a slightly damp tinder, you can still get a tiny flame using sparks from your bar.
3. Stable as a Block, Unstable As Shavings
You will have a difficult time lighting a magnesium brick on fire and that’s why they are so great to keep on your person.
Don’t shave the block before you need it as the shavings could catch on fire and cause some damage.
4. Portable and Compact
You’ll never complain that a magnesium firestarter is too heavy to take in your pack.
The weight itself is the same as comparing aluminum to thin steel. There is a lightness to it that belies what it looks like.
5. It Has a Long Life as a Tool
With a minimum of 3,000 strikes, you’re guaranteed a lot of use out of it even more so if you are only starting fires every so often.
Cons of Using A Magnesium Firestarter
Although there are a lot of pros, some factors don’t make them ideal in every single situation. Let’s have a look at those.
1. The Shavings Are Very Light
Some might say too light as a gentle breeze is enough to send your pile tumbling. Make sure to have some sort of a wind block in place before you start.
2. It Requires a Striker of Some Sort
Unfortunately, you’ll need something with a sharp edge to strike your flint or Ferro rod. In the wild, you can use something like a sharp rock and some flint to generate the spark you need.
3. It Takes a Little Bit of Elbow Grease
Since you need such a significant pile of shavings to get a good flame it does take a few minutes to shave off enough for it to work. Additionally, striking the flint or Ferro rod isn’t guaranteed to work the first time.
An old concept and tool revitalized by the new generation, a magnesium bar is a guaranteed way to have an ignition source available if you need a fire.
A combination of the bar and a Ferro rod in your kit will ensure that you will never be without a way to start a fire on your next adventure.
Frequently Asked Questions
We love answering your questions; these are some of the most popular ones that people come across if they’ve never used one before.
Yes, unlike fuels a magnesium bar will still ignite at higher and lower altitudes.
However, your fire may have difficulty starting at higher altitudes since there is less oxygen.
No, magnesium bars do not suffer from oxidation or other elements that could disrupt their fire-starting capabilities.
Most outdoor enthusiasts will keep them in their car or pack them year-round with no issues.
A ferrocerium rod is the best substitute for a magnesium bar as a lot of them contain trace amounts of the element inside them.
Alternatively, a lighter will do the job just fine but is prone to not working in adverse climates.
The inexpensive magnesium firestarters will last you around 3,000 strikes. High-end products can last 10,000 strikes and up.
Yes, you can sink your firestarter in any water source, pull it out, and be able to shave scrapings off it; these shavings will still ignite with no problem.
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.