Lost While Hiking – Part 2 – Ignition Sources

In Part 1, I described the four components of an emergency fire: an ignition source, tinder, kindling, and all-night fuel.

The ignition source is what provides sufficient heat to ignite the tinder. There are a number of ways to do this; you can do it with a magnifying glass if you have sufficient sunlight, you can use a battery and steel wool if the battery isn’t dead, you can make a fire bow if you are really industrious and have the time.

I want to look at things you might take with you that are practical to carry and in my opinion, more useful than any of those things. I’m going to limit this to things I’ve tried.

The first and most obvious thing is a simple Bic lighter. A lot of people swear by these. They are cheap, simple, lightweight, small, and easy to operate. They have a few drawbacks; they can leak and the fluid will evaporate. If the thumb valve gets depressed in your pocket or pack, it will empty the lighter very quickly. They have mechanical parts that can break.   In cold temperatures the butane won’t vaporize.

These drawbacks can be overcome; the easiest way is just to carry two of them. I have one in my pack and I put a small O-ring around the lighter, under the valve, so it doesn’t get pressed while I’m carrying it around. You can handle the low temperature problem by warming the lighter next to your body before you use it.

If you are going to carry just one ignition source, a butane lighter would be a good choice.

The second ignition source is matches. Since you want matches that will operate if you fall in a river, you will want waterproof matches. You can either buy (or make) waterproof matches, or you can put normal matches in a waterproof container.

If you aren’t using strike-anywhere matches, you will need a striker. I purchased a repair kit for the Exotac Matchcap. It has several small striker strips with adhesive on the back. I just stuck one on the cap of a waterproof match container, and put a second one on a piece of paper that I folded and slipped into the container with the matches. To keep the matches from sliding around and wearing on each other, I put a small piece of cotton under the cap. It has the added advantage of being a source of tinder.

You can purchase waterproof matches, or even waterproof storm matches that burn longer. I made some myself by wrapping about 6” of cotton thread around a match right behind the head. It makes about a half inch of cotton behind the head. If you dip the entire match quickly into melted wax, it will coat the head and soak into the cotton, making a longer burning waterproof match.

The final ignition source is a ferro cerium rod, sometimes called a flint striker (even though it isn’t really flint) or a firesteel . This is a rod made of iron, cerium, and some other rare earth elements. When you scrape it with a knife blade or other hard, edged metal blade, you scrape off some of the material and ignite it. The sparks are about 3000 degrees F, but they aren’t very large particles so they are only going to ignite something that easily lights. Something like a cotton ball.

I like the ferro rod because it’s waterproof, small, and versatile. It has no moving parts. The disadvantage is that it takes a little practice to use effectively and it won’t easily light a piece of paper or a piece of wood. It produces sparks, not an open flame.

The ferro rod is available with plastic handles and you often see it used to “throw” sparks at whatever you are trying to light. I’ve found it most effective to set the tip of the rod on a solid surface and scrape the sparks at whatever you are trying to light. It lets you aim the sparks more effectively.

You will find debates on the Internet about which brand of Ferrocerium rod is best, which produces the most sparks, which works best. I found that what matters is the size of the rod and quality of the striker.  The inexpensive Coghlan’s rods or no-name rods from China seem to work about as well as the Swedish Firesteel rods.  The magic is in the striker, not the rod.

For the rod, 5/16” diameter seems to be a good compromise. I haven’t tried a ½” rod, which would probably work better but they tend to be a lot longer and harder to carry around. The best striker I’ve found is either a utility knife or the edge of a scissors blade. Both are very hard steel with sharp edges, which is what you need.

I bought some mini utility knives and replacement blades. Using the knife on the rod will destroy the blade (you are using metal to scrape off metal, after all) but the blades are reversible and disposable.

For the scissors blade, I got a quality pair of small scissors, separated the two halves, removed the handles and broke off the blade to shorten it. I wrapped the “handle” end in bright orange duct tape to make it easy to see and to hold. You can use either side of the blade (the cutting edge or the back edge). I think the cutting edge works a little better, but it does tear up the rod more. But I consider these to be emergency items; if I have to use it, I’ll throw it away and replace it when I get home.

Ferrocerium rods are a bit brittle. They don’t bend very well and they can splinter when dropped. If you don’t mind a slightly larger version, you can modify it as follows to make it more durable and easier to use:

I use a 5/16” diameter rod that is drilled for a lanyard.   I cut a piece of 3/8” x 3/8” x 1/16” aluminum C channel to about ½” longer than the rod.


I then cut the sides off from one end, leaving about .7” at one end, and leaving about 1/16” of the sides to stiffen the bracket.


The next step is to cut a piece of inner tube about the same length as the bracket. I use this just to provide some padding for the rod; it’s really optional. You then drill a hole through the sides of the bracket so you can run a 4-40 screw through one side of the bracket, the rod, and the other side of the bracket. You drill a hole at the bottom of the bracket so you can add a support for the bottom of the rod.

Completed bracket assembled with rod

You can make the entire thing a little more compact by using a countersink for the holes in the top and bottom, and by threading the aluminum on the top instead of using a nut (use thread locker since there isn’t much thread).

Drill a hole in the top for a lanyard, if you want one.

File all the edges round so they don’t poke holes in things or cut your fingers.

When you are done, you will have about ¼” of the aluminum extending beyond the bottom end of the rod. You can rest that on a hard surface (rock, piece of wood) to steady the rod while you are shaving sparks off of it. It gives you much better control and makes it easier to light things.

I have found that pushing harder with the scraper blade and going a little slower works better than scraping as fast as possible.

I’m going to mention one thing that I haven’t actually tried, but shouldn’t need to: an emergency flare. Some people carry these. You can get flares that burn for a short time or flares for roadside use that burn longer.

I doubt many people carry flares when they are hiking. But if you do have one, they will produce a hot flame that will start a fire. If you keep flares in your car, they could be used to start a fire if you were stranded in the winter on a snowy road.

Next time we’ll look at tinder.

Lost while hiking – part 1

In March of 2015, I spent an unplanned night at Brainard Lake in Colorado. I got lost while hiking at 10,000 feet altitude and in 12″ to 18″ of snow. You can read about it here: http://www.equipped.org/032015survive.htm.

I didn’t go on a three-day backpacking trip and get lost. That would have actually been better than what happened because I’d have been prepared with food, a tent, and other necessities. Instead, I did what many lost hikers do – I got lost on a short hike. I planned to be away from my car for a couple of hours, not 24 hours.

Since that incident, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what I want to do differently. I don’t plan to go on short hikes with the ability to sustain myself in comfort for three days – it would make hiking so tedious that I would never want to do it. I want to be able to spend an unexpected night in the cold without danger of dying or frostbite. If you are carrying an arctic-rated sleeping bag and tent, with a selection of five MREs and an alcohol stove to cook them over, you probably don’t even need to think about additional shelter or a fire.

If you read through the article about my experience, the one thing that I had most difficulty with was keeping a fire going. So I have spent a lot of time experimenting with various things to make that easier. I want to start with that subject first.

Many of the articles that you read about this topic seem to gloss over things; you get the impression that the writers never actually try the things they recommend. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read that you should carry a fire starter that uses a magnesium bar and a Ferro cerium rod. I had one of those on my adventure, and I don’t plan to carry one in the future. I’ll go into that in more detail in a later post. But the important thing is that I’ll be recommending things that I have tried and that I know will work.

To start out this first post, I want to give you a slightly different view of keeping warm with a fire. You see a lot of Internet pseudo-knowledge that tells you to have three ways to make a fire or five ways to make a fire. If you look closely at what is really recommended, it isn’t anything I’d want to depend on in an emergency.  It isn’t a contest to see how many fire starting techniques you have in your pocket, it’s a contest against cold.

The thing about getting lost is that you usually realize you are going to be spending the night an hour or maybe two hours before nightfall. Until then, you are hoping you can find your way back. So any kind of shelter or fire-building method that is going to take you three hours is just not going to happen.

I decided that I was spending the night when the shadows started getting long and It started getting chilly enough that I put back on the fleece I had taken off. At that point, there isn’t time for snow caves or complicated wiki huts. You need simple and fast for the shelter and the fire. Remember, you are going to be collecting firewood and enough firewood to last all night is going to take a while.

Making a fire in the woods requires four basic components. You need an ignition source, tinder, kindling, and you need enough fuel to make the fire last all night. In some cases, the components might overlap; if you have a butane lighter, the ignition source and tinder could be considered self-contained in the lighter. The ignition source is the spark wheel and the tinder is the butane fuel. Similarly, if you can’t find larger wood for fuel, you might gather enough kindling to make a small fire last all night, so your kindling and all-night fuel are the same in that case.

The important thing about making a fire to keep yourself warm is not how many ways you have to theoretically start a fire. The important thing is whether you can start a fire on short notice (as dark is falling) under whatever conditions you may reasonably encounter on your hikes. If you routinely avoid hiking when the weather forecast is for blizzard conditions, you may not need to carry quite the same things as someone who hikes in any and every condition imaginable. But if you hike across streams, as I often do in the mountains, you probably want a way to start a fire if you fall into a stream. That snowmelt water is really cold in the spring.  But that means you need something waterproof.

To illustrate my point, the magnesium blocks with an attached ferro cerium rod do work, if you have the time to shave off a pile of magnesium from the block. But in windy conditions, keeping that pile of magnesium in one place so you can light it is problematic. You either need a good windbreak, or you need a different way to start the fire.

In my next post, I’ll look at ignition sources.  In the meantime, add whatever comments you think appropriate.  I’ll delete any comments that are deliberately provocative or insulting to other posters.  Keep it civil.