Fire starters can help you ignite or kickstart a fire in the most extreme conditions. Some light up quick, some last longer, some are lighter, and some are easier to use. In this post, we’ll help you choose the best fire starter for your needs, review our favorite models, and show you how to build a roaring fire in any weather condition.
|Zippo Mag Strike||Igniter||2.7 oz||$17|
|UCO Titan Stormproof matches||Igniter||2.9 oz||$10|
|UST Blastmatch||Igniter||2.3 oz||$18|
|Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter||Igniter||2.6 oz||$30|
|Überleben Zünden||Igniter||2.2 oz||$19|
|Light my Fire Ferro Rod Fire Starter||Igniter||1 oz||$19|
|UCO Sweetfire tinder||Tinder||3.7 oz||$3|
|Solo Stove starter||Tinder||0.69 oz||$15|
|Esbit fuel tablets||Tinder||0.5 oz||$8|
|Black Beard Fire Starter Rope||Tinder||2.3 oz||$17|
|Pyro Putty||Tinder||2 oz||$13|
|Lightning Nugget Firestarters||Tinder||10 oz||$4|
Types of Fire Starters
Firestarters fall into two main groups. “Igniters” are tools that are used to create a flame or a spark, such as, lighters and matches. “Tinders” are fuels that ignite easily when introduced to a spark or a flame. Common tinders include dried grass, fatwood, and waxes. Igniters and tinders are used in tandem as the initial building blocks of a good fire.
A. IGNITERS = tools that create a flame or spark
Matches: Matches come in many shapes, sizes and lengths. For outdoor use, waterproof and stormproof matches work best. Waterproof matches look similar to normal wooden stick matches but are designed to hold up in wet conditions. Stormproof matches are even more robust. Designed to hold up in the toughest of conditions, they are waterproof, windproof, and submersible. Some of these “matches”, like the UCO Sweet Behemoth, can burn up to 15 minutes and look more like mini obelisks than a traditional match.
Lighters: Lighters are a foolproof way to start a fire. Light, inexpensive, and easy to find, lighters make an ideal item for every survival kit. The classic Bic lighter is a great choice and good for up to 3,000 ignitions. Torch lighters are more robust, often designed to be windproof, waterproof, and sport a bigger flame than a Bic lighter. The downside is they are often bulkier and more expensive.
Rods and Strikers: Rods and strikers are a large and diverse category of fire starters. Many different materials are used but the basic principle is the same. A striker is used to strike a rod to create a spark. The material on the rod, often referred to as a “firestick”, can also be scraped off into your tinder pile to add more flammable elements to catch sparks. They are lightweight, water-resistant, and last longer than lighters. However, they involve a steeper learning curve to use effectively. Materials used for the rod vary. Ferrocerium is an alloy that includes metals like iron, lanthanum, cerium, and magnesium, the same metals in many fireworks. Flint and steel are a widely used material but create fewer sparks. Magnesium burns hot (and hotter when wet!) but takes more practice to get alight.
B. TINDERS = fuel sources that ignite easily
Natural Tinders: The most common types of tinders are natural materials that you can find in the field. Dried grass, resin-filled birch bark (eg. fatwood), and dried mosses are good examples. Natural tinders tend to burn quickly. Because natural tinders are found in nature, they are susceptible to the elements. It’s always a good idea to carry a tinder source with you in case of wet conditions and when naturally found tinder is not available.
Wax: Wax is another versatile starter. Wax is water-resistant and it is easy to carry a small piece in your pack. Simple candle wax will do the trick. It can be shaved into thin strips or curls to help start other natural tinder. Pour melted candle wax in an unused ice cube tray to create simple and packable DIY fire starter cubes.
Commercial Tinders: Commercial tinders are made of many different materials and come in different shapes (ie. rope, cubes, putty, etc.). They're an easy item to carry for emergencies or if you don’t trust your fire-making skills. Note some contain chemicals that can be toxic when burned. Flammable liquids like lighter fluid, hand sanitizer, bug spray, alcohol, and stove fuel all fit into this category. The safest for you, and the environment, are commercial tinders that use non-toxic natural ingredients.
Different types of tinders you can use to start a fire.
Zippo Mag Strike
Weight: 2.7 oz
Number of Strikes: N/A
The Zippo Mag Strike is a two-piece striker and ferrocerium rod. The striker has a sharpened edge to create a shower of sparks to light your tinder. The Mag Strike snaps together when not in use for easy storage and to prevent rusting in damp conditions. Though small, the Mag Strike’s textured grip helps you get a strong strike. It’s just over 4 inches long and weighs 2.7 ounces.Available at REI
UCO Titan Stormproof matches
Weight: 2.9 oz
Number of Strikes: 8-50 sticks
UCO Titan Stormproof Matches don’t mess around. They are windproof, waterproof, and submersible. They reliably light, and stay lit, under almost any condition. At 4 inches long and an impressive 25 second burn time, you have plenty of time to get your tinder flaming. If the Titan matches seem like overkill for your needs, look into the UCO Stormproof matches. Made of the same materials as the Titan, they are smaller and still sport a 15 second burn time.Available at REI
Weight: 2.3 oz
Number of Strikes: 4000
The UST Blastmatch is a one-handed flint-based fire starter. Using only one hand allows you to add to and adjust your tinder pile while you are sparking, making this a pretty nifty device. The cap swivels on and off to pack away for waterproofing and to prevent accidental sparking. It works when wet and lasts up to 4,000 strikes. At 2.3 ounces it’s a light and effective fire starter. UST makes many other products, like the Strikeforce, which is a heavier two-handed version of the Blast match.Available at Amazon
Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter
Weight: 2.6 oz
Number of Strikes: 8000
Yep, Bear Grylls has a fire starter. This two-piece ferrocerium rod and striker touts its ability to produce 8,000+ strikes. Both pieces are attached to a lanyard to avoid losing them. The pieces snap together when not in use for water protection. As a bonus, it comes with survival instructions on the case for land to air resources and an integrated emergency whistle. The 2.6 ounce weight puts it in line with other similar fire starters.Available at Amazon
Weight: 2.2 oz
Number of Strikes: 12000+
The Überleben Zünden ferrocerium rod and striker gives off some of the best sparks of any product on this list. On top of that, the handcrafted hardwood handle provides a nice aesthetic compared to the plastic handles of similar rods. The striker features handy tools such as a hex wrench, bottle opener, ruler, and a sharp edge for scraping. Available in multiple sizes ranging from 1.7 to 3.1 ounces. Both pieces come on a lanyard, but it does not have a case to protect from water or rusting.Available at Amazon
Light my Fire Ferro Rod Fire Starter
Weight: 1 oz
Number of Strikes: 12000
The Light my Fire Ferro Rod starter is one of the smallest fire starters out there, which can make it tricky to get a good spark. But if you intend to use it as an emergency backup, the small size and 1 ounce weight makes it easy to stash in your pack. It delivers up to 12,000 strikes and holds up well in wet conditions. It doesn’t come with a case so is prone to rusting in damp environments.Available at Amazon
UCO Sweetfire tinder
Weight: 3.7 oz
Burn Time: 6 minutes
UCO Sweetfire tinder is made from bagasse, a renewable fibrous sugarcane biofuel. Vegetable wax is used to hold the tinder into blocks. Each starter lasts for 6 minutes. The blocks can be shaved into smaller pieces to light faster. When lit, the flame holds up well in wet conditions. At 0.15 ounce per block and cost of only $3 the Sweetfire tops our list for sustainable fire starter options.Available at REI
Solo Stove starter
Weight: 0.69 oz
Burn Time: 16 starters
Solo Stove fire starters are non-toxic and made with 100% recycled hardwood. Designed for the popular Solo Stoves, these starter blocks are water-resistant and light in challenging conditions. They are more expensive and at 0.69 ounces are heavier than other options, which may be a turn off for backcountry use. However, the extra weight gives them a longer burn time of up to 10 minutes.Available at Amazon
Esbit fuel tablets
Weight: 0.5 oz
Burn Time: 12 minutes
Esbit fuel tablets have been a popular choice amongst backpackers for a long time. Each 0.5 ounce tablet burns at 1400°F for 12 minutes, even in wet conditions and at high altitudes. Designed as a fuel source for cooking stoves, they also make a great fire starter. They do have a slightly fishy smell which can permeate to other items in your pack. Esbit’s safety data sheet warns that combustion can create a number of toxic chemicals that should not be ingested.Available at REI
Black Beard Fire Starter Rope
Weight: 2.3 oz
Burn Time: 4.5 hours
Black Beard Fire Starter Rope is a non-toxic water and windproof fire starter with a unique rope design. To use, cut off the desired amount and separate the strands of rope to light with your ignitor. It can be used for 50+ fires, but it’s a little hard to judge the accuracy of that claim since it comes as one piece. Black Beard claims to have a 100 year shelf life so you can pass down any extras to your children.Available at Amazon
Weight: 2 oz
Burn Time: 8-10 minutes
The Pyro Putty fire starter comes in a shoe polish type tin. Pulling the putty apart creates strands that are easy to light. Unlike other fire starters, Pyro Putty blends are engineered for specific conditions, like Winter Blue for cold temperatures and Summer Orange for warmer temperatures. The putty can also be used to waterproof shoes and tents by rubbing it on leaky areas, just don’t hold your toes to the fire!
A nickel-size piece of putty will stay lit for about 8 to 10 minutes and each 2 ounce tin can start up to 80 fires.Available at Amazon
Lightning Nugget Firestarters
Weight: 10 oz
Burn Time: 15 minutes
Lightning Nugget is an inexpensive fire starter made using recycled forest by-products and recycled food-grade paraffin wax. They are on the heavier side at 0.96 ounces each but the trade off is they are guaranteed to burn for 15 minutes. The Lightin’ Bug is a smaller version of the Nugget which burns for 7 minutes. Both are non-toxic and safe to cook over.Available at REI
How to Make Fire Starters (DIY)
DIY fire starters are easy and inexpensive to make at home. If you’re in a pinch, check out our list of clever ways to start a fire without matches.
DRYER LINT AND EGG CARTON
This inexpensive homemade starter uses items you’d normally throw away along with wax. Put a ball of dryer lint into each compartment of a cardboard egg container. Then pour melted wax over the top. Using a double boiler is a good idea to prevent the wax from burning. You can also use sawdust or shredded paper instead of dryer lint. Once the wax cools break into a dozen fire starters.
COTTON BALLS AND VASELINE
It doesn’t get much simpler than this. Put a glob of vaseline in a plastic bag and roll cotton balls in vaseline until coated. Leave the cotton balls more or less intact so there are some dry fibers on the inside. To use, pull the cotton apart exposing the dry fibers on the inside. These will act as a candlewick. Once lit, the vaseline melts and creates a slow-burning controlled flame that you can feed other tinder and kindling onto.
Finding your own source of fatwood can be a fun foraging project. Fatwood comes from stumps of pine trees, especially older rotten stumps where the resin has had time to collect. The fatwood is at the top of the taproot, where the roots meet the trunk. You’ll know when you find the fatwood, it will be hard compared to the rotten stump and will smell strongly of pine. If you can pull the stump out of the ground, getting to the fatwood is easy. If not you may have to use an ax to split the stump up. Then use a small hatchet to split the fatwood into smaller pieces to take home with you.
ITEMS IN YOUR PACK
If you find yourself without tinder there are items in your pack that you can repurpose as tinder. Toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, greasy chips, and duct tape all are flammable. They can be combined with a flammable liquid like hand sanitizer, alcohol, bug spray, and stove fuel to increase effectiveness. Many of these items contain chemicals that are toxic to burn and inhale. It’s best to use only in emergency situations.
Collecting natural fatwood to use as tinder.
How to Make a Fire in the Backcountry
Three ingredients are needed to make a successful fire. They are heat (ignition source), fuel (tinder), and oxygen (airflow). These are referred to as the “fire triangle”. An ideal fire balances all three ingredients to burn well. Removing one ingredient will extinguish the fire. Learning to balance these ingredients is key to the success of your fire.
Here's how to make a fire from start to finish:
1. LOCATION: SAFE AND SUSTAINABLE
Choose a spot to minimize the impact of your fire. Always use an existing fire ring if one is nearby to minimize impact on the land.
Pick a spot that is sheltered from the wind and far away from flammable items like downed trees or dead grasses.
For safety, build near a source of water. If no water is nearby make sure you have enough water on hand to extinguish your fire.
2. MATERIALS: THE FOUR ESSENTIALS
Get your materials ready. There are 4 items needed for a good fire. Always look for dead and dry wood. Green or wet wood does not burn well. Collect only downed wood to avoid damaging trees and negatively impacting the environment.
Ignition: The fire starter that will create the spark or flame for your fire. Matches, lighters, or fire steel are common options.
Tinder: Dried grass, birch bark, or commercially prepared starters. Anything that your ignition source can light easily.
Kindling (or 'kinlin'): Larger wood but still small. Pencil to finger-sized wood.
Firewood: Anything larger than kindling. Think arm size and up.
3. ASSEMBLY: START WITH KINDLING AND TINDER
Place your tinder in the center of your desired fire location. Arrange kindling in a teepee or A-frame shape your tinder. Make sure there is a gap for the ignition source to spark the tinder. Have extra kindling and wood within arm-reach so you can feed it into the fire without getting up. Ensure there is enough space for good airflow to allow oxygen to help your tinder burn.
4. IGNITION: STACKING UP THE REMAINING ITEMS
Use your ignition source to light your tinder. Once lit, slowly add in your kindling. Make sure your kindling is burning, not just the tinder. Once this is achieved you can start adding in smaller pieces of wood. Work your way up to larger logs.
5. MAINTENANCE: NOURISH IT, THEN PUT IT OUT
Now it’s time to relax and enjoy your fire! It’s good practice to add pieces of wood slowly over time to maintain your desired fire size. If the fire burns down you’ll need to start at the beginning before adding a larger piece of wood again. Never leave a fire unattended. Thoroughly extinguish any fire before leaving your fire and scatter the ashes over a large area.
Can I cook directly over a fire starter?
If your fire starter is made of natural non-toxic materials is it safe to cook over. Otherwise, wait until all of the fire starter material is burnt off to use for cooking.
Do fire starters expire?
Firestarters, both igniters and tinders, do not expire. However, there are a few factors that affect the lifespan of a fire starter. Rusting can decrease the number of strikes for rods and strikers. Lighters, matches, and tinder fire starters do not perform as well if wet. Like any piece of gear, proper maintenance ensures long life. Keeping fire starters dry and free of debris is your best bet to keep them performing at a high level.
📸 Some photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)