Scot’s Product Review: InstaFire

Fire is kind of a big deal. It keeps us warm, cooks our food, and can signal for help. It’s comforting to sit around one. Being able to have a fire quickly is a very nice thing. InstaFire FireStarter lives up to its name, though you do actually have to go to the bother of striking a match to light it. That’s really not too much to ask for, though, considering the benefit. Yes, there are a lot of things you can set on fire with a match, but unlike a piece of wadded up newspaper, this stuff burns hot and long, so you have plenty of time to get a proper fire going. In fact, it burns hot and long enough that it might be all the fuel you need for heating a quick meal or making a warm drink.

So what is this stuff? It looks like some sort of greenish crumbles you might put in a fish tank along with some brownish pellets that could be gerbil food. They mention on the website that the green stuff is what you light. The company’s website says that “InstaFire is a patented blend of volcanic rock, wood pellets, and paraffin wax. This patented formula is what makes InstaFire water resistant for use in even the most severe weather, such as rain, snow, or high winds.” That’s a bit more informative than my visual assessment.

We do not have snow very often where I live, and I tested it in July, so I can’t say anything about the snow part of their claims. I did, however, check it on windy days. As long as I could keep the match lit long enough to get it to the pile of InstaFire, I could light the InstaFire. Common sense prevails, though, and you do need to give it a bit of shelter for it to burn properly.

The rain part also holds true. If you can get the match to light and get it to the InstaFire while the match is burning, you can light the InstaFire as long as you keep it reasonably dry. The pouches it comes in does an admirable job of that. I tried soaking some loose stuff in a bowl for about 15 minutes and found it was hard to light, but I did manage to get a few bits going even while it was floating on water. You can perform the fun trick of lighting some dry InstaFire, though, and then putting it on water, and it will keep burning while floating. I was able to get the stuff I soaked to burn after letting it dry for about six hours. It didn’t burn as well as fresh from the pouch as it was still damp, but it burned, which I thought was pretty amazing. Try that with a wad of newspaper.

InstaFire comes in two forms– buckets of loose material and in convenient pouches. You can actually set the pouches on fire and not even bother opening it. You usually don’t need the whole pouch, however, so I haven’t torched the whole thing very often. I did use a full pouch to start a wet pile of brush cuttings that a pile of shredded paper wouldn’t phase. Now I have a nice, cleared, level spot of ashes where the offending pile of debris once stood. Scorched Earth can be good.

I’ve been using InstaFire for over a year. I got some to see if it was worth having around, and I decided that it is. I find it particularly handy for starting fires in a fireplace, as well as on campouts with the Scouts. I recently found a half used pouch that had been sitting open for close to a year after a campout. It had been stored inside in air conditioned space and only loosely closed. It worked just fine.

Just as a refresher on fires, we need basically four things to get one going. First, you need a fire starter, which is basically a source of heat that is hot enough to ignite tinder. It could be a match or something that makes sparks, like a fire steel or perhaps something that generates enough friction to get a flame. Tinder is what you light with your fire starter. Tinder can be things like a tuft of cotton, some dryer lint, or wood shavings from a dry stick. Some of my friends swear by cotton balls with some petroleum jelly smeared into them. There are tons of commercial tinder products. Next, you need kindling, which is small stuff like dry sticks the size of a pencil. Finally, we come to fuel, which includes things like logs or coal that can burn for a long time and produce a lot of heat.

InstaFire can serve as tinder, kindling, and fuel, which is downright splendid. While it started easily with a match, I wanted to see how it would do with other means of fire starters. The very patient person who taught me how to start fires (I was not an apt student) felt you really have to be able to get a fire going without matches by using something that makes a spark. When I tried my fire steel I was not able to get the pile of InstaFire going. I can almost always get a tuft of cotton going with one or two strikes on my fire steel, using the back of my knife blade rather than the little piece of steel that comes with the fire starter. It works better that way. I spread the cotton out so I don’t have to be as accurate with the sparks. I checked, and as suspected, burning cotton does a great job of getting InstaFire going.

The InstaFire folks, however, don’t suggest this method of igniting it but do mention using magnesium fire starters. These are a block of magnesium with a flint embedded on one side. You shave some magnesium off of the block into a small pile and then strike the flint with your knife. The magnesium then makes a hot, though, short-lived fire. I decided to dig mine out and give it a whirl. I felt silly when I could not get a spark to hit the pile of magnesium (not an apt student, remember), but one spark did hit the adjacent pile of InstaFire, which started right up and then lit the magnesium. The flint on this starter clearly made bigger sparks than the one on my fire steel, so this proves that you can start InstaFire with a spark, but you need a pretty good sized one– bigger than you need for a bit of cotton or drier lint. It’s possible though, so InstaFire is officially tinder in my book.

InstaFire is also fantastic kindling. Kindling is the small stuff that you can build the fire you created from tinder into a real fire using fuel in the form of bigger pieces of wood. You normally gather a bunch of small, dry sticks to use as kindling, but with InstaFire, you can greatly reduce the need for this stuff and save the time spent gathering it. I would still gather some kindling to reduce the amount of InstaFire needed, as I hate to waste something as useful as InstaFire, but if you have nicely split, dry, high quality firewood, you can probably get by just fine without additional kindling. Since dry kindling is rare in these parts, it is wonderful to not need as much.

Part of the job of kindling is to dry the fuel wood and heat it enough to burn. They show InstaFire starting wet wood in their videos, but I like insurance and having some dry sticks to add to the InstaFire can provide it.

Okay, suppose you don’t need a real fire but just want something to heat a small meal or hot drink? Well, not only is InstaFire fantastic kindling, it is also a great fuel. A pouch will burn for 15 minutes or so, and InstaFire says it burns at around 1,000 degrees, which is plenty hot enough to cook on. The stuff isn’t heavy; each pouch is about two ounces, so it isn’t hard to carry. A solo hiker on a two or three day trip could probably carry what they need in their pack. Ten or so pouches of the stuff would be less than a pound and a half and make a bundle about 7”x5”x4”. If you are in an area with dry branches and twigs to gather, you could easily extend that without much effort.

Another nice feature of InstaFire is that it burns without smoke. You could very easily heat food during the day without anyone knowing you were around.

I really like the fact that InstaFire does not flare up. They compare it to lighting a candle, and that’s a pretty good analogy. I’ve had to jump back from lighter fluid, which isn’t much fun. InstaFire feels a lot safer.

InstaFire also sells CharcoalStarter, which comes in the same sort of pouch as InstaFire. It looks like about the same stuff to me, but the website says that it has “apple wood/alder wood pellets that give a slight apple wood scent when burnt”, while the InstaFire contains “Pine, Aspen, and Fir wood pellets that make a lovely pine scent much like a camp fire…” According to InstaFire, they use the different pellets so the fire will have an appropriate smell for the purpose of the fire. I do like the idea, but personally, I see no reason not to use the regular stuff, if that’s all you have to start a charcoal fire. I would also use the charcoal stuff to start a regular fire if necessary. Either way, I would enjoy the fragrance and the fire.

I tried the CharcoalStarter they sent for the review, and it worked as promised. I think you could get by with less than a whole pouch for a small hibachi-style grill. Using a chimney appears more efficient than letting it start in the grill, but I didn’t’ have one. I greatly prefer this stuff to the common lighter fluid for charcoal. InstaFire says there are no harmful chemicals in it, so it isn’t going to add a bad flavor to food if you start cooking too soon. As mentioned above, it doesn’t flare up, so your eyebrows and beard are quite safe, thank you very much. I think it actually does a better job at starting the coals, too. How often have you had to give a few extra squirts of lighter fluid to get your charcoal going? It’s not a problem with InstaFire, though not as exciting. I didn’t do a cost analysis, but I do fear it is slightly more expensive. I certainly prefer carrying it around. Having a quart of lighter fluid leak in the car is not much fun. If a pouch of InstaFire were to pop open, it won’t stink or poison the air in the car and can easily be vacuumed out. Just don’t light it.

InstaFire also sells five gallon buckets of the stuff labeled Emergency Fuel. It is the same product as the fire starter, simply packaged in a more economical manner.

InstaFire estimates the shelf life is 30 years. I bet if it was vacuum packed, it would last forever, but I have no way to prove that.

InstaFire is an American company based in Utah and founded by Konel Banner and Fred Weston. Both of them are outdoorsmen. Banner saw the aftermath of both the Teton Dam flood and Hurricane Katrina, while Weston served as a firefighter. They are familiar with dealing with problematic situations. Their company motto is “Safe. Simple. Versatile.” I think their products live up to it and have earned a place in my household. You can certainly argue that you should be able to get by without something like InstaFire, but you can’t deny that having some could sure make life easier in a crunch.

The pouches of Instafire FireStarter and CharcoalStarter average a bit more than a buck each, but buying them in larger quantities drives that down slightly. A single pouch can cook food or start several fires. The two gallon buckets are a bit more than $30, while the four gallon ones are a bit under $60. The Emergency Fuel five-gallon bucket is about $66.00. They have an Instafire page with all of the products listed.

As an aside, something that I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, and testing InstaFire got me motivated to do it, is the so-called Dakota Fire hole. This is a clever way of building a fire for cooking that is very efficient. I was frustrated, though, that I wasn’t able to figure out why it is called a Dakota Fire Hole. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me!

Anyway, the idea is to dig a hole about 18” square and at least as deep. You can vary the size of the fire hole, if you need a larger or smaller fire. Dig another hole, which can be smaller and shallower, next to it. Then dig a tunnel between the two about the diameter of your fist. The fire is in the first hole and the second hole serves to provide air to the fire. This functions much like the rocket stoves that have gotten really popular in the last few years.

You build your fire by getting some tinder going, then layering in some kindling, and finally adding some fuel. You can use some green branches to build a grate over the fire to rest a pot or cup on. You can feed fuel in from the top or through the tunnel. I’ve seen people do both. When you need to add air to the fire, you can blow through the tunnel, though it isn’t as easy as using a rocket stove.

I found that about a half pouch of InstaFire worked beautifully at starting a fire in the hole my son and I dug. We probably could have used less InstaFire. We added dry sticks and then a fuel log about three inches in diameter and had a very nice fire going that lasted for about an hour. It would have done a nice job of cooking a meal.

There is a great feature to this sort of fire. It is below ground, so it is hard to see. There is a glow after dark but nothing like you get from a regular fire. You could shield it far more easily than you could a regular fire. As with any fire, it may smoke depending on fuel quality. Wet stuff will smoke, but dry stuff will burn pretty cleanly. I think the fire can burn a bit hotter in this system than in a regular one, but I have no real way to prove it. The higher temperature helps cut down on the smoke.

As in all of life, though, there is a drawback to match the advantage. The heat goes up and can’t radiate from the fire because the fire is underground. That means it isn’t much for warmth or conviviality. I wondered, though, if a heat proof tarp spread above the fire could catch some of the heat and reflect it back. One of the foil survival style blankets come to mind for this purpose. I’m going to try it this winter. It would, however, also catch some of the glow from the fire, which would make it more visible. Nothing is free, sigh. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie