Fire is cool stuff, though I may have said that before. Much like a nine-year-old boy, it needs to be carefully controlled, but when it is, it is indispensable. Getting fire when you want it is pretty easy when you have access to store-bought matches that have been kept dry along with nice dry tinder, kindling, and fuel. The problem with fire is how to get it when you lack matches.
All the tinder, kindling, and fuel on the planet won’t do you a whit of good, if you don’t have something to make the tinder hot enough to burn. The aforementioned matches are a delight as are cigarette and grill lighters. Matches get wet, and we run out of them. I’ve seen people carefully split matches so they have two instead of one, but that leaves you with two weak matches rather than one strong one. I fret over that. Lighters run out of fuel, usually as quickly as nine-year-olds find them, but sometimes they turn empty just out of spite, usually when you need them the most.
There are a lot of other ways to make the heat we need to ignite a fire. A good magnifying glass works really well, although the best ones are glass and, therefore, breakable. The big problem with them is that they don’t work when it is dark or cloudy. We often most need fire in the dark, so the magnifier is, at best, only a partial solution.
I’ve seen some amazing people who are a lot better than I am with this stuff start fires with friction by rubbing sticks together or by using a bow or hand drill. The idea is that you can get enough heat to create a coal that is transferred to tinder, and you then blow on it until it bursts into flame. These techniques work well, but they take time to learn to do with proficiency. I hope to do a more thorough investigation of some of them in the future and will report back. My efforts in the past were not pursued long enough to really learn how to do it. I have a patience issue at times.
What I have settled on these days for fire starting without matches is a fire steel made of ferrocerium. This stuff is a man-made metal that acts like flint, giving off sparks when struck on with a piece of steel. They are shaped like rods, usually about three inches or so long, and generally come with a little bit of steel that you scrape against the rod to produce a shower of sparks. You aim the sparks into a pile of tinder. If you have good tinder, say some natural fiber lint from the clothes drier or some tufts of cotton, it will burst into flame quite nicely. The Instafire stuff https://survivalblog.com/scots-product-review-instafire/ I reviewed recently will do this too, though not as readily as lint or cotton. Other alternatives that may be more available are things like dried grass. You build a nest to catch the sparks, and when the nest begins to smoke you start blowing it into a fire. This is the part that takes practice.
I was initially disappointed with many of the fire steels I tried, but I discovered that my problem was more with the striker than the steel itself. I usually get better results with the back of my pocketknife than I do with the little striker that comes with most steels. The saw teeth on the back of some knives, like the Glock Field Knife or the Air Force Survival knife, work really well. I’ve also had good luck with sections of a hacksaw blade.
Good technique helps, too. You are scraping it down the rod hard and fast. Just letting the striker rest on the rod won’t make as many sparks. Experiment with the scraper. They generally have an up and front side that works, while the other sides won’t. They can also wear out. All that scraping eventually makes them smooth, and they need some roughness to make sparks,
I’m not always the most dexterous of people, and all too often I use poor technique in scraping. Another problem is aiming the sparks into the tinder. I frequently produce a shower of sparks in the wrong direction that don’t fall on my waiting tinder. There are also times that it would be really nice to have a hand free while making sparks so you could shield the tinder from wind.
Since I have all these problems, I got pretty excited when I came across the Blastmatch. This is a fire steel for klutzes. It comes in a plastic case. You pop one end off, and it rotates to the other end out of the way. A spring loaded rod pops out. There is a tab that you press in to hold the striker against the rod. The very cool idea is that you put the end of the rod in the middle of your tinder and then, while holding the tab with the striker firmly, you give the plastic case a vigorous push downward. You get a nice shower of sparks, if you push hard and fast enough with enough pressure on the striker. Meanwhile, your other hand is free to hold the nest of tinder in place or shield everything from wind or rain. It helps greatly if you have a hard surface to do this on. I can easily see driving it into the dirt if you don’t.
I had great luck with it, but my nine-year-old had some problems. He had to raise the thing up, off of the tinder on the ground, and smack it down. Since we were working on a concrete surface, this started breaking pieces off the end of the rod. I could see this seriously shortening the life of the Blastmatch.
Overall, I really like the Blastmatch, but it does feel flimsy. I am not sure how long it will hold up, but I do realize that my son, who spent a couple of hours making sparks with it probably did the equivalent of a year’s worth of fires in one day. If the spring mechanism does break, you should still be able to use it with a knife and keep starting fires.
The Blastmatch can be found for between $15 and $20 in orange or black but not in camo, to the disappointment of my son. They say that it is assembled in the U.S. with some foreign components, but they don’t specify where they come from.
The same company that markets the Blastmatch, Ultimate Survival Technologies, also sells a number of other fire starting supplies, including several types of tinder. I decided to try one that promised it would work when wet– Wetfire. The stuff comes in the form of white lumps that are a bit bigger than a sugar cube, and each cube is wrapped in an airtight plastic wrap. It is a waxy material, and the idea is that you scrape off bits to start your fire. I had no problems getting it going with some sparks from the Blastmatch, and it had a good burn time. A single cube could easily start several fires, if you have some natural tinder, like dried grass and good kindling to add to it. The nice thing about it is how easily it ignites into a nice flame. I did try wetting it, and it still worked. It is necessary to convert it into shavings to get it to start easily. I managed to get a cube going, but shavings were a lot easier to ignite.
A 12-pack of Wetfire cubes goes for about $8.00. They say the stuff will store for up to five years, and the package advises that it is “processed and packaged in the U.S.A. from foreign material”.
I also tried the Blastmatch with some homemade tinder from jute twine. This was a new trick for me. You unravel a piece of it into fuzz and make it into a nest to catch sparks or a coal. It works pretty well. I’ve always used cotton or dryer lint, but this could be a good substitute. I think cotton and lint are a bit more flammable, though. One trick I have not tried is dipping the jute nest partially into wax and then storing it in an airtight container for future use. This works pretty well with cotton and adds some burn time and heat to the fire. You want to leave some of the fibers free of wax, though, so they can ignite more easily from the sparks. Vaseline can also work, but I prefer to add that just before trying to get the fire going.
I like the Blastmatch and look forward to using it on a Cub Scout campout.
I’m planning on providing occasional updates on the products I’ve chosen to keep after the review. I always like to hear how things are faring in the long term, and I hope our readers will, too.
We are still enjoying using the SUNFLAIR solar oven. I am still plagued, at times, with intermittent cloud cover which has a bad effect on cooking temperatures in the oven. I had the idea to borrow a scheme I saw on a homemade oven to see if it would help with the SUNFLAIR. The idea is to put your cooking pot inside a large, clear, glass bowl and cover it with a clear glass plate. This creates a tight containment area for heat around the pot. After checking it with a thermometer, I found that it does work. The cooking area does not get any hotter than the oven (and takes a bit longer to heat up), but if the sun goes behind a cloud for 30 minutes, it stays a lot hotter inside the glass bowl than the oven interior stays. This evens out cooking nicely. On the other hand, proving that there is always a price, the glass bowl and plate are heavy, bulky, and fragile and completely defeat the portability of the SUNFLAIR. If you are using it at home, that’s not a problem, but if you are camping and on foot, it isn’t going to work. The SUNFLAIR does work well without the extra parts, but it can help you cook faster on a less-than-ideal solar day. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie