Monday, December 14, 2009

An article I wrote some time back, about making fire with a Ferrocerium Rod.

Ferrocerium Rod Fire

These days, many people find themselves recreating in the great outdoors. And just as there are many ways to enjoy yourself, there is always the chance that your adventure could take a turn for the worst. Whether you plan to spend the afternoon out or commune for a week, whether you hike or mountain bike, snowmobile or ski, you need to prepare for the chance that your outing could include an emergency.

Prudent preparation will naturally include a first aid kit, and some sort of emergency necessities kit. Of course, having studied wilderness emergencies, your kit will include three different methods of starting a fire, obeying the rule of three. And along with some sort of knife, like a Swiss army knife, or Leatherman-style multi-tool, carrying a tool to start fires provides a firm foundation for your kit.

Common tools for starting fires have their failings. Matches get wet, crushed, break, or you run out of them. Lighters run out of fuel, break, get flooded or simply do not work at higher elevations. These disadvantages warrant the investigation of other firestarting tools. Because, of all the tools that you take into the wilderness, the one that starts your fire is one of the most important. And of all the alternates, the ferrocerium rod may just be the perfect tool to replace these less than ideal tools, and the ferrocerium rod is definitely a tool to round out your roster of firestarting methods.

Now, when you hear of a ferrocerium rod, you may wonder, what does this have to do with fire? The answer is that ferrocerium is one of the foundation substances in modern fire. The sparks in your lighter, or your furnace, the sparks that light your lantern, all are most likely created by a bit of ferrocerium. It may be hidden, or too small to be noteworthy, but ferrocerium is usually the source of that spark. Ferrocerium rods are sometimes identified as a 'flint' or as a 'metal match', as well as a number of brand names. For the purpose of this article, I will abbreviate the name, as you will find in some references, to 'ferro rod'.

In use, the ferro rod is scraped to produce a spark hot enough to ignite appropriate tinder, even in less than ideal conditions. Conveniently, most ferro rods are of a size that accommodates their use for years, while being small enough to carry without undue concern for weight. Ferro rods are resistant to being broken, especially in the larger diameters. And for the purposes of emergency preperation, one of their most important features is that they are waterproof, functioning once the surface water is removed.

The most common method of using a ferro rod is to scrape the side of the rod with a piece of hard metal, like a hacksaw blade that has been modified by removing the teeth or a scraper manufactured specifically for the task. While many ferro rods include a striker, some do not. In that case, just about any hard sharp edge, such as a rock or a piece of glass can be used to produce sparks, though you will likely find improvised scrapers to be less effective. Your knife can also be used to scrape the ferro rod.

The scraper is stroked along the length, the scraping separates bits of the rod, and the friction ignites them. The sparks created are very hot, 1200* F, and ignite the tinder you have prepared. Most commonly the ferrocerium rod is held stationary with the end in the tinder and the striker moving downwards. Alternately, Jeff Randall of Randall Training Adventures tells of a method where the striker can be held stationary, and the rod is put in motion. He advises that it is a good method for when the down stroke of your striker may scatter your tinder or extinguish the tiny flame. In the case of an injury or other mobility impairment, the second method may work better. A knife or axe can be stuck in a log, and the flint can be stroked along the edge, showering sparks into your tinder. The second method also works when using an improvised striker, which may be hard to control, such as an axe or machete. In my use of the various ferrocerium rods, I have found moving the striker sideways while downward helps to create a bigger spark, almost as if you are sawing a spark off. Another consideration is the size of the rod, generally, a larger ferro rod will allow more contact with the scraper, thus, more sparks.

Many of the commercially available ferrocerium rods come with magnesium, included to help start your fire. While appropriate tinder will light with only a spark or two from the ferrocerium rod, some, like Chris Janowsky of the World Survival Institute, choose to have the magnesium available for times when the tinder is damp. They advise to build a pile of magnesium shavings, place your tinder over top, and light the magnesium. The rising heat from the magnesium burning at 5400* Fahrenheit will dry and help ignite stubborn tinder.

When speaking of carrying the various firestarters, I would like to stress the importance of having your fire-starter with you at all times. To accomplish this task I like to replace the usual leather cord with utility cord. Putting the utility cord in allows a lengthening of the cord, making room for a loop so that you can secure the firestarter in such a manner as to have it with you at all times. Remember while it is possible that you may still have all your rucksack with in an emergency, it is also very possible that your emergency may consist in part, of missing or lost gear, and in that sort of situation, what you have on your person may be your only hope.
Beyond how to employ a ferrocerium rod, and techniques for best results, let us discuss the commercially availabe ferrocerium rods...

The ferrocerium rod from Simply Survival is simplicity itself. It consists of a 3/8 inch diameter ferrocerium rod drilled to accept a cord, a hacksaw striker, and a leather cord to string between the two. Of all the different offerings, this is probably the one I like the most. I found that due to its simplicity, it was the tool I reached for, it throws a large spark that will light any properly prepared tinder of appropriate composition. And speaking of appropriate tinder, Greg Davenport of Simply Survival, in his book “Wilderness Survival” explains “Tinder must have edges, air and be dry” Edges to catch the spark, Air to circulate and feed the flame, and be Dry enough to light.

Chris Janowsky of the World Survival Institute offers the Hot Spark P-60. The Hot Spark performed very well, throwing a really good spark. It also has a couple of features that make it very user friendly. The ferrocerium rod and magnesium of the Hot Spark are mounted in a wood handle, which provides a good hold. As well, the end of the wood handle nearest the rod is angled to put the flint rod right over the tinder at a convenient angle. And in an emergency, the wood of the handle can be shaved for tinder. As a plus, the P-60 comes with a belt sheath. WSI also offers a number of other models, including one exactly like the P-60 with the addition of a ceramic sharpening rod and simple models consisting of the ferrocerium rod and magnesium drilled to go on your key-chain.

Mag/Flint FireStarters offers two styles of fire-starters. One style consists of a flint rod epoxied to a magnesium rod, with a handle of antler. The antler is drilled to accept a leather cord to which a hacksaw striker is attached. These antler-handled fire-starters were very comfortable to use. The other models are without handle, meant for key-chain use, so that you may never be without the means of starting a fire. Both styles come in different sizes, and all of them accomplishing the task of starting a fire. Linda Potter, the Mag/Flint FireStarters headlady, recounted to me the numerous times she had been thanked, her firestarters having come in handy and in some cases saving lives. These stories highlight the importance of having the capacity to make a fire with you at all times.

Strike Master Survival Tools offers three different styles of flint rod based fire-starters in multiple sizes. The key-chain style in the model sent to me, is combined with a neck strap and whistle making a sort of self-rescue set, excellent as an introductory preparedness gift. And if you did not care for the neck lanyard and whistle, you could simply add the leather pouch containing flint rod, magnesium and striker to your key-chain. The H25 has a well-sized wood handle, positioned at the end of the flint rod and magnesium, making the tool very comfortable to use, and perfectly sized for wearing in a belt sheath. The P25 is also handled with wood the flint and magnesium end to end, epoxied to the wood handle. The P25 is a slimmer package, perfect for slipping into your pocket. Both the P25 and the H25 are drilled to accept the included leather cord and hacksaw striker, and in an emergency, the handles of both being wood can be scraped to provide tinder in an emergency.

Ultimate Survival aka Survival Incorporated offers the Blast Match and the Strike Force. The Blast Match was specifically designed to be used one-handed. And it works exceptionally well, throwing a shower of large, hot sparks. One consideration with the Blast Match is that it needs a firm surface to pushed against, when used one-handed. The Strike Force consists of a ferrocerium rod in a hardy plastic sheel, one end holds the rod, the other end holds the strkier, and they are held together with a nylon cord when not snapped together. The Strike Force is also unique among the various firestarters, it has a space for tinder to be stored. The Strike Force is the largest of the reviewed tools, perfect if you want an easy to grip package.

Light My Fire of Sweden offers the FireSteel in two sizes. Both models share a plastic cap/handle that bears a lanyard hole for attaching the included striker to the FireSteel with cord, also included. The larger model, known as the Army, is a 3/8 inch flint rod, and it comes with one cap color, black. As I understand it, the Army model is in use with the Swedish military, which does not surprise me, the large rod throws an excellent spark. The smaller model, the Scout, is the same as the Military, except with a thinner flint rod and is available with different colored caps. I found the Fire Steels to be convenient in use, the cap providing a good hold. I think both styles of FireSteel are a good value, simple and effective. The Scout model may just be the perfect ferrocerium rod for the minimalist hiker that wants emergency fire-making capability without 'excessive' weight. MagFire offers a similar product, comparable to the Scout model. And if you are looking for a ferro rod with a handle in the shape of a flame, check out

Last among the flint and magnesium tools I will mention the standard block of magnesium with a ferrocerium sparking insert. This tool is sometimes known as the Doan tool, after the name of the company that makes them, Doan Mfg. This firestater is commonly available from Coghlan’s in many outdoor and sporting goods stores, and sometimes at your local army/navy surplus. Commonly available and simple, it will accomplish the task of starting a fire, though you will have to provide a striker.

Finally, I would like to deviate slightly and mention, the Spark-Lite from Four Seasons Survival. This is really a system, not just a ferro rod fire starter. The Spark-Lite, is a plastic body, the size of four common wood matches, with a wheel similar to what is on a lighter, the wheel strikes a bit of ferrocerium when you rotate the wheel, throwing a small shower of sparks. The Spark Lite comes in a plastic box that also contains 8-10 FireTabs, the FireTabs are cotton soaked in a mixture that makes them very water resistant, as well as quick to light. The box is small enough to fit in a pocket, perfect for hip pack kits and such. In use, the Spark-Lite very quickly lights the FireTabs. This system seems the best to me for those who would practice little before they needed their firestarter, or for those who prefer a compact system. Among it’s advantages is that it can be used one-handed, and it functions once any water is blown out of the action.

The ferrocerium rod, in its various forms, is one of the best tools available for starting a fire in the wilderness. The ferrocerium rod provides a durable, long-lasting, effective fire-starter. When trekking into your next adventure, take a ferrocerium rod along with you, you will only be safer and more comfortable for doing so. And remember, practice before you need it, and you will be ready when it counts. “Hope for the best, Prepare for the Worst.”

A note of caution, if the edge of your knife is all you have, then by all means use that, but if the spine of your knife is available that would be preferable since the heat of the sparks and the metal of the ferrocerium rod may blunt or dull the edge of your knife. If you decide to use the edge of one of your Swiss Army knife or multi-tool implements, be careful to remember that it folds, and you don't want it folding on you. As a final note of caution, remember that you are working with fire, which can be very destructive if left to it's own devices. " a dangerous servant and a terrible master". --George Washington