Field Test: 6 Best Fire Starters

Never get caught in the woods without means to make a fire

Fire is your best friend in the wild. It can make water and food safe to consume, let you signal for help, and provide warmth. But the cold, wet, windy conditions that can cause hypothermia can also hamper fire building. That’s why you need a quality ferrocerium fire starter, or spark rod, to back up a lighter or matches. We tested six very different spark rods–and tinder–to determine the benefits and drawbacks of each.

1. Ultimate Survival Technologies Sparkie + WetFire
$10 / ultimatesurvivaltech.com
The Sparkie is a mini version of UST’s popular BlastMatch. This plunge-style starter contains a spring-loaded spark rod and an internal tungsten carbide scraper. Just press the thumb button to engage the scraper and slide it down the rod and into your tinder. This one-handed operation makes it a great option in case of injury, and the plunge activation puts your sparks right where you need them–in the tinder. Although the Sparkie has a slender rod and will start fewer total fires than larger products, it can be rotated to extend its lifespan.

UST’s WetFire tinder is included in some packagings of the Sparkie, and it’s also available separately ($8 for 8 cubes). This waterproof cube was the best tinder in our trial, burning up to 10 minutes and producing foot-tall flames. One plunge into a pile of crumbled WetFire was all it took to send it into flame.

2. Light My Fire Swedish FireKnife + Tinder-on-a-Rope
$40 / lightmyfire.com
An excellent grade of ferro rod and one of my favorite knife styles (a Mora wood carver) could make the Swedish FireKnife the best bushcraft blade for your buck. This combo tool has a removable spark rod in the handle, and a shaving-sharp 3.9-inch Scandi grind blade of hardened Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel. The crisp square edge on the blade’s spine offers plenty of scraping area, and the shower of sparks is impressive. I wish the rod was bigger, so that it handled better and would last longer, but it’s still an outstanding product.

A great pairing for this knife is Light My Fire’s Tinder-on-a-Rope ($5), a 6-inch stick of waterproof fatwood on a lanyard. Use the FireKnife to shave off curly bits of the wood, and strike your sparks into the pile. On average, it took five strikes with the FireKnife to get these shavings to light.

3. Gerber Bear Grylls Compact Fire Starter + PJCB
$25 / gerbergear.com
Gerber’s new Compact Fire Starter, from their Bear Grylls line of survival equipment, is a pendant-style ferrocerium rod that can be worn around the neck so that it’s always with you. The ferro rod’s handle is small, but it has textured rubber inlays for a secure grip, plus a lanyard. The checkered and faceted aluminum sleeve that stores the rod also acts as the scraper handle, and it has a fair amount of grip as well. The ferrocerium is easy to spark and generated long-burning sparks.

Since Gerber isn’t marketing its own tinder at this time, I paired this tool with a time-proven classic from my personal survival kit–petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls. The big shower of sparks from the Compact Fire Starter easily lit a shredded PJCB in one strike.

4. Exotac NanoStriker XL + Tindertin
$33 / exotac.com
The NanoStriker XL produced some of the largest individual sparks I have ever seen from a spark rod. The quarter-inch ferrocerium­-and-magnesium rod is housed in a checkered-grip, anodized aluminum case that also holds an I-beam-shaped tungsten carbide striking tool. This pendant-style tool would be an excellent addition to a keychain for everyday carry. At the very least, tie a lanyard to it–the striker is very small and could be easily lost.

I paired this starter with Exotac’s tinderTIN ($6). The included fatwood is available as either splinters or shavings, but you’ll need fibrous material to really catch sparks. I recommend opting for the shavings and blending in a little cotton fluff for more dependable results. I lit the dust from the bottom of the tin of splinters with one strike, but couldn’t light the larger pieces with any amount of sparks.

5. Coghlan’s Flint Striker + Tinder
$6 / coghlans.com
Big enough to hold onto easily and affordably priced, the Coghlan’s Flint Striker offers good value and is commonly available. The stamp-cut steel scraper is very reminiscent of the scraper used by Light My Fire with their Swedish FireSteel, and it works well enough on the spark-rod material. The 3-inch-long, 5/16-inch diameter ferrocerium rod should last for generations. There are better grades of ferrocerium available, and I don’t care for the teeth on the scraper (a flat edge with a stamp-cut burr would work better), but this is still a perfectly functional fire-starting tool.

It can be used effectively with Coghlan’s Tinder ($4), which is a fuel-­impregnated fiber pellet with a five-minute burn time. Just make sure you tear the tinder apart to expose some of the fibrous material to catch your sparks. I was able to light this combo in two strikes.

6. Zippo Emergency Fire Starter Kit
$10 / zippo.com
Zippo’s Emergency Fire Starter Kit resembles a regular Zippo lighter. But flip open the iconic lid and you’ll find a spark wheel and four sticks of cotton-and-wax tinder. The removable flint wheel igniter produces a small shower of sparks that will light most fluffy tinder materials. The orange plastic case is easy to spot if you drop it, but it is not waterproof. (Zippo also offers a metal-cased version in a black matte finish with a rubber gasket, which could help keep the tinder dry, but it is twice the price.) I found the orange case very slippery to hold and the spark wheel a little awkward to use. Replacement tinder does not seem to be readily available, but a few cotton balls crammed into the case’s storage compartment will work almost as well. I was able to light the wax stick tinder in as little as three strikes.

How We Test
Being something of a pyromaniac, I had a lot of fun with these trials and tests, which allowed me to compare old favorites and new tools side by side. My chief concern in this review was the devices’ ability to create fire. The most basic test was simple–will the sparks light a dry cotton ball? Happily, all of the tools satisfied that prerequisite. Next, I looked at the distance that the sparks flew as an indication of the sparks’ burn time. The Exotac and Gerber spark rods were able to launch sparks up to 3 feet, with an honorable mention going to the Coghlan’s Flint Striker, which would occasionally launch a lone spark past a couple of feet. I also looked at the spray of the sparks. The UST and Light My Fire entries created broad showers with scores of sparks, presumably from lots of little pieces of burning ferro. A spray like that increases your chances of hitting receptive spots in your tinder.

Finally, I looked at the design and ease of use of each. By far, the UST Sparkie was the easiest to use, employing smart ergonomics to start fires with one hand and one stroke. Any of these devices would be a great backup for matches and lighters, but the Sparkie, NanoStriker XL, FireKnife, and Bear Grylls Compact Fire Starter really stood out. Add any of these fire starters to your survival kit or EDC gear, and you’ll have one more way to get a fire going. Fast. –T.M.

fire starter test
The final results, at a glance OL