BRING ON THE SPARKS The act of "making" fire is both monotonous and magical all at the same time. It has a primeval effect on man and as I mentioned before in another part of the COSS blog we can thank fire for our ability to produce electricity or even split the atom. but enough of the "ain't that cool" stuff, lets work with our fire tools. The most common is of course the match. If you are in a wilderness survival situation and only have paper matches to rely on...its been nice. Pray for lightning or a volcano or something equally as reliable. The wood match is to the paper match what a down bag is to a space blanket, they will both do the job but man what a difference. Wood matches are better but still not the answer. Lighters are okay but remember they use Butane and that particular gas hates the cold and altitude. They also can't be counted on once wet. The Zippo type lighter uses far too much fuel, drys out quickly and is also susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature. In short, forget the lighters.
Okay then, whats next? I always smile knowingly whenever I hear someone use the words "Flint and Steel". Very few outdoors men (and women) today could really use a steel kit and few understand what they are talking about when they refer to it. To the common wilderness traveler, a Flint and Steel is a pocket sized bar of magnesium and a sparking insert. WRONG! That is called.......well its a Magnesium bar with Sparking insert. Also called a Doan Magnesium and Steel (wrong again)
A true Flint and Steel set consists of a high Carbon Steel striker of some kind (even the back end of some Carbon Steel knives or an old file) and a hard sharp stone like Flint, Chert, and the like.
It must be harder then the Steel and have a bit of an edge. The idea is: The Steel contacts the stone with a Glancing blow. The stone peels a fine hair sized wire off the Carbon and under the friction of this impact is ignited like the wire in a flash bulb.
(for those that don't know, cameras used flash bulbs filled with Nichrome or Tungsten wire to illuminate the subject momentarily, An electric charge set the wire in the bulb burning in a momentary bright glowing "flash" then the burned bulb was discarded) Today we use Xenon type bulbs that are powered by a battery charging a capacitor that "dumps" energy as it discharges firing the flash again and again as needed. back to the fire..... This short lived "spark" needs to be caught in a material that is easily flammable. Char Cloth being the most common but different types of tinder can be found in the wild: certain types of fungus and vegetation at different stages of its life make great spark catchers. The spark is carefully eased to life with ones breath and when a flame jumps from the tinder it is transferred to the kindling.....bang, the next thing you know old Jed's a millionaire. Lets look at making Char Cloth:
Magnesium is more user friendly. Magnesium is HIGHLY flammable when peeled into fine ribbons, (they like to blow away on the slighted breeze) they burn insanely hot (in the thousands of degrees) and will light most material even when it is damp. To start the ribbons burning, you scrape an edge (a sharp edge) across the surface of the sparking insert. This throws copious amounts of hot sparks that burn at over a thousand degrees. One spark sets the whole thing off. Now lets take a minute here to pay homage and give the respect due to the miracle substance that makes all this possible. FERROCERIUM ! Sometimes called Mischmetal, this is a mixture of "Rare Earth" metals (iron-cerium-lanthanum-neodymium-praseodymium and magnesium, in case you want to go to the drug store and make your own) that spark when a sharp edge is run over it scraping off a shower of super hot (over a thousand degrees) sparks. As you can see there is NO Flint here at all, calling it Flint and Steel is like calling a refrigerator an ice box, it is yet it ain't. My favorite fire tools are by far the StrikeMaster tools, strong serious tools that take a beating and stand up to continual use. They are very well made, dependable and easy to use!! The Survival inc. company produces some nice tools as well. The StrikeForce and BlastMatch are handy and sturdy tools. Now, Ferrocerium is so good at doing what it does that it doesn't always need the magnesium to help things along. Find the right type of dry (even semi dry) tinder and you still have fire.
One Ferro rod can produce thousands of sparks and is little effected by weather, altitude or the users experience for that matter. Your Grandmother could make a fire with one of these things. Not carrying a Ferro rod is folly. It is by far the very best and most reliable way to start a fire, or camp stove.