Fire is high on the list of survival priorities, second only to shelter. If you’re caught outdoors in bad weather you need to get a fire going to help you keep your core temperature up.
In any long-term survival scenario fire is going to be essential for cooking, sterilizing water and giving you enough light to continue doing stuff after nightfall.So it’s no surprise that most survival kits include at least one way of starting a fire and usually two – weatherproof matches and a ferrocerium rod with striker are the most common options.
Unfortunately both matches and ferro rods have their issues. Matches don’t burn for long, especially the weatherproof “lifeboat” style. Ferro rods need some skill to use successfully and rely on having dry tinder available. They’re both workable solutions, but there’s a better one. If you can find one of the few surviving smokers, they’ll be able to tell you – carry a lighter.
Of course there’s a reason why the people who make survival kits don’t just stick a cigarette lighter in there. Lighters need fuel, and that tends to evaporate over time. Survival kits are designed to have very long storage lives, and after a few years even the best lighter couldhave lost a lot of its fuel.
It’s the same reason most survival kits don’t include a flashlight – the battery charge degrades over time, so when you actually need it there’s a high chance it won’t work. That’s why you carry a flashlight separately, and it makes a lot of sense to carry a lighter separately as well.
You can test and refuel it regularly, ensuring that it’s always ready to produce a flame – and when it’s needed you’ll have a reliable source of fire that’s far superior to matches or a ferro rod.
When it comes to choosing a lighter the first decision to make is what kind of fuel to use. There are two main options:
- This is the most common option. It’s a clean-burning and safe fuel, it lights easily and in a well-designed lighter it can produce a very hot, intense flame. Standard lighters release butane at a low pressure, and it’s ignited to give a yellow flame similar to a candle; the high pressure nozzle of a storm lighter produces a focused blue jet. On the other hand butane doesn’t always vaporize in cold weather, so you need to keep the lighter somewhere warm; an inside pocket usually works. It’s also dependent on canned fuel. When that runs out there’s nothing else you can fill up with, which can be a problem in a long-term survival situation.
- Liquid fuel. More traditional lighters run on liquid fuel, which is usually highly refined naphtha. This has a lot of disadvantages compared to butane. Unless the wick is properly adjusted and trimmed it can burn inefficiently, with a sooty flame. The lighters are prone to leaking and any fuel that escapes is a fire hazard.There are also some major advantages, though. Liquid-fueled lighters are very windproof – much more than a standard butane lighter and not far off the performance of a storm lighter. They can also run on a wide range of flammable liquids, from Coleman fuel to rubbing alcohol and even cologne. That makes them very versatile in the long run.
If you opt for butane the other main choice is the ignition system. A lot of them now use a piezo electric igniter, which is reliable and should pretty much last forever. Others have a more traditional flint and striker wheel.
Unless it’s well made this is more prone to failing but it can also be used to create a usable spark even if the lighter itself is out of fuel – and it’s a lot easier to use than a ferro rod. If you want a storm lighter piezo electric is usually the only option.
Most lighters are disposable butane ones. They’re dirt cheap and sold as a disposable item, mostly for smokers. They’re also quite flimsy, and the working parts tend to fail or fall apart quite quickly. But they’re also light, and it certainly won’t hurt to throw one or two in your kit as backups. You shouldn’t depend on one as your main source of fire, though.
Instead find a good quality lighter and look after it well. Even a high end one will have a modest price tag compared to almost any other piece of survival gear, and when you think about how vital fire is this is an unbeatable investment. Here are our top three survival lighter choices:
Turboflame Ranger Windproof Lighter
Features At A Glance:
- Piezoelectric ignition
- Twin high-intensity flames
- Flip-up protective cap
- Weighs 3 ounces
The Turboflame Ranger is a tough butane-powered storm lighter that sells for around $26, and makes an ideal survival tool. It has a large-capacity gas tank with a transparent window, so you can instantly check how much fuel is left, and a heavy duty piezo electric igniter mounted on one side.
The body is molded out of a sturdy plastic but from the weight it feels like this is a cover over a metal chassis; a fair amount of metal is visible around the top end, which tends to confirm this. There’s a lanyard loop just below the igniter so you can easily secure it to your gear – a smart move, because it’s too heavy to float.
The Turboflame Ranger Windproof Lighter, Black is filled through a port in the base, and like all storm lighters you should use at least triple-refined butane to keep the nozzles clean. If you can get 5x refined gas that’s even better. Also on the base is a small Phillips screw.
This is slightly confusing, because close by are symbols that suggest this screw is what adjusts the flame. It isn’t; it holds the base on, so leave it alone. The actual flame adjuster is a split collar round the fill port, which can be dialed in with a small flat-head screwdriver.
The top end is the really interesting bit, because under the flip-up protective cover you’ll find not one but two nozzles. These produce slim, high-powered jets of focused blue flame that reach temperatures of up to 2,300°F.
That’s hot enough for soldering and will also carry out a range of other tasks, including heat-sealing small cracks in a kayak or quickly cutting through a climbing rope. It goes without saying the flames are easily hot enough to ignite kindling and get a fire started.
Verdict: A rugged and highly effective lighter at a very attractive price.
UST Windmill Delta
Features At A Glance:
- Elastomer armored case
- Waterproof flip top
- Piezo electric ignition
- Weighs 2 ounces
This compact little unit from Ultimate Survival technologies is a high end storm lighter with a list price of $59.95, but you can usually find it for under $40. It has a lower gas capacity than the Turboflame Ranger, but it’s also smaller and lighter.
The body is completely encased in a tough, rubbery elastomer coating, including the flip-up cap; the only breaks in the armor are the tank window and fire button. A lanyard loop gives security, and there’s a hinged wire closure to keep the cap shut. Combined with the O-ring seal under the cap this makes the lighter completely waterproof when it’s closed down.
The single flame produced by the UST Delta Stormproof Lighter with Lightweight, Rugged Construction, Turbo Flame and Fuel Level Window for Camping, Backpacking, Hiking and Outdoor Survival is incredibly powerful. The makers say it’s windproof up to hurricane-force winds, and that’s completely believable. It’s hot enough to melt most plastics almost instantly, plus it lights fires with an awesome efficiency. It’s also easy to refill – use at least quadruple-refined butane for the best performance.
Verdict: Tiny and tough, the Windmill Delta is an incredibly powerful survival tool.
Zippo windproof lighter
Features At A Glance:
- Full metal, brass or steel case
- Replaceable wick, flints and batting
The Zippo 218 Classic Black Matte Pocket Lighter probably needs no introduction. It went on sale in the 1930s and, apart from minor differences in the shape of the outer case, has barely changed since. This is a defiantly traditional lighter, which runs on liquid fuel. It’s a solidly made all-metal design, that’s easy to tinker with and repair.
The inner case holds all the works – a thumb-operated striker wheel at the top, a replaceable flint and a perforated chimney to shield the flame from the wind. Inside is a wad of synthetic batting with the wick woven through it and finally projecting into the chimney.At the base is a strip of felt, held in place by the flint retaining screw; many users stash spare flints and even an extra wick under the felt.
A Zippo flame is fairly windproof, but still easier to blow out than a storm lighter. It’s also a lot less hot and intense – you won’t be using a Zippo for soldering. On the other hand once it’s lit you don’t need to keep a finger on the button – it will keep burning until you close the lid or it runs out of fuel.
The real strength of a Zippo is its simplicity and ruggedness. It will also run on almost any liquid that can be ignited with a spark. Stove fuel, rubbing alcohol, kerosene – they’ll all burn. Even gasoline can be used, although that can be hazardous if any leaks. If you’re completely out of fuel you can put dry tinder inside the chimney and use the spark to light it.
One problem with Zippos is that the fuel tends to evaporate, and if you leave it alone for a couple of months it will probably be bone dry when you pick it up again. For long-term storage you can fill it then dip the whole lighter in wax to seal it.
Less messy alternatives are wrapping electrical tape round the join of the outer case and lid, or cutting a length of rubber inner tube for a slim bike tire and stuffing the lighter inside. Or you could just carry a container of fuel.
Verdict: Leaky, smelly and old-fashioned, but still a very useful survival tool.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.