The other day I read an article by Alan Halcon from Dirttime titles Ferro Rod vs. BIC Lighter. I thought it made some excellent points, and provided actual data on what many of us have suspected for a while. I encourage you to read the article in full here.
The article goes through and largely debunks many of the reasons provided in favor of the ferro rod being the superior emergency fire starting tool, whether the emergency be short or long term. Alan goes through several of the reasons and demonstrates his research. Here I want to touch on some of the reasons and offer my input on the subject as well.
I prefer the BIC lighter as a fire starting tool in emergencies. This goes both for short term emergencies such as pulling yourself out from a freezing river in the middle of winter and having to immediately start a fire, as well as long term emergencies such as being stranded in the woods for a prolonged period of time with minimal tools. That is why I have not carried a ferro rod for many years. My primary fire starter is a BIC lighter. My back up fire starter is a set of waterproof matches and a second BIC lighter.
My choices go against common survival wisdom these days. For many the ferro rod is the superior fire starting tool. I will attempt to go through some of the reason usually given in support of the ferro rod over the lighter that Alan provided, and give you my thoughts on them, in part relying on my own experiences and in part using Alan’s research.
- A ferro rod will not run out of fuel like a lighter will. You can start thousands of fires with a ferro rod, while your lighter will quickly run out of fuel.
At first look that seems like a reasonable assertion. A lighter will indeed run out of fuel. The reality however is that so will the ferro rod. A ferro rod works by the removal of small pieces of the rod by a sharp object. Those pieces oxidize and produce the sparks. Each time you strike it, you remove part of the rod. Even so though, it does seem like the ferro rod will last a lot longer.
Well, Alan actually did the math. According to his research, a full size BIC lighter will create approximately 3000 flames. Of course, here we are counting only short flame bursts. That being said, when we are talking about ferro rods and the number of fires they can start, we are counting one fire per strike/spark, so the comparison seems more than fair.
So, a BIC lighter will start 3000 fires (under ideal conditions). A standard size ferro rod on the other hand is rated to spark or start 15000 fires (under ideal conditions). Clearly the ferro rod will start more fires than the lighter under ideal conditions, assuming that each spark results in a fire and that each time the lighter makes a flame, it results in a fire.
There is an additional consideration however. A BIC lighter weighs about 1oz according to my measurements. A standard ferro rod on the other hand weighs 3.7oz. Now, at this point Alan’s math confuses me, so I did my own. For the weight of a 3.7oz ferro rod, you can bring about 3 lighters. Even being conservative, with 3000 per lighter, times 3 lighters, we get about 9000 fires. So, for the same weight, you can either start 15000 fires using a ferro rod, or 9000 fires using the equivalent weight of BIC lighters. I bet that is much closer than you thought. This of course assumes that you are using only natural tinder with your ferro rod. If you carry tinder so you can quickly start fires with the ferro rod, then the numbers very quickly move in favor of the lighter.
Now let’s move away from the numbers and look at it practically. Even assuming you only have one lighter, how long will it take you to use up the 3000 fires it provides? Considering there are 365 days in a year, and assuming you start a new fire each day, that would give you approximately eight (8) years and two (2) months worth of fires. I would venture a guess that if you have not found your way out of the woods by then, you have much bigger problems than the lack of fire starting equipment. Three or four lighters can probably last you the rest of your lifetime.
Let’s get even more practical. We all know that you can’t always start a fire the moment the lighter makes a flame, nor can you always start a fire with a single spark from the ferro rod. I propose to you that it is easier to start a fire with the flame of a lighter than the spark of a ferro rod. That would mean that you will use up those 15000 strikes from the ferro rod faster than you would use up the 9000 flames from the lighter to make your fires. If it takes you two scrapes of the ferro rod to start a fire, then you will get 7500 fires, less than the 9000 fires the equivalent weight of lighters would provide. Food for thought.
- A ferro rod is not effected by altitude like a lighter.
It’s funny how things written on the internet take on a life of their own. It is simply not true that BIC lighters leak at high altitude. The pressurized gas within a BIC lighter is held there by a valve which does not in any way rely on the outside atmospheric pressure to keep the gas inside. Simply said, unless you accidentally press the gas release button on your lighter, it will not leak at high altitude. The same way canister stoves work well at high altitude, so do lighters. A ferro rod will work fine at high altitude as well. Neither has an advantage based on that factor alone.
- A ferro rod is not susceptible to a very cold temperature like a lighter is.
There are two parts to this assertion. The first is that lighters are effected by cold temperature; the second is that ferro rods are not effected by cold temperatures. Neither of those statements is exactly true, although I understand how they came about.
A BIC lighter will work just fine in any temperature where a person can survive. People who have never used one in cold weather tend to have problems with them because they do not make the appropriate preparations. BIC lighters use butane gas as fuel. That gas is pressurized inside the lighter until it turns from a gas into a liquid. The moment the valve is opened, the liquid gasifies and escapes. Once ignited it gives us the flame. The problem is that at about 40F (4C), butane stops vaporizing and remains a liquid. If the gas does not vaporize, it will not escape from the valve when it is opened, and we get no flame. That is the problem that people encounter at low temperatures. The solution is a very simple one. Your body maintains a temperature of about 98.6F (37C). If you just hold the lighter in your hand for a few seconds, or put it in your pocket, the butane inside will warm up enough to start vaporizing again.
As far as the ferro rod goes, it is in fact effected by cold weather. The ferro rod uses shaved off sparks to light a tinder. The sparks start to cool off the moment they come off of the rod. The colder the outside temperature, the faster the sparks will cool down, and the harder it will be to ignite your tinder.
Neither of the above issue is a particular concern to me. You simply have to know your tool and use it appropriately. Both a BIC lighter and a ferro for will work in cold weather. Each will have a more difficult time lighting a fire in the cold, but that is true with most things in the cold.
- A ferro rod uses gross motor skills while a lighter requires finer motions.
The statement may be true if your goal was to make some sparks to impress your girlfriend while your fingers were frost bitten. That would indeed require less fine motions than using a lighter. If however you are interested in starting a fire, the motions are just as fine. Try scraping some birch bark into fine shavings, or pulling apart jute twine, or making fine feather sticks. Tell me if those motions are less fine that using a lighter.
- A ferro rod has no moving parts, unlike a lighter.
I suppose that implies that when you have moving parts the tool is more likely to brake. That’s true in theory. How many lighters have you broken? I’ve never had a BIC lighter brake on me through regular use. However, if that is a big issue for you, I suppose the ferro rod holds an advantage.
- A ferro rod will work even after it has been wet.
So will a lighter. A BIC lighter will not actually get damaged by being submerged under water, even for a prolonged period of time. The reason why you may have a hard time using it after getting it wet is because the wheel is wet and there is water trapped in the mechanism. Take a minute to blow out the water, dry the wheel, and you are good to go. If you want to speed up the process, remove the metal guard on the front of the lighter. Once dry the lighter will work as well as before.
Now, speaking of ferro rods and water, the ferro rod will make sparks after getting wet, but that a fire does not make. Is your tinder dry? If not, then a ferro rod does not give you a fire when you get wet. If your tinder is dry, then how did it stay dry. Perhaps it’s because you had it in a ziplock bag? Put the lighter in there and you will not have to bother getting it dry at all.
- A ferro rod is a good back up fire starter.
I am not convinced that it is. For the same reason why I prefer a lighter for my main fire started, I would rather have a second lighter as my backup fire starter than a ferro rod. Or, some storm matches will do the job as well. In many cases if you need to resort to your backup fire starter, things have gone wrong. What you need during those times is a fire starting method that is even easier to use than your primary method. A ferro rod is not that. With an additional 3000 fires from a backup BIC lighter, and the ability to light just about anything, I would much rather have a second lighter with me than a ferro rod. It’s lighter weight too.
So, in summary, both BIC lighters and ferro rods work when wet, in the cold, and at high altitude. They each give you a comparable number of fires for the weight (both of which are way more than you will ever need), and they both require some fine motor movement to operate. I much prefer a lighter to a ferro rod because it is easier to use, it allows me to start a fire with less preparation, it lets me carry less tinder, and under difficult conditions it is easier to use. If on the other hand you have a tendency to somehow brake BIC lighters, then a ferro rod may work better for you.