If the question were posed – what one thing would you most want in a survival situation, I’m guessing the debate would include a knife and the means to make fire. In the end, I think fire would win the debate. After all, fire can make tools in addition to keeping you warm, signaling, providing light, warding off bugs and animals, aid in shaping shelters, purify water, cook food, cauterize wounds, clear areas, etc.
In this context, the next obvious question to a lightweight backpacker is what is the lightest means to make fire? Author, illustrator, NOLS Instructor, and general outdoor know-it-all Mike Clelland (!) argues in his Ultralight Backpacking Tips book that his choice is a book of matches (which he supplements to a mini-BIC which he uses for his stove). Arguably matches are also the most delicate and most prone to potential problems (which Clelland armors with a little plastic bag).
Some may argue that an even lighter option is a magnifying glass. About the size and diameter of a credit card, these flexible tools can be found at most survival shops and weigh next to nothing. Course, magnifying glasses only work when the sun is out or when a strong flashlight is filtered through it, not to mention it would be difficult to get it away from your hiking partners who are likely using it to make funny faces, tattoo other unsuspecting hikers, or give bugs the tan of their life.
My backpacking experience with a fire device has bounced around quite a bit. This has included Fire Pistons (which is a wonderful piece of art that compresses air to a finite point causing an explosion over tinder), Magnesium Fire Starters (this is what is issued to the U.S. Military in most cases and involves scraping a small amount of magnesium into a pile and introducing a spark to it), various flint/fire rod fire starters (can be scraped to add spark to tinder), books of matches, lighters, magnifying glass, etc.
So which worked best? Well, the one that introduced fire most easily, consistently, reliably and in an actual flame (not spark) was the one I liked the best. Like Clelland and many others, I carry a mini BIC as my main fire device and have some other form of backup. For UL purposes, this is a book of matches in a plastic bag. When I’m not counting grams to the finite degree of needing to get a haircut to lighten my load even further, I like having something that offers a reliable and repeatable spark in all conditions.
When I was at Trail Days this year, there was a cottage shop from Montana who made a variety of things out of antlers. One product was a giant magnesium/flint striker combination which were seamed together and had an antler handle. The owner demonstrated its functionality by scraping some of the magnesium into a pile, spritzing water on it, and then used the flint to apply a spark. It immediately flared up quite impressively. The problem was it was just too big and heavy and I didn’t see any backpacking uses for it. At that point he showed me a much smaller version which peaked my interests enough to buy one.
Once I got home, I started doing a little research. Sure enough, the combination tool of magnesium/flint weren’t hard to find, but clearly not terribly well known as they were new to the industry (although the military was already using this combined technology in their larger and heavier Magnesium blocks). I found two different kinds at Camping Survival which were intriguing. Both were smaller, lighter and cheaper than the one I had purchased at Trail Days…and they were on sale. The Strike Master K7 fire starter was only $6.95 and the smaller Strike Master K1 fire starter was only $4.95. Both had a flint rod fused to a magnesium block and both were very idiot-proof.
With that, I felt compelled to weigh my options to see how different fire starting options compared:
Magnesium Block 85 grams
Exotac Nano Striker 17 grams
Master K7 13 grams
Mini BIC 11 grams
Light My Fire Scout 16 grams
Light My Fire Mini 8 grams
Matches 4 grams
Master K1 4 grams
What I find fascinating is that the Strike Master K7 fire starter weighed as much as the book of matches. The difference is that the Master K7 is far more durable, doesn’t need to be babied, and offers hundreds of opportunities for fire. At $4.95, it’s tough to not like it.
If you’re in the market and you want something more substantial than a book of matches, consider the other options mentioned herein.