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Ferro Rods and Fire Steel For Survival Situations

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: March 23, 2020
Ferro Rods and Fire Steel For Survival Situations

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Learning how to start a fire using different methods is an extremely useful and inexpensive skill to hone. In this post, I am going to explore the world of ferro rods or “fire steel”.

First, let’s get a few things straight about the reality of learning how to start fires.

It takes practice and a bit of patience.

Oh, it is so easy to find a bunch of videos or whatever that makes it seem like you can just get a fire going a ton of ways with ease. The truth is that it takes practice and patience. You are not going to just go out and get a fire going with a small pile of wood and a ferro rod within 2 minutes the first time you pick one up.

You need tinder and small sticks or debris

I have made the mistake so many times of getting impatient and trying to start with wood and debris that is far too big to get a fire going. Like so many things you need to start at the bottom and not at the top if you want to experience success. It will take you longer to get a fire going by trying to take short cuts. I have fell victim to doing it this way far too many times.

Tinder can be anything that is dry, lightweight, and fluffy. You can carve up some dry wood with a knife or you can use a cotton ball or cheap gauze.

Some people like to dip their tinder in wax or mineral oil and store for quick use. Remember that tinder goes up fast so you also need a supply of more substantial but small sticks or dry pieces of debris that you can add quickly to your tinder so that you can build your fire up to size and get a good bed of coals.

A Bic Lighter or matches is always going to be faster than your emergency firestarter

I am not going to kid you and say that all these cool fire steels and ferrocerium rods are going to compete with a Bic lighter or dry matches with ease of getting a flame going, especially if you have not practiced with your emergency ferro rod fire starter.

Starting a fire under good circumstances can be a lot easier than in a survival situation no matter what you have to start it with.

Remember that during a real emergency or survival situation that you may be tired, shaky, and not thinking too clearly so using something may be harder than usual even if you have practiced a little bit. It may be a good idea to practice with a ferro rod at a firepit in your backyard after you are tired at the end of a long day and don’t really feel like doing anything at all.

Ferro Rod Size

There are many different sizes of ferro rods to choose from. Some of the most inexpensive come in packs and do not have handles. Some folks have fun whittling handles for them or just use as is. I kind of like having a handle on mine even if it is just a small handle.

The video below was taken by my husband on a recent fishing and camping trip. This is one of the first times I got a fire going with this rod and I feel like I learned a lot about using it on this trip. Here is what I learned.

  1. You need to have very fine tinder. I got frustrated and sacrificed a single cheap piece of gauze from our small medical kit. Carving up some dry wood could have saved me a piece of gauze.
  2. Method is everything. Using the striker to push sparks towards your tinder could work theoretically but I found it to be a losing effort. I used the striker rapidly on the fire steel and approached my tinder from above. The sparks dropping down onto the gauze led to success fairly fast. As you can see in the video I was pretty excited to finally get it right!
  3. This would be a stressful way to start a fire if I was in a bad situation and did not have a lot of prior experience.
  4. An Altoids tin made into a firestarting kit would be of immense value out in the bush.

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Starting a fire is a survival basic that is a great way to get kids and teens started out in bushcraft!

I loved fire when I was a kid and still do. I had a magnifying glass that my Dad bought me at the grocery store. He showed me how to use it and I thought that was so great! I was probably around 7 years old and I can tell you right now that I burned a lot of leaves!

Emergency firestarting methods require some hand dexterity and stamina

I work with my hands a lot.

Between typing thousands of words a week and working a farm and vineyard, my hands get tired and I have to take care of them or I get white fingertips, shakiness, pain, and even swelling. I try to be aware of adding anything else into the mix that could add to the stress I put on my hands. I will tell you right now that emergency fire starters take some stamina and dexterity to use. Fire pistons require slamming a rod through a cylinder rapidly and ferro rods mean repeatedly striking the rod at a fast pace until you get enough sparks.

Magnifying glasses and fresnel lenses are good alternative emergency fire starters for those that cannot use ferro rods

I did an article on starting a fire with a magnifying glass or fresnel lens that is worth looking at if you want an alternative to matches or a lighter and cannot use a ferro rod effectively.

Quality and thickness of your ferro rod matters

The thicker a ferro rod is the more “strikes” you get out of it. No ferro rod will last forever but I have never heard of anyone wearing one out. When you buy a rod, there will probably be some information in the description that lets you know a range of how many strikes you can expect to get out of it. The thinner rods are very inexpensive so you can just buy a lot and not really worry about how many strikes you get.

Composition of Ferrocerium Steel

The actual composition of fire steel rods can vary a bit but the general composition is usually something close to the following:

50% Cerium

25% Lanthanum

19% Iron

Small amounts of praseodymium, neodymium, and magnesium

Finding the best fire steel for your money

Buying a super cheap rod that is made from inferior materials might mean that it breaks under stress or simply doesn’t throw strong sparks. Here are a few examples of ferro rods that get good reviews as well as the one I have and have successfully used.

Swiss Fire Steel

I would say that any fire steel made in Switzerland or by Swiss-based companies is top quality. Maybe there are some cheap or inferior examples out there but so far I have been very impressed with the quality of Swiss ferro rods and strikers. The ferro rod and striker I used in the video to start a fire is not expensive. The small size makes it easy to pack and I think it is comfortable to use even though I have big hands. Seriously, I have hands as big as a man’s so if I can use something comfortably, then the guy’s reading this should be comfortable with the size too.

Light My Fire Swedish Fire Steel 2.0 Army 12,000 Strike Fire Starter with Emergency Whistle

amazon product
The handle color varies but this is the same fire starter I used successfully.

überleben Zünden Fire Starter 

amazon product
amazon product

This ferro rod measures 5 inches long total with 2.75 of that being dedicated to the actual fire steel. The striker includes a ruler, bottle opener, and can scrape wood or other debris to gain valuable tinder. There are 3 thicknesses available that will yield 12,000-20,000 strikes.

Arcadia Gear 3/4″ x 6″ Large Diameter Ferro Rod Fat Boy 

amazon product
amazon product

This is a very large ferro rod that is rated for 35,000 strikes. That is a lot compared to the smaller rods that are only rated to 12,000! The rod does come with a striker despite the second picture that shows someone using it with the edge of a knife. The wooden handle is made well but it is not exceptionally long. There is a hole that is predrilled in the handle that you can use to attach a lanyard or paracord if desired.

Firestarting Tinder Torch Survival Tin by Kaeser Wilderness Supply

amazon product

I know that a lot of people like to put together their own fire starter kits but this kit caught my eye. I think this would be a cool gift to encourage others to have a few survival supplies and gain some skills. At $14 it is an inexpensive addition to preps. You get a lot of tinder, a ferro rod, striker, multi-tool, and more. The fact that it fits in a small tin is a big bonus when space is limited.

Fire-Fast Trekker Ferro Rod and Magnesium Fire starter Combo

amazon product
amazon product

This rod is an interesting combination of fire starter and magnesium tinder stick. I actually really want to buy one of these and try it out. I like that it is an all in one solution for times when tinder is hard to find or if you simply forget to bring anything with you that you are okay with sacrificing to start a fire. The thick hardwood handle is advertised as being a source of tinder but it would break my heart to carve up something that pretty unless it was a true survival situation!

A demonstration of the Fire Fast Trekker fire starter.

Kaeser Wilderness Supply Lot Of 10 Premium Ferrocerium Steel Ferro Rods Flint Magnesium 3in x 5/16in Survival

amazon product

If you want to put back a lot of inexpensive ferro rods, this 10 pack is a good bargain. You can make your own handles and have a lot of Ferro rods to either share or put back in your preps. These do not come with strikers so you will have to buy those separately or deal with using the back of a knife or similar. Below is an example of strikers that are inexpensive and useful with all ferro rods.

Three Oaks 5 piece Striker Scraper Set

amazon product

Sources of Tinder

Tinder is so important to getting a fire started. While there are kits like the one I included in this post, you can make your own tinder using a variety of materials. Here are a few ideas and materials you can use to put back some tinder for emergency fire starting.

You may want to have a some items like this so you can make your own fire starters for getting a fire going fast in your wood stove in the winter time. While I have electric heat in my house and a wood stove, I sure remember those times when all we had was wood heat and struggling to get a fire going as fast as we would have liked after coming home!

  1. Jute twine soaked in soy wax
  2. Cotton balls (can be soaked in wax or mineral oil but it is not necessary)
  3. Dryer lint
  4. Magnesium shards
  5. Wood shavings
  6. Char Cloth (You can make your own or buy it). I will try to put together a post on how to make char cloth in the future!
  7. Fatwood that you gather. This is highly resinous pine that is bone dry usually but other resinous woods are viable options too.

If you are looking around in your surroundings for tinder, you want to look out for dry leaves, twigs, grass, etc.

Remember that you need more than just tinder to get your fire going. Make sure that you have small sticks or twigs and then some increasingly larger pieces of wood to burn. Start small and work your way up and you will have a good strong fire going much faster than struggling with trying to use pieces of wood that are too big.

Do you have a favorite fire starter or ferro rod that you use regularly? Have you ever had to rely on an emergency fire starter in a true survival situation?

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].

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6 Responses to “Ferro Rods and Fire Steel For Survival Situations”

  1. I have tried many ferro rods and have found, for myself, the best are from: I am not affiliated with them, I just really like their products. Every time I go camping with friends I ask who has not started a fire using fire steel. There is always someone. I show them how to strike the rod and how to fluff the cotton ball with vaselene (sp). Always within two strikes of the rod there is a fire going. The look of joy and “I did that!” in their faces is worth everything. They in turn have passed the skill to others.

  2. Just a reminder to USE your ferro rod before you put it in your bag. Often they come with a coating on them that has to be scraped off before it’ll throw a spark. I’m putting together Bags for my family members who may not remember this, so I’m having to scrape off that coating for them ahead of time. Otherwise they’ll just think they’re doing it wrong and give up.
    Something else I JUST saw on the show Alone… the guy used his ferro rod to start a fire, but inadvertently set it down next to the fire pit once the spark lit his tinder and he was focused on getting the tinder going… then later realized it had slipped down into the pit and BURNED UP in the fire. He no longer had a ferro rod to make fires! Made me wonder if attaching a long string or wire or even a retractable line to connect it to my belt or belt loop might be in order so I never lose it.
    The last thing I’ll share is… I was taught if I’m using cotton balls or pads as tinder, I need to always make sure the cotton fibers are really spread out with lots of AIR between them. If they’re too compact, they won’t start from a ferro rod spark.

  3. I’m a big fan of the cotton balls/Vaseline method, but I added a little twist…get a few of those really fat plastic straws from the 7-11 and cut one into ~2″ pieces. Using a pencil (or whatever) stuff the now saturated cotton balls into the little 2″ long tube you just made. Use a bic lighter to heat up the ends of a long nosed plier, crimp the ends of the plastic, heat sealing it. Now you have some fire starter that will keep forever and won’t make a mess until you open it for use. I keep handfuls of these in the truck, in various bags and packs, etc.
    If you have a leatherman (never leave home without mine), the back of the saw blade is the best ever striker for a ferro rod. Got that one from Dave Canterbury, BTW.

  4. Great article.
    I left you a comment on the method of pulling the steel and holding the striker on YouTube. Something to try.
    I have a EXOTAC that has a case to protect the rod. I kept breaking rods on my keychain when at work.
    The Firesteel Gobspark is a good one in that it’s big and easy to hold with freezing wet hands or arthritis etc.
    I also carry a metal rubber o ring pill container with dryer lint and charcloth on my keychain.
    You can carry your ferrro rod when you fly too. TSA won’t let you have a lighter but this is ok.
    Gorgeous pic by the campfire too!

  5. Good article.

    I like the big Swedish Fire Steel a lot, ideally with big cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly. The latter are easy to start if you fluff them up a little before lighting, and burn for about two minutes. That should be plenty to get a fire going.

    I’ve used them to quickly start a fire, even once after three days of drizzle. They work a lot better than matches, which absorb moisture and fall apart upon striking, and newspaper, which also absorbs moisture and just sits there smoldering until it goes out.

    A Bic lighter is great, but there is just no comparison between newspaper and cotton balls with petroleum jelly on a very damp or rainy day. Newspaper is lousy in the rain.

    My technique is a bit different from that shown in the video, so obviously there is more than one way to get a fire started. If it works, it works.

    Before lighting, I gather a variety of materials, much from under the Ponderosa pine which predominate in our normal camping areas, and segregate them by size. The tiniest twigs, smaller than a pencil lead, then very slightly bigger, and so on to pencil size sticks.

    Then larger stuff with multiple rough sides, generally split from small logs by batoning. (If you are unfamiliar with batoning, just do a YouTube search for ‘batoning firewood’. It’s easy, but practice helps. Any really big heavy duty knife will do, but I prefer the KaBar Cutlass Machete, which is a great camp tool.)

    Then I set the fluffed up cotton ball in the fire pit, hold the Fire Steel with the point down immediately next to it, and scrape. Generally one scrape will get it going. The closer, the better. Not hovering above, but point in contact with either the ground or the edge of the cotton ball.

    Once it’s lit, add the smallest twigs, a few at a time, and continue with the bigger pieces. I place them, not dump them on, so I don’t smother the flame.

    In wet weather it is all the more important to gather kindling from under trees, close to the trunk. Even after a few days of rain, you should be able to find dry material there. If the firewood is wet on the outside, just split it into smaller pieces with multiple dry sides immediately before starting the fire. The edges where two split sides intersect is what will likely catch first as they are thinner and rough.

    Fuzz sticks are also good, especially in wet weather, as they give you many small, thin edges to catch fire. Easy to make with a little practice. Google or YouTube ‘fuzz sticks’ or ‘feather sticks’ if you are unfamiliar with them. They do NOT need to be pretty and symmetrical like in some of the pictures. They aren’t art work: Clunky works just fine.

    Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find making a fire quite easy. The first time you make a fire in the rain, you’ll be plenty pleased with yourself. Practice and have fun!

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