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What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: November 24, 2020
What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival

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How much do your really know about matches?  Chances are you know more about a magnesium fire starter or BIC lighter than you do about matches.  It is just that they are so ubiquitous.  Everyone knows about wooden kitchen matches, right?  And heck, back in the day folks used to collect books of matches from fancy dining establishments and keep them displayed in decorative jars.

I know I am dating myself with that last statement but seriously, how much to you really know about matches?  One thing for sure is that I can not purchase strike anywhere matches locally.  Our grocery store refuses to stock them for fear that they will spontaneously combust.  That is a true statement; they actually told me that.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

But is it true?  With some help from my friend, Ron Brown, today I am going to delve into the world of matches and provide you with what you need to know about matches for survival.

Safety Matches vs. Strike Anywhere Matches

There are two kinds of matches: safety and strike anywhere. Safety matches won’t accidentally ignite in your pocket whereas strike anywhere matches can and sometimes do. Safety matches are also called strike-on-box.

There are three sizes: paper matches (called book matches); small wooden matches (called penny matches); and large wooden kitchen matches.

More than you ever wanted to know about match chemistry . . .

The head of a strike anywhere match is a progressive “explosive train.” A tiny bit of primary explosive is detonated. That ignites the main body of the match head. That in turn ignites the paraffin wax (with which the first half inch of the wooden matchstick is impregnated). The burning paraffin in turn ignites the wooden stick.

The very tip of a strike anywhere match contains potassium chlorate plus phosphorus sesquisulfide (a.k.a. tetraphosphorus trisulfide, trisulfurated phosphorus, and phosphorus sulfide). It’s is a primary explosive, sensitive to friction, impact, and heat.

If you cut off the tiny white tip of a strike anywhere match, place it on an anvil, and rap it with a hammer, it will sound like a .22 rimfire rifle cartridge (almost).

It was once a test of manhood for teenage boys to light their cigarettes from strike anywhere matches . . . matches that they lit one-handed, using their thumbnail as the striker. If a chunk of burning match head got lodged under one’s thumbnail, of course, it could ruin an otherwise pleasant afternoon. Trust me on this.

Safety matches (strike-on-box) contain potassium chlorate plus sulfur in the match head and red phosphorus in the gritty striking surface printed on the matchbook or matchbox.

The act of striking produces friction and heat. The heat converts a tiny amount of red phosphorous into white phosphorous vapor which ignites spontaneously. This heat decomposes the potassium chlorate, liberating oxygen, and causes the sulfur to burn. This in turn ignites the wood or paper body of the match.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

Where can I buy strike anywhere matches?

In the USA, strike anywhere matches virtually disappeared from store shelves for twenty years – a generation. The old-time brands were Ohio Blue Tip and Diamond. Today, Diamond owns Ohio Blue Tip. But, regardless of brand, the question, “Where can I buy strike anywhere matches?” appeared year after year on Internet forums.

The only place I knew for sure was Canada. The Redbird brand, manufactured by the Eddy Match Co., was (and still is) sold by No Frills (a large grocery chain) and Canadian Tire (in the camping section).

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

But strike anywhere matches are making a comeback. Today, Diamond-brand strike anywhere matches (eco-friendly with green and white tips) can be purchased on eBay. They arrive in an envelope marked “USPS FIRST-CLASS PKG”.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

I still haven’t seen them face-to-face in the big-box stores (e.g. Walmart, Target) so I was slightly amazed to find them just the other day in my local Mom-and-Pop grocery store. One U.S. dollar per box of 300. Strike anywhere matches are once again appearing on store shelves.

Then there is this bad info . . .

While they were on hiatus, one story had it that strike anywhere matches were classified as HazMat (hazardous material) and incurred excessive transportation costs. Consumers were not willing to pay the higher price and, for that reason, retailers didn’t stock them. But, as far as I know, safety matches were also classified HazMat.

Another story had it that chemicals in the strike anywhere tip were used in homebrew crystal meth recipes. Wrong again. If anything, it was the red phosphorous in the striker panel that was of interest, nothing in the match head.

Waterproof Matches

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

Above (L to R): Coghlan’s, Stansport, Coleman’s, and UCO Stormproof.

I decided to test some homegrown methods of waterproofing against commercial matches. The tests consisted of “waterproofing” ordinary strike anywhere matches (dipping in paraffin wax, painting with shellac, etc. . . . whatever recipes I could find), letting them dry 24 hours, then soaking them side-by-side with commercial waterproof matches in a bucket of water overnight.

I was astonished to find that the commercial waterproof matches didn’t work. The heads were all mushy and crumbled when striking. They might have been water resistant but none of them were waterproof. Ditto for the homegrown methods.

No doubt my surprise resulted from my expectations. I expect a plastic poncho to be waterproof. I expect rubber boots to be waterproof. I expect a bulletproof vest to be bulletproof. “Here. Put on this bullet-resistant vest and let’s go capture the bank robbers.” Yeah, right.

Nail polish came the closest of anything to working but the matches were no longer “strike anywhere.” Strike some places would be a better description. Matchbox, yes. Side of carborundum grinding wheel, yes. Sandpaper and rocks, maybe.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

And the entire match had to be painted with nail polish. If only the head-end were coated, water penetrated the exposed wood, traveled the length of the stick, and turned the match head mushy.

Conclusion:  A mechanical container remains the only for-sure way I know to have a dry match when you need it. One buck. Cheap.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

5 Tricks and Tips for Using Matches

Over the years, I have learned these tricks and tips for using matches.

1.  One trick to increase your supply of paper matches is to split them in half. Granted, lighting requires nimble fingers and some of the halves will fail. Nevertheless, splitting the matches will increase your effective match count by 75% or so. I recommend that you split just a few and experiment before you split everything.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

2.  You can light paper safety matches on a penny matchbox or on a box of kitchen-size safety matches or on a strike anywhere box!

3.  Sometimes, in attempting to light a strike anywhere match, the primary tip is broken off before the match lights. Can a strike anywhere match WITHOUT ITS TIP be lit on a book of safety matches? Yes. It requires two or three quick, brisk strokes, but it can be done.

4.  Long-term storage. Humidity is the enemy. The FoodSaver of Rival Seal-a-Meal (brand) vacuum system is one way to solve the problem. Other solutions include fruit canning jars, Tupperware, and recycled plastic containers of all kinds (think coffee, pretzels, whey protein powder). Seal the lid with silicone calking.

5.  For a desiccant (to soak up humidity inside the container), you can use silica gel (found in the craft section of Walmart) or powdered non-dairy creamer in an envelope made from a coffee filter. How to form the seams of the envelope? Fold over the filter edges a couple of times and staple them.

What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival | Backdoor Survival

© Ron Brown 2016


About Ron Brown and the Non-Electric Lighting Series

I have been working with Ron for a long time.  We first became acquainted when he introduced his Lanterns, Lamps & Candles CD (still available from his website).  Later, recognizing that books on CD were not as popular as eBooks, Ron converted all of his material to both print and eBook format.  This became his Non-Electric Lighting Series.

And the part about matches?  According to Ron, “Matches” was left on the cutting room floor along with “Lighters” (which I will be sharing with you down the road).

In a shameless pitch, if you enjoy Ron’s work, I suggest you pick up one of his books.  They are reasonably priced and make a useful addition to your survival library.  It does not hurt that they are highly readable and written with a good deal of wit and humor.

The Final Word

Although I tend to favor those butane wand devices that are used to light barbeques, I know that when the fuel runs out, they are useless.  As a backup, I use BIC lighters, and as a backup to that I use matches.  Last on the list, but still a skill I practice, is using a fire steel.

Having the means to light a fire, weather for cooking, warmth, signaling or some other purpose, is basic to our preparedness efforts.  I would like to thank Ron for sharing his research and knowledge on matches.  Coming up next?  Lighters!

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates.  When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

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Below you will find the items related to today’s article.

UST Marine Waterproof Match Case: I have tested these cases by first trying to drown them in salt water then later using the matches inside.  This case is truly waterproof.

Diamond Strike Anywhere Matches – 3 Pack:  These strike-anywhere matches are the #1 best seller.  Why they sell them and my local grocery does not is beyond me.

Diamond Strike on Box Matches:  Most likely you will find these a lot cheaper locally.  That said, for me it is far more convenient to order online.

Coghlans Waterproof Matches 10-pack: There are 10 boxes of 40 matches.  That is a good deal for 400 waterproof matches.

Ron Brown’s Non-Electric Lighting Series:  Here they are, with eBooks starting as low as 99 cents each.  All of these books are also available in print.

The New 2000-Hour Flashlight:  With a few simple tools and a lantern-type flashlight you can purchase, you can easily build a flashlight that will give off useable light for 2000 hours.

Light My Fire Swedish FireSteel:  This “Scout” is the one I own. Using this basic pocket fire-starter, you can get a nice fire going under almost any conditions. This is a small, compact version and is my personal favorite.


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24 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Matches for Survival”

  1. Interesting article, thanks.

    A few years back I searched high and low all over the medium sized Midwestern city I live in and not one single store carried the strike anywhere matches.

    Since then I’ve noticed them slowly appear on the shelves of just about every single store I regularly shop at. Makes me wonder if prepping isn’t more popular than it’s made out to be or that people admit. And that’s an encouraging thought.

    Filed under, ‘things I never thought about’:
    dmwalsh568 wrote: “I have that exact waterproof match case in my GHBs with the strike anywhere matches packed in loosely to reduce friction when I have to remove one in the field…don’t want the whole batch going up because I put too many in a tight space.”

    Has that ever actually happened to anyone?

    I pack them tight so they don’t rattle. Imho, the fewer the rattles, the better.

    • I have heard a couple of stories about strike-anywhere matches “going off” when carried loose in someone’s pocket. The sensitive tip rubs against coins, jackknives, etc. But I’ve never heard of an accident of that kind when the matches were in either a factory box or match case. Personally, for pocket carry in a match case, I take the time to sort out perfectly shaped matches then alternate them in the case (one head east, one head west, one head east, etc.). That reduces the wedging or camming effect and let’s me get in a couple of extra matches compared to cramming all the match heads into one just end of the container.

  2. Can not concentrate on reading articles while video is playing. Speaker icon will not mute on iPad. Only way to read is to cut my speakers off. Hope you get this fixed soon.

    • I am trying to find out why this is happening to you since I can not duplicate it. My ad network also is in the process of getting the offending ads removed. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  3. I’ve never had any trouble finding matches, but I live in the mountains.

    By the way, one of the more entertaining ways to light a fire is with a magnifying glass. I had a science teacher show me back in high school. We put pieces of paper in the chain link fence, then stood there for a minute or so with a magnifying glass, and poof! Fire. Also works on an overcast day (takes longer though). If you don’t have a magnifying glass you can make a lens out of a piece of ice that will work. But you want it as smooth as possible so after shaping, you have to rub it with your hand or something hard (I use a spoon, works well). An ice dome obviously takes more time than a magnifying glass, but it is possible if you’re bored or desperate. Doesn’t work at night, of course.

  4. I’ve had good luck at our local hardware stores finding the strike anywhere matches. Originally it was an ACE hardware, now the location is an Aubuchon hardware, but it still carries the strike anywhere matches. I store them in freezer ziplock bags without opening the original wrapper, to try and keep the moisture out.
    Of course these are just backups or for barter, since I have multiple Zippo brand lighters, magnesium fire starters and a bunch of magnifying glasses for use on sunny days.
    Strangely enough, I have that exact waterproof match case in my GHBs with the strike anywhere matches packed in loosely to reduce friction when I have to remove one in the field…don’t want the whole batch going up because I put too many in a tight space.

  5. For matches we only buy the strike anywhere kitchen matches because we like the versatility. Since we always keep a few boxes stashed (at a minimum seal them in freezer bags to keep out moisture) and we use a maximum of one or two matches a day the cycles of availablity/no availablility of strike anywhere matches haven’t really affected us. I also keep a firesteel and magnesium rod next to the woodstove and start the fire with the firesteel every so often for practice. I’ve found if I have a cotton ball or some dryer lint I don’t need the magnesium and it’s not any harder than starting the fire with a match. One thing that I’ve learned is that it is much easier to put the cotton ball on a folded up piece of newspaper on the hearth and start it there rather than trying to reach into the stove with the firesteel.

    My bug out/bug in/etc. packs may or may not have some commercial “waterproof/windproof” matches, but each pack definitely has a fire steel, a magnesium rod, a striker/scraper, a jar of cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, and a solo stove. This is a 100% waterproof and nearly 100% effective method for starting fires and each firesteel and magnesium rod will last for 100s if not 1000s or 10000s of fires. I buy the FireSteel brand of firesteels, mainly because it is a small New Hampshire company and I live in New Hampshire, but they do seem to make nice big sparks.

    If we end up in a TEOTWAWKI situation our supply of matches will last for a few years, but the firesteels could be passed down for generations.

  6. I live in a rural area and these strike anywhere are found in all of our stores. Redundancy seems to be the main thread of this article, having many ways to start a campfire seems resonable. My go to is my flint and striker on my survival braclet.

    • Our Dollar Tree only sells strike on box matches! I did find strike anywhere in IGA. Dad always struck them on the bottom of his shoe. Granny struck them on the side of her wood cook stove.

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