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Fire steels, ferrocerium rods -- oversized versions of the "flint" in a lighter or torch starter, are an apparently popular survival/backwoods fire starting method.

  • Why would one want one of these rather than a Storm Ligher?

  • Is one type or brand more effective than another?

  • Sizes are all over the map. Do these all work equally well? Is it just a matter of lifespan?

  • There are bare rods, rods on lanyards, and rods in handles. How does it matter?

  • What is needed to make sparks with one of these rods? Will natural flint work as a striker?

  • Do you "strike" or "scrape" a fire steel? How do you hold it?

  • Can you use less sensitive tinder than is needed for a fire drill or fire piston?

  • Are there any special precautions or specific failures for fire steels?

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2 Answers 2

The big plus with a firesteel is that you can pretty much do what you want to it, including soaking the thing in ice cold water, and it'll still work as well as before. The big downside is it's just sparks, so it's harder to build a fire.

However, with practice, it's not that hard and does provide a good backup if your matches get soaked through and your lighter gets damaged.

In terms of specific questions:

  • I have two or three brands and I see no discernible difference between them.
  • The bigger the better - the thicker it is, the longer it will last before being worn down.
  • Any flat blade will generally do the trick, though if you use a sharp knife bear in mind it'll get worn down quite quickly.
  • I prefer rods on handles - it makes it a lot easier to hold whilst using.
  • You scrape rather than strike, still relatively fast. However, I've found good pressure and angle is much more important than speed. When practicing, go slowly - you'll improve your technique and be surprised how many sparks you can create this way.
  • No real specific precautions you need to bear in mind, just the general ones when you're dealing with fire!
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I concur with berry120 and would add that part of the angle is the angle of the device. I have a rod which comes with a striker that has a slight burr (sharp curl) all along one side. That burr makes sparking very easy due to the angle it creates. –  Russell Steen May 7 '12 at 12:23

The pro of a fire steel over other lighters is that there's little that can break or be damaged from weather. Even if you lose the striker, a steel knife will work with the flint. However the con is that you only get a spark, not a steady flame. That means it needs to hit something that will ignite very easily. I use it to light my stoves (alcohol and isobutane) but I wouldn't want to try to start a fire with that and twigs. If you need to step it up to the next level, they make magnesium starters which you shave off some of the magnesium and hit that with a spark to light whatever the magnesium is in contact with.

I've only used a cheap "made in china" type, so I have no idea if others might be better. But we're only talking about a piece of metal so I'm not sure there's a big difference in quality. I'd suggest looking at quantity over quality, and get the largest size for the money. The sparks are from the flint being worn off, so a smaller flint will be worn away quicker.

To use, I prefer a handle on the flint to give me a better grip. You place the steel close to 90° against the flint, and point the flint towards the object you want to light. You can push the steel down the flint, but I like to pull the flint back away from the target since it gives me more control and there's less risk of blowing out what I'm trying to light. This is a fast scrape motion, not a strike. Maintain the right angle and pressure and sparks will fly easily.

I haven't tried the fire drill or piston, but keep in mind that you don't have highly accurate aim with the fire steel. This means it's much more trial and error to get the spark to hit just the right spot on your target.

The thing I like the best with fire steels is their reliability and durability. But because they don't provide a constant flame, I tend to keep matches as a backup.

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I'd add that fire drills (particularly if you make one yourself) are tricky to use, and they use a very different lighting method (they create a coal, which you place inside a tinder nest). A flint and steel + matches + small lighter are much smaller as a total package, and easier overall to use. –  Greg.Ley May 6 '12 at 4:24

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