Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lighters - A Deadly Safetynet

I've decided to make January fire month! What an awesome name for a month. I love fire! This is the first post in a series on ignition sources.

You cannot make fire without an ignition source. For the next few posts I am going to highlight the most popular ignition sources. I will also review a few fire making tools, show you some novel ways to make fire, and give tips for using all of them.

Lighters. They are the lazy mans fire maker. Not that everyone who uses them are lazy! They are just consistently very easy to use. Press a button and you have fire! I would wager that most campfires and BBQ grills in the US are started with a lighter. Have you noticed that every super market cash register has half a dozen different lighters to choose from hanging next to it, but matches are getting harder and harder to find? This is because lighters are viewed as superior.

We want to know if lighters are a good choice for a fire making kit. A kit that will be used to start a fire at camp or, if you get lost in the woods, a fire to keep you alive.

There are two basic types of lighters; soft flame and windproof. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Soft flame lighters include your normal disposable lighters and the typical Zippo type lighters. Most burn butane, but some use naphtha. The burn time on a typical BIC disposable lighter is about 30 minutes in ideal situations. I don't own a Zippo, but I've read that it is about the same for those. Keep in mind that they are not designed to burn constantly. After about three minutes they over heat and can become permanently damaged.

Soft flame lighters use a "flint". It is not actualy flint, but ferrocerium. Ferrocerium makes a 3000 degree spark that lights the fuel. This is very useful. Even after a soft flame lighter runs out of fuel you can light a fire with its spark, although it is very difficult even in a controlled enviroment. The best tinder to do this with is char cloth or petroleum jellied cotton balls.

Soft flame lighters have three big drawbacks.
  1. They are blown out easily. Very easily. the slightest breeze will blow them out. In a strong wind you cannot even light them.
  2. They do not work when wet. I'm not sure why, but this is my experience.
  3. They can leak fuel and are prone to run out of fuel. Most disposable lighters have a button that releases the fuel when you press it.   It is very easy to accidentally press this button while it is in your pocket, causing your lighter to empty. Older lighters leak fuel from deteriorated seals. They also have a tendency to run out of fuel when you need them most. I can't count how many times this has happened to me.

Windproof lighters have a different set of pro's and con's.

It is commonly believed that wind proof lighters create their torch flame by increasing the pressure of the fuel. This is not true. They use a Catalytic Coil which basically burns the fuel more efficiently. They burn much hotter than soft flame lighters and are quite windproof. I have used them in a hurricane. Wind proof lighters are usually better made and more expensive than soft flame lighters. They do not use a "flint". They light with a Piezoelectric crystal (a really cool technology), which basically creates an electrical spark.

Windproof lighters seem to work OK while wet, although it may take a few tries. I recommend drying them out as much as possible before trying.

They also have two big drawbacks.
  1. Since they do not light with a "flint", once they run out of fuel they are worthless. There is no practical way to light tinder with a Piezoelectric crystal from a lighter.
  2. They run out of fuel just as fast or faster than soft flame lighters.

Lets sum up and choose the best lighter for our kit.

Soft flame lighters area easy to use and have the ability to make fire when empty. However, they blow out easily, do not work when wet, and do not last long. Windproof lighters work well in most environments, but are useless when empty and also run out of fuel quickly.

In my opinion the best lighter to carry is a windproof one. It may be useless when empty, but chances are you will only need to use it once or twice. In a survival situation, the first fire is the most important. Just top off its fuel each time you go out.

The second best lighter to keep in you pocket is a disposable BIC style soft flame lighter with a child lock. It will make fire when empty and the child lock will prevent the fuel button from accidentally being pressed in your pocket. These can be hard to find. Most child lock devises on lighters do not allow the flint to strike, but do allow the gas button to depress. You can get around this by placing a small zip tie around the base of the fuel button. This will prevent it from accidentally being depressed and is easily removed.

But should you carry one at all? I don't. Here is why:

Lighters give people a false sense of security. They throw a lighter in their pack and think they now can make a fire anywhere. They do not learn how to gather proper tender or make a good fire. They have no backup in case the lighter gets wet or runs out.

I keep lighters around the house, but most of the times I need one they do not work. I end up using a match. Lighters are simply not reliable. Lighters are not bad. If you like them, use them! Just be sure that you have a backup ignition source and know how to light a fire from just a spark.

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