Firesteels go by a variety of names, including ferro rods, flint & steel (not to be confused with the traditional flint & steel) and fire sparkers, and are awesome for lighting your fire. I always carry one with me when I go to the woods. I like them for a number of reasons:
- There aren’t any working parts to go wrong,
- They don’t need fuel so can’t run out,
- It doesn’t matter if they get wet, you can just shake them dry,
- They are great for lighting manmade and natural tinders,
- Small and lightweight.
They’re made from ferrocerium; it’s a man made material that contains iron (the ferro part of the name), cerium (the other part of the name) and some other heavy metals. If you’re interested in the technical details, take a look at this Wikipedia page.
Buying a firesteel
There are dozens and dozens of firesteels available to buy, and at the end of the day what you use will come down to personal preference, but I think a few guidelines are worth mentioning.
A lot of firesteels you see advertised on the internet talk about the number of strikes the manufacturer claims you’ll get from them. This might be useful to know, but what is more important is the temperature of the sparks produced. And they can vary quite considerably. In my experience, you need a firesteel that produces sparks at the 3,000° end of the scale to light some of the natural tinders out there. So if your firesteel is only producing sparks at 500° it doesn’t matter how many strikes it gives, you’ll struggle trying to get a fire going.
Handle materials vary enormously and some don’t have a handle at all. I know plenty of people who re-handle their firesteels with a hand carved handle, antler and even bone.
Lots of people use their knife with a firesteel, but I tend not to. I nearly always use a striker. So for me the striker needs to be comfortable in my hand, and as we’re all different, what’s comfortable will vary.
I’m not keen on using a piece of hacksaw blade, it tends to rip off big chunks and you’re likely to go through firesteels quickly, but more importantly I don’t find that it works very well using the two techniques I describe below. So I prefer a striker that is a little more subtle, one that uses a burr on one side. If you use your fingernail, you should be able to feel this burr; every now and then when it wears off, I’ll file a new burr back on.
My own preference is the Light my Fire Army as it produces hot sparks, has ergonomic handles and has a whistle built into the striker as an added bonus. I buy the orange ones as they’re easier to spot if they get mislaid.
For a right handed person it seems natural to hold the steel in your left hand and the striker in your right and then pushing the striker forwards down the length of the steel. Whilst this generally creates lots of sparks, I find that they tend to spray forward, and not always onto your tinder. Another disadvantage of this method is that it is easy to knock over your carefully collected tinder. So I have two techniques I use with a firesteel:
The Pull Back Method
For this method I hold the striker in my left hand and the firesteel in my right. I hold the striker horizontally and directly on top of the tinder. I put the firesteel under the striker at about 45° and then pull it backwards. All of the sparks produced should then land directly onto the tinder.
The Thumb Push Method
Here I’ll hold the firesteel in my left hand and the striker in my right. I get the steel directly over the tinder and put the striker on the very tip. I then push the steel with my left thumb to create the sparks. With this method, you can also shave off bits of the steel into your tinder and then drop a spark onto that; I find this useful in wet conditions.
The video below shows me using both of these methods to light cotton wool. Cotton wool is easy to get hold of and easy to light, so good to practice with. But you’ll need to move on to natural tinders once you’re comfortable with the techniques. In the video I light some birch bark (in light rain and strong gusts of wind) using the thumb push method.