This post was originally an article that I wrote for The Bushcraft Journal as part of a series on fire lighting It appeared in Issue 8. If you don’t get it already, it’s a fantastic magazine and well worth the price.
Continuing on from matches in the last issue, this time around I’m going to look at lighters. Lighters are a perfectly valid method of fire lighting and I always have one in my pocket when I go into the woods. We can basically divide lighters into 2 groups, gas and petrol, with some variations within each group.
Most gas lighters use butane, which burns with air at 1970°C under laboratory conditions. However much of the heat from a lighter will dissipate and so the temperature of the resultant flame is likely to be significantly less. Bearing in mind aluminium melts at 660°C, I’m guessing that a standard gas lighter produces a flame at temperatures below that.
When I said I always take a lighter with me, it’s a gas lighter that I take (actually one in my pocket and another in my fire lighting kit). A few things that I look out for with a gas lighter:
- Make sure it’s a bright colour, that way if you put it down you should be able to still see it.
- Go for one that you can see through; that way you can check that it has plenty of fuel in it. The more fuel the better, as is is under pressure – the more fuel, the greater the pressure in the lighter, the bigger the flame).
- Use a lighter with an adjustable flame; when you come to use it, put it on full.
I find that gas lighters are great when the weather is good, but add in some wind and they blow out easily. And they don’t work very well if you hold them horizontally, the flame tends to turn at a right angle and burn your thumb as much as it does the tinder.
Neither does butane work particularly well at low temperatures; whilst it doesn’t freeze until-138°C, it boils at -0.5°C. This is what converts the liquid into a gas. So below -0.5°C and butane remains a liquid. And at temperatures up to 4 or 5 °C the pressure can be really low, resulting in a small flame.
Turbo gas lighters
Here I’m talking about gas lighters where the gas is forced through at high velocity. Often these lighters have 2 jets of gas and 2 flames. Manufacturers claim that the flame produced is up to 1300°C.
They are often green or black, so easy to misplace. Some have a plastic window on the side so that you can see how much fuel is in it.
Not only is the flame high temperature, because it’s produced under pressure you can hold the lighter side ways and the flame remains horizontal. This means that you can get it right into your tinder without burning your fingers.
Often if they’re not performing you can alter the pressure flow by adjusting a screw on the bottom. I’ve also come across many accounts of people finding that these kind of lighters don’t work well after re-filling. I find completely emptying the lighter before re-filling helps and then try and fill it back up in one go; if it’s mostly full, I leave it at that.
I dropped one in a bowl of water as part of writing this article; I left it there for about a minute, shook it off and it lit first time.
I try to stay away from naming particular products or brands but it’s not easy to do with petrol lighters, one brand name is pretty much synonymous with this type of lighter, and the photo here gives that away!
Whilst I’ve always referred to these as petrol lighters they actually use light petroleum distillate, otherwise known as naptha. Naptha burns at about 2500°C, but as with a gas lighter the actual temperature of the flame is likely to be much lower outdoors when it is subject to the ambient temperature and wind.
I quite like petrol lighters, mostly because there’s something nostalgic about them. More importantly they give a good flame once lit and are more resistant to the wind than a gas lighter. The design is simple and robust, they don’t tend to break often (flints and wicks are replaceable, so take spares). You can also hold them by the lid, keeping your fingers away from the flame. This hand positioning also makes it easier to get the flame into your tinder, you aren’t having to hold it sideways in the same way as you often need to with a standard gas lighter.
For me the biggest downside of these lighters is fuel. Even if you don’t use your lighter, fuel will evaporate; the hotter it is the quicker the fuel evaporates. In the summer if you’re heading off for much more than 4 or 5 days, you will need to think about re-fueling. In the winter anything over 2 weeks is likely to require you re-fueling. This could be a simple as a 25ml plastic miniature bottle which should allow you to re-fuel a few times, but you will need to take due precautions because you’re now carrying a highly flammable liquid in your kit. With that said, this spare fuel might prove useful in getting a fire going in particularly wet situations.
‘White gas’, made by a well-known manufacturer of camping stoves and equipment, is a naptha based product and will work in these types of lighters, although it seems to evaporate a little quicker. Methylated spirits will also work, but again evaporates quickly and gives a very sooty flame. I’ve come across accounts of people using petrol, diesel and panel wipe as fuel, but haven’t tried any of them.
If you are unable to find any suitable tinder you might consider removing the petrol soaked wadding from the lighter and using this to get your fire going. This is a one use strategy, so be certain you won’t need the lighter again. And on the subject of tinders, I’ve seen a few people that have stretched some bicycle inner tube over their lighter as an emergency backup.
Whilst they’re called matches I’ve decided to put them here with lighters because I think they have more in common with lighters than matches in that they make use of fuel and need a spark to ignite. I’ve got a few of these, they cost just over £1 each and are pretty effective. They don’t tend to suffer from fuel evaporation in the same way as petrol lighters because they have a rubber seal around the screw on stopper. I’ve had fuel in 2 of these now for about 6 months with no noticeable reduction in quantity. If you carry a conventional petrol lighter, you could re-fuel from an everlasting match or use the petrol as an accelerant if you’re struggling to get a fire lit.
To use them you unscrew the ‘stopper’ on top and pull it out. There’s a sharp edge on the end which you run down the ferro rod on the side.
I let an everlasting match burn recently and not surprisingly it doesn’t last forever, it burnt for about 45 seconds, which, to be fair, isn’t a bad burn time.
When I’m teaching people to use lighters, or indeed matches, I often get asked where the hottest part of the flame is. This isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Whilst the highest temperature is found at the blue part of the flame (about 30°C higher than the tip), it isn’t all about the temperature. There’s actually more heat in the tip of the flame, so make sure that it’s the tip of the flame against the tinder.
With either a standard gas, petrol lighter or everlasting match, when it’s out of fuel you can still create a spark. Now if you think back to my article on fire steels you might remember that not all sparks are equal, in fact the temperature of sparks produced can vary enormously. Whilst we talk about the ‘flint’ in a lighter it’s actually a small ferrocerium rod, and one that doesn’t need to produce high temperature sparks. So whilst lighting char cloth and cotton wool with the spark from a lighter is possible, lighting some natural tinders might prove more difficult. But if it’s all you’ve got then give it a go.
As always guys, be safe, don’t take my word for it, get out there and try it out for yourself!
We teach how to use lighters, as well as a host of other methods of ignition, on our 1 Day Fire Lighting Course, our as well as on our 2 Day & 5 Day Bushcraft Courses, the IOL Bushcraft Competency Course and also our 2 Day & 5 Day Survival Courses.