Being able to get a fire going in the wild can mean the difference between comfort and misery, or even life or death. When putting together a survival kit, it’s good to know how often you need to replace a fire starter.
Common flint and steel or magnesium fire starters are normally good for around 3,000 strikes, but that can vary based on the size and quality of the brand. Large, quality models can last for 10,000 strikes or more. Fire pistons can last virtually forever as long as you replace the char cloth.
There are many other types of fire starters, including certain household items, which can in a survival situation. Their lifespans can vary wildly, so let’s dive into the different types and how long they last. But before we go into the details, here is a quick reference chart I put together for you:
Common fire starters and their expected lifespans:
|Type of Fire Starter||Expected Lifespan|
|1. BIC Lighters||1,000 Uses|
|2. Magnesium Fire Starters||3,000 Strikes|
|3. Flint and Steel||3,000 Strikes|
|4. Fire Starter Sticks||30-100 Uses|
|5. Fire Pistons||10,000+ Strikes|
How Long Common Fire Starter Types Last
How long a fire starter lasts will depend on what type it is. Some types are one-offs which are meant to be used in emergency survival situations, you can only use them once and then they’re gone. Other types can have a near indefinite lifespan.
The most common types of fire starters normally fall into two categories: household items and survival kits.
- Household fire starters consist of everyday items, such as lighters.
- The fire starters that you find in survival kits primarily consist of magnesium rods and fire sticks.
1. Household items
Each type of fire starter has its own lifespan that is normally based on how long the fire starter was made to last, environmental factors that affect the fire starter, and the quality of the fire starter.
Matches and lighters are the most common types of household fire starters and can be useful in a survival situation. Although both types of fire starters can be quick and efficient at starting fires, they both have very short lifespans.
- Matches are a one-fire-per-match deal, so however many matches you have is how many fires you can light, so long as you make sure to successfully light the fire every time.
- An average BIC lighter is estimated to be able to light 1,000 times before it runs out of gas, but that’s also based on being able to successfully light something with the lighter every time. Lighters that store larger amounts of gas will have longer lifespans, but they are still some of the less trustworthy types of fire starters to use in a survival situation.
2. Magnesium Fire Starters
Magnesium fire starters are some of the most common starters in survival kits. These consist of a solid rod made of magnesium that provides tinder for a fire, and a fire steel or knife which is used to scrape the magnesium off and to create sparks.
With these types of fire starter survival kits, their lifespan normally depends on the length and diameters of the rod. The magnesium rods that are greater in diameters and length normally last longer than the smaller rods.
When in a survival situation, you should also bear in mind that your striker will have a lifespan as well. Fire steels are usually good for 3,000 strikes before they go dull, but that can vary based on the quality of the steel.
With knives, their lifespan will be entirely dependent on their quality and sharpness. It’s good to always bring more than one knife, in case one becomes unusable while making a fire.
3. Flint and Steel
The flint and steel fire starters that are normally found in survival kits consist of a small slab of flint stone and a fire steel to strike it with. You can create sparks by simply striking the fire steel against the flint.
The steel of this type of survival kit is normally usable for up to 3,000 strikes before it becomes too dull. Although flint can be used until it has run out, its lifespan is roughly the same as steel.
However, this can vary depending on the size of the flint, and the flint can be replaced by flint found in the natural environment, which can increase the lifespan of the flint and steel survival kit.
4. Fire Starter Sticks
Survival kits with fire starter sticks are relatively simple and normally consist of a stick and a slab of wood with holes in it. The fire is created by twisting the stick back and forth inside the hole. The grinding of the two sticks creates sawdust, which can be used as tinder, and friction that heats up the sawdust to create sparks.
The lifespan of a fire stick kit is dependent on how many holes you have in the slab, but the average lifespan of a friction fire kit tends to be between 30 to 100 uses.
One of the greatest benefits of a friction fire kit is that you can resupply it with wood you find in the environment so long as you use dead, dry wood from cedar, cottonwood, willow, basswood, juniper, or aspen trees.
5. Fire Pistons
Fire pistons consist of a tube, a plunger, and char-cloth. Fire pistons work by placing a piece of char-cloth at the bottom of the tube and slamming the plunger down into the tube. When the plunger is slammed down hard enough, it causes enough friction and air circulation to make the char-cloth combust and create a spark.
Unlike other types of fire starts, fire pistons don’t have fixed lifespans, and they tend to be longer lasting than most other types of fire starters. In general, fire pistons have very long lifespans in comparison to other fire starters.
The tubing of a fire piston can wear down over time, but fire pistons that are good quality and well-maintained can last for years.
Factors Affecting the Life of a Fire Starter
Although each type of fire starter has an average lifespan, the lifespan of an individual fire starter can be significantly influenced by factors in the environment, the quality of the fire starter, and how well the fire starter is taken care of.
The main factor in the environment that influences the lifespan of a fire starter is water.
Lighters, matches, friction fire kits, and flint and steel kits are all unusable if they get wet. Flint and steel kits can definitely be used again as soon as they dry out, and friction fire kits may still be functional. Lighters and matches will be seriously damaged by water.
Making Fire in the Rain
On that same topic, because certain fire starters cannot function when they get wet, there are specific types of fire starters that are best to use if you are in a survival situation where you need to start a fire in the rain.
- Fire pistons would probably be your best option, as the higher quality pistons are extremely durable, and the fire piston itself is normally waterproof. So long as you don’t get the char-cloth or tinder wet, it should be functional.
- Your second-best option would be a magnesium rod. This is the only other type of waterproof fire starter as neither the steel starter nor the magnesium would be affected by the rain.
Another factor that can have a significant influence on the lifespan of your fire starter is its quality.
In general, lower-quality fire starters will have shorter lifespans, while higher-quality tools will last longer. In relation to fire pistons, the higher quality starters are normally made of aluminum alloy and are much more durable than their plastic counterparts.
With regards to magnesium fire starters and flint and steel fire starters, you want to find higher quality materials when you are searching for your kit, as they will be more durable and last longer in the field. You will have to pay a higher price for them, of course, but when you’re in a survival situation where your life depends on being able to start a fire, you’ll be glad you spent that extra $20!
Maintenance Is Important
The life of a fire starter, as with many other tools, can depend on how well you take care of it.
- A fire piston will last much longer if you make sure to clean it out after every use. If you leave remnant ash or cloth in the tube, it could become clogged and will be more likely to wear down faster.
- Flint and steel fire starters will last for some time so long as neither the flint nor the steel is broken or compromised. Although unexpected things happen all the time in survival situations, there are certain things you should avoid doing. Don’t use the flint or steel to try to hammer anything because they’ll likely break, and don’t heat the fire steel, or you could compromise it.
- You can lengthen the lifespan of any fire starter by protecting them from getting wet, broken, or rusted and by consistently sharpening the steel or knife that you use to create sparks.
Our Recommended Fire Starters for Your Kit
Based on how long each type of fire starter lasts, the best choice for what you want in your permanent survival kit would be a fire piston or the flint and steel fire starter.
Fire pistons, in general, have the longest lifespan of the different types of fire starters. As long as you make sure to clean them after every use and buy one that is made of an aluminum alloy rather than plastic, a fire piston can last you for years.
The most suggested fire pistons are:
Although this one is a bit of a mouthful, it’s an entire fire piston kit that includes spare rubber rings, char-cloth, and tinder.
Flint and Steel
Although most fire starter steels can only be used about 3,000 times before they get dull, flints can be used until there is not enough rock left to strike on. Along with that, flint is a natural rock that is found in most environments, so as long as you know what flint looks like you can re-supply.
The most suggested flint and steel survival kits are:
Redundancies Are Good
It is always good to have a variety of fire starters available in a survival situation. Magnesium rod fire starters are easy to carry around and a great third option if you don’t have a flint and steel starter or a fire piston. Matches and lighters, although they have a much shorter lifespan, are quick fire starters and are also lightweight.
Therefore, I recommend that you probably just use matches or a lighter for the bulk of your fire-starting but keep two other types in your kit as a backup. It’s better to err on the side of caution with something as important as getting fire.
What is the easier fire starter to use? If you are looking for versatility and ease of use, the next best thing to matches or a BIC lighter is a magnesium fire starter. Magnesium fire starters will light in virtually any condition and burn with a much larger spark than typical flint and steel fire starters.
The Light My Fire Swedish Magnesium Fire Starter found on Amazon is a really popular brand for boy scouts all the way up to special forces.
What are fire starter sticks made of? Fire starter sticks are usually made of compressed sawdust that is saturated in an accelerant so that it will easily light during fire starting.
For more, check out 4 Steps to Building the Best Fire Pits in Survival Shelters.
Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!