Survival Matches or Lighter: What’s the Most Reliable in the Wild?


Blue matches and blue lighter

Fire is always important, especially in areas that have extreme temperatures or lots of precipitation. Having the ability to start that fire in harsh conditions could be the difference between life or death. Whether a lighter or survival matches the most reliable way to ignite a fire is a common question.

Survival matches will ignite after being submerged in water and are more reliable in the cold. Therefore, in extreme situations, survival matches are the best option to light a fire. However, for general use in normal conditions, a lighter is superior. If possible, both types should be carried in a survival pack.

While a lighter is an essential part of your gear when traversing the wilderness, matches have their niche in a survivalist pack as they fill a need when a lighter can fail. Knowing the benefits and downsides to each fire lighting method is essential to being prepared for any situation.

Pros and Cons of Lighters Versus Matches

Before we go into the details, let’s take a quick look at the benefits and negatives of each type of fire-making tool:

FeaturesLightersMatches
Number of usesThousandsSingle-Use
Works in freezing conditionsNoYes
WaterproofNoYes
Reliable in the rainYesNo
Can be used one-handedYesNo

Now let’s take a closer look at the details of both options.

Why Carry Survival Matches?

The head of a match contains potassium chlorate and sulfur. These chemicals react with the red phosphorus on the strike strip when friction and pressure are applied to generate a flame. The flame is sustained by burning the wood that creates the match’s shaft.

For survivalists, relying on two sets of chemicals to work in concert can be daunting and this makes “strike-anywhere” matches, like these made by UCO, much more practical.

In strike-anywhere matches, white phosphorous is included in the head composition and will ignite when friction is applied. This basically means it will ignite when it’s dragged across the ground or a rock so you don’t need a strike strip.

Survival matches also ignite more powerfully and with increased volatility as the combustible compound (usually the oxidizer) coats about half of the match stick. Due to this, most survival match sticks guarantee a flame for 10-20 seconds, regardless of the weather conditions.

This is also why survival matchsticks are far longer in length than those found in a common matchbook. The chemicals are also sealed with a waterproof coating (usually with a wax-like substance) to protect them when immersed in water for a short time. However, after submersion, many users report an increase in failure rate. Therefore, it is wise to keep survival matches in a water-tight container to keep them dry.

Can I Waterproof My Own Matches?

You can easily waterproof your own matches by coating then in turpentine, nail polish, candle wax, or paraffin wax. All these coatings prevent water from mixing with the match’s ignitable chemical composition as they are hydrophobic (i.e., repel water).

In each instance, take a regular match, cover the tip with the waterproof material, and leave them to dry. Try a few to be sure the coating hasn’t affected the match’s ability to light.

Why Carry a Lighter?

An average lighter can ignite up to 3,000 times, so there is no need to ration your fire-making with this piece of kit.

For this convenience, lighters don’t add much more weight than matches to your pack and they are small enough to fit in any pocket. They can also be far more convenient in windy conditions as lighters can be ignited one-handed, leaving the other to shield the flame as it burns the tinder.

Of course, lighters can fail, especially if they are submerged. Once water enters the fuel line, there isn’t enough combustible material reaching the striker to ignite a flame.

Additionally, if dropped onto a hard surface, especially from a height, a lighter can break. If you are caught in extremely cold conditions, the fuel inside the lighter won’t flow properly and cause the system to fail. You can use your body heat to overcome this, but under extreme stress, this may not be apparent to the person in desperate need of a fire.

One option is to get a survivalist plasma lighter that is weatherproofed. Many are now rated to be both waterproof and windproof, like this one made by Icfun (Click to see Amazon Listing).

What About Permanent Matches?

Survivalists like the predictability of a match yet need the convenience of a lighter. To meet these requirements, permanent matches were created to bridge the gap between survivalist matches and lighters.

These devices use a liquid fuel source that has a metal scraper in the center of the flint. Just like a match, it uses striking the scraper along with the flint to produce a spark.

Permanent matches are all windproof, weatherproof, and come in a metal case just like a lighter similar to this example made by Campout.

Just keep in mind that even permanent matches can fail after being submerged in water and require two hands to start a flame. Also, the caveat with any fire-lighting method that involves fuel is that you have to remember to refill it.

Bottom Line

Making a fire in the wild can be crucial for survival by providing heat, a method for cooking, and even creating a signal for help.

Most of the time you will use your lighter to start your fires. I recommend that you buy a survival-rated lighter that is windproof. Keep it in a watertight container and you shouldn’t have any issues no matter the conditions.

However, backups and alternatives are always a wise choice and taking a pack of survivalist matches with you will ensure you can always light a fire when it matters. For redundancy sake, I recommend keeping multiple packs in different locations on your person. You never know when you could be stripped of your main pack in a survival situation.

Related Questions

Is a Zippo a Good Survival Lighter? The Zippo lighter boasts some useful features that make it a great survival lighter. Significantly, most fuel types can be used to refill it, including camp fuel, rubbing alcohol, and lamp oil. They are also windproof and will ignite a fire in almost any situation, even at high altitude. They do require maintenance, so make sure your Zippo is in perfect working order before leaving for your trip.

What are Stormproof Matches? Stormproof matches have been demonstrated to continue burning even while submerged underwater. This is achievable due to a proprietary durable coating that will smolder until it comes in contact with oxygen again, i.e., from the air. The chemistry of the match is also a little different from regular matches, as it has magnesium in its composition to keep it smoldering.

What type of wood are matches made from? Usually, matches are made from a straight-grained wood, usually white pine or aspen. They are often soaked in a fire retardant like ammonium phosphate. This helps keep the wood from becoming a coal once the flame has gone out, thus decreasing the chance of causing unwanted fires.

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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