Like any person who's had a panic attack about being stuck in the wilderness alone for a night, I always carry some kind of fire starter when I go into the woods. I spent the past two weeks testing five of the most popular tools, ranking them based on ease of use, price, and packability. Just be sure to practice with whichever you choose so you’re not learning in the field during an emergency.
#5: Leatherman Signal Multitool with Fire Starter ($100)
Best For: Being prepared for all kinds of backcountry emergencies.
How It Works: There’s a ferrocerium rod inside this Leatherman. Use the back of one of the tool’s blades to scrape the rod and get a spark.
Results: I found this ferrocerium rod more difficult to use than the Aurora Fire Starter because it was smaller and produced fewer sparks. It took me a full 30 minutes to get a dry fire started. That said, the Leatherman comes with a sharp saw and blade for cutting kindling, plus a host of other useful backcountry tools.
#4: Aurora Fire Starter ($23)
Best For: Backcountry ounce counters.
How It Works: This is a magnesium rod that sends sparks flying when it’s scraped with the included striking blade. It doesn’t work well when wet, but comes in a waterproof case.
Results: It took me six strikes to scrape the rod correctly, but once I did, it sent a powerful flame onto the cotton ball I used as fuel and immediately set it ablaze. I like that the whole kit comes in a ChapStick-size tube and weighs just 1.7 ounces.
#3: Cotton Balls Covered in Vaseline ($.25)
Best For: Cheap, lightweight insurance.
How It Works: No, this isn’t a fire-starting tool, but I wanted to include this concoction anyway because these swabs are so useful in the field that I always carry at least a dozen with me. I let the balls soak in the jelly for about an hour, then pack them into a plastic container. Since Vaseline is petroleum-based, and petroleum is extremely flammable, these balls catch fire as soon as they come into contact with a spark.
Results: The balls will burn for more than 30 seconds when it’s not raining and up to 20 seconds during a drizzle. The petroleum adds extra fuel and burns hot, making these useful for lighting damp wood.
#2: UCO Titan Stormproof Match Kit ($10)
Best For: Pyro novices.
How It Works: Like normal matches—they’re just waterproof.
Results: To test the waterproof claim, I dunked each of these matches in water for 30 seconds. Each one still lit immediately and went on to burn for more than 20 seconds—plenty of time to ignite a well-prepared kindling-and-paper fire. The matches are also wind resistant.
#1: Pocket Bellows Weatherproof Kit ($25)
Best For: Starting a fire in the rain.
How It Works: This is a full fire kit that includes a waterproof ferrocerium rod and striker (for sparks), waterproof beeswax/olive oil wicks to catch the sparks, and a metal tube that you blow through to aim your breath and fuel the fire.
Results: This kit worked flawlessly. The rod and striker were easy to use. The wicks, which burn for more than three minutes, caught fire even after I’d soaked them in a glass of water. Blowing through the metal tube made the wicks roar with enough heat to catch sticks and grass on fire almost instantly.