Top 5 U.S. Military Fire Starters

The top five U.S. military fire starters for backpackers are some excellent options for backpackers. An emergency survival fire is an essential element in wilderness survival. The assets to make a fire in an emergency should be part of every backpacker’s loadout. Many survival experts recommend creating a fire starting kit with various methods to make a fire in an emergency. These five U.S. military fire starting methods can be considered for those seeking low-cost options to include in their packing list.   

1. The Zippo® Lighter (NSN 9920-01-598-9704)

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Zippo® products are favorites with many people. The famous Zippo lighter was issued to servicemembers for many decades until the dawn of the disposable lighters. Its official military name is Lighter, Windproof. I recently talked with a gentleman who served in Vietnam, and he got a little gleam in his eye when we talked about how these lighters were issued to soldiers. He remembered being issued one while he served in the U.S. Army. My father, who served in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, recalls being issued a Zippo lighter.

Zippo lighters typically are associated with smoking tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. However, they can still be used to start a campfire on the trail or an emergency fire in an emergency survival situation.

One drawback with these lighters is the lighter fluid evaporates more quickly than a disposable lighter. One advantage the Zippo lighter has over the disposable lighter is that one can replace the lighter fluid and the flint for the spark wheel.

One complaint that servicemembers often give about the lighter is that it is labeled as windproof when it is not as windproof as one might expect. With normal usage, the lighter will maintain its flame in windy conditions that are light to moderate.

2. NATO Survival Matches (NSN: 9920-99-966-9432)

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Windproof matches are a common item in most survival kits. UCO® makes some of the best windproof and stormproof matches on the market. However, the concept for these matches reaches back to U.S. military.

American pilots began wearing vests with many pockets. Early survival training for pilots featured starting a fire, as fire is essential for survival. Wooden matches in metal or plastic containers begin to be issued as survival items to pilots. Over the years, technological developments allowed the wooden match to become a unique survival tool for American pilots.

The most current version of these wooden matches is the NATO Survival Matches. They come in a plastic bottle with twenty-five matches or a Ziploc-type bag of ten matches. Best Glide ASE® and BCB International® sell these matches. They are shorter than those sold by UCO®. Best Glide ASE® writes, “NATO Survival Matches are currently used by the U.K. MoD, Red Cross, United States Marine Corps, and Air Force, NATO, GSA, UNICEF, and others.”

If you are looking to add a little militaria to your emergency survival fire starting kit, the NATO Survival Matches are the best consideration for price and reliability.

3. Spark-Lite™ Fire Starting Kit (NSN:1680-01-233-0061)

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Spark-Lite™ fire starting kits are small and compact. They were a standard survival item in a pilot’s aviation life support equipment (ALSE) for many years. The kit comes in a plastic, non-waterproof container that measures 2.5 inches in length, .5 inches in depth, and 1.5 inches in width. Inside the box are eight Tinder-Quik cotton tabs and one sparking wheel on a plastic handle. The more expensive versions have a brass handle on the sparking wheel.

Survive Outdoors Longer (SOL)® produces its version of this kit called The Fire Lite Kit. It comes in a Ziploc-type bag with twenty Tinder Quik tabs, and a plastic handled sparker. The SOL® kit is much bulkier than the Spark-Lite kit.

The Spark-Lite kit is a one-hand fire staring solution for making emergency survival fires. You will not be disappointed if you decide to include this kit in your backpacking fire kit.

4. The Magnesium Bar (NSN: 4240-01-160-5618)

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Survivorman, Les Stroud, demonstrated the magnesium bar’s usefulness for starting fires in the episode, “Canyon Lands” on Survivorman Season One. Many of us have seen those magnesium bars by Coleman® or Coghlan® hanging in the outfitter stores, Walmart®, and other places outdoor gear is sold. However, until a few years ago, I was unaware that the magnesium bar was issued as a survival item in the U.S. military.

The U.S. military version of the magnesium bar is manufactured by the Doan Machinery & Equipment Company, Incorporated® in South Euclid, Ohio. They were issued to pilots as part of their survival kit. However, many soldiers carried and used them in the field.

These magnesium bars represent a fire starting option with both tinder and combustion wedded in a single item. A single bar is three inches long, one inch wide and a half-inch thick. A small ferrocerium rod is embedded on one side of the bar to make the sparks that ignite the magnesium shavings scraped off the bar.

Magnesium bars are a compact capability to have in your pocket should you have to make a fire in an emergency. A magnesium bar is a great item to compliment your fire kit as a backup item if you already have a primary way to start an emergency survival fire.

5. MRE Matches

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The final military fire-starting item to consider is the matches out of the accessory packet of a Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE). These represent the traditional book of paper matches. Most people may not consider these as a survival fire making option. However, if they are all you have in an emergency, you will be grateful for their presence in your loadout.

A couple of soldiers from my unit became lost during a night movement in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. After thirty-six hours, they were found by a helicopter who spotted them due to a small fire they had started to keep warm and heat their MREs. Afterward, our leaders ordered everyone to carry matches from the MRE.

The MRE matches are an item to consider when looking for a last-ditch method to make an emergency survival fire. These traditional matches will work in dry environments, as long as they do not get wet. To ensure they stay dry, you could add them into your fire starting kit if you use a waterproof container, such as a dry sack or a 4 x 6 Pelican® case. 

Final Thoughts

There is much to be said in favor of the military surplus gear of the United States. People who love the outdoors always are on the lookout for quality gear at a reasonable price. Military surplus meets that criteria. By contrast, I am not interested in looking like someone on patrol in a combat zone on the trail. Thankfully, the fire starting items in the list above are small enough that nobody will know you have them until you use them. You can experiment to see what fits your needs and then decide if you want to carry it on the trail. So, enjoy the journey of discovery with these and other surplus items in your loadout.  

Author: Major Hykr

Major Hykr is my blog site to chronicle my hiking and backpacking experiences. Here you will find information and tips on outdoor activities, wilderness safety and survival, equipment, first aid, health, and other related items of interest to hikers, backpackers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Enjoy and See you on the trail!

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