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.  

Six Features Of Quality Backpacks

(Note: I previously published this article as “Six Essential Features of Quality Backpacks” on February 3, 2019)

There are six features of quality backpacks. A great backpack is an invaluable piece of gear. An outdoor adventure will not be enjoyable if one’s pack breaks down in the field. It is essential to be able to assess if a backpack will hold up to the rigors of outdoor use. The market is flooded with varying styles and types of packs in a multitude of price ranges. Therefore, it is essential to know what to look for when seeking to purchase a great backpack.  

1. The Fabric Material

The first feature to look for when considering a quality backpack is the quality of the fabric material. There are two primary areas of the backpack of which the fabric will identify it as worthy of purchase: the main compartment and the strapping. Most packs that are manufactured for the outdoors will have straps that function as lashing points (daisy chains), grab handles, gear security, adjustment or compression. The material that comprises the strapping is as important as that which makes up the pack compartments. The denier rating of the fabric is a key to understanding the durability of the material.

There are two favorite fabrics that manufacturers use for backpacks: nylon and Cordura® fabric.  Technically, Cordura® also is nylon. The difference is that Cordura® fabric is a patented and trademarked type of nylon fabric from the Invista Company in Wichita, Kansas. By contrast, denier is not a type of nylon fabric. Instead, the word, denier, is a measurement of fabric density. For example, the Osprey Xenith 88 backpack uses nylon while the current military rucksacks use the Cordura® fabric. Sometimes the nylon fabric is treated so that it is water resistant. The type and density rating of the material that makes up the backpack is what one needs to look for when looking for a quality backpack.

A. Pack-Grade Nylon Fabric

Nylon fabric that is characteristic of backpacks from Osprey® or Kelty® is sometimes advertised as “pack nylon” or “bag nylon.” It is the same type of fabric common in luggage, gym bags, and ultra-light backpacks, gear bags, and stuff sacks. This kind of material has a more smooth texture than Cordura®. Pack-grade nylon fabric can be treated to be water resistant. Some of the nylon that has a higher denier rating has a feel more like furniture upholstery. Pack-grade nylon can be milled to feature a diamond, hexagon, or checkered rip-stop texture. The one weakness with pack-grade nylon is that is less tear and wear resistant. 

B. Cordura® Fabric

Cordura® fabric is a popular material that is characteristic of quality backpacks. Backpacks that are for tactical or rugged outdoor use tend to use this material. The primary indicator that a backpack is using Cordura® fabric is that the manufacturer will stitch a small tag somewhere in an inconspicuous place on the pack that says, “Cordura® fabric” on it. Cordura fabric has the texture of the legacy cotton canvas. It has a more rough feel to it than regular nylon and requires stronger industrial stitching to make products out of it.

Cordura® manufactures several types of their fabric. The most common material in use with military and tactical backpacks is fabric from their Ballistic Fabric line. The company describes Ballistic fabric as, “Based on the original ballistic woven nylon developed for military body armor, dense, rugged Cordura® Ballistic fabrics are made with high tenacity nylon 6,6 filament yarns and offer enhanced tear and abrasion resistance.” Ballistic fabric has high abrasion resistance and a high toughness for tearing. It can be treated to be water repellant.

C. Straps, and PALS Webbing

An additional consideration concerning materials integrated on a quality backpack is the strap material. There are three basic kinds of straps or strapping used on a backpack: shoulder straps, compression straps, and PALS webbing. Grab handles and daisy chain straps are also part of non-military backpack construction.

There are two kinds of material manufacturers use for strappings on quality backpacks: MIL-W-43668 Type III nylon webbing (1” wide) and MIL-W-4088 nylon webbing (1-2.25” wide). The knock-off U.S. military backpacks manufactured overseas tend to use lower quality strapping. An example of this type of backpack is the Outdoor Products Quest Backpack sold at Walmart. The U. S. Army MOLLE 3-Day Assault and Medium Rucksack are examples of packs that use higher quality materials. 

2. Stitching

Another important characteristic to look for in a quality backpack is the stitching used to construct the backpack. The best thread material for sewing is Kevlar thread or heavy-duty industrial strength nylon thread such as that which is in parachute harnesses. It is essential to look for the use of double stitching of the seams. The stitching that connects shoulder straps to the main body of the pack is critical to the pack’s durability in the field. Most backpacks utilize either a reinforced zig-zag stitching pattern or double-stitched boxed-X pattern as is common in parachute harnesses.

3. Closures

A third critical feature to look for in a quality backpack is the closures such as zippers, buckles, and snaps. The most common zipper used on tactical and military packs is YKK VISLON® Fin-Type. The most common fasteners used on tactical and military backpacks are Duraflex® squeeze-type quick-release buckles by the National Molding Company®. These buckles are made of high-impact plastic.  Closure manufacturers also make buckles, snaps, and zippers of stainless steel, aircraft grade aluminum, or titanium. However, these materials are less common due to the need to reduce the cost of manufacturing which keeps quality backpacks within fair retail pricing.

4. Access

A fourth consideration when looking to purchase a quality backpack is the ease of access it allows to your gear. There are many opinions about accessing the contents within a pack. Some prefer top access. Others prefer a clamshell or draw-bridge type access. Still, other people desire multiple ways to access the contents of their backpack. There does not seem to be a consensus about preference on accessing the contents of a pack.

Thus, a quality backpack gives the user easy access to their gear as the outdoorsman perceives it. Gear accessibility is important. Preppers, survivalists, outdoorsman, and bushcrafters will not continue to use a backpack that is more frustrating to use in the field than it is worth. There is nothing more aggravating when you are in the outdoors and getting to your gear becomes problematic. Therefore, how you pack your backpack also determines ease of access and not just the construction characteristics of the pack itself.

5. Modularity

The next critical feature that characterizes quality backpacks is the capability called, modularity. Modularity in a pack allows the user to configure their pack for specific situations. For example, the Alps Outdoor Z Commander X backpack is a pack that features modularity which addresses the needs of big game hunters. Another backpack that offers modularity features is the 5.11 Rush™ series of tactical backpacks that offer the PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) webbing that allows the pack to be configured for military or law enforcement missions.

6. Wear

A final consideration for purchasing a quality backpack is wear. Is the backpack comfortable to wear for long periods? Some backpacks offer the user the ability to adjust the torso length. Other packs have load adjustment straps that connect the shoulder strap with the main compartment or frame. These allow the user to pull the pack closer to their body to shift pack weight off of the hips and onto the frame, whether the frame is internal or external to the pack.

Final Thoughts

It is essential to purchase a quality backpack if you are heading out for an outdoor adventure. These six characteristics of quality backpacks are a starting point for assessing a backpack that meets your outdoor considerations. No pack features all of these characteristics at once. Thus, it is critical that you shop around. The best way to determine if a backpack is a quality pack is to physically examine some packs at your local Cabela’s®, Bass Pro Shop®, REI®, Academy Sports®, or a military surplus store. Take your time and make an informed purchase to ensure years of great use out of your next backpack.