As outdoors-people, we are obsessed with fire. We carry around dryer lint, stack our snacks like kindling, and smear Vaseline on cotton balls, all in search of the prestigious one-match fire. We’ll pay upwards of $20 for a magnesium or ferrocerium rod-and-scrapper assembly so we can throw sparks at a pile of leaves and sticks while channeling Meriwether Lewis. The question is, why? For more than 40 years we have had the greatest fire starter ever invented.
If the Bic lighter were invented today and marketed as a survival tool–rather than in 1973 as a means to spark up a Virginia Slim–we would all marvel at this remarkable piece of technology. A simple flint-and-steel sparker, a self-contained fuel source, and a regulator that produces a consistent flame, all packaged in a lightweight, ergonomic design that fits perfectly in pocket or palm, and can be operated one-handed. It’s brilliant.
And yet for some reason we keep going about trying to reinvent the spark. True, a ferrocerium stick, such as the Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter, can strike up to 20,000 times. Factoring in my prowess with the tool, that predictably amounts to approximately zero (0) fires. The classic Bic lighter is good for 3,000 flames and weighs half as much as the Grylls fire starter, so you can carry a spare. If your tinder is a little damp, hold the flame on it a little longer until it dries enough to light. You can’t do that with molten flakes of magnesium.
And yes, with good tinder (or a number of messy, DIY hacks) and a properly built cone, you should be able to start a campfire with a single match. If you figure a campfire each day, with a few miscues and nothing else to light, a standard box of 40 matches should be all you need for more than a month in the backcountry. Or you could bring a Bic and, all other things being equal, make campfires for the next 8 years.
It works when it’s wet (spin the striker for a minute or two to dry the flint). It functions as a sparker if you’re lighting volatile fuels such as a propane or white gas stove. At 28 grams full, it’s lightweight. It’s economical. At Cabelas you can buy a stormproof match kit with 25 waterproof matches, strikers (aka sandpaper), in a case that floats for $8. For that price, you can get four Bic lighters at the local Circle K.
There are pitfalls to the Bic, for sure. Some forums will tell you that Bics don’t work above 12,000 feet when it’s below freezing. For a practical test, hike the peak of Crested Butte (12,162 feet) on a cold day when it’s open, and hang out for a while. I’ll bet my paycheck you see at least one fully functioning Bic lighter being passed around. The biggest downside, of course, is that they are plastic, disposable, and surprisingly difficult to recycle. The last thing we need is more plastic bits floating in the ocean. If this is your motivation, by all means, use matches.
Survivalists will tell you that two is one; one is none. By this logic, you should carry all three: a lighter, matches, and a fire starter. The fire starter is particularly useful because they usually come with paper instructions which, when combined with your Bic lighter, is your best bet for getting a fire going.
The reality is, with a few exceptions, fire stones and fire starters are more about aesthetics than function. They are about fueling inner childhood fantasies that when the world comes crumbling down I’ll be the one everyone turns to–provided I have a pyrophoric stick and some cotton cord soaked in paraffin wax. For what most of us are doing most of the time, a Bic lighter is the best tool ever created. Bring backups to be cautious. Take minis if you want to go light. Save the magnesium stick for reality shows.
(This applies only to Bic brand lighters. When the zombie apocalypse comes, anyone carrying a Cricket or Scripto will be eaten first.)