Ferro Rod vs. Bic Lighter

IMG_3495This article grew out of a post I started on Dirttime.com and Facebook as a way to summarize and discuss some thoughts and findings on the often hotly debated topic of ferro (ferrocerium) rods, versus lighters— Bic during quick research.

It has been a commonly held belief the ferro rod is superior than a Bic lighter, because:

  • A ferro rod will not run out of fuel like a lighter will
  • A ferro rod is not affected by altitude like a lighter is
  • A ferro rod is not susceptible to a very cold temperature like a lighter is
  • A ferro rod uses gross motor skills (this is partially correct and is dependent on the size of the ferro rod)
  • A ferro rod has no moving parts, unlike a lighter
  • A ferro rod will work even after it has been wet
  • A ferro rod will not break like a lighter can

These beliefs have been so ingrained in the public eye, that even manufacturers of survival products have distributed them under the moniker of  “Ultimate Survival Fire Starting Device” . The military, depending on your unit, even frequently distributes them to their members as such.

I, too, was an adamant believer of the ferro rod, but the more I used it, the more I began to question it’s authoritative claims. Using critical thinking and through my experiences, I determined it was NOT the wonder bar it claimed to be and stopped using it all together a few years ago, sans when I teach how to use them in my classes.

There was still an unanswered question I had “Just how many flames does a lighter get?”. I mean if I could find the answer to that, I would know how many chances I get to actually get a fire in a survival situation. So, I did what any modern day researcher would do… I googled it! What I found out would totally knock my socks off and answer other questions I never even knew I had.

When I asked how many strikes in a Bic lighter, the first website to pop up was the BIC Faq page

And it said, “A full size Bic lighter can get up to 3000 lights”.

I admit I was a bit in disbelief. So grabbing a calculator, a scale, and a large size ferro rod, I did some quick calculations and this is what I came up with. which I posted on FB and Dirttime

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A larger size ferro has about 15000 sparks and weighs about 3.7 ounces and costs about 10 dollars or more

A Bic weighs .7 grams and can be picked up for, often times, under a buck.

So, all things being equal in cost and weight, you get more fires out of a Bic than you do a ferro, by a LONG shot

3.7 oz ferro rod = 13 bics at .7

13 bics x 3000 strikes = 39,000 lights

On the surface… the math looks correct, as I thought, but as a braniac of a friend pointed out “this topic has been gnawing at me.” Thank you, Mike

1 gram = 0.035274 Ounces. therefore if a Bic weighs 0.7 grams…;

convert 0.7 grams by multiplying times 0.035274 which equals 0.0246918 Ounces

so WOW! you are telling me that a Full sized Bic Lighter weighs (0.0246918 Ounce Bic / 3.7 Ounces Ferro Rod)…

drum roll … a factor of 0.0066734594594595 – or roughly TWO THIRTIETHS OF A PERCENT OF WHAT A ROD WEIGHS.

So the truth lies closer to 5 Bics for one 3.7oz rod which gives you the same amount of lights at about 15000, though the ferro is sparks, not lights

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With a bit more reasoning and math, prompted by other comments, I came up with this

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If one has a candle in their kit, which many do,  ferro fans would need to strike up a cotton ball (with vaseline), or other tinder of the sort, so they could then light the candle.

To be fair, lets say people just break off a piece of the cotton ball, so they don’t use the entire cotton ball. Now then, lets say they get 6 pieces of cotton out of one standard piece. In order to get the efficiency of a lighter at 3000 flames, one would need 500 cotton balls. So, can you fit 500 cotton balls inside of a lighter? (Most people only carry about 3-4 pieces of vaseline impregnated cotton balls)

How about this

With one lighter 8 fires a day for a year. So with due diligence and fire management ability by lighting one fire a day the lighter should be good for 8 years.

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Of course, now I had to really find some hard facts about the elevation and cold problem, so where do you think I went? The people with experience in that field… Those who climb Mt Everest.

After endless searching and myriad sites and forums, I did not find one instance of using the ferro rod. In fact, even all the packing sites recommended matches and lighters. Admittedly, they didn’t say which lighter. One account did say they took up to 20 lighters and none worked, but the sherpas had lighters that did… The person who it happened to didn’t know why. He just said ask the sherpas to bring you some of the better ones up.

So, digging a little deeper, I found this on a forum. Though I can’t prove the credibility of the authors, it is interesting

I do lots of climbing above 12,000 feet and have never had a problem getting my stove lit with a $1 lighter you find on the counter of any quickiemart. I keep one in my climbing pack and my parka. The cheapo lighters have never failed me and they last a long time. No need to buy a razzle dazzle latest and greatest, save your money for better coffee

Another poster wrote this

My vote for the common Zippo. Not flashy, but I’ve used mine at over 14K, cold/hot. Always carry one.

Here’s another

After my challenges with $75 lighters, I finally went with toting around half a dozen cheap-o lighters. I buy the little mini Bic lighters and keep one in my pack, my pocket, my first aid kit, etc. I have a pink mini-Bic that has been with me to the Alps, Alaska, Hawaii and beyond.

Response to above

X2 That is the way to go. Cheap and works, what else do you need? 
I never really understood the “stormproof” thing, I have climbed and kayaked in some pretty harsh elements from driving rain to blizzard conditions and have never had a problem lighting anything with a Bic.

Another

Having spent several nights at extreme elevations…. ( I love mountaineering). I have found that you will never go wrong with (1) good waterproof matches and (2) a good Bic. Like others have said…. Altitude with mess with a lighter no matter how much you send on it. Zippo, Brunton, whatever…. 9 out of 10 times the bic will out preform. Period!

Yet another

We were attempting to light a stove on Humphrey’s Peak (at about 12,000), and the Brunton would not light. The cheap Zippo we had in the pack did. . .

I work on that mountain. 11,500 feet at the patrol shack. We just use a Bic to light the stove.

Well, since it is not customary for me to go that high, I’ve really no need to worry about it. 

Waterproof

I’ve often heard “Well, a lighter is not waterproof”. In the case of the zippo, I would agree, but if we think about a BIC, by the sheer nature of the fact fluid does not evaporate… water can’t get in.

I’ve submerged Bics in water for up to two hours and had them working in under a minute, by simply blowing out the water and rolling the wheel across my shirt to dry it out.

I do keep a zippo in a plastic ziplock bag when near streams. No different than one’s vaseline impregnated cottonballs.

Does the Ferro make a good backup?

In my opinion, a back up should be as good, if not better than the primary, because, it is my belief, if I have to resort to a backup, the situation has probably gotten more dire, which means I likely need a fire that much quicker. So, since I don’t carry or use a ferro rod, my answer is NO! My backup is another lighter, Stormproof matches, and a road flare for backcountry packing.

Final thoughts

It was my belief, years ago, survival should be easy enough so that even those with little experience had a fighting chance.

In a room of a hundred random people, it is likely every single person knows how to use a lighter, even some kids. It is also my belief, of those 100, it is unlikely anyone knows how to use a ferro rod. So, with that idea in mind, if something were to happen to me, it is more important I carry tools they know, than for me to be so arrogant in my skills that I offer them no chance of survival. As a survival instructor and one who took a personal oath to help keep them alive, it would be very irresponsible otherwise.

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