Tools That Can Save Your Life In The Wilderness

By Dan Kidder
Managing Editor

Great literature is more than just enjoyment; it contains many valuable lessons on life, love, perseverance, and even survival. In Jack London’s gripping short story, To Build A Fire, the protagonist’s arrogance and foolishness lead ultimately to his death from freezing. Granted, he didn’t have access to some of the quality fire starting tools available today.

A dip in a high mountain lake can be more than cold, it can be life threatening. Here the author intentionally lowers his body temperature to 90.6 degrees F. to test survival fire starters.

To thoroughly test these tools, I submerged myself in a high mountain lake for about 15 minutes in 38-degree water and got out into the 57-degree air. Then, with trembling hands and a core body temperature of 90.6 degrees, well into the hypothermia range, I proceeded to try to light several fires with the various tools. I can tell you from experience that this is difficult to do and should only be attempted under the most controlled circumstances.

According to Doug Ritter, a survival equipment authority and Executive Director of the Equipped to Survive Foundation (www.equipped.org), once moderate hypothermia sets in, the average person has about 15-30 minutes to create a radiant heat source. If he should fail, then without outside help he will most likely die.

According to Ritter, hypothermia isn’t just a cold weather problem. On even a moderate temperature day, under the right circumstances, potentially lethal hypothermia can set in very quickly.

“Getting wet in moderate temperature water or even moderate temperature air needs to be taken very seriously,” said Ritter. “It is better to get that fire built and not need it then to need it and not be able to get it started.”

Ritter said the symptoms of incipient or mild hypothermia are shivering and the loss of manual dexterity. “If you don’t do something then your chance of doing it later is severely degraded,” Ritter said.

After incipient hypothermia comes moderate hypothermia. This is when the body’s core temperature reaches between 95 to 90 degrees. At this point, according to the hypothermia charts on hypothermia.org, the person looses manual dexterity, begins to become irrational and suffers from clouded judgment. Hospitalization is recommended at this point. After the body reaches a core temperature between 90 to 86 degrees, loss of consciousness is eminent if not treated. Anything below 86 degrees becomes severe hypothermia and requires immediate medical treatment and can be fatal.

Even though wet, immediately start gathering dry wood and tinder to get a fire started. High water levels on rivers and lakes offer a good selection of dry driftwood. The bark of many, trees if fluffed and shredded, makes great tinder.

My safety net on this experiment was my good friend Greg Allred, a wilderness survival and master SCUBA instructor; one of the few people I would entrust to watch over me and monitor me for coherency in a life or death situation.

Not only did we want to test out the ease of use of the various tools, we wanted to simulate a common situation encountered in the wilderness. We needed to test if the fire starters would not only be easy to use when you are cold, but how well they worked when they were wet.

Here is the set up. You are out fishing on a moderate temperature day and your canoe rolls over on a river or lake. You flounder to shore with only what you are carrying in your pocket. Like a good outdoorsman, you have a quality and easy to use fire starter available in your pocket, a BIC lighter. Somehow though, the gas lever has been pressed all day by your keys, and the lighter is out of gas, another common failure.

Since most life and death struggles in the wilderness are not the result of a single misstep, but a combination of things going wrong, it is always important to have a redundant means ready to deal with the unexpected. Knowing this, you have carried in your pocket one of the small fire starter tools available at Sportsman’s Warehouse.

Because hypothermia can set in on even a relatively warm day if exposed to the water and elements for long enough, you realize that you need to light a fire to generate radiant heat.

You know enough about hypothermia to know that even though you are wet, you stay dressed to insulate yourself from the outside air and wind, squeezing as much of the water out of your clothing as possible. You also know that time is working against you and you immediately start to gather materials to make a fire. At this point, the tool you chose can save you or doom you. That is why we conducted this test.

All of the tools we tested worked well in a dry environment, easily allowing me to build a fire with just the tool and available fuel.

Even though wet, stay clothed as you build your fire to insulate yourself from the elements.

UST BlastMatch and WetFire

The BlastMatch from Ultimate Survival Technologies created a fantastic shower of sparks when it was dry, and easily blasted UST’s WetFire tinder cube into flame allowing me to build a fire. One great aspect of this tool is that is allows one handed operation, so you can easily shield your tinder from the wind or adjust elements to get better results with your free hand. While a great tool in the right conditions, the shortcomings for this item were that it was difficult to use on soft ground, and the flint rod seemed to clog up with gooey flint shavings while wet. Also, the striker button was difficult to press down with enough strength while my hands were cold and shivering. The BlastMatch is available in a waterproof survival pouch called the Aqua and in a hard sided case called the Deluxe. Both kept the BlastMatch dry enough for use and we were eventually able to get a good fire going with it, the WetFire tinder cubes, and some Juniper bark. While a little large for every day carry, both kits will fit into a cargo pants pocket or a day pack. The kits also include a hand-operated chain saw, the SabreCut, which slices through small trees and branches like butter. The saw had amazingly sharp teeth and required much less effort than I had anticipated. It was amazingly easy to use and really got the job done. The kit also includes WetFire tinder cubes, a signal mirror, and a very loud and high-pitched whistle.

Horseshoe Mountain Firestarters

Horseshoe Mountain Firestarters have created a series of very small and very portable fire starters. About the size of a key chain, these small sticks and strikers include both a flint and steel, as well as a magnesium rod for scraping into tinder. Magnesium burns extremely hot and will also burn when wet or even completely submerged under water, because it creates oxygen as it burns. While the magnesium did catch fire with relative ease, we found in our testing that it burned so hot and so fast that it was really not an efficient method of getting a fire started. If you have an abundance of very dry materials, a very steady hand, and some patience, this is a great tool for you. In windy conditions, getting the magnesium scrapings to stay put can be a challenge. I would really recommend this to anyone who is doing hiking in a very arid place where evening temperatures can quickly drop and where there is an abundance of dry fuel. The two handed operation can be a liability, and aiming the sparks can be difficult, especially with frozen fingers. When very cold, there is a tendency to scatter your fuel as you try to operate this fire starter.

Stick type starters, like these models from Horseshoe Mountain Firestarters (L) and Light My Fire (R), are small and easy to carry, and create great sparks for getting a fire going.

Light My Fire

Light My Fire takes a similar approach to Horseshoe Mountain except they pass on the magnesium and provide a much thicker flint with a specially designed striker. This combination provides a much hotter shower of sparks that actually continue glowing red hot after they hit the ground or fuel. With the right fuel, these sparks easily ignite and get your fire burning. No survival kit is complete without a knife, and Light Your Fire has combined a flint into a knife and even added a high-pitched whistle all into one package. Their SL3 Survival knife provides a fairly decent partially serrated blade, the back of which is used to strike the flint. The knife locks open and fits easily into a pocket. While I don’t suggest that the knife is rugged enough for every day use, it is an excellent choice for an emergency. Another innovation from Light My Fire is Maya Dust, a small canister that looks like a Skoal can but contains shaving of resin rich wood. The addition of Maya Dust to your fire almost guarantees success in getting your fire going.

Adventure Medical Kits

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when I first saw the Spark-Lite and Tinder-Quik manufactured by Four Seasons Survival and sold by Adventure Medical Kits. It has a small orange plastic body, about the size of four stick matches, with a flint striker wheel on top, like you would see on a BIC lighter, and some little cotton looking bits, that resemble a cigarette butt that has been peeled and fluffed. I have to say that of all the starters tested, this one performed the most reliably and consistently wet or dry. The Tinder-Quik are actually specially treated cotton wicking that works when wet or dry and continues to burn with a decent flame for nearly five minutes. The Spark-Lite’s one-handed operation and very small size and weight more than make up for how it looks. These tools are used by the military and would be a great addition to any survival kit. Equipped To Survive’s Ritter bets his own life on the Spark-Lite, selecting them for his own personal survival kits, after testing everything we tested for this article and many more.

To go one better, Adventure Medical Kits and Ritter created the Pocket Survival Pak (PSP). Combining the Spark-Lite and tinder, a compass, a small Fresnal Magnifying Lens (with which we were also able to start a fire using the sun), a fishing kit, safety pins, tiny roll of duct tape, a heavy foil sheet, Fox 40 whistle, wire, nylon cord, a spool of heavy duty thread, a needle, plus waterproof survival instructions and more all into a pocket sized waterproof pouch. Based upon its performance, size, weight, and functionality, this is the kit that will be in my pocket every time I hit the trail.

Just for enjoyment, go back and read London’s short story as a reminder of how quickly things can go bad in the wilderness. Whichever product you ultimately choose, make sure that you get into the habit of carrying it on you whenever you go outdoors. An additional step would be to carry a fire starter on you, a survival kit in your day pack, and a more comprehensive kit in your vehicle. Or, as Ritter says, “if you don’t have it with you, it can’t save your life.”

Sportsman’s News Pick — Adventure Medical Kit’s Pocket Survival Pak

Contents: Waterproof pouch, Spark-Lite Firestarter and Tinder-Quik, Rescue Flash mirror, survival compass, Fox 40 rescue whistle, scalpel blade, duct tape, steel utility wire, Fresnal lens magnifier, heavy nylon thread, braided nylon cord, fishing kit, safety pins, heavy foil sheet, pencil and waterproof paper, waterproof survival instructions.Weight: 3.9 ounces

Size: 4″X5″