The Magnesium Fire Starter

by Christopher Nyerges

Nyerges is the author of "Enter the Forest," "Urban Wilderness," "Guide to Wild Foods," and other books. He is the former editor of Lament, the magazine of Greater L.A. Area Mensa. He has been teaching outdoor classes since 1974. Together with his wife Dolores, they operate the School of Self-Reliance. For information on his classes and books, contact School of Self-Reliance at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or

A good firestarter is an absolute must for anyone traveling into the wilderness. You need a firestarter that is reliable, long-lasting, easy-to-use, and not subject to failure if you drop it or get it wet.

Of course, if you have the skill to make a fire using only what nature has provided, you'll never have that fear of relying solely on your equipment. Making a fire using only what you find in the woods includes such methods as the hand-drill, the bow and drill, and to some extent the pump drill, and flint and steel. Keep in mind there are dozens of variations on these "primitive" methods and they all require that you practice and practice.

And while I have always urged my students to make the time to master at least the bow and drill and the hand-drill (even in their own backyards), many have loudly declared after trying and failing with the hand drill or bow and drill that now they would never leave home without a good fire starter. They hadn't mastered the primitive methods at all, but the effort made an indelible mark upon their thinking that you must always have a reliable fire starter.

Up to the late 1970s, we were showing people many of the modern methods of fire-starting -- other than matches and butane lighters. For example, we spent a lot of time in the desert testing various magnifying glasses and fresnel lenses and found that we could make a fire whenever the sun was out. The key was having ideal tinder. We also used steel wool and batteries, though this seems to be more of a novelty rather th an a practical system to rely upon. We used various sparking devices such as welders sparkers, and the Boy Scout "metal match," which was nothing but a rod that you sparked.

But it wasn't until 1978 that the single best fire starter was invented. Though there have been numerous variations and knock-offs since, the original is still the best and the cheapest. It's the magnesium fire starter. The original -- still manufactured -- is a solid block of magnesium with a striking rod secured to one end. It has a hole in it so it can be attached to your key ring.

To use this, you take your knife (or a small piece of a hacksaw blade, or other metal object) and you scrape a small pile of the silver-colored magnesium. Then, you scrape the striking insert, directing the sparks into the shavings. Presto, you have a quick, hot fire.

There is nothing to wear out, nothing to re-fill, and it makes no difference if the tool gets wet. Plus, the magnesium fire starter sells for about $6 to $8 at camping stores, a cost so reasonable that I strongly suggest you get several: one to always carry with your keys, one for your car, one for your pack.

I recall one Saturday when I was out for a January hike with the Pasadena City College hiking class. We were only at the 3000 foot level (or so) in the Angeles National Forest, but it started to snow. Just lightly at first, but I knew we needed to get off the mountain in a hurry. As we were departing, a 40-something woman and about 15 young girls appeared out of nowhere and asked us if we had any extra matches. Nope, I told her, I never carry any. Nor did any members of the class have matches. She explained that the Girl Scout troop was up there for the week -- they'd already been there three days -- and they ran out of matches. Ran out of matches! I thought to myself. How is that possible.

I asked her what type of matches she brought and she said book matches. Well, she obviously never took a class of mine. I could hardly believe that anyone would go for a week in the mountains in the winter and only carry along book matches. I showed her how to use my magnesium fire starter and gave it to her. She clearly needed it more than I did, and besides, I had at least two more in my pack.

I must say that my associates and I were very pleased when we began to test and analyze this new firestarter of the late 1970s. We realized that "this was it!" We have not seen a better idea since, in spite of the very expensive, and some complicated, sparking devices that have since appeared on the market. (I'm a sucker for "toys," and so I get and test them all. Believe me when I say that the magnesium fire starter is the ultimate fire starter). Don't let the low price of the magnesium fire starter fool you.

Eventually, this tool became standard issue in military survival kits, a most deserving place for the tool.

Now, in spite of my high praise for the tool, I have had many people over the years tell me that they purchased the tool and that "it didn't work." Well, even the simplest of devices must be practiced to perfection. I have used it so many times -- probably thousands of times by now -- that it looks almost too easy. Whenever I hear that "the tool doesn't work" or "maybe I got a bad tool," I know that I just need to ask a few questions to determine what they did, and what they did wrong.

I admit that once it took me nearly 40 minutes to get a fire going with the magnesium fire starter. I was in a rock depression at the time, somewhat out of the high winds of the desert, and everything was damp. In other instances, it has taken me from 30 to 60 minutes to get a decent fire going because it was raining at the time! But with a bit of practice and guidance, it should rarely take but a minute to get a fire going with this tool.

Failure to get a quick fire with the magnesium fire starter is usually the result of just a few things. You need to scrape off an adequate pile of the shavings, and you need to have those shavings in some good burnable tinder. You need to keep those shavings in a fairly tight little pile or else it will be next to impossible to ignite. You need to control your knife as you scrape the sparker or else you simply scatter the shavings and have to start all over. You also need to do this out of the wind, or else your shavings will just get blown all over. The most common error I see is that there are not enough shavings in a tight pile, and then the person will commonly scatter their shavings by an uncontrolled scrape of their knife on the sparker. That is, they let the knife travel beyond the end of the tool rather than scrape the sparker slowly and with control.

Frankly, this tool is so simple that I feel a little embarrassed even needing to go into these details. Once you practice a bit with the determination to succeed, you'll get it quickly. I suggest you always carry one with you. Put it on your key ring. Also, stick one in your briefcase, one in the glove compartment, one in your daypack and one in your closet.

And since fire is so important, you should still find the time to learn and master a few of the primitive methods. Once you take the time to actually produce fire, and go through all the sweat and tears that lead to success, you will come to know why certain ancient cultures nearly revered that mysterious entity called fire. You will gain new respect for fire, and you never again take it for granted.

SOURCE: Send $7 per tool to Survival Service, Post Office Box 41834, Los Angeles, CA 90041.

Here is a chart with some of the common problems and solutions with the magnesium fire starter:

The magnesium is too difficult to scrape. Try using a bigger knife, and try scraping at a different angle. Be careful with folding knives so they don't fold closed on your fingers.
The sparker is hard to strike. Practice simply producing sparks so you can see how much pressure is needed, and what angle of your knife works best.
The shavings scatter too easily. Scrape the striker with control, since it is your movements that scatter the shavings. Also, put the shavings into a depression in the tinder so they stay together. You might practice with newspaper, so the magnesium shavings don't fall into all the bits of leaf tinder. Also get out of the wind.
The shavings won't ignite. Don't keep trying to spark the shavings if you only have a few magnesium shavings scattered throughout the tinder. You need to keep the shavings together in a pile.
The magnesium shavings themself burn but the tinder doesn't ignite. Make sure your tinder is dry. Bigger twigs and branches won't readily ignite, so you need to shred them into nearly powder to get them to burn. When the magnesium is started on newspaper, the newspaper will ignite, but won't usually start on thicker paper such as cardboard.

Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Nyerges.
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