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8 Best Fire-Starting Spark Rods (And How to Use Them)
It might seem like space-age technology, but spark rods have actually been around since horse and buggy times. (Tim MacWelch/)
Spark rods are fun to use and reliable in wet, cold, windy weather conditions. There’s no shortage of makes and models on the market, either. To help you pick the best option, I’ll dive into the origin and composition of these remarkable gizmos, and we’ll look at the pros and cons of eight popular spark rod products.
Spark rods (aka ferrocerium, firesteels, flints and ferro rods) have been around for more than 100 years, and while the exact recipe varies, all versions of this synthetic alloy can make a shower of hot sparks when scraped with a rough surface or sharp edge. Created in 1903 by the Austrian inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach, ferrocerium is still called Auermetall in Europe as a nod to its creator. Typically composed of 21% iron, 42% cerium, 24% lanthanum and roughly 4% each of praseodymium, neodymium, and magnesium – this magic metal owes its pyrophoric powers to the low ignition temperature of cerium (igniting between 302 and 356 degrees Fahrenheit). Once this element starts to burn in a thin metal scraping, the other elements begin to burn and the resulting shower of sparks can exceed 5000 degrees. Now that you have a little info on the history and composition of spark rods, let’s look at a few ways to make this tool work more effectively.
These tools won’t light every type of tinder, but a hot shower of sparks can light many different materials on fire – when you use the right technique. (Tim MacWelch/)
How to Properly Use a Spark Rod
First off, the spark rod is only as good as the tinder you have chosen. Natural plant materials that are fluffy and dry are usually your best bet as the initial fuel for your fire. These materials can be store-bought items like cotton balls, or fibrous plant matter collected directly from nature (like cattail seed down and shredded inner bark from certain trees). Just make sure your tinder has lots of surface area, comes from the plant kingdom and is stored in a water-tight container for dryness. Secondly, it’s important to direct the sparks with the right technique. If you hold the scraper still and pull the rod away (imagine you’re pulling the cord to start a chainsaw or push mower), you won’t hit your tinder with the scraper. You’ll still get your shower of hot sparks, without flinging your tinder all over the place by moving the scraper forward. Finally, don’t be stingy with your sparks. It may take many strikes in quick succession to light stubborn tinder, so don’t be afraid to get after it.
Top Spark Rods
Do you have a plan for fire lighting with a broken arm? The BlastMatch offers a spray of sparks right where you need them, and one-handed operation. (Tim MacWelch/)
The Blast Match is a large spark rod made by Ultimate Survival Technologies (UST). The creative design incorporates a spring loaded spark rod and an integrated push button scraper. By placing the tip of the rod into your tinder and pushing the scraper button, you can plunge the tool downward and spray a strong shower of sparks directly into the tinder – with just one hand.
BlastMatch Pros: The main benefits of the BlastMatch are one-handed operation and the beefy spark rod which should provide thousands of uses. And even if the tool does break, the loose spark rod will still make plenty of sparks when scraped with any sharp tool. You can also rotate the spark rod within the housing, so you're scraping different sides of the rod to even out the wear and tear.
BlastMatch Cons: Running survival classes and encouraging students to try out equipment has given me a great opportunity over the years to test gear with different users and in varied conditions. I'm sorry to say that the thin plastic housing of this tool just doesn't hold up with heavy use. I have broken them myself, and watched students break them, too. As a final "con" for patriotic shoppers, this product is made in China.
Weight: 2.3 ounces; Sparks Thrown: A good spray of small to medium sparks
On a tight budget? This rod is the cheapest one on our list. (Tim MacWelch/)
Looking for a back-up to your other back-ups? Or just something for the kids to use for practice? The very affordable Coghlan's Flint Striker does work, but keep in mind that you get what you pay for.
Flint Striker Pros: It's cheap and it works.
Flint Striker Cons: The quality of the ferrocerium is not as high as the other products on this list, and the scraper is not as effective either. Both of these issues converge, giving you a product with wimpier spark production than anything else on our list. And you guessed it, this product is made in China.
Weight: 1.9 ounces; Sparks Thrown: It makes sparks, but nothing impressive.
This is a small but mighty fire starter. (Tim MacWelch/)
Swedish Fire Steels are produced by a company called Light My Fire, which makes a number of different models varying in size, color and bonus features. These are compact sets with excellent scrapers and a top notch ferrocerium alloy that creates a wide spray of small sparks – perfect for lighting fluffier tinder. They are rated to produce 5,500°F sparks and stouter rods claim to provide up to 12,000 strikes.
Swedish Fire Steel Pros: For a smaller set with a slender rod, this one makes an impressive spray of sparks. Its ergonomic "thumb dent" design increases ease of use. It's ideal to hang on a keychain, or a zipper pull for other gear, so you always have a back-up handy. Some models come with an integrated emergency whistle molded into the scraper handle.
Swedish Fire Steel Cons: I've had the rod come unglued from the handle tab on two units, but that's easily fixed with a little Gorilla Glue. My only other concerns are the small size of the set (easy to lose) and the abundance of knock-offs on the market. Spend the extra few dollars to get a genuine Swedish Fire Steel. Nobody knows metal like the Swedes.
Weight: 2.4 ounces; Sparks Thrown: A strong wide spray of small sparks.
This little starter throws some surprisingly big sparks, yet it's small enough to go on your key ring. (Tim MacWelch/)
This is one of the better products in Gerber's line of Bear Grylls branded merchandise. This two piece set has a knurled aluminum sleeve with an integrated scraper, and a rubbery knob to hold the spark rod. The sleeve locks into place to cover the rod when not in use.
Compact Fire Starter Pros: This one is small enough to keep on your keychain, yet it throws large sparks for a good distance. The scraper is very dense material and holds a crisp square edge for a long time. The ferrocerium used seems to be a different formula, less likely to produce a fan-shaped spray of small sparks and more likely to make fat cracking sparks with a longer burn time than small sparks. It's also very lightweight.
Compact Fire Starter Cons: I don't have many gripes on this one. It's a little small, which can be hard for holding and easier to lose. That's it, really, and that it's made in China.
Weight: 0.8 ounces; Sparks Thrown: Large and long lasting sparks come from this product.
This petite version of the one-handed spark rod is from the same company that brings us the BlastMatch. (Tim MacWelch/)
Developed after the BlastMatch, Sparkie is a shrunken version of UST's one handed spark rod. This product also has a spring loaded spark rod and built-in thumb scraper. Just set the "foot" of the tool into your tinder, press the thumb button firmly and plunge the tool down to shower your tinder with sparks.
Sparkie Pros: The Sparkie is small, and it stores even smaller. The rod actually retracts for storage, and it can be released by pushing the same button that engages the scraper. Some of Sparkie's components are metal – providing a little more durability that the BlastMatch (but only a little more). It's also a very lightweight tool, and a one-handed operator.
Sparkie Cons: Just like its big brother (the BlastMatch), I've broken these too. Even though you can twist the rod to reveal fresh ferro material, I have found that my students and I have used these rods up faster than other products. The ferrocerium just seems softer. Like the BlastMatch, the more moving parts you have – the more chances you have to break something. It's made in China.
Weight: 0.8 ounces; Sparks Thrown: A confined spray of small sparks
Superb craftsmanship and excellent ferrocerium make this one the Cadillac of spark rods. (Tim MacWelch/)
A beautiful piece of engineering and construction, this three piece set has a rod cover that screws on to extend the handle and it weighs less than an ounce.
NanoStriker XL Pros: Made here in America, the Exotac NanoStriker XL is small enough for your keychain but it throws huge sparks. Built from very durable anodized aluminum materials (no plastic here), this tool is meant to last. The small scraper has a unique shape, offering four sharp edges for sparking. The NanoStriker XL also throws XL sparks with a longer burn time than smaller sparks.
NanoStriker XL Cons: The scraper is no bigger than a half-crushed cigarette butt, and would be hard to hold with gloves or hypothermic hands. It's also small enough to disappear if you dropped it into dry sand or snow. The scraper does have a lanyard hole, and I suggest you use it – with a colorful cord for easier recovery.
Weight: 0.98 ounces; Sparks Thrown: Fat sparks that fly several feet
Survival fires – virtually guaranteed. (Tim MacWelch/)
I own at least a dozen StrikeForce spark rods from UST, which I bring out on my classes without fear that my students will break them. This large spark rod (previously made by Gerber) is the affordable work horse of our collection. With no moving parts, a fat spark rod, and a heavy scraper built into the rod cover; this tool is reliable and ready for abuse. It even has a little storage space built into the handle, perfect for storing tinder or fuel cubes.
Strike Force Pros: Beefy construction and a sturdy design are the hallmarks of this product. I also love the orange color. Back when Gerber was making these in black color only, I lost a few under the leaves in the woods. With the high visibility safety orange color, I haven't lost one yet.
Strike Force Cons: I have no real problems with this product. They're tough, that's why I let my students play with them. Yes, you'll need two hands to operate it, and they are a little bit big, but work horses have never been known for being tiny. It's made in China.
Weight: 3.7 ounces; Sparks Thrown: A solid blast of small to medium sparks
Read Next: 10 Tips for Starting a Fire in Bad Weather
Even though this thing is a beast, it's still easy to handle and use. (Tim MacWelch/)
If you're looking for a "survival grade" spark rod, this is it. The Trekker from Fast-Fire is assembled here in America from high quality Austrian ferrocerium (remember, that's where this stuff was invented). It also has an integrated magnesium rod and wooden handle, both of which can be shaved for tinder. This product receives my top recommendation on our list.
Fast-Fire Trekker Pros: What happens when you match a world class ferrocerium from Althofen, Austria with a military grade magnesium rod? You get a spark rod like no other. This tool is built to last with a hardened steel scraper attached by a 550 cord lanyard. The large handle offers a solid grip, even when wearing gloves, and it's assembled here in America.
Fast-Fire Trekker Cons: It's the biggest and heaviest spark rod on our list, so if weight is an issue and you're counting ounces – you might want something smaller. FYI, Fast-Fire also makes a smaller spark rod product. Weight: 4.5 ounces; Sparks Thrown: This product makes great sparks from the "ferro" side of the rod, which can be thrown into magnesium shavings produced by the other side of the rod.