Striking a spark with a ferrocerium rod is a fundamental survival skill that takes practice to get right. Ferro rods are an excellent, lightweight, and durable backup fire starter, and with enough experience there’s no reason why they can’t be your first choice too. In contrast to traditional butane lighters, which are designed to throw the sparks in one direction over the gas, ferro rods can be made to put the sparks wherever you want them. In the beginning, you’ll spend most of your time finding the right kindling to get your fire going, but as you hone your knife skills you’ll be able to ignite feather sticks directly.
The Right Knife
The most important feature to look for when you choose a knife for working with a ferrocerium rod is a broad spine. The makeup of the knife, whether it’s stainless or carbon steel, matters less than you might think. Another great feature to find is a knife with a large, comfortable handle to make things easier at first. After you practice you’ll be able to strike sparks with any knife, or any piece of steel at all, that you have on hand. Some starters even include a small steel tab that can be used as a striker, but as a general rule it’s easier to work with a knife.
The Right Tinder
The key to getting your fire going with a ferro rod is selecting the proper tinder. Again, as you practice making feather sticks it’s possible to strike sparks into them directly, but you’ll want to get started with something a bit easier. Two things above all others are important when it comes to choosing your tinder, and they are dryness and airflow. Wet tinder won’t take a spark well, and although some starters feature magnesium that can make it easier to light wet material, it’s best to start with the dryest tinder that you can find. Air flow is important, since you want a lot of surface area available to catch your sparks, and you’ll need to be able to blow your ember to life if it doesn’t light up immediately.
Cotton balls that have been pulled apart make a great practice tinder, although they tend to burn out a bit too quickly when it comes to starting a real fire. Dry fibers, like jute or hempen twine, especially when separated into individual strands, offer a great tradeoff between being easy to ignite and having a long burn time. Twine is also easy to carry with you in your pack, since it’s extremely lightweight and simple to stuff anywhere there’s even a little bit of space available. More advanced tinders are usually found in the forest, and they can include the shredded cambium layer of dead wood, certain kinds of inedible fungus, and extremely dry forest litter that’s made up of decomposed bark and leaves.
Bringing It All Together
When you’re ready to start your fire you’ll need to have about a softball-sized pile of tinder on hand, as well as your knife and ferro rod. For practice you can easily use less tinder in order to conserve your resources, but in order to get a campfire lit you’ll need a longer burn time. Create a nest in the tinder and place the ferrocerium rod in the center. If your rod comes with a magnesium bar, use the spine of your knife to create a dime-sized pile of shavings and strike sparks directly into that. Regardless, when you’re ready to strike your sparks, scrape the spine of your knife slowly but firmly down the rod. Some users prefer to hold the knife stationary and pull the rod back toward them, scraping the knife as it withdraws.
As you practice, focus on concentrating your sparks in one area in order to set an ember into the tinder. After you’ve got an ember, if the pile doesn’t flame up immediately, scoop the tinder into your hand and blow on the tinder with steady, even breaths. After the nest of tinder catches you’ll need to move it to your kindling and feed the fire. Batoned logs, twigs, leaves, and any thin, dry materials make excellent fuel for the small fire, and eventually it will grow large enough to accept limbs and logs.
Mastering the art of starting a campfire using a ferro rod can be a challenging skill to develop, but in the long run the fact that it frees you from matches and lighters makes it worthwhile. Start slowly, practice as much as possible, always select dry tinders in the beginning, and before you know it you’ll be able to create a fire with just a ferro rod, your knife, and a handful of tinder.