It’s a heated topic within the survival and preparedness community–Ferro Rod (aka Fire steel) versus Flint and Steel. What do I need to consider when choosing between these fire starting methods? Which should I employ? Which one best suits my needs? What are the pros and cons of each and why does it matter? Can both pieces of gear have their place?
Ferro rods are made of a mixture of metals. When struck against a ridged steel surface, they produce a shower of hot sparks. Fire steels can range in size anywhere from tiny 3/32” to 1” in diameter and 2” to 6” in length.
Ferro Rod Durability
The biggest knock on fire steels is that they eventually get used up or break. Here is the the thing: the length and especially the diameter of your ferro rod will determine how long your ferro rod will last. I have seen FAR too many people using WIMPY ferro rods that are 1/4” in diameter and only 2-3 inches long! No wonder they have trouble with them breaking!
The smaller the diameter of the fire steel, the faster it will break!
And if the 1/4” x 2” rod doesn’t break first, it will wear out quickly.
Ferro Rods are not a cute survival toy–when sized properly they can be a a great way to carry thousands of strikes of large showers of sparks.
I carry a 1/2” x 6” ferro rod in my jeans pocket at all times. And trust me, they won’t wear out on a weekend camping trip, these are SERIOUS fire steels! Casual use will see a ferro rod of that size last 6-12 months or more. I mean, why would you need to have one last longer than that? Seriously!
If you make sure to rotate the ferro rod between series of strikes, it will wear evenly and you will avoid making a deep groove in one side of the ferro rod. Making a groove in your ferro rod makes it break much faster.
Flint and Steel Durabillity
The biggest advantage to a flint and steel set is their legendary durability. They are also easily portable and fairly light to carry in a pack.
Wet Performance: Both will perform nicely after being wet if you just wipe them on your jeans real quick (and you don’t really even have to do that most of the time).
Spark Amount: The ferro rod wins this competition HANDS DOWN. A fire steel will yield GOBS of hot 3,000 degree+ sparks. Flint and steel, on the other hand, yields very few sparks in comparison.
Tender Required for Flint and Steel:
Many people who choose to use a flint and steel kit like to take strips of char cloth with them so they only need to get a few sparks to get the char cloth “going.” From there it can sometimes be an arduous task of placing the char cloth within the tender bundle and then blowing into the bundle very carefully until the bundle takes off (although sometimes this won’t take long at all).
But if you choose to go the char cloth with the flint and steel kit route, remember that you are defeating the purpose of using a flint and steel in the first place–its unmatched durability and longevity. Ask yourself, what will happen when I run out of char cloth? Will I be able to easily start a fire using only my flint and steel and natural materials? If the answer is no, don’t throw out your flint and steel, but do consider adding other reliable fire starting gear to your pack.
Tender Required for Ferro Rod:
I’ll put it this way, a ferro rod will light anything that a flint and steel will light. The ferro rod will light your tender easier than a flint and steel due to the higher amount of sparks hitting the tender with the fire steel. If you carry char cloth in your kit, you can use a ferro rod to light the char cloth just as easily as your flint and steel kit (though I recommend saving your char cloth for when you really need it to avoid wasting perfectly good tinder).
If a ferro rod won’t light it, then neither will a flint and steel.
Both the ferro rod and the flint and steel kit share a common weakness–they both require the use of two hands. Other options, such as a lighter or strike anywhere matches, can be used with only one hand. This is an added bonus in an emergency when one hand may be injured or disabled.
The key weakness for a ferro rod is that it will eventually break or wear out (although this can largely be fixed by following the tips above). It also can be heavier than its flint and steel counterpart (which may become important if you are ultra-light back packing where weight must be kept at a minimum).
The key weakness for flint and steel is that it produces few sparks and sometimes (but definitely not always) requires the use of char cloth. A ferro rod doesn’t require the use of char cloth, but it can utilize it just as well.
For those REALLY worried about the longevity of a ferro rod, I have these parting thoughts–carry TWO 1/2” x 6” ferro rods in your pack if you are REALLY that afraid that yours will wear out or break OR carry one 1/2” x 6” ferro rod AND a flint and steel set along with char cloth and other tender. That way, you’ll have the advantage of the easier starting capabilities of the fire steel, but you’ll still have the flint and steel as a “lasts forever” backup. Remember the old adage, “two is one, one is none, and three is for me.”
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