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Using A Magnesium Fire Starter

June 21, 2011

Fire, Wilderness Survival

Despite not being one of the so called “Big 4 of Survival: air, shelter, water, food”, fire can make most survival situations more bearable. It can give you a brighter outlook, can lift your spirits, and help stoke the will to live.

Fire is a multipurpose survival tool. It not only provides heat for cooking and purifying water, it offers comfort and security on a dark, moonless night. Fire can be used to warm the earth beneath your bed or to harden the end of a stick to make a spear or a digging tool. There is practically no end to the uses for fire to the survivor.

But making a fire when so much is at stake can be daunting. That’s why it’s important to have a safe and reliable way to make fire in your Every Day Carry (EDC) Kit. There are many devices and techniques.

One of my favorites is the Magnesium Fire Starter.

Magnesium, Nature’s Safe Fire Starter

Magnesium is the seventh most common element in the earth’s crust but don’t expect to stumble upon some in the wild when you need to build a fire. Magnesium is highly reactive and isn’t found as a free element in nature. Processed, it’s lightweight and strong with roughly 2/3 the density of aluminum.

Magnesium powder or shavings are highly flammable, burning with an intensely white light and once started, it’s difficult to extinguish. When lit, it burns at 3,100C.

In fact, during the Second World War, Magnesium was used as an incendiary device to bomb cities across Europe. It was also used as a “flash” element in the early days of photography and is still used in fireworks and pyrotechnics.

Fortunately, when formed into blocks, magnesium is stable and difficult to ignite, making it safe to transport and use. That’s one reason it’s become a favorite of campers and survivalist.

Using A Magnesium Fire Starter

Magnesium fire starters can be found at most any place that carries camping supplies.

To make a fire using the magnesium fire starter:

  1. Gather the supplies. The first step to build any fire, regardless of the technique, is to gather the supplies you will need. Collect a sufficient amount of tinder, kindling, and fuel to get the fire going. I’m using some cedar bark for the tinder and small twigs for the kindling.
  2. Build you structure. Using the supplies you’ve collected, build a fire making structure to receive the ember once you get a stark. There are three primary structures: the teepee, the lean-to, and the log cabin. In this example, I’ve built a simple teepee structure.
  3. Prepare the tinder bundle. Once your structure is ready, make a small tinder bundle that will catch the sparks from the fire starter. Place it as close to the structure as possible.
  4. Shave some magnesium. Using your knife, multi-tool, or a metal blade that came with the fire starter, shave some tiny flakes off of the magnesium block. Smaller pieces work best. Keep at it until you have a pile of magnesium savings in your tinder bundle about the size of a US quarter.
  5. Deliver the spark. Using your knife, multi-tool, or a metal blade that came with the fire starter, strike a spark to ignite the magnesium on the tinder bundle. Rather than sliding the blade down the flint toward the tinder, it’s best to hold the blade stationary and slide the flint toward you. This keeps the sparking point closer to the tinder. It may take several attempts for a spark to land on the magnesium shaving and ignite it. I’ve also found that using the  back side of the blade, called the spine, is preferable so the flint doesn’t dull the edge.
  6. Nurture the flame. When a spark lands on the magnesium flakes, they will ignite and burn bright and hot. The heat generated will spread to the tinder, catching it ablaze as well. You may find it necessary to coax the young flame by gently blowing on it to give it some additional oxygen. Cradling the bundle in your hands may also be necessary, adjusting it to allow the young fire to spread.
  7. Carefully move the lit tinder. As the fire in the tinder spreads, carefully slide it into the fire structure that you’ve created. You can use a couple of sticks to push the bundle under the structure if it’s too hot to touch.
  8. Carefully add ingredients. Fire needs to appropriate combination of oxygen, fuel and heat. As your structure catches on fire, add oxygen by blowing on it and fuel by placing slightly larger and larger twigs and sticks to it. Don’t rush it. Give it time to grow. Putting a log on the flame too early will crush it, depriving the flame of precious oxygen.

Practice Using The Magnesium Fire Starter

Whether you’re stranded in the cold and wet regions of the Pacific Northwest or the arid, dry climate of the Southwest, being able to make a fire in a survival situation will give you additional tools you need to survive. And as a bonus, will add comfort and security to a trying and stressful time.

But don’t wait until you’re in the situation to discover the fire lighting techniques. Like all survival skills, practice using this technique until you can safely and quickly light a fire under a variety of conditions.

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16 Comments on “Using A Magnesium Fire Starter”

  1. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    Man, I’ve tried these magnesium fire starters with only limited success. I’ve talked with other people who love them, but it seems like every time I try to use it the magnesium blows away or I’ll hit the tinder bundle and knock it loose or something equally boneheaded. I had one I got from Wal-Mart and it fell apart after about five uses. I finally gave up and went with a firesteel.

    Maybe I just wasn’t destined to use magnesium. :-)

    Good post though, excellent fire starting technique and explanation.

    Reply

  2. Joe Says:

    I’ve had pretty good success with the Mag Starters, Jarhead. I primarily use it as you would a Firesteel, except the magnesium helps to catch the spark and jumpstart the tinder.

    Reply

  3. Jarhead Survivor Says:

    Is that cedar bark your using as tinder?

    Reply

    • Joe Says:

      Good eye! Yes, it’s shredded cedar bark sitting on a small platform of 1 inch diameter sticks to get it off the damp ground. The kindling is just some old dried out sticks gathered.

      Frequently I’ve found that it’s good to put the magnesium shavings on a larger piece of bark sitting on top of the tinder bundle. This helps keep it in one place to catch the spark. Spreading out like I have it sometimes makes it easy to accidentally bump the tinder bundle and cause it fall down inside of it – harder to catch a spark that way.

      Reply

  4. Magnesium Fire Starter Says:

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  5. Magnesium Fire Starter Says:

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