Your Ferrocerium Rod Is Not a Primary Fire Tool
Safe and Effective Firecraft in a Wilderness Emergency
By Patrick Norton
Photo by Patrick Norton
There is a dangerous trend in firecraft that is taking the wilderness survival world by storm. This is the knee-jerk tendency of the survivor to immediately go for his ferrocerium rod (ferro rod) to make a fire in a wilderness emergency. This is written in jest. However, I have recently become preoccupied with how often I see this tool used by outdoorsmen as a primary fire starter. This article will focus on firecraft but I will begin with a disclaimer.
I love bushcraft and primitive skills, but I must make a distinction that is very important, in my opinion. To me, the disciplines of bushcraft and wilderness survival have a lot of overlap but are not the same. Bushcraft conjures images of the practitioner venturing out in the backcountry with his specialized bushcrafting kit and an intention to live off the land using his bushcrafting tools, skills and surrounding resources. Wilderness survival situations, on the other hand, generally occur while recreating or working professionally in the outdoors. The victim of a survival situation must mitigate the negative effects and hazards associated with an emergency incident in the field. He or she must also provide for vital needs and attempt to summon rescue parties or self-rescue using critical skills and resources. These resources may include survival and medical gear hopefully packed in with the gear used for the given activity or job.
Having said that, the survival skills and tools used in an emergency should emphasize ease-of-use, efficiency and safety to accomplish these tasks. My somewhat controversial statement on the use of ferro rods in these situations has caused some heated debate and has even gained me some critics to be sure. But let me explain my position to clarify why I do not recommend ferro rods as a PRIMARY emergency fire tool. This is not to say that they are not a valuable tool to have in your survival kit or for practicing bushcraft or for making fire under normal circumstances. They absolutely are and I recommend packing one or two. In fact, I carry them myself.
In a survival emergency, some of the very first moves to make are to find a proper location for camp, build a shelter and make a fire as soon as possible. As many already know, the ferro rod takes some practice to master and a certain level of precision to successfully utilize. When combined with things like high-stress, adrenaline, tunnel-vision, impending darkness and possible illness or injury (which commonly occurs in a wilderness emergency or are the cause of the emergency in and of themselves), jumping right to the ferro rod can create some problems. To add the cherry on top, with the possibility of hypothermia (the main and early symptoms of which include shivering and loss of fine motor function), unless you keep a striker with your rod, you are now fiddling around with a sharp knife. Under these conditions, that could result in adding a severe hemorrhaging incident to the equation.
In these situations, the survivor must get warm immediately by making a fire quickly, easily and safely. Now, I recommend also packing a lighter. However, some fine motor function issues can arise here as well, and lighters can also become useless if wet. This is why waterproofing kits and gear are important as well. Here is where the high-quality waterproof storm match comes in.
I personally recommend the UCO Titan Stormproof Match. I am in no way endorsed by or affiliated with the company, but of all the matches I have tested, these are the only ones that I have never seen fail. They are incredibly easy to strike with little dexterity and no matter how hard you blow on them or how long you submerge them, they do not go out until all of the accelerant is burned off. They also come in a waterproof canister, with a spare striker wrapped in plastic and are larger than the standard size UCO match. This greater size helps mitigate the previously mentioned loss of fine motor function due to things such as hypothermia, high stress or sausage fingers, the latter of which being a condition I was born with. Add a quality accelerant, like a WetFire cube or some other viable option and you will have a raging fire in no time, provided that you have collected the required fuels to build it and keep it going. Collecting fuels is a task that should be completed ahead of time, which even further emphasizes the need to have tools to get fire started quickly and safely.
One might ask, “But Patrick, what if I run out of matches?” To that I say: In a survival situation, if one can help it, ideally a survival campfire should never be allowed to go out completely, even if it just a pile of hot embers. If it does go out and you have no more matches, this is where having redundancies (i.e. lighters, ferro rods) are important. In this case, ferro rods make a great backup.
So, should you carry a ferro rod and a lighter? Certainly. Should you learn to make a friction fire? Absolutely. But just because you can achieve a fire with these methods does not mean they should be your go-tos when safety and seconds count. This goes for many other aspects of wilderness survival as well, but that is outside the scope of this piece.
In an outdoor emergency, the victim’s focus should be providing for vital needs using the most safe, effective, efficient and practical methods and equipment. As a wilderness survival instructor with a background in wildland firefighting and emergency medicine, this is the focus of the basic survival curriculum at my school, ARTOS Survival. While I love to practice bushcraft and primitive skills and offer classes in both, I believe these basic life-sustaining skills and principles are the foundation on which all other survival and outdoor skills should be based. Having them in the back pocket, so to speak, also gives the outdoorsman piece of mind, allowing for optimal enjoyment of his or her activities in the woods. If you are interested in learning these essential skills, while also earning a wilderness first aid certification on a three-day, all-in-the-field course in Northwestern Montana or a private course near you, visit artossurvival.com for more details.