Should you include waterproof matches in your survival gear?
Every survival manual recommends carrying some form of fire ignition system. But I don’t recommend taking waterproof matches and here is why.
by Leon Pantenburg
Our raft flotilla was pulling out of Central Oregon’s John Day River after an afternoon of fun. It was a Boy Scout outing, and oddly enough, the boys had had a running water battle for the last mile or so before takeout. Subsequently, most of them were sopping wet.
But as happens in the high desert, clouds came in, and the temperature dropped from a balmy 80 degrees to about 65 degrees in the matter of half an hour. Nobody had dry clothing, and several started to shiver. But we had waterproof matches in a waterproof container along, and a juniper tree nearby. Normally, that would be enough to get a warmup fire going within a few minutes.
If the matches would have worked. Of the 20 or so in the container, not a one would light. If we wouldn’t have been able to improvise, we couldn’t have gotten a fire going.
That was the second time matches have failed me in what could have developed into a survival situation.
Several years ago, Dr. Jim Grenfell and I set out to test as many commonly-available ignition systems as we could find. (Click on fire ignition to read the rest of the story.)
Here is what we discovered about matches: Every brand and type of match we tried was unreliable.
There are a couple positive aspects about matches: They are cheap, widely available and most people can light one (Though you might be surprised how many can’t!)
But the disadvantages outweigh that. All matches deteriorate over time and fail, even if they’re waterproof. While coating the heads with paraffin or other sealants will work for awhile, that doesn’t make the matches dependable. Most regular book matches are useless if damp, or if they’re even exposed to moisture.
Last year, survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt published “A Better Way to Start a Fire” eBook. In it, Kummerfeldt discusses matches and some of the problems associated with them. All matches are not equal, Kummerfeldt states, and here are some things from his book to think about before choosing a brand or style:
To start with, there are many different types of matches, according to Kummerfeldt, and you must know the difference:
- Safety matches: To light, the chemicals in the match head must combine with the chemicals on the striking pad, in the presence of oxygen. The match must be used with the box it came out of.
- Waterproof matches: These have been coated with a waterproof lacquer that becomes water resistant when dry. The head must be repeatedly rubbed against the striking pad until the lacquer is worn off. This may take several strikes and the pad may be worn out before you run out of matches.
- Strike Anywhere: Both chemicals needed for ignition are available in the head. But you can’t just strike them anywhere. The abrasive surface must be light enough to supply friction to light the head, but not so coarse as to rip it off.
- Windproof: These usually have a larger head than normal. They can be difficult to light under benign conditions and almost impossible in adverse circumstances.
- Stormproof: These are usually water resistant and don’t blow out in windy conditions. REI makes a good stormproof match, and Kummerfeldt recommends them if you must carry matches.
Here are some other considerations about matches in a survival situation:
- The abrasive strip on the match box or book can be critical to ignition and it must be guarded carefully. If it gets damp, wet or worn out, the matches won’t work. And one brand of match may not ignite on another’s abrasive strip!
- Even strike-anywhere matches don’t necessarily light when struck on an abrasive surface, and you may have a difficult time finding a dry place to strike the match. (Try standing in knee-deep snow, during a snow and sleet storm and finding a dry, abrasive surface to strike a match on!)
- Best case scenario: You should be able to make one fire with every match, right? That points out a real problem with matches: There is a finite number, and when they’re gone you’re out of luck. And what if it takes all your matches to light one fire?
If forced to make a recommendation, I’ll throw in with Kummerfeldt and say the best match choice is REI Stormproof matches. They work well under many adverse circumstances, but you can only carry a few (about 10, with striker strip) in a standard match case. You also must have the striker strip for them to work.
If you decide to carry matches, make sure you get a practical match container, that is waterproof, easy to carry and that can be opened with one hand in the event of an injury. Rotate the stock and check them regularly.
When it’s all said and done, your firemaking tools need to be items you have practiced with and used. If matches fit in that category, make sure you know how to use them!