Ferro rods and magnesium blocks are two popular tools to light fires. They should not be confused with each other. They perform similar tasks but are not the same thing.
To decide which tool would be the best option, I practiced starting a fire with each of them under cold conditions. I learned that they’re both effective tools when used under the right circumstances.
In this article, we'll examine each of their pros and cons, as well as the best ones available.
Ferrocerium Rod (aka Fire Steel)
Ferro rods are composed of a mixture of metal alloys called mischmetal. They typically contain cerium, lanthanum, iron, praseodymium, neodymium, and magnesium. Every brand may use a slightly different percentage of each metal as well as other added components to alter the spark quality.
Ferro rods come with a black protective coating that must be scraped off before use. The inside will be silver in color. I recommend setting up a safe fire zone and practicing how to strike it several times so you learn to create sparks. You can also attempt using a sharp rock as the striking source, that way if you ever lose the striker you’ll know how to improvise with what's available in nature.
- IT LIGHTS FAST.
A ferro rod usually lights a fire starter quickly because its spark temperature is about twice as hot as a regular match. Some of my favorite fire starters that work well with ferro rods are petroleum jelly cotton balls, waxed cotton pads, and char cloth. Check out a complete list of the best (and cheapest) DIY fire starters here.
- LONG-LASTING TOOL.
A couple of sparks and the right tinder is all it takes to get your fire going. A ferro rod will provide thousands of sparks with the potential to start hundreds, if not thousands, of fires. You’ll get years of use out of it for sure! [Tip: Coating your ferro rod in clear nail polish may extend its shelf life if you’re storing it for long-term use.]
Ferro rods will work even after they’ve been submerged in water for a long time, making them waterproof. Also, if you’re striking them with enough force or the right striking tool, you will get a spark even when it’s windy. Getting the spark to become a flame is the important part (again, you will need a good fire starter).
It’s hard for a ferro rod to break but even if it does it will still work.
- SOME COME WITH A HANDLE.
I prefer the rods that have a wooden handle because it makes them much easier to grip (especially if your fingers are cold), but I know some people prefer the ones without it. Having choices is good though and with these strikers, you get to choose what you prefer.
Note that it’s possible that the plastic or wood handle will come off at some point so some people will reinforce it or make their own. If you get a thicker rod without a handle, you can wrap wide gorilla tape to one end to get a better grip- the tape can serve as backup tinder in an emergency.
- IF IT COMES FROM CHINA IT'S PROBABLY LOW QUALITY.
No offense to China, but knockoff brands typically use cheaper metallic materials so they may not be as effective as you would expect. Bad quality ferro rods may produce a lower amount of sparks and those sparks may not be nearly as hot.
For reference, a good quality ferrocerium rod can produce sparks as hot as 5,430 degrees Fahrenheit!
If you purchase something inexpensive, you might pay the price later when you can’t get a fire to ignite.
- A FERRO ROD ONLY PROVIDES A SHOWER OF HOT SPARKS.
If you’re gentle, you can scrape some shavings into a pile and light them (as you would with magnesium) but that would be a waste of ferro rod so it’s not worth it in my opinion. You’re better off setting aside a great pile of tinder or wood shavings.
- NOT ALL FERRO RODS ARE CREATED EQUAL.
As aforementioned, ferro rods are made of metal alloys that oftentimes include iron, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, magnesium, and lanthanum. Based on how much magnesium is used in them, you will get a different spark and the duration of that spark.
High magnesium content means that your rod will be softer, making it more difficult to produce an instant flame, however, the sparks you get will last longer and be hotter.
Before making a purchase, make sure that you read the label to see what materials it has been made from. The best ferro rods are made from high carbon steel.
- THERE'S A MISCONCEPTION THAT FERRO RODS AND FLINTS ARE THE SAME THINGS.
They're not. Flints are made up of different materials than ferro rods, they’re harder to strike, and they don’t produce as hot of a spark.
In the case of a ferro rod, the material that is being shaved off the rod produces the spark, therefore you can strike it with virtually anything that is sharp. A flint, on the other hand, doesn’t produce too many sparks, but the magnitude of the spark largely depends on the material of the striking source.
In order to get sparks, you need a carbon steel striker- other materials might not work as effectively. Both flints and ferro rods are susceptible to corrosion and deterioration (depending on what percentage of metals they’re made up of). If your rod is covered in rust, you can scrape it off with a knife and continue to use it as a striker.[Fun fact: Submerging a flint or ferro rod in saltwater can cause it to disintegrate…not that anyone should willingly store it like this but it’s a fun experiment for the kids.]
- NOT ALL FERRO RODS COME WITH A STRIKING TOOL.
A striking tool is absolutely necessary. A hacksaw blade (with ridges) will work as a striking tool but it will wear down the rod very quickly. Use a sharp edge instead such as the back of a knife, a rough surface, a sharp rock, or a piece of broken glass.
Our thoughts on ferro rods
- A ferro rod and striker will only make an awesome shower of sparks, rather than an instant flame, but it’s a great piece of equipment to keep in a Bug Out Bag, with your survival gear, in a hiking backpack, etc, so long that you have a reliable fire starter stored with it.
- Practicing how to successfully strike the rod to create powerful sparks will ensure much success when you really need to use it.
- They’re a convenient second option to a lighter or another fire-starting tool that might be less reliable in high altitudes and in bad weather where you may experience freezing temperatures and/or wet conditions.
- Ferro rods are long-lasting and will stand the test of time. They're a useful tool to have for survival and emergency situations.
- Spark rods are one of the best everyday carry tools and can help you survive extreme conditions. They're lightweight, easy to carry, and don’t take much space.
Best ferro rod fire starters
There are several good options to consider if you’re shopping for the best ferrocerium fire starter.
- The Fire-Fast Trekker is one of the best fire starter tools in the market today. It combines a long ferro rod with a military-grade magnesium bar, side by side. It comes with a steel striker and a hardwood handle for an easier grip— this is especially helpful in cold weather.
- The überleben Zünden Fire Starter is a high-grade European ferro rod.
- The Swiss Safe Fire Starter gives you over 16,000 strikes at 5,500°F. This magnesium fire starter includes an emergency whistle, a navigational compass, a striker, and a piece of paracord, making it a great addition to any outdoor kit. You’re getting the best value for the price.
- The Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter is lightweight and it includes a metal striker, lanyard cord, and an emergency whistle.
- The UST BlastMatch Fire Starter stays true to its brand name: it’s the ultimate survival technology. At first glance, this looks like just another fire starter, but it’s unique because it’s built with the capability to operate it with one hand. This tool is your best bet if your hand becomes injured or immobilized during an emergency.
Another great option is the UST StrikeForce Fire Starter with Tinder. This one is highly rated as well but it requires the use of both hands.
- Light My Fire is a reliable Swedish fire starter that comes with a striking tool attached through a lanyard hole. The striker doubles up as an emergency whistle!
- The Exotac Nano Striker XL Ferrocerium Fire Starter is made in the United States. It’s a bigger ferro rod yet its compact design allows you to attach it to any survival backpack.
- If you’re buying the striker separately, the Wakaka Stiker Scaper is a cool option. It’s almost like a multi-tool because it can be used in a number of different ways. It comes with a built-in hex wrench, bottle opener, and ruler.
Many people have used these ferro rods in all types of weather conditions with much success. The last thing you want in an emergency is to be stuck without a source of heat or method of cooking, so be sure to consider adding one of these tools to your preparedness kit.
Note: The Coghland flint striker and magnesium fire starter did not make the cut in our opinion. The photo is only used for reference. If you're wondering why they're not mentioned in this article, it's because we believe they're not worth your money.
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A small mag bar weighs next to nothing.
They can be attached to a zipper pull on a backpack, keychain or stored in a small pocket since they’re so compact.
It’s durable and won’t deteriorate nor corrode over time.
- BURNS AT A HIGH TEMPERATURE.
The sparks from the ferro rod will provide a very hot spark so when they come into contact with the magnesium, it has the potential to create a flame quickly. Be prepared with enough dry tinder.
A magnesium bar that has been submerged in water will work even if it’s soaking wet.
- MAGNESIUM SHAVINGS WORK AS TINDER.
Note that wet shavings are harder to ignite with sparks from the ferro rod.
- TYPICALLY BAD QUALITY IF IT COMES FROM CHINA.
Low quality means they will be useless when you need them most. Beware of Chinese-made mag bars- you’ll find a lot of them on Amazon. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is! Spend a few extra dollars on a product made from quality magnesium- your life could depend on it.
- MAGNESIUM CAN ERODE IN SALT WATER.
- MAKING MAGNESIUM SHAVINGS TAKE TIME AND EFFORT.
It can become a hassle to scrape the magnesium into a fire-starter pile. You may spend several minutes scraping it off the bar and piling it up on your tinder. You will also need a steady surface, otherwise it can take you even longer. This might not seem like a big deal on a summer evening but it will become a difficult task during the winter when your fingers are freezing and possibly numb.
- WIND IS YOUR ENEMY.
To use magnesium as tinder, you need to make a small (nickel-sized) pile. A breeze can blow your shavings away so you’ll have to build a fire that is sheltered from the wind.
- TIP 1: Scrape the magnesium shavings onto the sticky side of a piece of duct tape, so the wind doesn’t blow the shavings away. Duct tape is also flammable, making it a great option to get your fire going quickly.
- TIP 2: If you have a stainless steel ring (preferably about half an inch tall), you can collect the magnesium shavings in there to keep them collected if it’s windy. Don’t forget to retrieve the ring afterward.
- MAGNESIUM DOESN'T PRODUCE A SPARK BUT THE SAVINGS BURN AT ABOUT 4000 °F.
The downside is that it burns very quickly, so if you don’t have additional tinder ready you might miss your opportunity to light your fire. After the magnesium is done burning, many people have experienced ash (or some type of residue) floating in the air. Don’t inhale it.
- DON'T RELY ON THE FERRO ROD ATTACHED TO THE MAG BAR.
The ferro rod insert that comes attached to the magnesium bar is so thin that it will probably wear out long before you’ve made a dent in the mag bar. Also, the ferro rod is usually glued to the mag bar, so if it falls out and you lose it at any point, your striking source is gone.
- IT COULD BE HARD TO LIGHT THE SHAVINGS.
In order to light the magnesium, your striker has to make a significant spark within an inch of the magnesium shreds. If the shreds fall through the tinder, it may not light it.
- MAGNESIUM BARS DON'T COME WITH A HANDLE.
Most of the mag bars I’ve seen are just a rectangular piece. It would be nice if there was some sort of grip or handle attached to them to make shaving them an easier process.
- THE RIGHT KIND OF BLADE IS RECOMMENDED TO MAKE THE SHREDDING PROCESS EFFECTIVE.
Using a blade edge (like a knife) to scrape the bar will dull out the blade, rendering your knife ineffective for other survival uses. Instead, use a serrated blade (with ridges) or the back of the knife.
Our thoughts on mag bars
- They’re a great tool but they don’t work the best in all situations, especially if you don’t have much experience using them. We highly recommend testing them out before going into the wilderness.
- Save some time and future effort by scraping magnesium shavings beforehand and storing the flakes in a waterproof container (a pill bottle works). Alternatively, you can buy pre-shredded magnesium right here on Amazon.
- Soft magnesium bars will be easier to shave.
- If you’re going somewhere where tinder is not found easily, take the magnesium bar as a backup to add to the burn time of your fire.
- TIP: To get your fire started, make a dry tinder bundle (a teepee, for example). On a leaf, collect a nickel-size amount of magnesium shreds. Strike the side with the ferro rod to catch the magnesium and slide the leaf under the tinder bundle.
- An esteemed American brand is DOAN. Make sure they have their name stamped on it since there are many replicas out there but none will match the quality of DOAN. See the picture below for a comparison on a DOAN mag bar and the cheap knockoff.
- At firesteel.com you can find magnesium bars at a good price as well as other fire-starting supplies.
- If you’re an Amazon shopper, I recommend the MS Metal Shipper magnesium rod. Although it’s pricier than the other options, it’s one of the best in terms of quality. You’re getting 1 lb of 99% pure magnesium!
Based on the many discussions on this topic, the majority of contributors agreed that a high-quality ferro rod trumps a magnesium bar.
My consensus is that the best fire-starting tool isn’t either of these on their own, but rather the combination of a large piece of magnesium (99.99% pure) and a high-quality ferro rod (made with carbon steel) that is matching in size. This is why our top choice is the Fire-Fast Trekker Survival Fire Starter.
Using these tools together will ensure optimal fire-starting performance, reliability in multiple conditions, and longevity (it may last you a lifetime). In addition to this, I recommend carrying a sharp knife. The knife can help you shred some magnesium and strike the rod efficiently. I wouldn’t always trust the striking tool that the ferro rod and mag bar come with.
As with anything preparedness-related, have a backup fire lighting source. This can be a BIC lighter, waterproof matches, and/or a Zippo (a reusable metal lighter) in waterproof containers. Waterproofing can be as easy as sealing everything inside a Ziploc baggie.
These survival tools weigh very little and are relatively compact, meaning that they don’t take much space. It’s better to have multiple options and be over-prepared than to have no luck with your one and only option.
The only downside is that the ferro rod and magnesium bar can take some time to learn to use, especially if the quality of your tools is not so good. That’s why it’s important to test out your survival gear in both dry and wet conditions.
Practice starting a fire with these tools long before you rely on them as your primary fire-starting source in the wilderness or during a survival situation.
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