There’s nothing quite like a campfire. After a long day on the trail, getting a roaring blaze going and resting your weary bones beside it is pure perfection. It’s sublime.
But there are times when the ability to start a fire is much more than that. In a survival situation, being able to start a fire means warmth. It means you can cook food and boil water to ensure that it’s safe to drink. It can quite literally mean the difference between life and death.
That in and of itself is more than enough reason to always have matches handy. Accidents happen, and there’s always a chance that a day hike or camping trip can turn into something much more serious.
I often get asked why it’s important to carry waterproof matches. The question is often famed like this: “why should I carry matches when I can just use a lighter?” Actually, there are quite a few reasons why you should always carry waterproof matches in your car, in your backpack, and any time you walk into the woods.
Starting a Fire Isn’t Always Easy
The more ways you have to start a fire, the better off you’ll be. Henry David Thoreau described nature as “a force not bound to be kind to man,” and he was onto something there. Lighting a fire in ideal conditions sounds easy, but one thing you learn when you spend time in the outdoors is that conditions are seldom ideal.
If you have a survival lighter that you like and feel you can rely on, that’s great. You should definitely take it with you when you go camping or backpacking. But you should take waterproof matches too, because no matter what your preferred method of fire-starting may be, it’s always smart to have a backup plan.
Waterproof Matches Are… Waterproof
At a risk of stating the extremely obvious, waterproof matches will light when they’re wet. That’s why they call them waterproof! There aren’t a lot of fire starters that can do that.
Ordinary matches are useless when wet, and even most so-called “strike anywhere” matches won’t ignite if the surface you strike them on is soggy. And I hate to break it to you, but most lighters also won’t light if they’re wet or even damp.
Stormproof matches, on the other hand, will ignite even when fully submerged underwater. In a survival situation when you need to start a fire in the pouring rain or after hauling yourself out of a river, you can rest assured that your stormproof matches will still light.
Let’s say you and another person find yourselves facing an unexpected overnight in the backcountry, and you’re the only one who had the foresight to come truly prepared. If you have a pack of waterproof matches, you can divide them so you each have a way to start a fire if you become separated (even the striker can be torn in half so you can each use half of it).
Matches Have Built-In Kindling
One of the greatest challenges to getting a fire started in the backcountry is often finding dry tinder and kindling. It’s always a good idea to carry a bit of tinder in your fire starting kit at all times, just in case you ever need it. But even if you don’t, it’s reassuring to know that each match offers its own small stick of built-in kindling.
The wood each matchstick is made of actually adds a small amount of wood to your fire. That can be crucial in its early stages when the flame is just getting going.
Matches Work at High Elevations
A lot of lighters, especially those with piezo igniters, do not work at elevations above 10,000 feet. Matches, however, will still light even at high elevations, which is why they are an essential fire-starting tool for climbers and alpine hikers.
The Weather Might Turn Against You
We’ve covered rain already, but what happens when the wind blows and temperatures plummet? If you don’t have matches, you might be in trouble.
UCO Stormproof Matches light and stay lit even in windy conditions, which is something that can’t be said of many fire starters. Most lighters are incapable of maintaining a flame when the wind blows, and trying to get a spark from a ferro rod to light your tinder in the howling wind is often an exercise in futility. And what about the cold?
A lot of folks don’t realize that butane doesn’t ignite at temperatures below 32°F, which means that Bic lighters and similar models won’t work if it’s below freezing. The only way to get one of these lighters to light is to warm it up in your hands, but that wastes valuable time. Matches light like a charm no matter how cold it gets.
Matches are Simple and Easy to Use
One of the great things about waterproof matches—all matches, really—is how simple they are. Anyone can use them. Striking a match is the easiest and quickest way to get a fire going in pretty much any conditions. Lighting a match requires minimal dexterity, which may be crucial if you are injured, or if the temperature is so cold that you have a hard time moving your fingers.
Stormproof matches can be broken, dropped in the dirt or left out in the rain, and still be used to start a fire. Matches don’t have parts or components that may break, get lost or wear out. They don’t have fuel that will run out or evaporate, and they don’t have flints and wicks that will eventually need to be replaced.
If you accidentally drop or step on your box of matches, there isn’t a chance that it will be rendered useless as a result. Believe me. I’m clumsy and I’ve broken plenty of lighters, so I know what I’m talking about here.
Waterproof Matches Last Basically Forever
Matches don’t come with an expiration date. I personally have a pack of matches that I know for a fact were owned by my grandfather, and they still light. If you keep your matches in a watertight container, they can last for decades. Waterproof matches have an even longer shelf life than ordinary matches, because their waterproof coating protects them.
That being said, if you have matches that are more than a few years old, you should strike one before you head off into the woods, just to make sure they haven’t been compromised. Also always keep your striker dry and protected as you’ll need it to strike your match. But when kept in a cool, dry place, most matches will stay fresh indefinitely
Matches Can Support Other Fire Starters
I always recommend carrying multiple fire starting methods, because even if one or more of them fails, they can often be used together. For example, if you’ve lost the striker from your matches, you can light one using the spark from a ferro rod. And if your lighter has run out of fuel, you can still use its spark to light a match.
Ultimately, the more ways you have of starting a fire, the better off you’ll be if you find yourself in a tight spot. Matches, lighters and fire strikers are all lightweight, convenient and relatively inexpensive, and there’s a good reason why many who are experienced in bushcraft choose to carry all three.