Somewhere in a soggy Scandinavian woods, a Swedish Department of Defense soldier is cold. He is scraping metal against metal, throwing sparks off a short firestarter stick onto tinder, producing smoke and fizzles but no real flame.
The Swedish FireSteel lighter was originally developed for the Swedish Department of Defense. It is now sold under the Light My Fire brand by Industrial Revolution (www.lightmyfireusa.com) of Redmond, Wash., for campers and outdoors types as a waterproof alternative to a match.
I tested the Scout model, which sells for $12.99. It is touted to throw 5,500-degree sparks and “make fire building easy in any weather.”
In contrast to the company’s copywriting, my efforts to ignite a range of dry and flammable materials with FireSteel patently failed. Making fat sparks fly off the stick was not an issue. Just scrape with the striker slowly along the FireSteel’s length and retina-burning balls leap like a shower of stars.
But getting those 5,500-degree sparks to initiate a flame? Not much luck at all. I tried shredded newspaper and shaved kindling. The company sent me a package of its special MayaDust tinder, which has an “80 percent resin content” and is said to be “easy to light, even when wet.”
Not in my test. MayaDust in my fire pit cradled big sparks and smoked. But it never took flame.
I next tried a chemical solution, smashing a highly-flammable hexamethylenetetramine tablet made by Esbit, a stove company. The chemical dust whooshed to flame with a match. But FireSteel’s sparks were still impotent.
On YouTube, you can see the Swedish FireSteel in action. In short video clips, survivalists and lay campers alike scrape the rod to produce flame over fine grass kindling and fire-starting gel.
With the right technique, I know this product works. But in my tests — which used at-hand kindling as well as the after-market products from Esbit and Industrial Revolution — FireSteel failed to impress. Indeed, after some coaching from a company representative and then hundreds of scrapes, I was unable to produce a single useable flame.
Finally, after much effort, using a fine dry grass cradled on a sheet of paper, I flicked a spark that initiated some smoke. I blew a whisper onto the burgeoning ball of fire, and — poof! — a small flame erupted.
In the end, my main point is not that the Swedish stick doesn’t work. My main point is that it is a product that is difficult to work with, even for experienced outdoors types. The company markets the sticks like they will ignite anything they touch. I found that to be hugely false.
I pray the Swedish Department of Defense is giving its soldiers better training. And maybe a backup Bic lighter just in case.
—Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.