Submitted by Eric Daniel
I like the fact that the MRE accessory packs come with matches, but the reality is, unless you're operating indoors or in a xeric environment like NTC (when it isn't raining) you only get a couple of days durability out of them, before they absorb so much moisture that they turn to mush. Now this isn't an issue if you're on a daily ration of MREs (oh joy) but it can be an issue if you're not (by the way, I use the matches to light my stove to boil water with.)
In the past, a Zippo was my primary source of flame. They are durable, reliable, and easy to maintain. However, they are no, officially, a pain in the ass to travel with. You need to check them if you fly (if you're allowed to fly with them at all; in leaving Iraq, if you wanted to fly with a lighter in your C bag it needed to be completely disassembled with the flint and packing removed.) With the Zippo on the shelf, I started using the MRE matches, but they took up space, they didn't tolerate wet well, and, well, I still had the problem of flying with them (funny story - when asked what they did during the 6-hour flight from Tinian to Hiroshima to drop the first atomic bomb, Paul Tibbets replied, "Smoked a lot.")
So I started looking around for an alternate method for getting the stove fired up. One of the things I'd always been curious about was those "emergency" magnesium block fire starters, so I thought this would be as good a time as any to try one out.
The one I selected was by Coghlan's and cost me about $5. Through trial and error I learned a couple of things about these devices. They make sparks, lots and lots of sparks. If you're using a relatively volatile fuel, such as white gas or propane, the striker on the fire starter will do the job. If you're trying to light something less explosive, like paper, you're going to need some assistance. This is where the magnesium block comes in. The theory is, you scrape some magnesium off with a knife (the same knife you use on the striker), pile it up, and use the striker to ignite the metal shavings, and use that flame to start your fire (as you can see from the photo, the knife I used for this task is a little cheapie folder; you really don't want to dull your main knife by shaving a metal block.)
A word of caution though. It isn't as easy as it looks. If you've got to resort to the magnesium block, more is better - use a lot of shavings. I'm not suggesting you grind the entire block into dust, but you will need a generous pile (that was basically my unit of measure; if I'd scraped enough to be able to make a pile with my fingers, then that was enough.) Also, unless you want to be there all day scraping, be sure you scrape your filings into or onto something flat and non-porous, like a rock, or a piece of paper (I used the lid of my WWII era-ration heater), so that your shavings don't fall into the cracks, as it were, and get lost. You will also need to be out of the wind. While the striker will work just fine in the wind, the shavings lack mass and are easy to blow away. The same goes for the rain - the magnesium will burn when wet, but your tiny pile is unlikely to maintain coherency in a rainstorm. Finally, be prepared. Those filings burn quick. Don't expect to get your pile started, and then put some tinder on; the filings and the tinder need to be co-located so that the flame gets it going.
At the end of the day though, the fire starter worked just fine, since the two fuels I use most often are white gas and trioxide tabs, and both of these light readily with the striker (I have to admit though, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily the fuel tabs started.)
If however, you want to carry an extra bit of insurance with you can make a batch of cotton fireballs. The fireballs are nothing more than ordinary cotton balls soaked in Vaseline. To make them, microwave (or otherwise heat up) 1.5 tablespoons of Vaseline in a heat resistant container. Once the Vaseline has melted, add 8 cotton balls, pushing them in, en masse, into the Vaseline. Flip the mass over and press again, ensuring the cotton gets completely saturated. Allow the cotton to cool and then pack the balls in a suitable container (I used an old locking prescription bottle.) To use, simply remove a cotton ball from the container, stretch it out a bit to expose it to air, and ignite. The Vaseline lights easily and the ball will burn for several minutes, which makes it less time sensitive than the magnesium.