One of the things that my brother and I have always done is test different ways to start fires in all sorts of outdoor survival situations. We having been doing this since our days in Boy Scouts – sometimes successfully and sometimes with results that were epic failures (I don’t care what they do on TV, starting a fire with sticks is nearly impossible).
While matches and lighters are still the most efficient option – solar fire starters (also known as solar spark lighters) have to be a close second. These devices use the power of the sun to light tinder almost instantly and can be used as a great survival tool for outdoorsmen. They are also very handy just to have around the campsite in case that person who is always stealing lighters disappears at the wrong time.
Of course there is one major downfall to a solar fire starter – they certainly don’t work at night and cloudy days hurt their performance as well. However, they are still a good piece of survival equipment, and will be a great tool to have around in most camping situations.
How do Solar Fire Starters Work?
Solar fire starters are very simple to use. There is a point or spring (tinder holder) that you load up with your tinder – obviously pick something that will easily catch on fire. The tinder holder is connected to a reflective dish that is curved and designed to reflect the sun light to the tinder point, and when the sun is bright enough it will light the tinder on fire. Very simple concept.
We get this question asked a lot, yes you can use these solar fire starters to light a cigar or cigarette if you purchase the right kind of fire starter (the more traditional mirror style solar spark lighters work the best for this).
Different Solar Spark Lighter Styles
There are different design options or styles you can pick from. Tinder box styles have a case that closes protecting the mirrors and possibly storing your tinder – keeping it safe and dry. These styles are very good for serious hikers and campers. They are easy to store and are very durable. These versions often have a detachable tinder holder, so don’t lose it!
There are also design options that do not have a case, but rather a spring that hold your tinder. Often the spring will fold down, and they are very light weight. They can be a little bigger in size depending on the model you pick, so they can be harder to store.
Below are some specific reviews the different solar spark lighters you can pick from.
Solar Scientific makes some really good tinder box solar fire starters. The big pluses of this fire starter are that it fits right into your pocket, the case allows you to store and keep tinder dry, and it lights the tinder very easily – with bright sunlight it will light in just a matter of seconds.
Durability and craftsmanship are major pluses with the Solar Scientific Fire Starter line. It is made from very durable metal, and you won’t have to worry about crushing or breaking any part of this tool. The case is waterproof and the seal is very strong – so your tinder is going to stay nice and dry while stored inside.
The downside – this is one of the more expensive options you can purchase. Normally in the $25 to $30 range, it is much more expensive than many of the other versions that range from $5 to $10 normally. You are paying for the excellent craftsmanship – so I would say this solar powered fire starter is more for the person who spends a lot of time camping, and the cheaper versions would be better if you are only planning on using it once or twice a year.
To use this version you are going to snap the tinder holder in place, load up your tinder, and point the sun properly to get it to ignite. When not in use the tinder holder is stored inside the case, so just be careful not to lose it, since it is such a small piece of equipment!
This really is one of the best solar fire starters you can buy.
Sundance Solar Spark Lighter
Your alternative to using a tinder box style solar lighter is using a more traditional mirror styled solar spark lighter. Sundance Solar makes one of the best traditional style solar fire starters.
The design is very simple. It is a stainless steel curved mirror that is about 4.5” in diameter, so small enough to fit in most pockets. The tinder holder is located in the middle of the mirror, and can be snapped down to closed position when not in use. The tinder holder can fit those cigarettes or cigars that you might need lighted too!
There is no case to store extra tinder, so keep it dry in your pocket or in a safe place when you are ready to light it. In sunny and bright conditions, you are able to light your tinder in just a few seconds worth of time.
The cost is more affordable – usually in the $10 to $15 range, and the stainless steel frame makes it a very durable buy. I would rank this as the most durable traditional style type of solar spark lighter and has strong user review ratings online!
There are numerous other companies that make solar lighters that work well, but are not made nearly as well as the two options listed above. Most of these cheaper alternatives will be in the traditional style, and the tinder holder will be a spring.
The spring will fold down, but it isn’t anything spectacular. It is good enough to hold your tinder and get it lit. These cheaper versions are not going to be made of very reflective stainless steel, but they will be reflective enough to get that tinder lit pretty darn quickly!
Some of these options will be much larger in size than others, the biggest downfall with going with a big option is they are just harder to store, taking up much more room in your backpack.
The upside to purchasing one of these options, will the cost is normally somewhere from $4.00 to $10.00 in price – making them super affordable! These cheaper options are nice for having an emergency fire starter that are stashed away in your gear in case of emergencies – if you are planning on the solar fire starter being a major piece of your camping equipment, spend more money on the durable options!
The Final Wrap Up
A good solar fire starter is a nice piece of equipment to have when camping or hiking. There is a good chance that you will never need to use one, but having the ability to start a fire if you lose your matches or lighter is a very good thing!
A smart Boy Scout leader once told me you should always have three different ways to start a fire with you when you are camping. Lighters can break, matches can get ruined, and so just having a solar powered fire starter in case of an emergency should provide you with some peace of mind.
The other thing you can use a solar fire starter for is an emergency signal. The reflective surface makes it great for directing sunlight as an emergency signal, similar to using a mirror.
We would encourage serious outdoorsmen to purchase either the Sundance or Solar Scientific options, with the cheaper versions being great for just having an emergency fire creation source.
For other solar powered camping equipment, check out our review of solar shower bags, solar stoves, and solar powered backpacks!
To see these solar fire starters in action, check out the below video!