Gear

How Long do Bic and Zippo Lighters Last?

Few are the preppers who will go without fire-starting tools as part of their bug-out kits or even their EDC. Lighters are usually on the frontlines of fire starting duty and among lighters there are two standout options for preppers: the ubiquitous Bic and the legendary Zippo.

Naturally, the debate rages over which is best. With the Bic taking butane fuel and the Zippo using naphtha, the real question is, “which lasts longest”?

A Bic lighter that is in perfect order can last, fuelled, for a couple of years in ideal conditions before slow evaporative loss empties it of fuel. A Zippo will only keep its fuel for three weeks in ideal conditions, and more commonly one or two before it loses it all to evaporation. A Bic, on average will be good for around a 1,000 lights in “actual use” use conditions. A Zippo will light around 200 hundred times in optimal conditions with a full fuel load.

That is a big difference! And also not the entire story. Longevity of fuel is just one part of the equation: durability, reparability and other factors will also play a part in how much life you’ll get out of your lighter, in survival situation or not. We have taken care of the hard and fast answer, let’s dive a little deeper and see what sets the lifespan of these lighters apart.

bic lighter

The Bic

The Bic lighter as it is known today is a disposable butane fueled lighter that is non-refuelable (though some specialty models are). When the flint wears out or the fuel is all gone, you grab another one and toss the empty.

This non-refillable nature is not an issue for the majority of users since an average Bic will provide over 1,000 lights for a “normal” use schedule, and their design means that fuel loss to vaporization in the atmosphere is an order of magnitude slower than a Zippos unless the seals or valves are damaged.

They certainly live up to that promise, as there are few people who have not at one point pulled an old Bic from a junk drawer or glovebox and struck it experimentally to find, surprise, it lights right up. Bic lighters are certainly reliable and long lasting.

But, if all you have is a Bic and the fuel runs out, it is history. Even if you had someway installed a refill valve on your Bic, it will only accept and work with butane fuel.

What’s more, most parts like the striker, flint and so forth are held in place by metal stampings and pressings and are not designed to be replaceable, and certainly not intended to be user serviceable.

In keeping with the MO of cheapness and maintenance-free use, if anything goes wrong with your Bic, you are expected to toss it out. That’s okay: you likely have five more where that one came from.

zippo lighter

The Zippo

The Zippo is nothing short of a legend, and remains a favorite, treasured piece of Americana nearly a century after its introduction.

Unlike the Bic above, the traditional Zippo is made with correspondingly nearly-century old technology, utilizing cotton batting to absorb naphtha or similar fuels which are then drawn through the wick for ignition in the chimney next to the striker.

This design, frankly, leaks like a sieve, and in dry, hot conditions (or just being carried in your pocket all day) your Zippo will evaporate a prodigious amount of fuel. You can expect around 200 quick lights off a full reservoir of naphtha/Zippo gas/Ronsonol in ideal atmospheric conditions.

Many habitual users like to refill their Zippos whether or not they need them once a week for safety. Imagine being on a “timer” with your lighter in a survival situation.

For all their coolness and ruggedness, it seems like a bad choice for a survival implement. Not exactly: a Zippo’s simple construction means that nearly every part of it is user serviceable and replaceable, even using field expedient materials. What’s more, the design of the Zippo means it can run on a wide variety of fuels.

Anything from diesel to kerosene and even rendered fat can be used to keep a Zippo lighting. Stories abound of G.I.’s in WWII and in Vietnam simply tying a string around their lighters and then dipping the whole thing in the nearest vehicle fuel tank to refill it.

They worked! This combination of multi-fuel capability and easy servicing may mean the Zippo is the practically longer lasting lighter in field conditions when the shit hits the fan.

Extending the Burn Time

There a few things to keep in mind when you want to extend the burn time of any lighter. The first is to keep it sealed! If the fuel cannot reach the open air, it will vaporize far more slowly.

This can drastically extend the “up” time of Zippos, and will see you get years out of a Bic. Sealing your lighter in a plastic zipper bag will help, but a vacuum bag will be even better.

If you don’t want to commit to either and keep your lighter ready to use, you can opt for one of several specially designed cases that have a gasket seal and pop-top or flip-top lid. Thyrm makes a good one compatible with Zippo inserts.

Another trick, though sacrilege to Zippo faithful, is the use of a butane insert with your Zippo body. This allows you to use cheap, plentiful and long lasting butane in a sealed fuel cell that you will be able to rely on for a long, long time between fill ups.

Obviously you’ll miss out on the easy repairs and multi-fuel capability of the stock Zippo, though.

If you are hell-bent on using an original Zippo as part of your SHTF gear, consider keeping the empty, dry lighter in your kit along with a small can of fuel, allowing you to fill up when the chips are down and also providing a long lasting supply.

Another option is a small, keychain sized fuel canister that seals tightly, allowing you to keep two or three “shots” of fuel on hand at all times.

Conclusion

Bottom line, Bics that are functioning correctly will hold onto their fuel for a couple of years and light reliably around a thousand times before they give up the ghost and head to the scrap heap where the classic Zippo will only keep its fuel for around two weeks before going bone dry.

Even then, when full, you’ll only get around 200 lights out of it, necessitating a ready supply of fuel on hand. But, the durable nature of Zippos with their inherent multi-fuel capability might make them better choices for long-duration SHTF survival.

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About Tom Marlowe

Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.
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24 thoughts on “How Long do Bic and Zippo Lighters Last?

  1. Personally, I like strike anywhere matches….though good ones have certainly become hard to find. So little of the white tip on the end they should be called “strikeless matches”.

    1. TnAndy,
      Personally, I like strike anywhere matches….though good ones have certainly become hard to find. So little of the white tip on the end they should be called “strikeless matches”.
      I still find Ohio Blue tip strike anywhere matches that seem to work well, I think it depends on how they are stored, since if they get damp, they don’t seem to work quite the same, even after being dried.
      For a real fire starter, wrap the match with a piece of cotton butchers cord from just below the tip to the other end and dip the whole thing in paraffin. When you peel off the wax from the tip and light it, you now have a candle that bitnd hot & long.
      Since I don’t smoke I don’t often see books of matches; but, do snag them anytime I see them. Stored in a zip top bag, sometimes with a desiccant, they nearly always slight.

  2. I’ll have a few bics put back but rely on matches. Even then learning to keep your fire and hot coals to restart fires or carry your fire help. Having other fire starters such as flint and steel make more sense in the long run. I have some of all.
    For 10 months I kept my fires going as long as possible because I started out with just 10 paper matches in an advertising match book. I came home with 4 more. I was afraid of letting the coals cool too much and needing to start a new fire.

  3. The very best stove lighter I’ve found is a Benzo-matic propane torch head attached to a 1lb bottle of camp propane. One bottle of propane will last for years.

    I bought 4 of them and have one by each of our wood stoves (2 in the house, one in the shop, one in the greenhouse). Put a little kindling in the stove, click the torch on and press the red hold button so the flame stays lit, stick it in the kindling and it will fire it up in 10-20 seconds of intense flame….no paper or other tinder required. Start piling the firewood on the kindling pile while the torch is doing it’s thing, and you’ve got a great fire in short order.

    1. TnAndy,

      The very best stove lighter I’ve found is a Benzo-matic propane torch head attached to a 1lb bottle of camp propane. One bottle of propane will last for years.

      This is kind of funny to me.
      I occasionally teach wilderness survival classes or a short version in my hunter education classes as part of the personal safety segment. We teach flint & steel, ferrocerium rod, fire piston, bow & drill and mention hand drill; but, people are often shocked when they ask me my favorite method and I tell them: ”Bernzomatic propane torch.”
      I have three or four heads including my newest with a built in Piezo electric igniter, all stored with my plumbing supplies, since they are most often used to sweat copper pipe; however, do make a great general fire starter.

  4. Naturally, the debate rages over which is best. With the Bic taking butane fuel and the Zippo using naphtha, the real question is, “which lasts longest”?

    I have and use both of these; but, I think in our modern era, we need to add a modern technology that I also carry and really like, the Plasma Arc Lighter.
    These lighters use modern electronics and battery technology to produce a ”Plasma Arc” reaching temperatures of 1,100° Celsius (2,012° Fahrenheit), are USB chargeable, and hold their charge for a week or more. I have several that are round tubes and one that looks like an oversize Zippo and haven’t found anything they cannot light that a BIC or Zippo can light.

    The Bic lighter as it is known today is a disposable butane fueled lighter that is non-refuelable (though some specialty models are). When the flint wears out or the fuel is all gone, you grab another one and toss the empty.

    I also like the Mini BIC that clips onto the side of my Paracord Spool Tool, another essential item in the EEDC, BOB, or just when out of doors.
    The reason I highlighted the word ”flint” above is that both BIC and Zippo have caused a problem in the wilderness survival community.
    I hear people tell me how they make fire with “Flint & Steel” when what they really have is a Ferrocerium rod and not a real flint.
    That flint in both the BIC and the Zippo, going clear back to the original Zippo in 1932 / 1933 was and still is a small Ferrocerium rod; but, the misnamed component has stuck with the device and confuses many people.

    But, if all you have is a Bic and the fuel runs out, it is history. Even if you had someway installed a refill valve on your Bic, it will only accept and work with butane fuel.

    True; but, since I also have numerous other refillable butane lighters and torches, I always keep a supply on hand. Sometimes a little butane torch makes more sense than a large propane version.
    Extending the Burn Time

    This can drastically extend the “up” time of Zippos, and will see you get years out of a Bic. Sealing your lighter in a plastic zipper bag will help, but a vacuum bag will be even better.

    I find a zip top bag to work well and long term, vacuum sealing just helps the fuel outgas. Best would be a pressurized container using nitrogen or another inert gas; but, that’s a bit too hard and expensive.

    If you are hell-bent on using an original Zippo as part of your SHTF gear, consider keeping the empty, dry lighter in your kit along with a small can of fuel, allowing you to fill up when the chips are down and also providing a long lasting supply.

    This makes sense; but, I know I would be tempted to squirt fuel on my fire base and use the accelerant to get thinks going more quickly, wasting more than I should. LOL

  5. Ferrocerium rod is my choice if I have the choice. Small and easy to carry works ok and lasts. I have started a fire with a bow drill. Once was enough to say I did it!
    I use a propane torch to light my rocket stove with a pellet bin. It sure makes life easy. But in a survival situation I won’t be carrying a propane torch.

    1. Clergylady,

      Ferrocerium rod is my choice if I have the choice. Small and easy to carry works ok and lasts.

      I carry at least one of them with me in my EDC.
      My fire starting kit contains that and a few other things, including cotton balls and shredded kiln dried poplar for sure fire tinder. I got the shredded poplar at Joann Fabrics where they sell it as a hypoallergenic stuffing for pillows, little animals and dolls.

      I have started a fire with a bow drill. Once was enough to say I did it!

      Bow drill is easy; I once started a fire with a hand drill like you did with the bow drill, just to say I did it. I managed to get a coal & a fire; but, also a few blisters.

      I use a propane torch to light my rocket stove with a pellet bin. It sure makes life easy. But in a survival situation I won’t be carrying a propane torch.

      I like propane torches; but, I do also carry a small butane torch that works nearly as well and is not much bigger than a butane lighter.

  6. We have a little bit of everything that everybody is talking about. I found a croc brand from Dollar tree, up by the register, comes in many colors and just a tad larger then the bic, I keep one in my purse, it’s good to have several item’s to start a fire with.

    1. I keep a fire starting kit in my BOB that has everything including a refillable butane lighter with a bottle of butane. my GHB has a regular bid.

        1. Thor1,

          Shoe strings work in a pinch.

          Yep and the reason I use double laces in my hiking boots, as a spare, along with a fully stocked paracord spool tool.

          But grasshopper, can you make fire from water???

          I can and I have; but, find it interesting how you quickly changed the subject from flame throwers to something less sensational and more practical.

          1. Thor1,

            Top, it depends how fast you need the fire

            Having constructed and operated both flame throwers and Molotov cocktails, the later is easier to build, lighter and safer to carry, and quicker to deploy.
            Also an incendiary round through the tank can prematurely light you up when using the FT.

          2. Top, you just gave me a great idea. Put a level 3 armor plate in front of the small tank. Thanks…. LOL

            I also thought of mounting a 12ga under it with door breaching rounds and buckshot and slugs….

          3. Thor1,

            Top, you just gave me a great idea. Put a level 3 armor plate in front of the small tank.

            You mean the tank you carry on your back? Is that plate on your chest or between the tank and your back?

            I also thought of mounting a 12ga under it with door breaching rounds and buckshot and slugs

            And if course a pack mule, to carry all of the weight.

          4. Top, the XM42 doesn’t have a backpack…..

            A good shoulder strap could easily handle the extra weight.

            Well, I’m off to do my 100lb one armed curls now.

        1. Thor1,
          I have no interest. I’ve built a few over the years; but, other than the challenge of designing and making one and playing with it for a while, I see no practical advantage of having such a thing around since I have better places to spend my time & money.

  7. One forgotten-but-important point; butane lighters, unless carried against the body, will NOT WORK below about 15*F. The butane won’t vaporize below that temp. The Zippo, on the other hand, WILL WORK below that temp. Again, this isn’t a showstopper if you keep the Bic where it can stay warm, but if left in a pack or glovebox, you’ll need to warm it up before using it.

  8. One little known fact is that if you get some potassium permanganate and vegetable glycerin, and carry them in SEPARATE containers you’ll have instant fire anywhere. Just dump a little permanganate where you want the fire and pour a little glycerin on it ans in a minute or two you have a nice flame. Just add kindling. Yeah, I know, I didn’t believe it either, until I tried id it. It works!!!

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