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.
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.
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 determined to use 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.
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.
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.