As experienced outdoorsman, we all understand how critical it is for us to be able to make fire. For some of us, finding new and interesting ways to accomplish this is a great challenge and a lot of fun. The fire piston, while not new, is certainly one of those great mysteries to a lot of folks. The Wilderness Solutions FireFly fire piston from Camping Survival is a completely modern take on an ancient design that truly improves your chance of success.
The fire piston is essentially a hollow tube in which a plunger is tightly fitted. When the plunger, aka the piston, is rapidly forced down into the tube, the trapped air inside the tube is super heated. This hot air is capable of igniting a small amount of tinder that is typically placed at the end of the piston. Even though this process only takes a fraction of second, the fire piston is capable of heating air up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature is easily capable of igniting tinder like char cloth and tinder fungus. There’s even some evidence to suggest that Rudolf Diesel was inspired by the fire piston to create the Diesel engine!
Traditionally, the tubes have been made of various hardwoods, antler, bone, or bamboo. The pistons were made from similar natural materials, with the important component of the gasket made from leather, sinew, or string. While these materials have been used around the world with great success, the precision fit and important seal have been difficult to reliably achieve. Wilderness Solutions has created a fire piston to address the shortfalls of these natural materials. They’ve dubbed their creation the FireFly, and Camping Survival made sure we got one for review!
The FireFly’s cylinder is 3 3/8” long, and made from a bright green, highly visible plexiglass. The use of plexiglass allows the center hole for the piston to be machined to exact tolerances, while also increasing durability. The piston and the hand hold for the end of the piston are turned from aluminum. Aluminum is an excellent choice for this application as it is both durable and lightweight. That lightweight piston allows the user to move it quicker, with less effort, making the FireFly extremely user friendly.
The end of the aluminum piston has two features that give the user the highest chance of success. First, the seal for the piston inside the tube is accomplished by way of a rubber o-ring. There is a small groove about ¼” from the end of the piston, which holds the o-ring in place. This o-ring makes the seal between the piston and tube air tight, user maintainable, and waterproof. So important is this o-ring seal that Wilderness Solutions sends a spare with the FireFly, in the event that it might become damaged or lost during use. The second feature at the end of the piston is the recessed cup designed to hold tinder. This cup is designed to hold a pea sized piece of tinder so that during use, the tinder does not fall into the tube and extinguish before it becomes useful.
The FireFly also has a fantastic addition to the end of the piston that really comes in useful. Wilderness Solutions inlaid a threaded aluminum block, with a brass plug pressure relief valve in the end of the plexiglass piston. This allows the user to open the valve so that the piston can be pressed all the way to the bottom without back pressure. With the piston set fully downward, storage is easier and the FireFly is compact enough for pocket carry.
When I first received the FireFly for review, it was the first fire piston I have ever handled. I’ve seen them around the usual haunts on the internet before, and even on a few Discovery Channel shows, but I’ve never used one. I have, however, gotten very good at using traditional flint and steel to start a fire. While the fire piston and flint and steel generate the ignition in separate ways, once that ember is burning, nursing it to a flame is the same. This skill with flint and steel has definitely helped my learning curve with the fire piston, but after using it for awhile, I think anyone with a working knowledge of fire building will be able to operate it without much fuss.
The first and most critical aspect of using the FireFly is to have a good quality tinder. While any easily combustible tinder will likely work, I had great success with char cloth. Char cloth is essentially a fabric charcoal, typically made from 100% cotton that’s super heated beyond combustion, but not allowed to burn. Charcoal is the traditional tinder used for flint and steel, and adapts easily to fire piston use. Another trick to ensure success is to have the o-ring and piston lightly lubricated with Vaseline, although in a pinch, chap-stick or cooking grease could also be used.
Once prepared with a lubricated piston, place the tinder in the recessed cup at the end of the piston. I found that at first, I was over packing the tinder cup. I learned through trial and error that about a 3/8” square of char cloth was the perfect size. With the tinder placed in the cup, insert the piston into the plexiglass tube up to the point where the o-ring slides inside the tube. Now, here’s where you should learn from my mistakes. With no prior experience with a fire piston, I thought that the faster, harder I hit the end of the piston, the quicker I would heat the air and, logically, have more success. A few bruises on my palm later, and I discovered that finesse was the way to go.
The best technique I was able to work out was to have the tube with piston inserted in my left hand, with the piston up. I put my right hand on the piston top, and lock my left arm in close to my body. Instead of striking the piston down, I quickly push it down. This gave me about the same amount of speed to the piston, but was much easier on my hand. After a quick push downward into the tube, it’s critically important to remove the piston quickly. If ignition was obtained, the only oxygen to support it is inside the tube. If the piston is left inside the tube too long, the oxygen is consumed and the ember extinguishes.
When you remove the piston, you’ll notice a glowing ember at the end if you’ve had success. At this point, I lightly blow on the tinder to ensure it stays lit. While doing this, I normally pick the ember from the piston cup with a small piece of twig, although my knife tip works just fine for this as well. Place the ember into your prepared tinder bundle, and nurse to a flame as you normally would. I sometimes cheat by placing a little extra char cloth in my tinder bundle to help keep the ember burning while working it. I like to use jute for my tinder bundle, but I’ve had great success with cattail fluff and dried out false tinder fungus (hoof fungus).
I have been able to get to the point where I am reliably getting an ember with the first press of the piston into the tube. After using the FireFly for a while, I am truly surprised at how well it works, and how user friendly the modern materials are. I recently carried the FireFly in the pencil pocket of my Carhartts while rambling through the woods on an afternoon dove hunt. I even pulled the pieces apart and ran them under the faucet to test under wet conditions. With a quick shake out, and drying it off on my shirt tail, I simply lubricated the piston again and it worked right away.
If you’re the kind of Woods Monkey that likes to learn new skills and techniques, take a serious look at the FireFly. And if you’re looking for trustworthy people to get it from, look no further than Camping Survival, found on the web at www.campingsurvival.com The FireFly runs $68.95 from Camping Survival, and while that might buy a lot of gas station lighters, you won’t have any more satisfaction building a fire than when you do it with hot air from your fire piston!
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