Zippo lighters have been around since about 1930, while plasma lighters are relative newcomers to the market of pocket lighters. The technology used in each of these lighters is completely different, and their uses, as a result, are a little different.
Zippo lighters and plasma lighters will work as survival lighters, but there are better options available than both these lighters for survival. However, the zippo is the better lighter of the two when it comes to suitability as a survival lighter due to better fuel availability, hands-free capability, and the ability to make use of the lighter even once the fuel has run out.
So, how do these two very different types of lighters stack up in the role of a survival lighter? Are they any good in this role, and can they be relied upon to work when you need them most?
How Does A Zippo Lighter Work?
A Zippo lighter works in a fairly similar manner to a butane lighter, with the main difference being the fuel.
Essentially a Zippo lighter is a steel container where the fuel is stored, with a wick that is in constant contact with the fuel. A wheel is turned, which scrapes a flint, creating sparks that ignites the fuel at the wick.
The fuel storage area of the Zippo contains a cotton material, similar to cotton balls, which soaks up the liquid fuel and helps to reduce the evaporation a little.
The replaceable wick is in contact with these cotton balls, and thus, the fuel, which the wick, in turn, soaks up. A piece of the wick protrudes through the top of the lighter, and the amount of the wick protruding can be adjusted to provide a larger or smaller flame.
The flint, which is also replaceable, is mounted on the top of the lighter, and it has a striker wheel located next to it. A spring in the flint holder keeps the flint in contact with the striker wheel, even as it begins to get worn down.
Turning the flint striker wheel produces sparks from the flint, which are directed towards the fuel-laden wick, which ignites and provides a flame as the fuel burns.
The design of the Zippo lighter has some pros and cons, which we will discuss when we talk about the suitability of both lighters for survival.
How Does A Plasma Lighter Work
The plasma lighter uses a very different technology to ignite things, and it is very much a new generation lighter in comparison to a Zippo. In contrast to the Zippo, the plasma lighter has only been around since 2015.
The plasma lighter does not need a reservoir to hold fuel, but it does require a container to hold its source of energy, which are usually lithium-ion batteries.
The fuel for plasma lighters is electricity, which is generated by the lithium-ion batteries and discharged between electrodes at the top of the lighter. This electric discharge produces a super-heated arc of electrons, called plasma, which provides the heat to ignite your tinder.
As with any other lighter, the fuel in plasma lighters can run out. In the case of the plasma lighter, the batteries become depleted to the point that they cannot generate the plasma discharge. Fortunately, the lithium-ion batteries in the lighter are rechargeable, usually with a USB connection.
They can therefore be recharged in your car, in a wall plug in your home, or even in a USB plug on your computer or power bank with a USB port.
Does this reliance on modern technology count against the plasma lighter in a survival situation? Let’s get to comparing the two lighters as a survival tool.
Zippo vs. Plasma Lighter For Survival
To establish which of these lighters are good for survival, we need to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the two lighters and see how each one bears up to the unique rigors of the wilderness. How each one performs may affect how you view these lighters and their suitability of survival.
Advantages Of The Zippo
The zippo has been around for a while and therefore uses old-school technology, which in some circumstances is an advantage, but in others, it can count against the suitability of the lighter for survival.
- The Zippo is robust and constructed from metal.
- The Zippo is a windproof lighter and will light well even in a strong wind, which is a plus in a survival situation.
- Additional fuel can be carried to replenish the supply. This is only a valid advantage if you have planned ahead and packed additional fuel in your backpack. If you are unfortunate enough to be in a survival situation without your gear, it will be a disadvantage.
- A Zippo lighter will stay lit until you close the lid.
- The zippo allows for hands-free operation when lit. You can place the lit zippo on a rock to provide light while you find tinder or try to light stubborn tinder with both hands.
- If the fuel runs out, you may be able to get a fire going by lighting tinder with the sparks from the flint.
- A Zippo can warm your hands.
- If you run out of fuel in a Zippo, you can use other flammable fluids in your lighter, such as rubbing alcohol from your first aid kit, although it will evaporate much quicker than normal lighter fluid.
Advantages Of The Plasma Lighter
The modern technology of the plasma lighter seems to indicate that it is intended for use in a modern context, but that does not mean it is completely useless for survival. Let’s see what characteristics count in its favor.
- The plasma lighter is excellent in strong winds, which is a big plus for a survival scenario
- The fuel does not evaporate.
- The plasma lighter is rain-proof and will light well in a rainstorm.
- The electrodes do not wear out unless used continuously. This makes it not necessary to carry spare parts for the lighter.
Disadvantages Of The Zippo
The zippo does have some disadvantages that count against it in a survival situation.
- The wick and the flint wear down, so spares need to be carried with you to replace these consumable items.
- The fuel evaporates quickly, only giving a 2 or three day supply depending on weather conditions.
- If the wick or flint runs out and you don’t have spares with you, the lighter won’t work for survival purposes.
- The Zippo is not waterproof and will not work if it gets a severe dunking.
Disadvantages Of The Plasma Lighter
The biggest disadvantage of the plasma lighter is that it requires a modern fuel which is not easily carried with you into the wilderness.
- It cannot be used continuously for a significant length of time.
- It does not produce warmth that can be used to warm your hands. The components can heat up with continuous use and burn out or decrease the life of the battery.
- Charging time is well over an hour, for only about 50 ignitions.
- No hands-free operation to get a fire going with lighter staying lit. Most plasma lighters have an automatic cut-off of a few seconds.
- It is not waterproof; if you get it wet in a river crossing, it could short circuit and not light.
- Once the battery goes flat, the lighter is useless without a charge. Unless you have a power bank with you or another means of charging it, you have no means of recharging it.
The best lighter for survival is the one you happen to have on you at the time when you need it! I will happily take either of these lighters if the alternative option is no lighter.
Both of these lighters have significant disadvantages that do not make them ideal survival lighters. But as I said, in a pinch, I would take either of them. You would need to use your ingenuity, however, as to how to keep a continuous fire going so that you can use the lighter as little as possible or in case the fuel runs out.
To address this problem, I prefer to have a BIC, or even better, a refillable Clipper lighter on me or in my gear. But that’s just me and my survival instinct; I like to be prepared. One last thing, don’t rely on a lighter to be your only means of starting a fire! Make sure you have other methods of fire-starting in your repertoire that can get you out of a jam when your lighter stops working!