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What Are Safety Matches and How Do They Work?

What Are Safety Matches and How Do They Work?

For campers who enjoy a crackling campfire, a match can be the difference between delicious s’mores and a night spent in the RV playing Uno. Fire cooks, warms hands, and provides light. The ability to start a fire is central to almost any successful camping trip. That’s where matches come in, and not just any matches. We’re talking safety matches.

Have you ever heard of them? Well, let us introduce you!

What Are Safety Matches? 

Have you ever looked at the end of those wooden matches in a thin cardboard box? They have red tips with a bit of white (phosphorus) on the very end. These are NOT safety matches. Most people know them as “strike anywhere” matches because you can strike them on anything with friction, and they will ignite. The most prevalent of these matches are the Diamond brand. You can find them in most grocery stores. You can strike them on hard, dry, and rough surfaces, varying from items like rock, wood, or brick. 

Safety matches do not have a white tip. They only ignite on specially prepared surfaces on matchbooks and matchboxes. Without phosphorus, the match head only has one active ingredient. To ignite it, you need to strike the match on the other active ingredient on the box.

Safety Matches vs. Strike Anywhere Matches: How Are They Different?

Why Are They Called Safety Matches? 

Because they do not have phosphorus on the ends, safety matches will not ‘accidentally’ start a fire by brushing up against a rock or other rough surface. They should be safe to store in hot, wet, or windy environments and don’t have the necessary chemical mixtures to ignite by accident.

Man starting campfire with match
Matches are great to assist in starting campfires, but make sure to pack safety matches for extra caution.

What Is the Difference Between Safety Matches and Strike Anywhere Matches? 

The main difference between safety matches and strike-anywhere matches is phosphorus. Because both ingredients needed for ignition are on the head of a strike-anywhere match, you can rub it on almost any hard, dry, and rough surface to ignite. Safety matches will not ignite until coming in contact with phosphorus. The boxes these matches come in have a red phosphorous mixture on the striking surface.

Pro Tip: No matches? No problem! Use these tips on How To Start A Fire Like An Expert.

How Do Safety Matches Work?

Safety matches cannot burn until they contact (1) friction and (2) phosphorus. The matches have red tips, including potassium chlorate, sulfur, and glass powder.

To ignite a safety match, you would have to strike the match against the phosphorus on the side of the matchbox. This surface consists of a chemical mixture of red phosphorus, binder, and powdered glass that acts as the catalyst with friction to create a flame.

Match on fire
Before you can roast s’mores, you must first start up a campfire with a safety match.

Are Safety Matches Waterproof?

Some safety matches are waterproof, while others are stormproof. Waterproof matches have wax over them so that they can absorb moisture. Stormproof matches hold up in the rain and wind.

Using Matches Vs. Lighters

Many campers bypass matches entirely, choosing to use lighters for their campfires, propane stoves, and lanterns at the campsite. There are several benefits:

Ease of Use

With the click of a button, ignition is instantaneous with a lighter wand. Safety matches require more dexterity, but they are small and easily stored until needed. A cigarette lighter takes a bit of skill to light for some and will still keep hands close to an intended fire.

Reliability

Matches can be notoriously unreliable, especially in the wind. They burn out quickly, and some have to be struck several times for ignition. Lighter wands will present a continuous flame unless you encounter a large gust of wind because they have a consistent fuel flow.

Longevity

You can maintain the flame of a lighter for much longer than a match. Because most common matches are only a few inches long, they consume themselves with the flame you create. Once the fuel is gone, the fire is lost. You would need to transfer a little match to other flammable materials like kindling, paper, and logs.

Boxes of safety matches.
While some people prefer safety matches, others might find a lighter more useful when camping.

Reach

Unless you are using fireplace matches that are eight inches in length, a safety match burns close to your fingers. To use it to start a campfire, you must be close to the kindling because tossing a lit match very far will usually blow out its flame.

Safety

Lighter wands are highly convenient, as they have fuel and a spark to ignite a flame, and they keep your hands away from the fire. There is no worry that a flame will spark while traveling, like strike-anywhere matches.

Packability

In some cases, strike-anywhere matches have ignited while in transit, as they rub each other in a matchbox. So it seems that safety matches and lighters are better suited for camp gear and kitchen drawers.

Pro Tip: Should you pack matches in your survival bag? We took a closer look at What Is a Bug Out Bag? And What Should Be in It?

Person holding a fist of matches
Safety matches are essential for any survival bag.

Is the Tip Of a Match Poisonous?

The most dangerous part of a match is the chemical mixture of the match head. The potassium chlorate and potassium dichromate in safety and strike-anywhere matches can be toxic to the kidneys and liver if ingested. Have snacks available, and don’t munch on matches!

Are Having Safety Matches On Hand Worth It?

Safety matches should be in everyone’s emergency kit, whether in a kitchen, boat, or backpack. You never know when you might need a good fire, and safety matches are the way to go. Rest assured that you will have the tools to create warmth and light on your next camping trip, and they won’t start a fire without you! 

What do you use to light your campfire? Tell us in the comments!

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Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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