Survival Pipe Skills

Typically I light my pipes with my favorite Kiribi lighter, but I have lately been remiss in resupplying my butane needs and find myself without. I like a challenge, however, and accept this situation as a test of my character and ingenuity.

With my lighter sparking but no longer emitting its precious flame, the game begins. Not to worry: having spent a large portion of my life in Army Special Operations, attending two different survival schools, and spending countless hours in the field overcoming adverse conditions, I am more than up to this challenge. I will faithfully document my efforts, blazing a trail and leaving a roadmap for others to follow.

Where else to get fire? My first thought is the firepit in my backyard (let's keep this between us, by the way; no need to involve my HOA). I reach for one of my favorite pipes, then a thought occurs to me, and I wisely select one of my homebuilt pipes that I'm not afraid to let experience some minor rim charring.

I know, of course, that the trick will be keeping the tobacco in the pipe as I turn it upside down over a roaring fire to light it, so I pack it extra tight. No worries, we are after a lit pipe, not a perfectly pristine one, right?

Using my substantial experience in building and lighting fires, all government-sanctioned training, of course, I arrange a wealth of dry wood in the appropriate manner. Perfect. I will be able to stay warm in the winter chill while smoking. I reach for the nearby Bic lighter I store with the firewood and set about applying it to the waiting tinder.

Two things become immediately apparent. First, I could have just used said Bic lighter to light my pipe, and second, it too is out of butane. I ponder the neatly arranged firewood for a long moment, experiencing a twinge of regret at packing my pipe hard enough to survive the anticipated barrel-roll maneuver that would now be unnecessary or at least unproductive.

Adapt and overcome. As the oft-repeated words from my past surface in my mind, a new plan is already forming. I leap up and discover that my firmly-packed pipe cannot, in fact, retain its contents while performing awkward aerial acrobatics over the unlit firewood. That's a step backwards.

Flame needs three things to exist. The fire tetrahedron consists of fuel, heat, and oxygen. A tightly rolled paper will make for excellent tinder, I decide, and I know the air in my kitchen contains 21% oxygen (I live at sea-level; your mileage may vary.) Of course, there is a device in most modern homes that effortlessly creates a large amount of heat, and I smile to myself as I turn the oven selector knob to "Broil."

In goes the paper towel, and I hum happily to myself as I pack a fresh pipe, imagining the flame I will soon have flickering just above the rim.

"Why's the oven on?"

I jump at my wife's voice, and my humming turns into a chuckle. Not a nervous one, mind you, but a pleased-with-my-own-ingenuity-and-ability–to-keep-certain-possibly-concerning-information-from-my-wife-in-moments-of-crisis chuckle. You know the kind.

"You're not baking?" I give her a confused look as I calmly reach over and turn off the oven.

My confusion is contagious, exactly as I hoped, and she stares at me like I am an alien creature (a regular occurrence, and one to which I am well accustomed.) But the reprieve is only momentary, and she opens her mouth to interrogate me further. Whatever clever obfuscation of the facts I had planned will never be known because one of my progeny chooses this moment to interrupt, distracting her.

I leave the paper towel in the oven, the potential energy of that plan of action ready to be released as soon as my wife is out of the house. In the meantime, my mind searches for the next most likely source of heat in our home, and an epiphany strikes me: There is a tiny blue flame that burns eternal, safely ensconced in the base of our water heater!

Out in the garage, away from the prying eyes of certain overly-responsible parties, I kneel by the appliance, placing a hand against its side to thank it for the blessing it's about to bestow. A small metal flap rotates out of the way easily enough, and I can see the treasure within. All I have to do is get my pipe close enough. And kind of sideways, so the angle is right.

Temporarily obstructed, but secretly delighted, by the renewed need for pipe acrobatics, I reenter the kitchen, discretely retrieving my well-packed adventure pipe.

Back at the water heater, I run into a problem. No matter which way I twist my pipe, the hole will not accommodate; I can't get close enough to the pilot light for my plan to work. Not one to be stopped by meaningless warning labels, I immediately attempt to remove the maintenance plate for unrestricted access to the appliance's internals.

It turns out a screwdriver is required, which is a slight problem, as evil gremlins have been systematically hiding my screwdrivers for some time now. I intend to construct some traps, just as soon as I light my pipe. My typical workaround is to borrow one from my wife's personal toolset, which she claims she needs — she doesn't believe in the secret war with the gremlins. It's a point of contention that I deem unwise to pursue so I will have to wait until she leaves the house before scavenging the necessary implement.

Still in the garage, I search for a solution to my problem. Not a screwdriver, as I am quite confident they have been stolen by gremlins, or maybe the aliens my wife sometimes mistakes me for, or perhaps granted cloaking devices by the same. Yes. Definitely that.

I spot an old military backpack in the corner, my trusty rucksack, and remember there is a survival kit inside — a survival kit with waterproof matches.


Saved by my own foresight and preparedness a decade past, I triumphantly dig past an assortment of knives, not-at-all-moldy camouflage uniforms, expired emergency rations that are perfectly fine, a battered survival handbook, and finally locate a small tin near the bottom. There are exactly three matches left in the kit, possibly due to pilfering by an unknown pyromaniac during a particularly boring field exercise, but three is plenty for my current purpose.

Tossing the backpack atop a nearby assortment of tools, I move outside to light my pipe. I strike the first match repeatedly but to no avail. A distant memory emerges of going through an entire kit's supply of government-issued waterproof matches trying to find one that actually worked, but I push it aside. There is no time for distraction in my current predicament.

By the time the second match has flamelessly disintegrated, I start to wonder if these matches are designed to work only when wet. Given the name, this line of reasoning seems sound, and I confidently thrust the final match into a puddle before giving it a try.

Time and memory are tricky things, as it turns out.

After further consideration and a bit of a hands-on refresher, I am confident that waterproof matches or not, water is not a necessary element for starting a fire. Definitely not part of the fire tetrahedron.

I stare accusingly at my old Army backpack, but my fierce disapproval of its inadequacy has no visible effect. I spot the survival manual peeking out of the top and am struck with a new idea. I seize the backpack.

This was the test all along. I am sure of it.

In the backyard again, I extract paracord from my pack, along with a handy folding multitool. Next, I secure a couple of choice branches from a nearby oak tree. Not my neighbor's tree. A soft piece of pine from the previously laid fire provides the last element I need, and I confidently set to work.

I bend the more supple of the two branches into a bow and use my ninja knot-tying skills to stretch and tie the paracord between the ends. Shortening the other branch to a foot-long length gives me the hardwood "drill," and a bit of gouging with a field knife makes the appropriate divot in the softer pine. Perseverance and a positive mental attitude are now the only things standing between me and flame. No butane, electric oven, pilot light, or screwdriver needed. I feel free of modern contrivances. I feel strong.

Four hours later, I lie flat on the lawn, the sum total of my failed efforts to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, a triumphant learning experience in front of me.

Exhaustion could be viewed as a negative, but there is great peace in certainty, and, in that sense, my recent acquisition of unshakable certainty that I will never produce fire in this manner has left me in a Zen-like calm.

The effort has connected me to a similar peaceful conclusion in my past. When they taught us how to accomplish this task in survival school, my big takeaway was that I didn't need fire after all.

Sometimes that's the best way to solve a problem, just re-prioritize. I close my eyes, satisfied with the discovery of this hard-earned truth. I reach absently for my nearby pipe; I like to celebrate breakthroughs like this with a contemplative smoke.

"What are you doing out here?"

My eyes pop open, and I see the you-know-which look on my wife's face.

It pains me to explain myself, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made to maintain marital bliss. "Making a fire so I can light my pipe."

Her eyes narrow slightly. "I found a paper towel in the oven earlier..."

"That's weird," I say evenly.

She extends her hand. "Look, I was cleaning around your desk and found your old lighter."

A smile of victory overtakes my features. The gremlins have returned their most valuable hostage!

Maybe I'll forgo the traps, for now.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Humor Kiribi Lighters Pipe Culture Satire


    • Jim Foley on February 9, 2022
    • "Survival Pipe Skills was an amusing and well written piece. Thanks.

    • Dan on February 9, 2022
    • I read this article today, at work, after killing myself physically (a 3 hour PT session) first thing in the morning. After settling down and turning everything on, drinking 2 Budweisers ( Crap! Did I just type that out loud?), my two feral kittens that I raised and somewhat domesticated, took up residence in my lap and fell into a deep cat sleep. I'm watching rock build up under a tail pulley where a side rubber wiper has worn out. What is it about cats sleeping in your lap that just renders you helpless and drained of all will power? The only thing that I could do at the moment was to log into my phone and move my thumb and head. I found this article and chuckled at first, then I challenged myself to read it all the way through without laughing. I failed πŸ€£πŸ˜‚ Eventually, I had to eject from my chair and walk/run for the shovel/Pala unless I should sacrifice production. Such a thankless job. You made me laugh and transported me away from this all too familiar Iraqi environment for a stint. Funny how you can learn to make peace with the most miserable circumstances and forget yourself. Hilarious article! Thanks for the laughs, Joel.

    • James on February 13, 2022
    • Thanks for the very entertaining and informative article that you shared with all of the Smoking Pipes family. I can look at your pipe descriptions and other work with an understanding of where you are coming from, what may influence your work and possibly why it does.I’m 72 years old and grew up in the Blue Ridge end of NC, and I also had a large family as you did. One thing that you might want to add to your scat pack is a magnifying glass. Cheap plastic ones used to come in Crackerjack boxes as a prize.I can assure you that you can start a fire with very little sunshine and some dry tinder. They’re also useful for putting a blister on any exposed skin of someone caught napping in the sun but you need to make sure that you can outrun the object of your entertainment or you may pay a painful price for your effort.Thanks again for a great article.

    • D. on February 13, 2022
    • I have magnesium blocks w/flint and striker in my survival backpack, along with a spool of 550 Paracord (it's come in handy for tying/tieing up a tarp at work for shade) . I also make it a point to buy bic disposable lighters, 1-5 packs, every weekend that I get groceries. I am fully stocked up. And I know that moldy rucksack smell, I kinda like it, it's nostalgic. My old field training exercises involved rain, a perforated leaky tent with a small river running through the middle. You learn to make friends with the mud. This was a humorously entertaining story and had the movie rolling in my head.

    • James Royal on February 13, 2022
    • Great humor. Just my style.

    • Joshua on February 13, 2022
    • I have similar experiences with gremlins. They like to eaves drop on my girlfriend and My conversations. My girlfriend told me one day that she didn’t like whiskey in the house. So like a good boyfriend I put it in the garage. The gremlins promptly stole it. So I got a new bottle and set up a paint ball claymore facing the cabinet and filled it with livestock paint. I come home from work and my girlfriend texts me that she is helping her mother and won’t be home until later. I go to the garage and my whiskey is gone. My neighbor comes in and asks me what I’m doing. I explain. He asks how long does it take for the livestock paint to wear off. 3 days I said and pick up the drill. My neighbor runs out of the garage. My girlfriend texts me and says her mother needs her to stay all weekend. I put a rubber band over the drill trigger and retrieve a bottle of scotch from the rafters. My Gremlins don’t like high or dirty places or squealing noises. You must learn how to live in harmony with those sneaky little gremlins.

    • DAVE SOMMER on February 13, 2022
    • I have never gone quite that far to light a pipe, but darnclose. I would not like to tell my tale of wow at this moment but I am quite sure all of us have gone down this road at least once in our lives of pipe smoking.

    • Rob on February 13, 2022
    • 🀣🀣🀣 this vet is so recognizing the jargon and thought processes here. Your humor is approaching Chuck S. Status! πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ”₯

    • D. on February 13, 2022
    • "I sense something; a presence I've not felt since..." -Darth Vader. I had to remind myself that it wasn't Chuck when I was reading this. That's a compliment, Chuck cracks me up πŸ˜‚

    • Z. on February 14, 2022
    • Relatable! The feeling of dismay at the realization one has no source of fire with which to light a pipe is perfectly illustrated here. Perhaps that's the motivation that inspired the creation of fire how-ever-many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Haha!

    • Joel B on February 14, 2022
    • Thanks for reading, everyone, and for all of your kind comments and stories of your own! I had a lot of fun with this one, and am glad you enjoyed it :)

    • Very Like a Hobbit Except For Their Hairy Feet on February 15, 2022
    • Without question, THE most reliable way I've ever found for starting a campfire -- even in wet, cold, windy conditions -- is to stack your tinder and kindling carefully and then place a bunch of the finest grade of steel wool below your tinder. Then touch both terminals of a 9-volt battery to the steel wool. That completes a circuit which heats the steel wool red hot very fast, and lights the tinder, which lights the kindling, and "Robert is your father's brother!" You can then use a burning or glowing piece of tinder or kindling to light your pipe. Oh, and you can also warm yourself and also cook your food, of course, but lighting your pipe takes top priority.

    • Stephen on February 18, 2022
    • Joel, I can't help but wonder if your article here would have even made it to the page if Smokingpipes actually sold butane. After searching the site for butane to purchase, I didn't even find a hint as to why customers have to go to other online tobacconists to get such a common & consistent need for many regular pipe smokers. Perhaps the reason for this could be added to the site's F.A.Q. section?

    • Umm on February 18, 2022
    • Maybe it requires a HAZMAT certification. I don't know either.

    • Sykes on February 18, 2022
    • Shipping butane requires a flat-rate HAZMAT rider on the package, which is expensive enough that it's many times the cost of a can of butane. So, if you're shipping, say, 72 cans to a shop, you can spread that charge across 72 cans. For one can, it'd be something like $2.50 for the can, but $15 (or whatever; it's been ages since I've checked the price) for HAZMAT.If it's possible to buy butane online--I haven't looked; I just sort of presumed you couldn't--then the shipping will be crazy expensive or the retailer isn't properly (i.e., dangerously and contrary to carrier contract) handling the shipment.So, yeah, we'd love to offer butane, but I don't think anything would prefer to pay $20 to ship a $2.50 item when you can buy it pretty readily at grocery stores and gas stations (and a can lasts a long, long time with normal pipe lighter use).

    • Very Like a Hobbit Except For Their Hairy Feet on February 18, 2022
    • You can order butane online directly from ( They can't ship to Alaska, Hawaii, US Outlying Territories, APO, AFO or a PO Box. The product costs $3.30 per can and shipping to my state was $9.95. I don't know how Zippo covers the HAZMAT costs, but it doesn't appear on my order form or invoice.

    • Very Like a Hobbit Except For Their Hairy Feet on February 18, 2022
    • And in case I was unclear, the shipping wasn't $9.95 per can, it was $9.95 total for my whole shipment even though I ordered several cans at once, at $3.30 each.

    • Umm on February 19, 2022
    • Amazon carries butane

    • Stephen on February 19, 2022
    • Great timing Joel. I was just typing this up as you posted:For other smokers in a similar situation to my own, where butane is not available at any nearby grocery stores or gas stations in any other form beyond the disposable lighter, I have found the best option for me to be purchasing a 3 pack of Colibri premium butane, each in the 300 ml size can. While Colibri sells directly to the public, the better value is to purchase from Amazon, where they have a Marketplace account under CGR Co.(Colibri Group Retail). As of the time of this writing, you can purchase the above described amount for $24.99, plus about a dollar and change for tax (each state probably varies a little), with free shipping (stated before logging in with a Prime account). :)

    • Stephen on February 19, 2022
    • My apologies for the formatting error. I keep forgetting that new paragraphs are not kept true to what you see while composing. :(

    • Stephen on February 19, 2022
    • My further apologies for crediting Joel for the previous post rather than "Umm".

    • Umm on February 19, 2022
    • Lol, think nothing of it.

    • GEORGE BERMAN on September 29, 2023
    • This would all be funnier if I weren't going out of my mind with longing for a smoke and a light right now!I have the key elements, but my expensive lighter refuses to accept all adjustments.

    • GEORGE BERMAN on September 29, 2023
    • This would all be funnier if I weren't going out of my mind with longing for a smoke and a light right now!I have the key elements, but my expensive lighter refuses to accept all adjustments.

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