Any backpacker or backcountry explorer knows that having the right tools to start a fire is an absolute necessity when you’re out in the wild. If you opt for matches, it’s critical that you have a way to protect them. While it’s not hard to find waterproof matches at your favorite outdoor store, they can be expensive. And, if you’re packing your gear the night before a trip and discover that you’re out, there might not be time to make a run to the store.
Knowing how to waterproof standard matches is a useful skill for the well-prepared and economic outdoorsman. There are three common methods for protecting your matches against water: turpentine, nail polish, and candle wax. When matches are soaked in turpentine and then left to dry, the resin impregnates the wood and makes it impervious to water. Nail polish and candle wax protect matches in the same way, by sealing the match head in a waterproof coating. Choosing which waterproofing method to use is a matter of personal preference and what items you have on hand. Below, we’ll outline all three options.
No matter which method you go with it’s best to start with strike-anywhere matches. They can be lit against any rough surface, whereas strike-on-box matches require the phosphorous strip found on the matchbox to ignite. Here’s how to get started.
- Strike-anywhere matches
- Masking tape
- Small metal or glass container
- Nail polish
- Small container for storage
3 Methods for Making DIY Waterproof Matches
1. Turpentine Method
Before working with turpentine, protect your work surface with newspaper and make sure you’re working in a well-ventilated area. Turpentine is a toxic, flammable paint thinner. The fumes aren’t great to breathe, and it can easily ruin wood or painted surfaces.
Start by filling a small glass or metal container with turpentine. Don’t use plastic — turpentine is strong enough to eat through it. With your container full, take a handful of matches and toss them in. Set a timer for five minutes and let the matches soak up the turpentine.
After five minutes, take the matches out and set them on paper to dry. To speed up the drying process, you can use a hairdryer. Once they’re fully dry, they’re ready to store and use.
2. Nail Polish Method
The nail polish method is very easy, except for the challenge of choosing a color (what goes best with forest pine?). Any nail polish will work, though it’s best to avoid ones that have glitter. The glitter can cause matches to burn unevenly and spark.
Prepare your work area by laying down a piece of paper at the edge of a table. Dip your matches into the nail polish one at a time, letting the excess polish drip off before you lay them down to dry.
Lay the base of the match on the table so that the painted side is balanced over the edge, allowing it to dry evenly. You may find it easier to use a piece of tape, sticky side up, to hold the base of the match down while the painted side dries. If you’re in a hurry, you can also use a hairdryer to speed up the drying process.
When using nail polish matches, scrape off a bit of the polish to reveal the head and then use as you normally would.
3. Candle Wax Method
Grab an old candle or a few tea lights, light them, and then wait for a bit for a pool of wax to build up. Dip the head of your matches into the wax one at a time, rotating to get even coverage. Once you pull them out of the wax, let them dry for 20 seconds or so before setting them down.
To use, scrape a bit of the wax off the head and use as normal.
To store your waterproof matches, use a rigid, small container like an old film canister or empty spice bottle. Every extra layer of protection ensures that you don’t get left out on the trail without a dry match. If you aren’t able to use strike-anywhere matches, make sure to include a phosphorous strip from a matchbox in your container.