A friend and I planned an overnight hike and struck out for Round Top last Friday. The forecast had called for a mostly clear day with only a 20 percent chance of rain and temps in the low 40’s. I loaded my pack Thursday night and managed to get away from work a bit early. Unfortunately, the weather had not cooperated and the day had been overcast, foggy, and we had misty rain all day. On a last minute whim, we whipped up a fire. We managed to get a nice campfire going despite practically everything in the forest being soaking wet. After coming home, I put in just a wee bit more effort and prepped some nice fire starters. Here is how.
To go as simple as possible, do as my friend and I. Get some cotton balls or a wad of dryer lint. Put this in a zip lock bag with a good sized dollop of petroleum jelly. Microwave the bag and its contents just enough to warm things up and knead everything together. A goopy ball of fuzz inside the bag is what you want. We got to camp, whittled some dry wood out of larger sticks and wadded the smallest twigs into a bird’s nest. With small portions of the fire starter, we failed to get the fire going. In a last attempt, we went all in with all that remained, and voila, we had a fire!
A few days later, with the knowhow from a few YouTube videos, I made some really nice fire starters. There are an infinite number of ways to make them, so search around and you will discover more information than can be read in a day. Let’s go through three methods that I tried.
The supplies needed are jumbo cotton balls, large round cotton pads, petroleum jelly, a candle, a pair of needle nose pliers, scissors, a lighter, and drinking straws. How’s that for an assortment? You will need a way to melt the candle wax and petroleum jelly. I used a small ceramic bowl held over a light bulb. Heat from the bulb will slowly melt both the petroleum jelly and the wax. The melted liquid is not too hot and if a little gets on your fingers, you won’t burn yourself.
For fire starter number 1, melt some petroleum jelly. Briefly dunk a cotton ball in the liquid holding onto it with the pliers. Before it cools completely, stretch it out and stuff as much as you would like into a drinking straw. I used the super-sized milk shake straws. Cut to length with the scissors. Clamp the end of the straw closed with the pliers leaving a little straw poking out. Melt the ends of the straw closed with the lighter. That’s it. At camp, just set the straw on fire, or cut it open first and you should have a few minutes to get a fire going.
For method two, start as before by melting the petroleum jelly and soaking the cotton ball. Make several and let them cool. Next, melt some candle wax and coat the outside of the soaked cotton ball with the wax. When the wax cools, you have a waterproof fire starter that isn’t so messy to handle. At camp, break one open and fluff up the cotton as much as possible to light. During testing, I was unable to get these lit with a ferro rod but they fire up quickly with a lighter. Lying on the grate of my BBQ grill, my test sample burned for about 4 minutes. Later, I tested a second one. There was a water puddle on a concrete slab that I used for this test. I broke the fire starter open and placed it in the puddle. It caught fire quickly and burned for over 11 minutes in the water before I put it out. Later, I re-lit the fire starter and let it burn for another 5 minutes. Boredom set in and we put out the fire again. I’m sure it would have burned another 5 to 10 minutes.
The ability to light the fire starter with a ferro rod or other primitive method is really desirable to me, so let’s get into method 3. For this version, soak a large cotton pad in the petroleum jelly. Place a plain dry cotton ball in the center and fold the soaked pad over to make something like a taco. When several are made, melt the wax and coat the outside. I cut one open with my Swedish Fire Knife and lit it with one swipe of the ferro rod. This fire starter burned for over 7 minutes on the grill.
Method 3 is perhaps the most time consuming version to make, but they are still very easy. Melting the ingredients took up the most time. Burn times are a bit short on the grill because the fire starter is totally exposed and the abundance of air flow creates a large hot flame. On the ground, the flame is somewhat smaller, but the burn times are much longer.
As mentioned, numerous articles, and videos are on the net. People use a wide variety of fuels and materials in a wide assortment of homemade fire starters. These that I have tried work well. As with anything, be safe, smart, and careful with flammables. Act responsibly and have some fun.