When it comes to starting fires in the wild, I can’t think of any option as cheap, light-weight, and fool-proof as homemade petroleum jelly cotton balls. Petroleum jelly cotton balls almost guarantee me a fire, even in adverse conditions. In this report, I describe how I make and use them.
Is Vaseline® Flammable?
First things first, let’s address a major point of misunderstanding. A lot of people wonder if petroleum jelly products like Vaseline® are flammable. The short answer is no. Vaseline and other petroleum jelly products are engineered to be extremely safe and stable. If sparks land on Vaseline, it’s not going catch on fire. If I hold a match up to Vaseline, it won’t take the flame. To prove the point, I tried to light a glob of Vaseline with a butane torch and it simply melted:
In other words, Vaseline is not flammable. It won’t take a flame under normal conditions. The plastic bottle Vaseline comes in will catch on fire long before the Vaseline inside of it does.
That’s one reason I like these petroleum jelly fire starters so much. I trust that there’s no chance they’re going to spontaneously burst into flame. I consider them stable and safe for carrying.
So how can something that isn’t flammable work as a fire starter? It has to be manipulated into a gaseous state that will never happen under normal circumstances. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, how I stumbled on the concept …
Searching for a Fire Starter
I’ve had a long search for a foolproof fire starter I could keep in my survival kits — a tinder almost guaranteed to produce and hold a durable flame, even in wind or rain, and to produce it from a spark.
There’s no lack of commercial fire starters. It feels like every week some new product is jumping off the store shelf at me, and odds are it’s just a shape-shifted take on the age-old formula: sawdust (sorry, “wood pulp”) mixed into paraffin wax then pressed into cubes, sticks, mini logs, chips, or a paper cup. Paraffin also fuels lightable oil pouches, granule pouches, or cube packets. Occasionally I see a novel one, like granulated corn sugar packets or gel paste. While all of them promise to work well, they’re often pricy, usually bulky, sometimes heavy, and almost always a require a flame to get them going. That’s four strikes against them, in my book.
I have also scoured the Internet for homemade options. One idea I liked was corrugated cardboard rolled into cylinders and soaked in paraffin. I made a few batches, and they worked pretty well. My complaint was that they couldn’t take a spark from a firesteel and they tended to be heavier and bulkier than I wanted. I’ve also seen egg carton versions of the same thing, toilet paper roll variants, stuffed drinking straws, etc. My same complaints stand against those.
Enter the Petroleum Jelly Cotton Ball
Then I stumbled across a suggestion that a cotton ball impregnated with petroleum jelly makes an outstanding fire starter. I was intrigued.
I read that unlike other homemade fire starters, a petroleum jelly cotton ball only takes about 30 seconds to make, it’s almost weightless, and it fits great even in a pocket survival kit. So I made a few petroleum jelly cotton balls and took them out for some tests.
I put a petroleum jelly-filled cotton ball down, threw some sparks on it, and almost instantly had a tall, strong flame; and that flame kept going … and going … and going. The longer it burned, the more impressed I grew.
I ran a few more tests, including water and wind tests. In the end, I was so impressed at their stable performance that I replaced every fire starter in my survival kits with petroleum jelly cotton balls. I’ve used nothing else since.
How Do Petroleum Jelly Cotton Ball Fire Starters Work?
You already know how well fine cotton burns. One good strike from a ferro rod (a.k.a. “firesteel”, one of my indispensable survival items) is all it takes to set a cotton ball on fire. The problem is, a cotton ball burns out in less than 30 seconds.
Enter petroleum jelly. As the name implies, petroleum jelly contains petroleum — the same petroleum that’s used in oil-based products. In the form of jelly, it’s not flammable, it doesn’t evaporate, and it won’t run. All pluses.
But things change when I light the cotton ball. The heat of the burning cotton melts the petroleum jelly. At this point, the petroleum jelly still doesn’t start burning. That’s a critical point. If the petroleum jelly were flammable, the whole blob would go up in flame and burn itself out almost instantly.
The magic of Vaseline and other petroleum jelly products is that they don’t burn.
So how does this make a good fire starter? In my experience, the following happens:
Once the petroleum jelly melts, the cotton ball starts wicking it like a candle wicks melted wax. As the liquid petroleum jelly rises to the tip of the cotton fibers, it starts boiling and giving off a gas. This gas then burns in a very controlled, sustained flame. During this stage, the cotton ball no longer burns, just the gas. Why? Because the cotton ball is saturated with liquid petroleum jelly, and petroleum jelly doesn’t burn. Only the boiling gas burns.
The cotton ball continues to give off a flame as long as there’s a pool of melted petroleum jelly to draw from. Once the petroleum jelly runs out, there’s nothing to stop the cotton ball from burning up. And the flame goes out.
So the petroleum jelly actually serves two roles: it gets slowly converted into the gas that fuels the flame, but it also prevents the cotton ball from burning up too quickly. It’s a bit of an irony, really. The very thing that fuels the burn is simultaneously retarding the burn.
Performance of Petroleum Jelly Cotton Balls
In my tests, a typical cotton ball slathered in petroleum jelly burns strong for about four minutes. That’s four minutes of good, hot flame from a tiny, lightweight fire starter that I can make for pennies.
But it gets better. Because petroleum jelly is oil-based, the petroleum jelly cotton balls are waterproof. I dropped a petroleum jelly cotton ball in a glass of water, then I took it out, pulled it apart to expose the dry fibers inside, threw some sparks on the cotton fibers, and had a flame.
Once the converted gas starts burning, it doesn’t want to stop, making my petroleum jelly cotton balls fairly resistant to wind. Strong gusts will blow one out, but even a little wind break is enough to protect my fire.
Maybe my favorite thing about these petroleum jelly cotton ball fire starters is their size. I can stuff about ten of them into a film canister (remember those?). But to save weight, I usually just throw a dozen of them in a snack-sized ziplock bag. It takes up no space at all, weighs nothing, but has enough emergency fire-starting potential for almost two weeks of fires.
How Do I Make Petroleum Jelly Cotton Ball Fire Starters?
To make my fire starters, I used just two ingredients — petroleum jelly and cotton balls. Any brand of petroleum jelly seems to work for me as long as it’s 100% pure petroleum jelly. I use a lot of it, so I get it in bulk. For the cotton balls, I get jumbo-sized cotton balls, checking the package to be sure they’re 100% cotton. Artificial fibers won’t take a spark.
Rubbing the petroleum jelly into a cotton ball is messy work. The fibers of the cotton ball tend to pull apart and the petroleum jelly gets everywhere. The cleanest, easiest method I’ve used is to put a scoop of petroleum jelly into a snack-sized Ziploc bag, toss some cotton balls in, zip it up, then knead the petroleum jelly into the cotton balls.
I try to get as much petroleum jelly in the cotton ball as I can without completely saturating the cotton ball. I’ve found that it’s very important to have some dry fibers available in the middle to take the flame, especially if I use a firesteel or magnesium rod. Why? Because you can’t light the petroleum jelly. It isn’t flammable. So I make sure I have dry cotton fibers to light.
How Do I Start a Fire with a Petroleum Jelly Cotton Ball?
The cotton ball is the first stage of my fire — the tinder. It takes the flame or spark, then gets my kindling burning. I think of it as a long-burning match on steroids.
I usually have a good supply of very dry toothpick- and pencil-sized kindling available (at least as big as a softball, bigger if the wood is damp). I pull my cotton ball open to expose the dry fibers inside, then light the cotton fibers with a firesteel (or lighter, or match). Once the petroleum jelly melts and the burn starts, I’ll lean a few toothpick-sized sticks against the burning ball, being careful to not suffocate it, then build a teepee above it with the rest of the toothpick- and pencil-sized sticks. In no time at all, the kindling’s burning and I’m ready for thumb-sized wood then wrist-sized.
Using Petroleum Jelly Cotton Balls in the Back Yard
My wife loves to take charge of lighting our back yard fit pit in the evenings. She especially loves showing off her fire-building skills to her friends.
I’ve taught her to get a flame from an ember and shredded cedar bark, and while she’s got a natural knack for it, she generally prefers doing a one-match fire. A petroleum jelly cotton ball along with my homemade ultralight bellows helps ensure she can get it without fail, earning her friends’ praise every time and a even new nickname which she pretends to shrug off but secretly loves: The Lady Scout.
Once she’s got her upside down fire going, she likes putting the icing on the cake (to the oohs and ahhs of anyone who’s never seen it before): colored flames. It always makes for a nice evening.
Petroleum Jelly Cotton Balls — My Perfect Fire Starter
I still enjoy striking an ember with flint and steel and the feeling of using natural tinders like fatwood to start fires, but when time is tight or conditions are poor, I love the security of knowing I have a personally-proven fire starter in my fire kit.
I call petroleum jelly cotton balls my perfect fire starter. Ok, we could squabble about the criteria for “perfect” but my petroleum jelly cotton balls accomplish everything I want from a fire starter and do an outstanding job of it. In my experience, petroleum jelly cotton balls are extremely compact and light-weight, store indefinitely, cost only pennies to produce, ignite with just a spark, burn hot for long enough to get almost any kindling burning, resist the wind, and repel water. To me, it just doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ve heard rumors of some Air Force units carrying petroleum jelly cotton balls in their survival kits. If it were true, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.