When it comes to starting fires in the wild, I can’t think of any options as cheap, light-weight, and fool-proof as homemade Vaseline cotton balls. Vaseline cotton balls almost guarantee you a fire, even in adverse conditions. Here’s how to make and use them.
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 rain or wind, and to produce it from a spark.
I always check out the stuff on the store shelves. I’ve never found anything worth mentioning — they’re always expensive, usually bulky, and most require a match or lighter to get them going.
I 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.
Enter the Vaseline Cotton Ball
Then I stumbled across a suggestion that a cotton ball impregnated with Vaseline makes an outstanding fire starter. I was intrigued.
Unlike my cardboard/paraffin units, a Vaseline 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 Vaseline cotton balls and took them out for some tests.
I put a Vaseline-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 performance that I replaced every fire starter in my survival kits with Vaseline cotton balls. I’ve used nothing else since.
Performance of Vaseline Cotton Balls
In my tests, a typical cotton ball slathered in Vaseline will burn strong for about four minutes. That’s four minutes of good, hot flame from a tiny, lightweight fire starter you can make for pennies.
But it gets better. Because Vaseline is oil-based, the Vaseline cotton balls are waterproof. I dropped a Vaseline 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 it, and had a flame.
Once the Vaseline starts burning, it doesn’t want to stop, making these Vaseline cotton balls fairly resistant to wind. Strong gusts will blow one out, but even a little wind break is enough to protect your fire.
Maybe my favorite thing about these Vaseline cotton ball fire starters is their size. You can stuff about ten of them into a film canister (remember those?). I often just carry 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 Vaseline Cotton Ball Fire Starters Work?
You already know how well fine cotton burns. One good strike from a firesteel is all it takes to set a cotton ball on fire. The problem is, a cotton ball burns out in about 30 seconds.
Enter the Vaseline. Vaseline is petroleum jelly – the same petroleum that’s used in oil-based products. In the form of jelly, it’s still flammable, but doesn’t evaporate or run everywhere.
When you light the cotton ball, the Vaseline melts and burns. At that point, you essentially have a candle. The Vaseline is burning and the cotton ball is acting as a wick. You’ll notice that the cotton ball doesn’t seem to burn at all until the Vaseline begins to run out. The more Vaseline you get into your cotton ball, the longer it will burn. Once the Vaseline is expended, the cotton ball will finally burn up.
How Do I Make Vaseline Cotton Ball Fire Starters?
To make your fire starters, you just need two ingredients — petroleum jelly and cotton balls. Any brand of petroleum jelly will work, just make sure it’s 100% pure petroleum jelly. You’ll need a lot of it, so get it in bulk. For the cotton balls, get jumbo-sized cotton balls and check the package to be sure they’re 100% cotton. Artificial fibers won’t take a spark.
Rubbing the Vaseline into a cotton ball is messy work. The fibers of the cotton ball pull apart some, and the Vaseline gets everywhere. The cleanest, easiest method I’ve found is to put a scoop of Vaseline into a snack-sized Ziploc bag, toss some cotton balls in, zip it up, then knead the Vaseline into the cotton balls.
You want to get as much Vaseline in the cotton ball as you can without completely saturating the cotton ball. It’s very important to have some dry fibers available to take the flame, especially if you use a firesteel or magnesium rod.
How Do I Start a Fire with a Vaseline Cotton Ball?
Your cotton ball is the first stage of your fire — the tinder. It takes your flame or spark, then gets your pencil-sized kindling burning.
I usually have a good supply of toothpick and pencil-sized, very dry kindling available. I pull my cotton ball open to expose the dry fibers inside, then light them with my firesteel. Once the Vaseline cotton ball is burning, I’ll build a teepee or log cabinet around it with pencil-sized sticks, with some smaller ones mixed in for good measure. In no time at all, the kindling’s burning and you’re ready for bigger wood.
Vaseline Cotton Balls Are Perfect for Scouts
Scouts love the feeling of starting a fire without matches, but most of them haven’t mastered making nests or using charcloth. A Vaseline cotton ball is an excellent option for them. Just hand them the Vaseline cotton ball and a firesteel. They’ll still have to work a bit at getting the fire going, but it teaches them the principle of going from fine tinder to small kindling to larger kindling, and it gives them the satisfaction of doing it without matches.
Vaseline cotton balls also go in the survival kits of all of my scouts. If they’re ever lost and have to spend a night on their own, I want a foolproof fire starter in their hands.
Vaseline Cotton Balls — The Perfect Fire Starter
I still enjoy charcloth, and I love the feeling of using natural tinders, like fatwood, to start fires, but when time is tight or conditions are poor, nothing beats the security of knowing I have a sure firestarter in my fire kit.
I call Vaseline cotton balls the perfect fire starter. Ok, we could squabble about the criteria for “perfect” but to me the Vaseline cotton ball accomplishes everything a fire starter should and does an outstanding job at it. Vaseline 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. It just doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ve heard rumors of some Airforce units carrying Vaseline cotton balls in their survival kits. If it were true, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.