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.
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 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 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 other homemade fire starters, 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?). 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 Vaseline Cotton Ball Fire Starters Work?
You already know how well fine cotton burns. One good strike from a ferro rod (a.k.a. “firesteel”, a must have survival item) 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 tend to pull apart 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 in the middle 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 kindling burning. Think of it as a long-burning match on steroids.
I usually have a good supply of toothpick- and pencil-sized, very dry 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 it with a firesteel (or lighter, or match). Once the Vaseline cotton ball is burning, 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 you’re ready for thumb-sized wood then wrist-sized.
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 be methodical about 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 go in the survival kits of all of my scouts, along with a firesteel, a loud whistle and an emergency sleeping bag. I consider these an insurance plan against that situation we hope never happens: they’re separated from the group, they’re cold, night is setting in, and they need a fool-proof, guaranteed fire … fast.
Using Vaseline 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 Vaseline cotton ball along with my homemade ultralight bellows helps ensure she can get it without fail, earning her praise from her friends every time and a 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.
Vaseline Cotton Balls — The 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, nothing beats the security of knowing I have a sure fire starter 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 Air Force units carrying Vaseline cotton balls in their survival kits. If it were true, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.