Add a Cheap, Reliable Firemaking System to Your Survival Kits

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The best fire-starting system can also be the cheapest and the materials are the easiest to find at any drug or grocery store.  This Boy Scout Hot-Spark and a prescription bottle filled with cotton balls and petroleum jelly make a reliable fire starting method that is cheap enough to be placed in all survival kits.

This Boy Scout Hot-Spark and a prescription bottle filled with cotton balls and petroleum jelly makes a reliable firestarting method that is cheap enough to be placed in all survival kits

After extensive testing, my nomination for the best overall survival fire starting method is cotton balls, slathered with petroleum jelly, combined with a magnesium or flint stick. I ran across this method several years ago at a Peter Kummerfeldt seminar at the Deschutes Fairground Sportsmen show.  Kummerfeldt demonstrated the method at his booth, and it looked so easy, I figured there had to be a catch. So, I got the materials and tested it myself, then had some of the scouts from Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, Oregon, wring out the system. Everybody likes this system because of its’ reliability. There is nothing to break, it requires no fuel, and the temperature has no effect. But an additional benefit is how cheap it is to produce!

Here’s how you can make one of these fire-making kits.

Flint or magnesium sticks come in different sizes. Find a size that is handy, so you’ll take it with you! The keychain size, center, is a good choice for everyday carry.
  • Get a locking cap, waterproof prescription bottle. These days, everybody has a prescription for something, and the meds usually come in a small, plastic pill bottle. The bottles with the snap-and-bayonet, waterproof top work very well for storing the cotton balls, and probably won’t cost anything. You can also use an empty 35mm film plastic container or a standard waterproof matchbox. I use all of these containers since I carry the cotton balls/petroleum jelly firestarter in all my survival kits. Just be careful with any snap-off or non-locking cap.  If they’re easy to get off, they may come apart in your pack!
  • Cotton balls: Get extra-large, 100 percent cotton. They generally cost less than a penny each.
  • Petroleum jelly: I paid $1.99 for a 13-ounce jar at the local department store. Many of the lip balm sticks will also work with this system, so experiment at home.  Slather the vaseline over a cotton ball, and work it in until the ball is infused with the vaseline.
  • Magnesium or flint stick: One of my favorites, the Boy Scout Hot-Spark, costs about $2.50 at the Scout store. You can buy bigger, more expensive models, but the scout version does the trick. I have the smaller sticks on zipper fobs, key chains, and in every survival kit I own. Your Swiss Army knife can become a better survival knife if you attach a Hot-Spark to the split ring on the handle.

Put a label on each container with what is inside and how to use it. You may not need the reminder, but then again, you might be injured, disabled or unconscious, and someone else might have to build that life-saving fire. Make their job easier by including simple instructions.

I use a standard Avery 5160 1″x2-5/8″ labels, with Wordperfect software in the “labels” dropdown.  Use 11 point, Aerial type, and this spacing, and all the information fits nicely. On the labels, type:

 Firestarter: Cotton balls and petroleum jelly.  To use: Remove pinch of firestarter, fluff and light.  More info: (Thought I’d sneak that in! I could use the publicity! For Boy Scout or Girl Scout troops, here’s where you put your name out! You could put compliments of your particular organization, or whatever will fit on the bottom line.)

These containers, filled with cotton balls and petroleum jelly, are fantastic promotional give-aways and cost pennies. Scouts can make up a bunch, and give them out at their next camp-out or public gathering.  I give the containers out when I go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing as a public service.  It’s scary how often this firestarter is the only survival gear some people have!

Total cost of the complete firestarter kit, with Hot-Spark, is about $2.75 to $3! If you opt to buy a waterproof match container for the cotton balls, that will set you back another $2-$3. You’re still looking at a complete firemaking system for about five bucks!

Carry this combination in all your survival kits. When you need to make a fire, pull out a pinch, fluff it out and strike a spark onto the cotton ball with the flint stick. If the wood is damp, and the tinder in short supply, use a whole cotton ball. My experiments show that a cotton ball gobbed with petroleum jelly will burn for several minutes.

The cotton balls and petroleum jelly have another use. On a Boy Scout 50-miler hike a few years back, I started to get a blister on my heel. I took out my cotton ball firestarter and rubbed the hot spot with the petroleum jelly. No blister formed!

When it comes to your survival kit, you decide how much you want to invest. Personally, I want the best equipment available for me and my family, and the price is not a consideration. Our lives are worth that to me.

But prepping or making multiple survival kits can be expensive. Find the areas – like this one – where you can cut costs without reducing quality, durability, or safety. Then, invest the money you saved on items you can’t compromise on, such as boots, a survival knife, sleeping bags, tents, navigation gear, etc. Use common sense in all of this. Find the best, most reliable systems for your survival kits, then practice, research, and decide how they can best serve you.

12 thoughts on “Add a Cheap, Reliable Firemaking System to Your Survival Kits”

  1. This is the exact firestarting method that we use on the Owl Farm. It works well in moist conditions and the cotton balls seem to burn forever. Great guide!

  2. cotton balls ~ "check"
    Vaseline ~ "check"
    old Rx bottles ~ "check"
    magnesium lighter ~ "check"

    Time to get this great idea organized!
    Thx Lisa!!!

  3. A bit of a tangent, but this week has been driving home for me the need for burn ointment and fire protection in your home. (Wrong burner turned on almost led to a small kitchen fire, and I've burnt my @#$# hand three times this week.) In a SHTF scenario with more use of fires and less dependable fire and rescue, having good fire protection of your own (including extinguishers, fire escape ladders, a fire blanket, whatever you think you need) will be even more critical.

  4. Ah yes, cotton burns very well, though I've never used a cotton ball as a starter before, we always used bits of wax wrapped in wax paper.

    Feminine products work well in a pinch. It rained while camping once and my firewood was damp, but my friend wrapped a pad around a stick, lit it, then used it to light the fire. Also makes a good torch it you don't have a flashlight, or if you're trying to conserve power/batteries.

  5. Two things almost everyone has in their homes are 1) 9 volt battery 2) steel wool. Touch the two together. Fire!
    I've showed this to many and they're amazed that steel burns. I keep many pads of steel wool in a ziplock bag and 2 9v in a sm. container in both my BOB and tool kit. Now I'm adding cotton balls!

    1. Bets, I hate to admit this, but I don't think there's one bit of steel wool in my house. I will have to rectify that this week! This sounds like it's maybe the easiest firestarter of all.

      1. This is exactly what led to a full on house fire at my friend's house. A 9V battery and a piece of unused steel wool were stored in the same drawer in the garage and one day it just sparked by itself unnoticed; it burned down the garage and some of the house. So while a wonderful firestarter, use extreme caution in how you store these items.

  6. I love the dryer lint and paraffin fire starter too. This is not my idea, saw it online. Collect dryer lint, pack it into a cardboard egg carton, pour melted wax over the lint – I used cheap dollar store candles for the wax. The lint and empty egg carton were free! Just tear off a section when you want to get a fire going. My thirteen year old daughter was able to get a fire going with a magnesium stick..Love the cotton ball and paraffin idea, must try this as well. Thanks for all the great advice!

  7. Another way to do the Petrolium and cotton balls ive tried is to put the petrolium jelly container in a small pot of water(akin to a double boiler of sorts) and warm it up till the jelly liquifies, then dunk the whole cotton ball in, then set on wax paper to dry. Faster easier less mess and far more jelly infusion into the cottonball.

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