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Whether you need it for warmth, cooking food, avoiding hypothermia or signaling for help, being able to start a fire when you need it is a vital skill. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the backcountry or at home when the power is out, there are no substitutes for fire.

To ensure you can get one started whenever you need to, it is a good idea to have some firestarters with you; either in your backcountry kit, bug-out bag or in a kitchen drawer. I include a firestarter and lighter in my everyday carry (EDC) gear that I keep in my right front pocket at all times.

To build that fire, you need to have three ingredients available: heat, fuel, and oxygen. Not having enough of any one of these will make it hard for you to be successful. Your firestarter gives you the fuel in a form that will light easily and burn long enough to get the rest of your fuel burning. In one of the examples below, the firestarter gives you both fuel and fire.

Some firestarters — especially the commercially-made ones — need an actual flame from a match or lighter to work, while the most useful ones are designed to work with just a spark. In this article, we will cover both kinds. Each firestarter, especially the ones you can make at home, have two parts: something with oil in it, like wax or petroleum, and something to serve as a wick, like a string or fine cotton-like fibers. The choice of materials helps decide if you need a flame or just a spark.

A quick search for “firestarters” at ASGMAG.com reveals a wide array of raw materials and commercial products you can use for starting a fire. This article will show you some of the more popular methods and the most reliable. So, let’s look at how to do it!

Cut up your candles or block paraffin and melt it in a metal container in a pot of water over a medium or medium-high heat. White wax works fine, but using a colored wax will help you see if your wicking material is fully coated or saturated.

Cut up your candles or block paraffin and melt it in a metal container in a pot of water over a medium or medium-high heat. White wax works fine, but using a colored wax will help you see if your wick material is fully coated or saturated.

Lip balm, like Chapstick, is high in petroleum, so if you need to make a firestarter in the field you can rub it into some fabric, wood shavings or pine needles and then light it.

Lip balm, like Chapstick, is high in petroleum, so if you need to make a firestarter in the field you can rub it into some fabric, wood shavings or pine needles and then light it.

Depending on the brand, liquid hand sanitizer is high in alcohol or petroleum, so you can use it as a substitute for petroleum jelly. Keep in mind that it will not burn as hot as the petroleum jelly.

Depending on the brand, liquid hand sanitizer is high in alcohol or petroleum, so you can use it as a substitute for petroleum jelly. Keep in mind that it will not burn as hot as the petroleum jelly.

DRYER LINT

The simplest firestarter you can make utilizes dryer lint. The upside is it’s free, easy to get, and lights with just a spark. The downside is it doesn’t burn as long as other firestarters, which typically have some sort of accelerant. Lint also may not generate as much heat as the others, but it is enough to light your tinder.

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Materials:

  • Lint from you’re a clothes dryer (lint from natural fiber clothing is better than from synthetics).

How to make it:

  • Simply harvest the lint from your clothes dryer’s lint trap.
  • Put it in a resealable waterproof container like a snack or sandwich size plastic baggie.

How to use it:

  • Place a ball of lint next to or under your fire lay.
  • Strike sparks onto the lint or use a lighter or match to ignite the lint.
  • Move the burning lint into your fire lay to ignite the tinder.
Dryer lint will ignite with just a spark from a striker and does not need anything added to it. Although it doesn’t burn as hot as something with wax or petroleum jelly, it does burn hot enough to ignite your fine tinder.

Dryer lint will ignite with just a spark from a striker and does not need anything added to it. Although it doesn’t burn as hot as something with wax or petroleum jelly, it does burn hot enough to ignite your fine tinder.

COTTON BALLS AND PETROLEUM JELLY

Without a doubt, when I was a young Boy Scout, the rolled cardboard and paraffin firestarter was the most popular style we used. Today, most likely because it will light with nothing more than a spark, the combination of cotton balls or cotton pads saturated with petroleum jelly is the most popular. It’s easy to make and just as easy to use.

Materials:

  • Cotton balls or cotton make-up removal pads (dryer lint can also be used in this method).
  • Petroleum jelly or liquid hand sanitizer that’s petroleum- or alcohol-based (accelerant).

How to make it:

  • Scoop some accelerant from the container.
  • Work the accelerant deep into the cotton ball or pad to saturate it.
  • The cotton balls are best stored in an empty film container or pill bottle.
  • The pads can be stored in a resealable snack size plastic baggie, small Altoids tin, or the like.

An alternate method:

  • Instead of working the accelerant into the cotton, you can also heat it in a double boiler and soak the cotton ball or pad in it to help the accelerant absorb into the cotton quicker and more thoroughly. This will make the firestarter burn much longer. Just be careful as the melted accelerant will be extremely hot and will burn your fingers.

How to use it:

  • For both the cotton ball and the cotton pad, pull them apart to expose the cotton fibers so that they are fuzzy, which makes it easier for a spark to ignite the accelerant.
  • If you are using a spark, first make a space in your fire lay for your firestarter, then strike some sparks onto the firestarter. Once lit, place the firestarter into your fire lay and gently blow on it, if necessary, to ignite the tinder and kindling.
  • If you are using a match or lighter to ignite the firestarter, you can use the approach above or place it into your fire lay and light it there.

Use your fingers to rub the petroleum jelly or sanitizer (accelerant) into the wick material (cotton pad or ball), making sure it is completely saturated.

Tear and pick at the pad’s edges to bring up some fuzz to help it light. The saturated cotton pad will burn hot and long.

When you are ready to use your cotton ball and petroleum jelly firestarter, pull it apart to expose more surface area so it will burn better.

When you are ready to use your cotton ball and petroleum jelly firestarter, pull it apart to expose more surface area so it will burn better.

PARAFFIN AND COTTON

Not as messy, but just as effective, a cotton make-up removal pad soaked in paraffin is another great firestarter that is easy to make and to store. It will require an open flame, though, unlike the cotton ball and petroleum jelly which only need a spark to start.

Materials:

  • Cotton make-up removal pads, cotton balls, sawdust, or anything that is fine and will burn.
  • Paraffin, which you can find in home improvement, hardware and grocery stores, candle stubs, or tea candles.
  • A metal container, like an empty 20-ounce tin can.
  • A pot large enough to hold your metal container.
  • Something to stir with.
  • Something to remove the cotton pads from the paraffin; pliers, hemostats, clamps, or tongs will work.

How to make it:

  • Prepare your paraffin for melting. If you have a block, you can melt a piece of it or shred or flake it with a knife to speed the process. If you are using candle stubs or tea candles you should cut them into chunks to hasten the melting process, and remember to remove the wicks from the candles before you melt the wax.
  • Place your pieces of paraffin into your metal container.
  • Place the metal container into your pot and add enough water to the pot to bring it above the height of the paraffin in the metal container.
  • Heat the water over medium heat to melt the paraffin.
  • As it melts, stir the paraffin periodically to ensure its consistency and reduce heating time.
  • Watch the melting paraffin to ensure it does not get too hot or splatter.
  • Once it is all melted, keep the wax on the heat so it doesn’t solidify.
  • Pick up a cotton ball or pad in your clamp and set it in the paraffin, making sure it is covered on both sides. Leave it in long enough to thoroughly soak up the paraffin.
  • Remove the cotton ball or pad and place it on some wax paper or plastic wrap to cool and dry.

How to use it:

  • Pull apart the cotton ball or cotton pad to expose the inner fibers, which will act as the wick when lit.
  • While sparks may light this if they hit the right location, the best way to light this is with a flame from a match or lighter.
  • Once lit, place the firestarter into the fire lay and blow gently to help light the tinder and kindling.

Once your wax has melted you can start adding your cotton balls or cotton pads. If using cotton balls do them one at a time to ensure complete saturation. If using the pads, you can put in more than one as long as your wax is deep enough. Leave them in 10-15 seconds to get well saturated.

When lit, the cotton ball and petroleum jelly combination will burn hot and long.

When lit, the cotton ball and petroleum jelly combination will burn hot and long.

SUPER MATCHES

One of the best firestarters for use in bad weather, especially if it’s windy, is what I call a super match. They are a bit more complicated to make but they put out an amazing amount of flame for several minutes.

Materials:

  • Wooden matchsticks (either strike-anywhere matches or strike-on-the-box matches).
  • Toilet paper, the fluffier the better.
  • Paraffin, as described above.
  • Equipment to melt the paraffin, as described above.

How to make it:

  • Melt your paraffin as described above.
  • Cut the toilet paper squares into strips that are as wide as the matchstick is long from the bottom to just below the match head.
  • You can use two or three matches per super match if you want, especially if you anticipate using them in windy weather, which might blow out a single match firestarter.
  • Wrap the toilet paper strips around the matchstick(s).
  • Dip the matchstick wrapped in toilet paper into the wax, sealing each end.
  • Put the whole super match in the wax to let it soak into the paper for 15-30 seconds.
  • Use tongs to remove it from the wax and set it aside to cool and dry.

How to use it:

  • Leave the wax on the match head until you’re ready to use the super match so the head stays dry.
  • Clean the wax off of the match head.
  • Strike the match and let it ignite the waxed toilet paper.
  • Place the burning firestarter into your fire lay and let it ignite the tinder and kindling. It should burn for several minutes as opposed to a match which only burns for a minute or less.

It’s a good idea to make super matches whenever you make other paraffin-based firestarters. Lay your dipped firestarters out on a piece of aluminum foil or wax paper to cool and dry. Make sure you clean up the kitchen afterwards!

You can make your super matches with a single matchstick or with two or three matchsticks, depending on how windy you expect it to be when you need them.

 

CONCLUSION

Now that you know the basics behind making your own firestarters, gather the materials and spend an afternoon playing mad scientist and see which ones you like the best and work the best for you. Who knows, you might just come up with the next great firestarter combination.

 

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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