-ADVERTISEMENT-
-ADVERTISEMENT-

Warmth, cooked food, avoiding hypothermia and freezing, signaling for help; being able to start a fire when you need it in any situation is a vital skill in the backcountry, and at home too when the power is out. 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, your 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 ready and available: fire, fuel, and oxygen. Not having enough of any one will make it hard for you to successfully make a fire. 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 cottonlike fibers. The choice of materials helps decide if you need a flame or just a spark.

A YouTube search for “firestarters” reveals dozens of videos that show you a wide array of wax/petroleum products coupled with a variety of different wicks, from string to cotton to cardboard to duct tape. 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 wicking 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.

Materials:

  • Dryer lint from your home’s appliance.

How to make it:

  • This is really simple. Remove the lint from your clothes dryer. • Put it in a waterproof container like a snack sized or sandwich sized 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.
Use your fingers to rub the accelerant (petroleum jelly) into the wicking material (cotton pad), making sure it is completely saturated and covered.

Use your fingers to rub the accelerant (petroleum jelly) into the wicking material (cotton pad), making sure it is completely saturated and covered.

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.

The cotton pad with wax in it will burn hot and long. Tear and pick at it to bring up some fuzz to help it light.

The cotton pad with wax in it will burn hot and long. Tear and pick at it to bring up some fuzz to help it light.

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. 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.

-ADVERTISEMENT-

Materials:

  • Cotton balls or cotton make-up removal pads (or dryer lint).
  • Petroleum jelly, or liquid hand sanitizer that’s petroleum- or alcoholbased

How to make it:

  • Scoop some petroleum jelly from the container.
  • Work the jelly 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 snack sized plastic baggie, or in something like a small Altoids container.

An alternate method:

  • Instead of working the petroleum jelly into the cotton, you can also melt it in a double boiler and soak the cotton ball or pad in it to help the petroleum jelly absorb into the cotton. This will better saturate the cotton and the firestarter will burn much longer. Just be careful as the melted paraffin 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 petroleum jelly.
  • 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 necsssary, 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.
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 easy to store. It will require an open flame, though, unlike the cotton ball and petroleum jelly which only need a spark to start.

Materials:

  • Either cotton make-up removal pads, cotton balls, sawdust, or anything that is fine and will burn.
  • Either paraffin, which you can find in a variety of places, or candle stubs from home, 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 of paraffin 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 ease the melting process, and remember to remove the wicks in the candles before you melt the wax.
  • Place your prepared paraffin into your metal container.
  • Place the metal container into your pot and add enough water to the pot to bring it up above the level 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 move the solid pieces into the melted paraffin and to eliminate any cool spots.
  • 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 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.
  • Although 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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

  • Melt your paraffin as described above.
  • Cut the toilet paper squares into strips that are as wide as the matchstick is long from one end to just below the match head. For example, if the distance to just below the match head was 1.5 inches, you would cut the toilet paper squares into strips that were 1.5 inches wide by however long the toilet-paper section is. You can use two or three matches if you want, especially if you anticipate using the firestarter in windy weather which might blow out a single match firestarter.
  • Wrap the toilet paper strips around the matchstick.
  • Dip the matchstick wrapped in toilet paper into the wax, sealing each end.
  • Then put the whole thing in the wax to let it soak into the paper for 15-30 seconds.
  • Use your tongs to remove it from the wax and set it aside to cool and dry.

How to use it:

  • Clean the wax off of the match head.
  • Strike the match and let it ignite the wax covered 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.

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.