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Great Balls of Fire!

A Simple Fire Starter You Can Make

By Tamia Nelson

December 9, 2008
Updated on October 30, 2012

Fire in the Hole!Fire has warmed my cold bones many a time, and for years I never set out for the woods or waters without a twist of birch bark in my pack. After all, waterproofed matches and fire starters both figure prominently in the Ten Essentials, and I preferred birch bark — peeled from dead, downed trees only! — to foul‑smelling chemical concoctions with names I couldn't spell. That said, there've been a few times when birch bark has let me down. Then I've wished for something I could put together at home that would help me defy the worst assaults of wind and rain. Don't get me wrong. I take pride in being able to start a fire with one match (or one flick of my butane lighter), even in a downpour. If pressed hard, however, I'll confess that when everything else has failed I've sometimes needed to light a candle. Here's the drill: I place a one‑inch candle stub beneath a carefully crafted teepee of tinder and kindling. Then I light the wick. The candle flame dries out the dampest tinder, and soon the kindling catches fire, too. That's that. In just a few minutes I'll be toasting my fingers in front of a roaring blaze.

Of course, a candle stub is usually overkill, which is why I've reserved it for the most difficult conditions: worst‑case scenarios, in other words, or days when hypothermia was more than a theoretical possibility. In less testing times — when the woods were merely damp, say — birch bark usually lit my fire. But I was never entirely happy with that alternative. I like to tread lightly in the backcountry, and stripping bark from trees, even dead, downed trees, always leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. For a time, therefore, I considered making candle stubs my default option. But there's something in my parsimonious nature that recoils at the notion of sacrificing a candle each time I light a fire in a light drizzle. So I started looking for a better way. And I found it in the title of a celebrated '50s rock single.

All You Need Great Balls of Fire!

The ideal fire starter would be cheap, efficient, nontoxic, and easy to carry. Birch bark ticks all those boxes, to be sure, but what if you could get the same thing without stealing bits of the scenery? Well, here's some good news: You can. Better yet, you can make these handy fire starters at home. All you need are two things you can probably find in your bathroom: cotton balls and petroleum jelly (aka petrolatum).

Toss in a few paper towels — you'll need something to wipe your hands — plus a waterproof container or plastic freezer bag, and you're all set. Don't be afraid to cut corners. Cheap cotton balls are as good as expensive ones. Just be sure that they are cotton. (Rayon, a semi‑synthetic fiber made from wood pulp, is often used in "cotton" balls. These ought to work fine. Unless rayon is treated with a fire retardant, it bursts into flame readily. But I haven't tried rayon "cotton" balls yet. So you're on your own here.) And don't bother with brand‑name petroleum jelly. The low‑priced store brands are plenty good enough, though it's best to buy something that comes in a wide‑mouth jar.

Now you're ready to start …

Rolling Your Own

A few (probably unnecessary) words of warning first: This is a messy job. Be prepared. Make sure your work surface is greaseproof and easily cleaned. And do not locate your production area near an open flame!

Begin by laying out your materials. While your hands are still clean, count out as many cotton balls as you plan to use. (I limit myself to batches of ten, but that's just because I get bored.) Work with one ball at a time, using it as a swab to pick up a good‑sized dab of petroleum jelly.

Sticky Business

Then roll the petroleum‑jelly–smeared ball between your fingers and thumb to knead the jelly deep into the fibers.

Knead to Know

The finished product will be about half the size of the original cotton ball. Just drop it into the storage bag (or box) and move on to the next one.

Finished Product

That's all there is to it. Allow about a minute per ball; ten minutes for a batch of ten. (That's when my patience runs out, at any rate. There's really no limit to how many you can do in one session, however. Balls of fire keep indefinitely.) A couple of hints: Don't follow the example of my model. Do the kneading with one hand. Then you've got a grease‑free paw to wipe your nose, answer the phone, or scratch your bum. And experiment a bit to get the amount of petroleum jelly just right. You want enough to impregnate the cotton ball thoroughly, but you don't need to saturate it.

OK. You've finished your first production run. Now it's …

Time to Light Up!

No surprises here. Build a teepee of small stuff (shavings, twigs, etc.) over one or two of your fire balls — or simply tuck the balls under the teepee after it's constructed. The wetter the kindling and the harder the rain, the more fire balls you'll need. Run a few test burns under non‑emergency conditions to get the balance right. It also helps to pull the fibers of the balls gently apart before putting them in place. Don't go overboard, though. You don't want to tear the balls to shreds. You just want to open the fibers to the air.

To Build a Fire

The photo above shows a kindling teepee built inside the firepan of a traveler's samovar. If you look carefully, you'll see the cotton ball peeking from the right‑hand vent. The next step? You guessed it: Light your fire! Put match (or lighter) to cotton ball. It will ignite in seconds and then burn with a steady flame.

Great Balls of Fire!

End of story. If you've laid on a good supply of fuel (small twigs and short sticks for a samovar; larger wood, and more of it, for a conventional open fire), your work is done. The cotton ball(s) will be consumed in the blaze, leaving no chemical residue and no blob of wax — nothing but wood ash, in fact. The next step? Soup's on!

Every experienced camper has a favorite fire starter. Mine used to be birch bark, but I now find myself turning first to petroleum‑jelly–smeared cotton balls. They've never failed to light my fire, and if that weren't enough, they're also dirt cheap, nontoxic, and easy to make, using only materials found in most paddlers' bathrooms. And they weigh almost nothing, into the bargain. I don't need any more reasons to shout, "Great balls of fire!" Do you?



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