Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Survival Tools

Fire is always handy. But sometimes, there's no tinder*. Or there's tons of it, all dripping wet. And you need something handy to catch a match, a magnesium bar* or spark rod* spark, and ignite or dry out your other fuel.

Your best friend is a simple cotton ball, soaked in petroleum jelly, wrapped in a foil layer.

Bag of 100% cotton cotton balls.
Roll of aluminum foil*
Jar or tube of petroleum jelly
Metal bowl or dish
Tongs, etc.
No-flame heat source

First, get a bag of cotton balls at the store (or, a cotton plant, if that's an option).
Note that we said cotton balls, not polyester balls. Read the label. Only 100% cotton will do.

Get petroleum jelly. Vaseline™ preferred, but generics will do fine, as long as they're pure petroleum jelly.

Over electric (flameless) heat, melt a large blob of the jelly into a clear liquid.
If you use an open flame source, you are solely and totally responsible for the house fire and 2nd and 3rd degree burns you ignite. Personal choice for a vessel is a small stainless steel pet bowl, and an electric warming plate, or electric radiator.

Monitor your batch of melting jelly closely.

Get tongs, long tweezers, hemostats, etc., and once the jelly is liquid, dunk the cotton balls into the liquid. Push them under with the tongs to insure they are thoroughly saturated with the liquid. Once again, if you try this with your fingers, or anything equally dim-witted, you are solely and wholly responsible for the 2nd and 3rd degree burns you will suffer.

I will, of course, be happy to laugh at you after the fact.

Once they're completely soaked, set them, one at a time, onto a large sheet of aluminum foil to cool off.

Take some more of that aluminum foil, and cut it into approx. 3" x 6" rectangles.

One at a time, put one of the completely cooled off cotton balls onto one side of each piece.
Fold the sheets so they are now 3" x 3".
Fold the three open edges together about 1/8" so they overlap and seal.
Twice if you're a bit anal about leaky petroleum jelly.
Smash the cotton ball flat enough to make this work.

When you're done, you'll have a stack of relatively flat, mostly leakproof tinder patties.
They can be stored inside a plastic baggie in your gear, and pulled out as needed.
You can also fold the corners in, and take a dowel slightly smaller than an old 35mm plastic film canister*, or short piece of PVC*, and ram them in, one at a time, and have little round tinder patties, also safely leakproof. Cap the ends of the pvc, or put the cap on the film can, and you're set.

4-6 of them can fit into a film can or similar sized container.

You can put eight of them in an Altoids tin*. You can also skip the foil, and just make a monster block candle in any small metal container, like an old shoe polish can (for those of you who still shine shoes, and know what I'm talking about there).

You can even make them one at a time by hand-smashing Vaseline into cotton balls, but it's far slower and messier, so I recommend the dunking method, because I do 40-50 at a time.

You can get a few thousand handy illustrations of this by typing "cotton balls soaked in Vaseline" into Google, and looking at "images". So I won't bother.

To use one, take a small, sharp blade, and cut a small "X" in the center of the cotton ball tinder patty. Peel the triangles open, as seen in the header for this post.
Pull out a few strands of the cotton.
That's your wick.

Light it.

It will start a larger fire of wood, or dry it out to do so.
It will burn as a candle*, or small heat source, for 30-60 minutes. (My record was 74 minutes on one ball).

If all you have for shelter is a poncho*, it will keep you quite warm underneath with no other help, under the poncho. (If you screw that up, and light the poncho or yourself on fire, it will keep you much warmer, for a much shorter period of time. Don't be That Guy.)

They're small, light, bombproof, and mostly idiot-proof.
(The usual caveats regarding some idiots will always apply.)
And they'll start a fire on a wet rock in a stream. Or anyplace easier.

And you can make them yourself, by the dozens, for a couple of bucks, far cheaper than commercial tinder balls and such.

*The Sergeant Major notes "You will see this material again."


June J said...

I have lots of cotton balls rubbed with vaseline in my fire starting kits...now I need to go back and redo them all with this much better method.
Thanks for another excellent post.

Commander_Zero said...

Give a man a fire, he's warm for a day;
Set a man on fire, and he's warm the rest of his life.

Anonymous said...

Cool. Thanks for the tips on making these, this is 1st time I've seen caution about using true cotton vs. synthetic.

A long time ago, a writer by the name of Len McDougall had a good idea for a cheap firestarter. Cotton sash cord (curtain cord) immersed in melted paraffin wax. Melting the paraffin in metal container in boiling water bath, push long cordage into melted paraffin and wait a minute for it to become fully impregnated. Removing from heat with pliers (that stuff is HOT so be careful), hang over an object and wait a few minutes for it to cool off. Use shears to cut lengths of whatever is convenient - about 2" of it will burn for 4 minutes. I keep the cut lengths in discarded diabetes test strip containers - works great. One container will hold approximately 10-12 lengths.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Like June J I was doing them by hand. This looks like a MUCH more effective production method

Aesop said...

Lazy yet industrious people will rule the world, because they'll find an easier way to get back to goofing off.

That would be me.

Also, I get empty diabetes test strip containers for free at work. ;)
I use about half of them for ear plugs, and the other half for cotton ball fire starters.

Borepatch said...

This is a great idea

SiGraybeard said...

I didn't mention it in my barbecue article, but the one problem I had, the one part that took longer than expected was exactly this: lighting the coals in my charcoal chimney. I used the wadded up newspaper trick and that didn't work as well as it should.

Twigs that my oak tree drops eventually saved the day.

This looks better. I like the McDougall idea that Anonymous 1047 passed on, too.

Dinochrome One said...

Long ago, (1982) I had a big bag of fire-starters that looked like 12-gauge shotgun wads. They were punched out of some kind of natural plant-fiber about an inch long and soaked in paraffin. They were dry, waterproof and would burn brightly with a four-inch flame for ten minutes. I called them campfire pills. Haven't seen anything quite like them since, so I'll try the cotton-vaseline method. Thanks!

Old NFO said...

Yep, those work. Learned that in Boy Scouts, but we just 'pushed' the Vaseline into the cotton balls. This method is a LOT better, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Dryer Lint...

Anonymous said...

I've made something similar with dryer lint.

Anonymous said...

BTW- has anyone seen the pocket bellows on amazon and elsewhere? They look like collapsible car antennas. You extend the tube, blow in your fire, and it makes the job much easier. You don't have to be on your knees with your forehead in a fire, going dizzy. They're fairly cheap and easy to stick in a pocket in your gear.

Pat H. said...

Here are your resealable mylar bags, 5 x 8 inches, 100 of them for $12.85 delivered.


Crew said...

On a different topic, how long until we see the Black Plague in Baltimore?

Greg in Allston said...

The cotton ball/petroleum jelly method is fine and works well. I prefer using paraffin wax and sawdust. A 4" x 4" x 1" block can be made with a simple, homemade wooden mold lined with wax paper. Melt your paraffin in a small, crappy aluminum sauce pan on an electric skillet (minding your P's & Q's with fire safety, doing it outdoors is a good idea as this is less likely to piss off the misses). When the paraffin is melted add the sawdust until you get a nice thick sludge and pour/scrape it into the mold. Sawdust can be gotten from your palm sander, chop saw or for coarser stuff from your chain saw. If you really want to geek out you can make a wax mixture of 70% paraffin, 25% bees wax and 5% stearic acid as it has a higher melting point and burns a little hotter. The block can be cut into any size you like or you can just cut off a chunk from the big block as circumstances dictate. Another nice feature of this method is that you can carve off shavings to get things going as well.

Here in the northeast it's not difficult to find birch bark. This is mother nature's almost perfect fire starter. If i'm going on an extended canoe trip or an excursion into the woods for more that a short period of time I'll often fill a one quart ziplock bag with birch bark and stuff it in my pack.

Lastly, Bic lighters are your friend. Small, light, cheap, amazingly reliable and almost indestructible. I'll have one in my pocket, one in the first aid kit, one in the Sigg Touristor/Svea 123R cook kit, one in the toiletry kit and one in the tent bag in the bag with the stakes and the paracord. That'll pretty much have me covered. And yet I still carry at least 3 or 4 Polaroid film coater tubes filled with waxed strike anywhere matches(12 - 14 matches per tube). If you can still find them the Polaroid tubes make great waterproof match safes. I've inadvertently sent them through the wash on a number of occasions and the matches came out perfectly dry.

Don in Oregon said...

"If you screw light the poncho or yourself on fire, it will keep you much warmer, for a much shorter period of time."

Build someone a fire, you keep them warm for one night. Set them on fire, and you keep them warm for the rest of their life.

Aesop said...

@Greg in Allston
I've done the paraffin and sawdust thing too. Best way instead of dumping it into lined wood molds is either to use paper egg crate from a carton of eggs, and make individual balls; or spray PAM™ cooking pan non-stick into a length or three of PVC about 1" in diameter, the pour the whole batch of goop in the PVC tubes to harden.

Once it's cool, get a dowel as close to the same inner diameter as possible, and punch the whole sawdust candle to loosen it until it'll slide freely.

Then, exactly as you noted, you can cut off a disc when you need it, or just cut shavings off as required.

Many ways to skin this cat.
The biggest takeaway is do it; and the second is that making is better (and cheaper) than buying it.

Greg in Allston said...

Aesop, I love the idea of the paperboard egg carton. Twelve single servings with a built in wick !! I'd call it genius but I wouldn't want you to get a swollen head so I'll just go with merely brilliant. When I first made these way back when, and I don't now recall exactly where I got the inspiration (although Scouting was a wonderful inspiration for all kinds of imaginative ways of making fire), I used an old fashioned aluminum ice cube tray with the crank handle for breaking the cubes. As one would imagine (I didn't at the time being young and dumb) the tray was all but ruined and required considerable effort getting it back in shape so that mom wouldn't notice. The second batch was where I made the wooden mold, which was a fun little project. I got the sawdust from my junior high's wood shop and the wax was Gulf Oil sealing wax (paraffin) from the local A&P grocery. I suppose that an even easier way is just to make a cow patty on aluminum foil and shape it with a paint stick, or not. As you say, there are many ways to skin that cat. The only caveat/reservation I'd have with the egg carton is being able to get the paperboard fully permeated with paraffin, not that having the paperboard fully permeated is a big deal in the overall scheme of things. To that end though one could put the loaded egg carton in the oven on aluminum foil on a baking sheet, set the over to ~ 200F and keeping an eye on it until the paperboard soaks through. It's been many, many moons since I've made a batch (perhaps 500+ moons) so maybe just for kicks I'll give it whirl this weekend

Anyway, there's always a good time to be had at the Raconteur Report and thank you for all that you do Aesop. Sláinte.

Reltney McFee said...

Ref dryer lint: since I do most of our (and, before TDW Mark II, all my...) Laundry, I had the opportunity to note that you can get polyester dryer lint (and cat/dog hair lint, which stinks stuff awfully when burned) from your dryer. I segregate cotton from not cotton, when collecting fire starter lint.

Greg in Allston said...

ISN’T a big deal in the overall scheme of things.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
BTW- has anyone seen the pocket bellows on amazon and elsewhere? They look like collapsible car antennas. You extend the tube, blow in your fire, and it makes the job much easier. You don't have to be on your knees with your forehead in a fire, going dizzy. They're fairly cheap and easy to stick in a pocket in your gear."

The local Green Tree has a telescoping magnet for retrieving lightweight metal objects. Cut off the magnet end and use the telescoping wand for your purpose. About 4" long, even comes with a pocket clip, easy peasy.