Sawdust was flying everywhere at work, as a huge oak tree was being chainsawed to pieces. We had to fall the beautiful old oak because it had started to tip over the main golf cart path. The sawdust covered the path. The short curled pieces of oak dust reminded me of the coming backpacking season and that I didn’t have any firestarters. Usually I don’t have much use for firestarters as moss, twigs and other debris always find their way into my hands along with my trusty lighter. But in 2013, I decided I wanted to experiment with firestarters. After asking a couple fellow employees about how to make sawdust firestarters the conversation turned to a firestarter I hadn’t heard of before; cotton balls and Vaseline. I became curious. Here’s where my curiosity took me.
In my mind, firestarters should be cheap, easy to make, lightweight and have a long lasting flame. Let’s see if the cotton ball firestarter meets those criteria.
For $3.69 I bought 100 cotton balls and thirteen ounces of Vaseline. By the time I used all the Vaseline I had produced thirty-five cotton ball firestarters. In other words, I used all $2.69 worth of Vaseline but only thirty-five of the 100 cotton balls at one cent per ball. So, $2.69 for the Vaseline + .35 for the cotton balls = $3.04, which would put the cost of each cotton ball firestarter at less than nine cents per firestarter. So far so good!
Easy to make
It’s really simple. Take your Vaseline and spoon it out into an old sauce pan. Turn the stove top to low heat, which was number two out of nine on my stove top. If the pan gets too hot you can burn off the Vaseline and lose fuel before you can soak it up with the cotton. This will make your cost per firestarter go up as you lose fuel. I made sure to stay in the kitchen in order to know when the petroleum jelly was mostly melted.
Next take your cotton balls, the amount depends on how big your pan is, and place them in the melted jelly. I took about five or six at a time, rolled them in the jelly with a spoon and watched the cotton ball soak up the fuel. It’s easy to notice once the cotton ball has soaked up it’s full capacity. Then remove the cotton balls and let them cool down. Once they have hardened you can store them away for later use.
I don’t have any info about how heavy each final cotton ball weighs. I don’t own a digital ounce scale. Someday I will. It’s not a need, just a want. Cotton balls are small and all you need is one per fire. Therefore a small Ziploc back with two to four cotton balls is relatively light and doesn’t take up much space. If you have a problem with the weight or size of these for sake of room then you’ve probably brought to much gear!
Long lasting flame
With my stopwatch I timed the life of the flame a total of four times. Three of those four times I burnt the balls as one normally would but the fourth time I placed a cotton ball in a plate of water (see below). The water in the plate covered half of the lower portion of the cotton ball. The normal burn times were two sixteen minute times and one eighteen minute time for an average time of about seventeen minutes. The fourth time, while placed in the water, the burn time was twenty two minutes. Go figure. The properties of Vaseline do not allow water to penetrate up through the cotton ball, making this firestarter perfect for the wet Pacific Northwest climate.
I also blew on the flame as hard as I could from a foot away and couldn’t put out the flame (see below). Next, I poured droplets of water onto the flame with the same result. I poured eight ounces of water on the flame all at once and finally the flame was quenched.
The flame from the normal burn ranges from three to five inches high (below).
In the wilderness the lightweight Vaseline cotton balls are easy to hike with. The flame will catch most tinder and wood on fire with an average of a seventeen minute burn time. Plus making these cotton balls is easy without breaking the bank. There’s potential to save money depending on what you use normally. The Vaseline cotton balls are a win win. I’ll definitely be using them on my next backpacking trek.
Now quit reading and get outdoors!