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Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls

Vaseline fire starters are a very versatile tool and can light a fire in almost any weather condition. Better yet, you can make them from very inexpensive materials from the comfort of your own home.

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by Georgieann Lilgreen | 2014-02-12 00:00:00-07

An Essential Survival Fire-starting tool

Vaseline-soaked cotton balls are an amazing component of my emergency fire-making supplies. Being prepared is a huge part of wilderness survival and obtaining fire is one of the top survival priorities. A good fire can warm a shelter, purify water, and cook food. I live in the very wet Pacific Northwest and camp year round, so keeping a nice stash of dry tinder and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls is a key component to my emergency kit.

Vaseline-soaked cotton balls have proven valuable more than once during a downpour. I have tried many different types of store bought emergency fire tinders, and although they may work to some degree, they just don’t hold up to the wind and rain like Vaseline-soaked cotton balls.

On one of my camping trips many years back, we ran into some pretty nasty, rainy, and windy weather. No one, including myself, had thought to pack any dry tinder. After struggling for what seemed like forever with our lighters, we were just not able to light the wet tinder we managed to scrounge up. Then I remembered I had some Vaseline-soaked cotton balls in my backpack! I ran and got them. Up until this point I hadn’t had the chance to test them out, and even though it took two of them to get our fire going, they worked! Even with wind, rain and wet wood, I was amazed at their ability to stay lit and the length of time that they burned. We had to baby our fire at first, but the cotton balls were enough to get it going and eventually we had a beautiful warm blaze!

Not only will Vaseline-soaked cotton balls pretty much guarantee you a fire in some of the worst conditions, but they are lightweight and compact too. Building a fire in the outdoors is one thing, but doing it when everything is wet is quite challenging and can lead to frustration. Like I said in the beginning: being prepared is key, not only to wilderness survival, but also to ensure a more enjoyable time in the outdoors!

So, how do I make them? You may be asking….

Well, you’re in luck because that is exactly what I am about to show you.


  • Handful of cotton balls (I used 10 for this demo)
  • Small cooking pot
  • Vaseline
  • Stove or fire
WARNING: Vaseline is highly flammable! Always exercise caution when working with flammable materials and stoves.

 - 1
Step 1 - Gather your materials.

 - 2
Step 2 - Measure about 3 ½ table Spoons Vaseline into your pot and melt. The more saturated they are the longer they will burn.

 - 3
Step 3 - Remove from heat and add 10 cotton balls.

 - 4
Step 4 - Let the cotton balls cool.

 - 5
Step 5 - Store cotton balls in ziplock baggies or any other type of container you wish to use. I like to use old mint tins.

 - 6
Step 6 - Lighting your fire TeePee.

Starting a fire using your new cotton ball tinder.

Now that you know how to make this awesome new item, you have a great excuse to get out and go camping. Enjoy!


"Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls," by Georgieann Lilgreen. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2014-02-12 00:00:00-07.


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Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 07:01:55 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 08:18:10 MST Print View

Nice detail

You could use wax, like parafin, and do the same thing, less messy when cold.

. .
(RogerDodger) - F

Locale: (...)
... on 02/12/2014 08:29:29 MST Print View


Edited by RogerDodger on 06/29/2015 11:09:44 MDT.

Daniel Smart
(smartd) - M
Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 08:55:59 MST Print View

On a Survivorman forum, Les suggested using duck tape as a fire starter. Double use. Great idea.


Paul Mountford
(Sparticus) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic Canada
Re: Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 08:56:32 MST Print View

I find cotton pads work even better (the kind used to remove makeup). If you grab the edge, you can put them apart. You then apply the Vaseline to exposed inside and then push them back together. Fluff the surface before lighting and the take a spark very easily. The advantage of the cotton pad / Vaseline “Wagon Wheel” is that they make much less of a mess as compared with normal cotton balls soaked in Vaseline.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 09:42:57 MST Print View


Edited by xnomanx on 02/12/2014 12:05:12 MST.

Matthew Perry
(bigfoot2) - F

Locale: Oregon
(Sigh) Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 10:29:37 MST Print View

Wow. Really? Vaseline cotton balls? What's the next article going to be? Wrapping our Nalgene bottles with Duct Tape or Dutch oven cooking on thru-hikes? Somebody phoned this one in....

Edited by bigfoot2 on 02/12/2014 10:35:21 MST.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 10:35:27 MST Print View

Yeah, I agree, Craig. That whole putting things into a backpack and going for a hike in the woods idea is just so stale and old yet BPL writes articles about it every week and people post in the forums about it everyday. When are they going to come up with something new? *wink wink* *har har*

Yes, the Vaseline soaked cotton ball is an age old technique but it's one that has saved my freezing cold and wet tuchus many, many times when I've needed to light a fire with frozen and hardly-working fingers. I'd say it's a lesson well worth teaching to those who may not know it and as a good reminder to those who may be rusty on the subject.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 10:40:16 MST Print View

Nice, thanks. And good video. Most of the boy scouts use dryer lint, but I'll show them your video and suggest they try this as well. (I keep Coghlan's Tinder in my kit; it's a cotton/wax product.)

Matthew Perry
(bigfoot2) - F

Locale: Oregon
Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 10:42:54 MST Print View

I agree that it's good advice for new hikers, but seriously...we paid to read this article? It should/could have been just a post, not an article. Nothing wrong with it, just that it's old news and not deserving of anything more than a blip once a year in the Philosophy & Technique or MYOG sections. Maybe I just expect too much.

Just my opinion.


Edited by bigfoot2 on 02/12/2014 10:46:45 MST.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - F

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
best container on 02/12/2014 10:47:59 MST Print View

The best container I've found for vaseline cotton balls is a pill bottle or an old film canister. You can really shove them down into a hard sided container and fit a bunch of them.

Zane Dargaty
(zdkayaker) - MLife
Add some sawdust on 02/12/2014 10:51:55 MST Print View

I take the vaseline-soaked balls and roll them in sawdust. I makes them less sticky to handle and gives them a little longer burn time.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 11:09:03 MST Print View

I pack Tinder Quick tabs into an aluminum "spy capsule" and that goes on a lanyard with my firesteel.

+1 on a pill bottle or film can for PJCB's.

Other fire starting aids: Esbit fuel tabs and alcohol jel hand cleaner. A dab of hand cleaner takes the barest spark to light. The ultimate is a road flare or the shorter Orion fire starting flare--- best for emergencies rather than regular use.

John Harper
(johnnyh88) - MLife

Locale: The SouthWest
Re: Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 11:21:00 MST Print View

Any experience on how these compare to Esbit tabs? Half an Esbit tab burns for several minutes and is what I have always used.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Ballz on 02/12/2014 11:33:09 MST Print View

Two points

- you can heat up the vaseline in the microwave ... Its easier and safer

- dont soak the entire ball ... Youll need to leave some fluff for it to catch a spark if yr using a firesteel

As to the "BPLness" of the article ... a test of various fire starters under conditions with different ignition methods would be ideal

And reflect the scientific approach of BPL


Pat Comer
(WPComer) - MLife

Locale: Aborokas
add magnesium filings on 02/12/2014 11:43:39 MST Print View

does anyone but me roll theirs in magnesium filings ?

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 12:44:23 MST Print View

"Any experience on how these compare to Esbit tabs? Half an Esbit tab burns for several minutes and is what I have always used."

I think they're fairly comparable. It's been over a year but the burn time for a p-ball for me was about nine minutes.

I once made the mistake of heating some water with a p-ball. Huge mistake and won't be doing that again. Took a lot of elbow grease to get the residue off of my ti pot.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Cotton Balls on 02/12/2014 12:51:36 MST Print View

I make some small cotton balls, smaller than a dime, and soak them with candle wax. Then I wind a bit of dry cotton around the outside to make it easier to catch a spark.


Mole J
(MoleJ) - F

Locale: UK
balls v esbit on 02/12/2014 12:55:57 MST Print View

I have used vaseline/cotton balls many times. Even if well soaked in vaseline they can easily light with a spark if teased out. A moderately soaked ball will burn for 3-4 minutes.

Does esbit light with a spark?? (I have enough trouble getting it going with a lighter!)

Edited by MoleJ on 02/12/2014 12:56:29 MST.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - F

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Esbit on 02/12/2014 12:56:48 MST Print View

Esbit works very good. I use PJ cotton balls as my everyday fire starter and use an esbit if I really need to get the fire going quickly in wet weather.