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Best survival firemaking method | Use cotton balls, Vaseline and ferro rod

Best survival firemaking method | Use cotton balls, Vaseline and ferro rod

Here is my go-to firemaking method for survival situations and how to use it.

by Leon Pantenburg

It has been over 15 years since I started any wilderness campfire using any ignition method other than flint and steel.

Part of the reason is to keep my survival skills polished, and the other is that flint and steel is just so effective. I’ve used the method successfully in driving rain and snow, wind and zero degree temperatures. But the old time method would not be my first choice as a survival fire making tool during an emergency.

My number one choice is a combination of cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly and ignited with a ferrocerium (also frequently referred to as a flint or magnesium) stick.

Firemaking kit

This firemaking kit is cheap, simple to make and effective.

The method has a lot going for it as a survival fire starter: the small, one-handed-opening container I use holds three infused cotton balls, weighs virtually nothing, and doesn’t take much space. The infused cotton balls can be lit with virtually anything that produces a spark or flame.

Properly infused cotton will burn for several minutes, and that alone will help coax a campfire out of damp tinder and wood.

Here is how to use the system:

Before you go:  Get some extra-large 100-percent cotton balls and petroleum jelly. Pack as much jelly as you can into the cotton. Carry these in an easy-to-open, but secure container. Make sure these are close to your ferro rod for easy and quick access.

While not crucial, I like to take along an aluminum foil yogurt container top, too. (Survival Expert Peter Kummerfeldt taught me this trick, and I promote it shamelessly.)

To use:

  1. Remove a pinch of the fire starter from the container, and fluff it up as much as possible. The size of the pinch depends on a variety of circumstances, including dampness of the materials, weather, and the severity of the situation. If you desperately need to start a fire to prevent hypothermia, use a lot. If  the emergency in not particularly severe, take some extra time to gather more tinder and small sticks and use a tiny pinch.

    Survival Common Sense Cotton Ball Firestarter

    Infused cotton balls are cheap and effective.

  2. Place the cotton on the aluminum foil. The infused fluffed-up cotton will be sticky, so it will stay put on a flat log or rock, too. I like the aluminum foil trick because the concave foil makes the melted jelly pool, and that adds significant burning time.
  3. Point the end of the ferro stick at the base of the cotton. Get the stick as close a possible.
  4. Place the striker on top of the mag stick at a 90 degree angle. Position the edge at about a 45-degree angle, as if you want to whittle off some magnesium.
  5. Draw the ferro rod back sharply, while holding the striker in place. There is tendency for people to want to “whittle” the mag stick with the striker. This works just fine. For beginners, though, I recommend drawing the ferro stick back, so you don’t scatter the firestarter if your hand slips.
  6. The shower of sparks should ignite the cotton ball. The cotton ball can also be used as fire starter with any other flame or spark source.

If you’ve done everything right, this process should take hardly any time. The  initial fire ignition should burn for several minutes. All you need to do is add, in this order, small twigs, larger branches and finally logs. Gather all these, and have them ready before you ignite the cotton ball.

Then, congratulations – you have a warm fire, and can think about the next step in your survival plan.

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Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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