Being able to get a fire going is critical to your survival if lost in the woods or in any number of other crisis situations. Fire will warm your food, boil your water for purification, dry out your clothing, signal for help, and it is just a great morale boost. But, if the weather is foul, you might have a hard time finding dry tinder with which to get the fire going. This is where pre-made fire starters come in.
There are any number of manufactured fire starters you can purchase for your various survival kits. Some work better than others but all are better than nothing. While they aren’t inordinately expensive, this is one item you can make very cheaply yourself, using just items you probably already have in your home. Plus, many of these DIY fire starters work just as well or even better than the commercially sold ones.
As I like to say, every dollar you can save elsewhere can be used toward your preps. If you don’t have to spend $10 on manufactured fire starters, you can then buy another eight or ten boxes of .22LR ammunition, right?
One of the best fire starters comes to you ready to go without much of any additional preparation. Dryer lint will catch a spark very easily and usually burns long enough to get your other tinder to catch. Some people have reported a foul odor from using dryer lint in this way. That stands to reason, given there is likely to be a fair amount of human and pet hair mixed in with the cloth fibers. But, if you’re lost in the woods and need to get a fire going, a brief odor is probably the least of your worries. We keep an old hot chocolate canister sitting near our dryer and every time we empty the trap, the lint goes into this canister. Just put a few clumps of it into a zip lock plastic bag and toss that into your kit.
A step up from dryer lint is to use cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. Again, these catch a spark very well. Put a good dollop of the jelly into a plastic bag and add a dozen or so cotton balls. Mash the cotton balls and jelly together in the bag for a while, really working them together. You can fit several of these cotton balls in an old 35mm film canister, which seals watertight. To use, take out a cotton ball and fluff it up so the fibers are pretty loose.
Fire straws take the cotton ball and petroleum jelly fire starters to the next level. Get together a few plastic straws, like you’d get at a fast food restaurant, a candle, pliers, and a few toothpicks or bamboo skewers. Cut the straws to your desired length. I make them short enough to fit into an Altoids tin survival kit. Hold one end of the straw over the lit candle for a couple seconds, just long enough to soften the plastic a bit. Crimp that end closed with the pliers. Use the toothpick or bamboo skewer to stuff the straw with a few of your petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls. Once the straw is full, crimp the other end closed like you did before. You now have a completely waterproof fire starter. To use, slit the side of the straw with a knife, then pull out a bunch of the cotton fibers and fluff them up. If you don’t have a blade with you at the time, you could just bite it open.
If you have kids, odds are pretty good you have a mess of broken crayons lying around. You can use those crayons to make some nifty fire starters. The first step is to melt those crayons. What we’ve found works very well is to take an old, washed out soup can and fill it with crayons. Be sure to peel off the paper wrapping on the crayons first. I break them up into small pieces about an inch long. Fill the can about three quarters full with the crayons. Get a small saucepan and fill it with a couple inches of water, then place the soup can into the water. Heat the water to boiling. As the crayons begin to melt, stir them around. I just use a twig from outside to do this so I don’t end up with melted wax all over any kitchen implements. As the wax is melting, take a cardboard egg carton and fill each section with dryer lint. Some folks add sawdust to the dryer lint before filling the egg carton but I’ve never found that to be absolutely necessary. Pack it down pretty tight. Pour melted wax into each section, sealing the dryer lint inside. Once the wax has cooled and hardened, you can cut the sections apart. You’ll find these are probably a little heavier than you might expect. But, they burn very well and plenty long enough to get your fire going. Just light one corner of the cardboard and let it go. The downside to these is they aren’t truly waterproof so you need to keep them sealed in a plastic bag until you need them.
If you have any melted wax left, waterproof some of your strike anywhere matches. Just dip the heads of the matches into the wax, one by one, then set them on aluminum foil to dry. The wax will keep the match heads from getting damp and also allow the match to burn hotter and a bit longer. Even with the waterproof application though, store them in a sealed container, such as a 35mm film canister.
You can also use the melted wax to make a buddy burner. Not truly a fire starter, instead this is a cooking implement. For this, you’ll need an empty and cleaned out tuna or cat food can and some corrugated cardboard. Cut the cardboard into strips just a hair smaller than the inside of the can is high. You want to cut the cardboard such that when you look down along the long side of the strip, you can see the holes in the cardboard. Coil the cardboard into the can, starting at the center and working your way to the outer edge. Be careful as you do this because the inside edge of the can is likely to be sharp. When you’re done, you should see all the holes in the cardboard looking up at you from the can. Pour the melted wax into the can, filling all those little holes. Once the wax is hard, you just need to light one edge of it and away you go. You can control the amount of heat produced by covering part of the can with a piece of foil or other fireproof material. Suspend your pot or pan a few inches above the flame and it will burn plenty long and hot enough to boil water or cook your meal. Cover the can completely with the foil to douse the flame. Because it is the wax that burns, not the cardboard, you can refill it as needed with more melted crayons.
While you’re making a buddy burner, take a minute to put together a hobo stove. Take a cleaned coffee can and cut out the bottom of it, making a cylinder. Then, cut two slits about two inches high and three inches apart, going from the bottom of the can up. Use pliers to fold this newly created flap up. Use a drill or nails to put a series of small holes a couple inches down from the top, going all the way around the can. Space the holes about three to four inches apart. Your heat source goes inside the can and your cooking pot goes on the top of the can. The buddy burner works very well with the hobo stove but you can also just put together a small twig fire inside the can, using the flap opening to add more fuel.
Use these DIY fire starters only as your backup means of getting a fire going. When in the field, get into the habit of looking for natural sources of tinder. Dry pine needles, leaves, grass, lichen, and old bird nests are all make good tinder. As you find these items, put them in your pocket or in a plastic bag in your pack to keep it dry. Making use of these sources first will preserve your fire starters for when you truly need them.