The Best Emergency Tinder for Starting a Fire? I Carry Vaseline-Coated Cotton Balls

Any survival kit should have the tools to start an emergency fire. A firestarter (waterproof matches, flint, etc.) is the crucial item, but a close second is quick-to-light emergency tinder to get the fire going, especially in wet conditions where dry natural tinder is hard (or impossible) to find.

You can buy a range of pre-packaged products at outdoor gear shops (here’s the current online round-up from REI), but it’s hard for them to compete with a much better, less expensive option: Vaseline-coated cotton balls.

Vaseline is essentially oil, which burns quite happily for minutes on end. And cotton balls are composed of thousands of minute fibers which readily ignite from a flame or spark. Put them together and, voila, you have some great tinder. Once lit, a single cotton ball will burn steadily for three to five minutes or more.

To make them, purchase a bag of extra large cotton balls and a small container of Vaseline or its equivalent. Make sure they are cotton, not polyester, which does not perform nearly as well. Back at home, put down some newspaper or other protective layer—you definitely don’t want Vaseline on your furniture—and take out the number you want to treat. Keep in mind that these things essentially keep forever, so making extras for the gear closet is a good option.

Tear each one open to expose as much surface area as possible. Do this before you start coating them with Vaseline and your fingers get sticky. Next comes the ooey gooey part where you need to smear each of the cotton balls and then gently work it in to the fibers. Doing this with your fingers is by far the most effective technique, but definitely isn’t my favorite tactile experience. You want to apply a decent amount, but still keep some of the fibers uncoated for quick lighting.

Another nice thing about these is that they compress nicely and are very lightweight. I carry about ten of them in a small pill bottle. The whole package probably weighs 1 to 2 ounces.

I’ve never had to use them (knock on wood) but I’ve always got them for the day I might.


About the Author…

Matt Heid


Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear expert: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign up for special offers, conservation alerts, adventures near you, and stories from across the region.