What is the best fire starter?

When I’m out backpacking, or even day hiking, I normally bring two or three Esbit solid fuel tabs with me to use as an emergency fire starting last resort.  Most of the time I don’t have too much of a problem starting a fire but there are occasions when I’m in the cold, damp forest and having difficulty finding dry tinder that I’ll turn to a “synthetic” item to get a fire going.  The bushcraft enthusiast in me dies a little bit each time I do but you can’t beat the convenience of a fire starter.

There are tons of great fire starting products out there – ranging from powders to chemical soaked wood pulps to the tried and true magnesium stick.  To me a good fire starter needs to be easy to use, won’t blow away if its gusty (or easily go out once you get it going) and will still light if its soaking wet.  It also needs to burn for long enough to dry out damp wood shavings and get a fire going.  I like to use Esbit tabs for exactly these reasons.  They burn when wet, light easily, won’t blow away or out, and will burn for a really long time.

This brings me to the inspiration for this particular post.  Recently I was watching a survival show on TV that touted the use of cotton balls or dryer lint mixed with petroleum jelly as the best fire starter available to mankind.   I have read about this method in numerous books and seen countless experts discuss it on TV.  I’ve even watched my Grandpa pack several cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly and wrapped in a piece of tinfoil into his bag. So I got to thinking; why don’t I do this?

To answer that question I put the cotton ball and patrolium jelly method to the test along with several other fire starters that I picked up from my local sporting goods store.

I ended up with the following fire starters to test: Coleman Firesticks, an Esbit Tab, an off brand solid fuel tab, Coleman Fire Gel, Light My Fire pellets and cotton balls with petroleum jelly.  To create an even test I make sure each fire starter weighed 12g.

Patrolium Jelly & Cotton (1), Light My Fire pellets (2), Off Brand Solid Fuel (3), Coleman Fire Sticks (4), Esbit tab (5), Coleman Fire Gel (6)

Petroleum Jelly & Cotton (1), Light My Fire pellets (2), Off Brand Solid Fuel (3), Coleman Fire Sticks (4), Esbit tab (5), Coleman Fire Gel (6)

I preformed this test in my backyard.  It was relatively breezy with little gusts here and there with temperatures in the high 30’s. I light them all at once (with the help of friends) and measured burn time from light to the extinction of flame.

Overall this was a really interesting test for me that garnished some very unexpected results.  Burn times were as follows:

1) Petroleum Jelly & Cotton Balls: 16m 5s
2) Light My Fire Pellets: 10m 25s
3) Off Brand Solid Fuel: 11m 1s
4) Coleman Fire Sticks: 7m 27s
5) Esbit Tab: 12m 58s
6) Coleman Fire Gel: 6m 55s

Holy crap the old school petroleum jelly and cotton balls combo actually burned the longest!!! Are you kidding me?!?!??!  Not only did it burn the longest but it also burned the “strongest” while it was on fire (this is based on observation rather than any kind of measurement).  Other fire starters seemed to peter out during the last 25% of their burn time – the pj&c looked like a flaming baseball for almost 10 minutes.

Patrolium Jelly & Cotton (1), Light My Fire pellets (2), Off Brand Solid Fuel (3), Coleman Fire Sticks (4), Esbit tab (5), Coleman Fire Gel (6) Taken at roughly the 3 minute mark.

Patrolium Jelly & Cotton (1), Light My Fire pellets (2), Off Brand Solid Fuel (3), Coleman Fire Sticks (4), Esbit tab (5), Coleman Fire Gel (6)Taken at roughly the 3 minute mark.

Burn time doesn’t tell the entire story though.  Some other interesting things I learned from this test had to do with easy of lighting.  Of all of these the Coleman Fire Gel (6) was the easiest to light.  I barely had to get the lighter close and it went up.  The pj&c (1) as well as the Light My Fire pellets (2) were also very easy to light.  The off brand solid fuel tabs (3) and the Coleman Fire Sticks (4) were a little more difficult to light – they needed me to cup my hand around them to block the wind before I could get them going.  The Esbit tab (5) was hands down the hardest to get going.  I had to hold a lighter to it for almost 15 seconds before I saw any flame.  As a side note: I tried to light each of these using nothing but a fire striker and not a single one would catch from the sparks the fire striker generated.  I even tried breaking them up into flakes or powders and that didn’t work to catch a spark.  A lot of people I know bring fire strikers with them into the backcountry as their emergency fire lighting system but you should know they aren’t easy to use if you are not a practiced pro.

Outside of ease of lighting and total burn time I noticed that the fire gel created the most intense flame (followed up by the pj&c).  The solid fuel tabs had the most consistent flame.  The fire gel and pj&c had the most leftover unburned material after they had burned out.


So here is the deal.  I didn’t think this would be the case, but I’m a believer in cotton balls mixed with petroleum jelly.  Not only does it burn the longest it also is easy to light, cheap to buy, sticky (so you can really rub it into a piece of wood), shrugs off water (its oil based after all) and it reminds me of our outdoor forefathers every time I use it. Maybe those old dudes know what they are talking about after all.