Petroball Fire Starters




Introduction: Petroball Fire Starters

Before I show you how to make these potentially dangerous fire starters, I'll say this:

If you don't know how to make a fire safely, or if there's a fire ban where you're going, or if you don't believe conditions are safe for a fire, DON'T BUILD A FIRE!

Only you can prevent forest fires. Only you...


One important thing to be able to do on many backpacking trips is to safely make fire. Nature makes fire at will; it requires us a bit more investment. So, as one of our ten systems, we bring a fire-starting system. This is one of those systems that you should use whenever you want or need to start a fire; no use rubbing sticks when you've got a pocket-sized accelerant in your pack, right?

A common mistake for many backpackers is making too big a fire. Consider just about any backpacking stove -- concentrated heat. So, why build a bonfire to boil a liter of water? Most of the time a fire sustained with wood no thicker than your finger will suffice. Hot enough to boil that liter, but not so big as to be a hazard.

This instructable aims to show you how to make petroleum-soaked cotton balls to be used as fire starters.

Step 1: The Hardware

You'll need:

  1. Permission or supervision, if required
  2. A small saucepan
  3. 6-10 cotton balls, no synthetics. Some have opted to use makeup removing pads. As long as they're cotton, I've got no gripe. You'll end up with more fire for less time, which may serve you better under conditions.
  4. 1/4 c or more petroleum jelly
  5. Tongs
  6. Paper towels
  7. Baking sheet
  8. Stove
  9. Pill bottle

Arrange this stuff in a work station near #8. Everything else should be at hand besides #9. It will and should wait. You'll see why.

Edit: That bag in the lower right hand corner is my fire starting system. It has two lighters and a dozen squares of birch bark. With these fire starters, I have plenty of time to get quite a fire going, and without more fuel, probably just enough to get a liter of water to a simmer. With two lighters, I have them. It's a good idea to 'candle' your lighters; use your headlamp to provide back-light and determine the level of fuel in them. Farmers 'candle' eggs to see if they're food eggs or embryonic. You'll do it to see if your lighters will save your butt in a pinch.

Step 2: Melt the Jelly

In your small saucepan, add approximately half of the petroleum jelly over very low heat. Turn the stove off once the jelly's melted; there's plenty of residual heat to keep it so while you work.

Step 3: Soak It Up

Add three of the cotton balls to the pan and, with the tongs, sop up the jelly. Once they've become saturated, set them on the baking sheet to cool. Repeat to finish.

Step 4: Let Your New Petroballs Cool

This could take quite a while, so, you can take the time to check out my award-winning entry, ',' or you could go read a book or something. Don't try to put them away too hot; you could compromise your container.

Step 5: Give Them a Home

These bad boys are greasy, so you'll want to store them in something that will keep them from leaking when the temps get particularly warm. I use a pill bottle. They're waterproof, durable, and free. Just be sure to clean them out, first. No knowing what effect fire may have on what was in there. As you see, I wrap a length of duct tape around it. I wrap a bit of duct tape around a few things. You just never know...

Step 6: Put Them to Use

These fire starters should give you several minutes of flame, so you've got time to work. You should, however, gather a half hour's worth of tinder, kindling and fuel wood before you even build what will be your fire. Another common mistake backpackers make when building a fire -- failing to prepare. That sense of exhilaration on seeing flame is quickly replaced with panic when you realize those seven pieces of wood aren't going to last three minutes. Be prepared.

Step 7: Safety

As I mention in my introduction, safety should be your primary concern when building a fire, whether it be for s'mores or to save your butt.

After high school -- oh, so many years ago -- friends and I went to the woods to camp for a night near Phoenicia, NY; a small town nestled among the Catskill Mountains. We set up our site and arranged our fire pit. After some failed attempts at a fire, one friend and I decided we would go do nothing with a stick... Sorry; we would go fishing. After doing nothing with a stick for perhaps twenty minutes, the third party comes trotting down the road, holding a hand apparently causing him discomfort, and hysterically yelling something about toilet paper and fire. We dropped our sticks and ran towards our site. We would come upon a bunch of small fires scattered around the perimeter of our site.

We spent the next half hour making sure everything was extinguished.

What had happened was... He didn't ensure the fire was out. Thinking the fire had indeed gone out, he filled a dixie cup with some white gas and tossed it onto the fire. The fire had indeed not gone out, and with the warm, dry weather, the fire followed the vapor trail and shot back into the cup. He subsequently tossed the cup, chucking what was essentially napalm onto the unsuspecting and quite dry forest floor.

When choosing a place for a fire, consider this:

  1. If you don't need it, don't build it. If you do;
  2. Build on a flat space with plenty of room for you to move round the fire.
  3. Build on a surface that won't burn.
  4. Have your fuel in place before you build it, else you risk having to leave the fire to find more.
  5. Clear a space free of debris around your fire place.
  6. Have a means of extinguishing it should it get out of hand, or if conditions warrant putting your fire out.
  7. Avoid a fire bigger than what you need it for.
  8. Never leave a fire unattended.
  9. Completely extinguish fires -- you should be able to put your hand directly on what were the coals.

Carelessness can leave you being responsible for destroying potentially thousands of acres of wilderness for a generation or two, besides putting yourself and others in danger of their lives.

Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. Only you...

Great Outdoors Contest

Participated in the
Great Outdoors Contest

Be the First to Share


    • Exercise Speed Challenge

      Exercise Speed Challenge
    • Pocket-Sized Speed Challenge

      Pocket-Sized Speed Challenge
    • Metalworking Contest

      Metalworking Contest

    6 Discussions

    terry stockstill sr
    terry stockstill sr

    3 years ago

    thank you first about not setting the woods a fire and your fire ball is great chief terry


    4 years ago

    I always keep small pill bottles of these around. The grandchildren think it's lots of fun to help me make them, which gives us great fun/work time together, and is a cool way to teach kitchen-and-fire safety. When starting safe outdoor fires with these, I either by hand or with a couple of God-provided tools (sticks lying around on the ground), spread the cotton ball out into a thin, wide layer. It starts quicker and lasts enough longer to carefully build up the fire. I make sure to teach the kids SAFE fire-building and maintenance, gathering the fuel before lighting the fire, using only dead and wood wood, and general fire safety. Camp on!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Nice and clear 'ible.

    Would it be good, after they cool, to cut the paper towel in strips, then roll up the strip as a cover and to aid lighting?


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Great trick for easy fire starting! I appreciate that you added precautions and warnings. Very nice project!


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks. I'm beginning to think you like me... Seems you also enjoyed my UL insulated backpacking cup and filter. I'm always looking for new ways to enjoy the outdoors on a dime over a dollar.


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    I enjoy a well-documented and interesting project. Keep up the good work!