Tactical Handyman – PJ Cotton Ball Fire Starters

Starting a fire when conditions are less than favorable can be a real challenge. Successful fire starting starts with training but a having the right gear certainly helps. What ever gear you choose should give you a high likelihood of being able to start a fire across a broad spectrum of conditions. One such piece of gear is Petroleum Jelly Soaked Cotton Balls (PJCB).

PJ Cotton Balls work like a candle. When they are lit, the flame will consume all of the petroleum jelly before it consumes the cotton. The cotton is acting as a wick and, conveniently, it also happens to light very easily. The PJCB will continue to burn for several minutes which will hopefully give you enough time to build a sustainable fire. As a bonus, you will find that the petroleum jelly has other uses like moisturizing cracked hands or lubricating stuck sections of a fishing rod.


  • Cotton balls (raid the wife’s make up drawer, there are probably tons of them in there)
  • Petroleum jelly (AKA Vaseline)
  • Storage container (film canisters work well)

How to Make PJCBs:

  1. Locate a small container that seals securely. The container should be small enough to fit in your survival/EDC kit. It must seal securely because PJCBs can be a bit messy.
  2. Rub the cotton balls in the container of petroleum jelly until the outside is coated thickly. Some people like to warm the petroleum jelly so it permeates the cotton ball but I prefer to leave the inside of the cotton ball somewhat dry. More on this later.
  3. Place as many cotton balls as you can in the container. It is that easy.

How to Use PJCBs:

  1. Do all fire prep before you light anything! Gather tinder, kindling, and fuel sized pieces of burnable material. Have them sorted and ready. You may even want to make some fuzz sticks (feather sticks) with your knife.
  2. Rip open a PJCB. This will expose the dry inner fibers of cotton. The dry fibers can easily be lit with a spark (such as from a ferro rod/fire steel) or a flame. They can sometimes even be light by focusing light on them with a magnifying glass. You may not need to use an entire PJCB.
  3. Light the PJCB using your preferred method. I like to use a ferro rod.
  4. Add your flammable material starting with tinder, then kindling, then fuel. Be careful not to add the material too quickly or you will smother the flame.

Be sure you practice these techniques before you actually need them. This is a VERY easy way to start a fire if everything is done correctly. You can light several fires from just one film canister full of PJCBs. The Tactical Handyman is always ready!


6 Responses to Tactical Handyman – PJ Cotton Ball Fire Starters

  1. Dustin May 22, 2010 at 13:32 #

    A good alternative and space-conserver for a BOB is to pack petroleum jelly (like a travel size) and a bunch of regular cotton balls packed down as tight as possible. As you alluded to, the components have several valuable uses and you will not be limited to how many you could cram into a film canister – maybe have enough materials for 10x-20x more.

    • matthewdanger May 22, 2010 at 14:56 #

      Good tips Dustin! Thanks for dropping by.

  2. Skeeter May 22, 2010 at 14:49 #

    Dryer lint is also a ready alternative to cotton balls

    • matthewdanger May 22, 2010 at 14:57 #

      It definitely is. Just make sure that you test each particular batch that you plan to use. If the batch has a high content of acrylic fibers it will smolder and not sustain a flame.

  3. Fritz October 8, 2010 at 19:25 #

    Since film canisters are quickly becoming a thing of the past, I use the plactic containers that perscription medicines come in. I like them better because I can see inside.

    • matthewdanger October 8, 2010 at 19:31 #

      That is a great tip! Thanks for sharing it and for reading Jerking the Trigger.

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