Arguably, creating fire is one of the most, if not the most, important skills you can have in a survival situation. When you create fire you create warmth, light, the ability to cook your food, boil water, protect yourself and provide comfort. The very act of being able to create fire can be a matter of life and death.
Out of the many fire starters, petroleum jelly fire nuggets are one of the favorites. They are small, lightweight, and burn for a long time. They are also waterproof!
The scene in the movie Castaway where Tom Hanks finally creates fire and he dances around on the beach praising himself demonstrates that he knows at that point he will survive. Fire nuggets will allow you to have that same great feeling Tom Hanks did every time you make a fire!
How to Make a Fire Nugget
You will need three things to make fire nuggets:
- cotton balls
- aluminum foil
- petroleum jelly
Making a Petroleum Jelly Fire Nugget
- First, take your aluminum foil and cut it into 6” x 6” squares. The aluminum foil will hold your fire nuggets as it burns.
- Next, take 2 to 4 cotton balls and thoroughly soak them in the petroleum jelly. Try to get petroleum jelly all over the cotton so roll the cotton balls many times over to coat all the sides.
- After the cotton is completely covered in petroleum jelly put it in the center of one of your aluminum foil squares and wrap it up.
- This is a fire nugget and it works similar to a can of Sterno when you light it.
Lighting the Petroleum Jelly Fire Nugget
First, make sure that you have a safe place to start a fire. Never do this indoors unless it’s in a fireplace or woodstove.
Take a knife and cut an X across the fire nugget and peel the aluminum foil back. The peeled-back aluminum foil will help protect your flame from wind and it focuses the heat from the fire nugget.
Pull a small amount of cotton up through the X and this is where you want to begin lighting your fire nugget. If you’re using a ferro rod this is where you want your sparks to land.
You should expect about 4 to 10 minutes of fire from a fire nugget depending upon its size and material composition. This is more than enough time to get your kindling started and build a bigger fire if you want to. If all you want is a small fire without a lot of smoke the fire nugget alone is the answer. Sometimes, depending upon the situation, you only need a finger fire to warm up a shelter and take the chill off. In those situations, the fire nugget is your best friend
How Do Fire Nuggets Work?
The cotton in the fire nugget acts as a wick and holds the petroleum jelly in place. Neither cotton nor petroleum jelly is all that flammable, but they make a good source of fuel for a fire. Cotton balls are easy to light but burn out very quickly. You’ll find cotton balls or dryer lint in most everyone’s fire starting kit because of this.
By adding petroleum jelly as a fuel source, you extend the life of the cotton balls and have a consistent flame. The petroleum jelly burns while the cotton gives it structure and allows a steady reliable flame. Another added benefit to fire nuggets is that they are waterproof! Yes, the fact that petroleum jelly is made of petroleum makes your fire-starting material waterproof. If they get wet simply shake the water off and light them up.
Experimentation is Key to the Perfect Fire Nugget
You should experiment with your fire nuggets with different ingredients, shapes, and sizes. The experimentation helps you to constantly improve them and allows you to adjust the ingredients to match your particular outdoor situation. By using different materials and burning the fire nuggets you will gain an understanding of what works best and confidence in how to best light the fire nugget.
Extending the Burn Time
You can use different materials, like sawdust, to extend the burn time of your fire nugget. Some people add sawdust as a tender to keep the fire going longer. You can easily try this if you have a pencil sharpener with shavings that you can empty into the aluminum foil before wrapping it up.
Others have used cut sections of toilet paper roll tubes and put the cotton balls inside the tube before wrapping them in the aluminum foil. Another small cardboard container that some people use is cardboard egg cartons. Cut the egg holders out and put your cotton balls in the egg holder before you wrap them in aluminum foil.
Test This Out for Yourself
You can also try magnesium shavings to help the fire nugget catch fire quicker. The magnesium filings from a magnesium firestarter might help the cotton balls light faster. I’m not sure if that will work because petroleum jelly will coat the magnesium filings and keep them from igniting, but you can try it by sprinkling some on the top of the fire nugget.
Size and Shape Matters
Size and shape also matter because if you have a small stove to put your fire nugget in, you don’t want the fire nugget bigger than the stove. The fire nugget needs to be able to fit in your stove! Burn each one as a test and time them to see which fire nugget burns longer. When you come up with a formula for your fire nugget you can reproduce them and count on a dependable source of fire in any situation.
Great Family Project
Fire nuggets can be a great family project for an afternoon with curious children. After making them, time each one to see which one burns longest. They can add the different ingredients to make the fire nugget the best it can be. I know of one family that made fire nuggets together and later used them on a Boy Scout camping trip. The Boy Scouts were so impressed that they decided to make them as a fundraiser for their scout troop.
Worth More Than Gold
Fire nuggets are easy to make, lightweight, inexpensive, waterproof, and help you create a fire when you need it. They can also be the answer to getting your children away from electronics for an afternoon with a fun family project. In a survival situation, they’re worth more than their weight in gold, and if you don’t believe me go watch the movie Castaway!
For more fire starting experimentation, check out our article on How to Start a Fire Without Kindling.
Also, for more fire building information, check out our Survival World page on Fire.