Some fire starter hacks flame, others fizzle

Ruth Griffiths

If you have spent any time online you will have been bombarded by “hacks”,  which means “a tip or a trick, or efficient method for doing or managing a day-to-day task or activity.“

I had seen a hack suggesting Doritos are an effective way to help start a fire. Because I was going camping with friends, I decided to test it out. A fire starter, by my definition, is something used to provide enough heat for enough time to ignite kindling when starting a campfire.

I discovered several other make-shift ways to start a fire and we made a pseudoscientific game of it. We used a butane barbecue lighter as our heat source to provide some continuity between the various combustibles that we tested. We didn’t add any kindling, we just noted how long it took to ignite the fire starter and the strength and duration of the flame produced by the fire starter. A longer, stronger flame would be preferable when starting a camp fire.

Here are the results of our experiment:

1. The best fire starters we tested used paraffin wax.  The easiest to construct uses a compressed fibre egg carton. Each depression in the egg carton is filled with drier lint (and maybe wood shavings). Melted wax is poured over the lint. To start the fire, tear off a section of the carton and light with a match or lighter.  Another wax-based fire starter uses a dry jack pine cone. (Not a spruce cone!) A few two-inch squares of cotton fabric are wedged between the bracts of the cone and then the whole thing is dipped into wax. You can make them quite colourful if you choose. They look lovely sitting in a basket beside your fireplace. Both the egg carton starter and the pine cone starter lit in five seconds and provided a long-lasting flame that would have allowed almost anyone to successfully start a campfire.

2. Dry tree bark and lichen are suggested in many camp craft manuals. Both took longer to ignite and burned for a very short time, compared to the wax fire starters. We concluded that only very dry bark or lichen would be helpful for building a campfire.

3. Drier lint is suggested for several fire starter hacks. I don’t know why you would have drier lint on a camping trip when you didn’t have better fire starters, but we tried out the hacks anyway. Drier lint and alcohol based hand sanitizer provided a brief flame. In addition we tried to ignite 75% alcohol hand sanitizer by itself to see if it was a fire hazard. We pumped out a streak of sanitizer and thought it had not ignited but closer observation showed that it was burning with a colourless flame for more than 10 seconds.  The drier lint might help to hold the hand sanitizer in place, providing a more concentrated heat source when starting a campfire. Most of us are carrying hand sanitizer these days so it might be a substitute for a forgotten fire starter. We also tested non-alcohol hand sanitizer on drier lint … it was not effective.

4. Drier lint wrapped in waxed paper and stuffed into an empty toilet paper roll provided a quick flame that burned for several minutes. One of the members of the group uses this method at home in the fireplace. The twist of waxed paper is not necessary. The problem with drier lint, however, is that when burned it produce a gas that humans should not inhale.

5. A cotton ball saturated with Vaseline produced a quick and relatively long-lasting flame suitable for starting a camp fire. I don’t know why you would have these toiletry products at your camp site when you had forgotten a more traditional fire starter.

6. A Q-tip and lip balm produced a tiny flame for a brief time. Getting a good gob of lip balm helped to extend the flame. The stem of the Q-tip was plastic and it melted slowly and burned. You would need to be very careful not to get the hot melting plastic on your skin or clothing.

7. When you are toasting marshmallows around the campfire they frequently burst into flame. So we tried using the marshmallow as a fire starter. No good. They failed to flame and merely became sooty after we held the lighter to them for 10 seconds.

8. So finally we tested a little pile of Doritos nacho cheese corn chips. Miraculously they lit easily and burned for a long time, giving off an appetizing aroma of roasted corn. We finished off our experiment by passing around the tasty corn chips. We did not test other brands but they might work just as well.  I hope you had as much fun reading about our fire starting experiment as we had doing it.