While there is lots of good gear that you can buy, I like to also have the option to improvise items that I might need. This can help if you are limited in the materials you can get or in the budget you have for it. It also means you can improvise them if stuck in a situation without your normal gear. One item that I do this with is fire starters.
It is well published that a cheap and easy fire starter consists of cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly. I have used this for years and have never had it fail. It can be lit with a lighter, a ferro rod, or flint and steel. I am sure even friction-based fire-starting methods could use it, but I have never tried. The one annoyance that I have with the normal form of these is that they are messy. When starting a fire far from a warm water sink, the petroleum jelly inevitably gets on your fingers and begins to collect all kinds if dirt. So, I began looking for a way to solve this. I wanted whatever way I chose to still be cheap, easy, and possibly improve the fire starters function.
I first started by melting the petroleum jelly in a double boiler made up of a soup can and a pot full of water. I found out adding weight to the bottom of the can helps or it will try to float. I began by adding the petroleum jelly and bringing the water to a boil. Once the petroleum jelly was melted, I slowly added the cotton balls one by one ensuring each was fully submerged. I gave it a few minutes for the cotton balls to fully saturate. I then turned off the heat and removed the can from the water. Using a fork, I pulled the cotton balls out one by one and laid them on a sheet of wax paper. Once all were on the sheet, I covered it with another sheet of wax paper. I chose wax paper because it would withstand the heat and also burn when I lit the cotton ball. After these cooled, I stored them in a zip lock bag. As I need them, I cut them out in squares and store them in my fire kits in some smaller zip lock bags that I have. I find there is some light oily residue that can soak through the wax paper if the weather is hot. The zip lock bag keeps it off the rest of the items in your kit.
Here is a shot of what the squares look like. They will not win any beauty contests, but they work and that is my real goal.
The way I use these squares is to slightly pull the layers of wax paper apart at one corner and press the whole thing down so it lays on the surface you want to use. Then you can direct your sparks onto the cotton ball in the center. This means that there is wax paper under the cotton ball in case there is dampness. A few strikes of a flint and steel or ferro rod and you will have a great start to a fire. Simply feed it kindling and you are ready to warm up or start dinner.
One bonus tip for fire kits is to carry some toothpicks. Toothpicks are a cheap and light way to have kindling that will boost your fire if the environment is wet. By breaking them, you can get a bit of a ragged edge that catches easily. This give you a real boost to get the other damp wood you may be using started.
I hope this is a tip that can be used to improve your fire kits. As with all things, I suggest you try it out and practice while you have the luxury. That will ensure that you can use it effectively when it counts.