DIY Improved Fire Starters

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.

Let’s talk about shoes

On the average day most people worry more about the look of their shoes than the comfort. Women take the brunt of the jabs about preferring looks over comfort in footwear, but many men operate on the same principle. Whether it be Jimmy Choo high heels, wingtips, cowboy boots, or Converse Chuck Taylors, people abuse their feet daily by what they wear. Blisters, corns, callouses, broken down arches, and hammer toes all come from wearing the wrong shoes for your feet. Wearing the wrong size, be it too large or too small, is just as bad. People in certain occupations have specific footwear requirements that limit their choices. They may need safety toes or chemical resistant soles to protect them. Outside of this scenario, I strongly urge you to reevaluate the emphasis on shoes that keep your feet healthy.

Keeping your feet healthy on a daily basis just requires making some good decisions. First, different shoes are needed for different activities. You might be able to get away with almost anything if you are just sitting at a desk all day. If you walk, stand, or run then footwear with better support and soles are necessary to prevent fatigue and damage. On the flip side, a pair of running shoes with foam style soles is not going to be a good choice for hiking mountain trails.  Second, buying the right size is imperative. Different brands are cut to different specs, so you may not always wear a size 10 medium width in every shoe. If you need help determining the best fit, visit a shoe store that has staff to help you find a fit and not just salespeople to sell you the most expensive pair. Third, remember that shoes have a lifespan. They may be “worn out” long before the soles fall off or they get holes in the uppers. Replace shoes before they lose the support your feet need. Fourth, recognize if your feet need special care. Some people have foot issues that require special shoes or orthotics (insoles) for their normal shoes.  This can be because of a physical foot issues, results of a past injury, or simply age. Lastly, recognize that cheap shoes are rarely good shoes. A pair of $1 Old Navy flip flops can be expected to have about $1 worth of support. A good pair of boots or shoes will cost a bit, but watching for sales and such can help to lower the cost. Just remember that cost is not a pure indicator. Lots of high heels are really expensive but work better as zombie killing weapons than shoes.

Now you may be wondering how this relates to disaster preparedness. It has everything to do with it. I assume the worst when I plan for things. In that case, you will be on foot. That means you need to have healthy feet and appropriate footwear.  The middle of a crisis is not the time to be shopping for shoes. That footwear should also be broken in to avoid finding out at the wrong time that they cause blisters or worse. Now planning for a range of disasters means you need to cover several specs in footwear. I find that a sturdy waterproof pair of boots does that. That being said, I avoid rubber or duck style boots. They just do not do well when walking long distances. Unless it is rather cold, they can make your feet sweat. In the cold, most do not have much insulation. A laceup or zip side boot is a good choice to allow for adjustments based on thin or heavy socks.

Obviously, there are hundreds of options that would work. Here are a couple of examples of good boots for men and a couple for women. These are reputable brands that have a proven track record of both durability and customer service.


Timberland Men’s White Ledge Mid Waterproof Boot

Wolverine Men’s Floorhand 6 Inch Waterproof Boot


Columbia Women’s Newton Ridge Plus Waterproof Boot

Timberland Women’s 6″ Premium Waterproof Boot

Another good thing to pair with these is a good pair of socks. Wool is best because it wicks moisture away better. Merino wool is not your old fashion wool and these socks generally last a long time.

Merino Wool Midweight Hiker Socks – 4 Pack

If you have issues finding pairs that work for you and would like to try different pairs, Prime Wardrobe from Amazon is a good option. Without spending money on returns or driving from shop to shop, you can  try shoes and clothes free. You only pay for what you keep and have free Prime returns for what you don’t.


If you have any favorite examples to share, please leave a comment. The pair you prefer might just be what others are looking for.

Packing..and I don’t mean heat

In all of the planning discussions packs and bags are brought up a lot. The type of bag and the contents are discussed at length. Rarely though do you see a good discussion of PACKING the bag. Anyone that has carried a pack for any length of time can tell you that things needs to be organized in a particular way to carry it comfortably.

An often recommended way is to divide the pack into 3 sections. Gear should be packed based on weight, bulkiness, and how frequently it is used.

The Bottom Section

Bulky items that are needed less frequently should be placed here. Things like sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and extra layers for occasional use are some examples. These are light and can provide some cushion to carry the load of the heavier items.

The Middle Section

This section should be reserved for heavy gear that you do not need immediate access to.  Cooking kits, stove, fire kit, crank emergency radio, and your main food supply generally fall into this. If you have a larger store of water, it should go here too. Just wrap in in some soft items to prevent it from being damaged by other heavy gear. Placing the heavy items in the center helps to keep it from tipping back or sagging down on you. Either will cause you to have to work harder without a stable center of gravity.

The Top Section

This section should be reserved for items that you need quickly or more often. Rain gear, first-aid kit, water filter, and toilet paper.  For the most part it should be lighter items to keep the pack stable.


External pockets

These pockets should also be used for quick access items. They will be smaller items and based on pocket location should also follow the same weight pattern as the interior.  Items that fit this could be your compass, map, pack rain cover, sunglasses, headlamp/flashlight, water bottle, snacks, and hand sanitizer. Not only will this help you get to these items quicker, it will prevent them from being lost in the interior shuffle.

Lashing points

Many packs built for hiking or tactical use feature lashing points at different areas. These can be used to affix tent poles, hiking sticks, axes, or machetes. Some even have points at the bottom designed to be used for a sleeping bag or pad. Just be sure things are lashed so as to not swing around.

What not to pack iN your pack

There are some things I advise to not put in your pack. These would be personal documents, ID, at least part of your cash, your main knife, a flashlight, and basic fire kit. In addition if you carry a handgun it should not be buried in your pack. The reason these should not be packed, but on your person, is that a point could arise that you must ditch your pack. You may need to flee from danger, it might be taken from you, you may lose it in a water crossing, or many other scenarios. In these cases you need these very important items on you so that there is less chance of losing them completely.

It is important to test out the packing plan of your pack and how it carries. This will give you a chance to rearrange and perfect your load. Better to do it now than when your safety depends on it.


“Killing Time”

Now before anyone gets excited or agitated, this post is not about killing, it is about “killing time.” One thing that many people do not prepare for is the vast amounts of time you need to fill if you are displaced due to a disaster. Now I am not referring to worst case scenarios, but a mid-level disaster. This would be one that causes you to have to leave your home to shelter somewhere. In this instance you may very well have no electricity, cell service, and only the supplies you brought. You are not having to fend off violence, forage for food, or procure firewood. It is expected to be short enough that you can wait it out and return home though.

The true issue is the waiting. The hours we would normally devote to laundry, dishes, television, mobile devices, and the ‘normal’ day are now an empty void. This can lead to frustration, depression, and “cabin fever” in children and adults alike. This might be amplified by lack of sleep and cramped conditions. Thankfully with some forethought you can take simple and cheap steps to deal with this.

One great option is a few decks of cards. Whether it be Go Fish with your 6 year old, Solitare by yourself, or Poker with the entire family, it only take a few decks of cards. These are cheap and can be stashed in the car, emergency bag, or purse. A simple zipper lock sandwich bag will protect them if you end up getting wet. If you are not familiar with many card games, now is the time to learn, but you can also stick a sheet in with the cards that have rules for multiple games on it. Nothing difficult is required, just some so that playing GO Fish is not your only option.

While they can be bulkier, board games come in all age ranges and variety. Checkers, chess, Connect4, Backgammon, and Yahtzee are just a few. The smaller travel sized version do not take up a lot of room. In some cases, you could ditch the packaging and pack several into smaller containers. These would allow pair or group play and a rotation of games to avoid “burn out.’

The list of options is only limited by your imagination and storage space. Take a look at who you will be with, where you think you may be sheltering, and how long you might be gone. Having a few of these items with you may help everyone weather to disaster with a more positive attitude. That will be a benefit during and in the years after.

Some examples of games that might be useful:

Yahtzee to Go Travel Game

Hasbro Connect 4 Grab and Go Game (Travel Size)

Take ‘N’ Play Anywhere – Checkers


3 in 1 Travel Magnetic Chess, Checkers, Backgammon

Bicycle Playing Cards

Scrabble to Go Board Game

Hoyle’s Rules of Games

“Survival” Guns 101

Guns are a very hot topic on both sides of the fence.  If you decide not to own and use one that is your decision, but in a true survival scenario they could make the difference. Whether it be for defense, hunting, or, in the worst case, offense, they are a tool like any other. Also like a tool, there is no one perfect one for every problem. For example, a screwdriver might take the place of a hammer, but is a very poor substitute. In the same way the wrong gun may work based on what situation you face, but it may leave less than desirable outcomes.

To start at the beginning, there are 3 basic categories of guns. There are handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Each of these has its advantages and its disadvantages. For the sake of this post, we will only cover typical types of guns. There are many odd types of guns out there, but they do not really fit our needs. Also, aside from a total end of society scenario, machine guns are not going to be an option like the movies want to depict. They are available, but expensive, hard to obtain, and come with many restrictions.

Handguns are normally the smallest size of the three types. They can be semi-automatic with detachable magazines or be a revolver with a re-loadable attached cylinder. The detachable magazines can make them fast to reload, but generally they use a smaller size bullet that is less powerful that a rifle. Handguns can be good for shorter distance defense but rapidly loose effectiveness beyond a certain distance. This distance varies based on the caliber of the bullet. Most handguns are not suited for hunting except in a pinch. The effective range and smaller caliber can make it harder for larger game. For smaller game like squirrels or rabbits, smaller calibers can be used, but the shorter barrel will make it harder to be accurate even at moderate distances. As with the screwdriver/hammer example, they can be used, but will not perform as well as other options. In all reality, handguns are best suited to the role of self-protection. They can be concealed easily and weigh less than a rifle or shotgun.

Rifles come in various lengths and calibers.  They can be single shot, semi-automatic, bolt action, or pump. They can have detachable magazines, affixed tube magazines, or non-removable internal magazines. The longer length makes them more accurate over longer distances than handguns. The wide variety of calibers means that you can find one to deal with anything from small game to large predators (both 2 and 4 legged variety). These still do have the issue that normally each can only fire one caliber. So at times you might find that that caliber is too small or too large for you intended prey. It is almost impossible to conceal a rifle on your person unless you want to wear a parka or trenchcoat. This can create issues in a chaotic environment. Law enforcement may be trying to confiscate guns to help keep order or devious individuals may see an opportunity to further arm themselves by waylaying you. Rifles range from older military surplus like bolt action Mosin Nagants, to hunting rifles, to semiautomatic AR-15s and AK47s.

Shotguns are also longer than pistols. They can be single shot, semi-automatic, bolt action, or pump. Normally, unless single shot, they have a tube magazine connected below the barrel, but a few do have detachable magazines. Shotguns can have different barrel setups to make them more accurate over longer ranges, but their range is still much shorter than a rifle. In contrast though, shotguns can use many types of shells. These can range from a bunch of shot in increasingly larger sizes up to a solid lead slug, The shot size can be chosen to match the prey you are hunting. This allows you to hunt a much larger range of prey by simple swapping the type of shell. Smaller size shot can be used for small game like rabbits and then the largest size shot (call buckshot) or slugs can be used for larger prey like deer. There are different sizes of shotguns called gauges with the lowest number being the biggest gun. 12ga is the largest common size and is on the larger end of the sizes. One downfall of a shotgun is that it does have a significant recoil that you will have to train to deal with. If a 12ga is too much you can move down to a 20ga or even a .410 (caliber not gauge, too long a story to cover here) which is the smallest size. Each of the smaller sizes still can use various types of shells.

Which gun you chose has to be a person choice.  It must be based you your abilities and the scenarios you feel you will face. Overall, there is no ‘perfect’ survival gun. If you plan for survival in the middle of an urban environment you may be more worried about keeping a low profile and defending yourself than hunting large game. A handgun or shorter shotgun can be better concealed and used more easily inside buildings than a long barrel rifle. If you plan to hold up deep in the wilderness, a rifle might allow you to hunt larger game or defend from invaders at a distance. If the terrain there limits distance, a longer barrel shotgun can also be used effectively.

One good way to start making a choice is to visit a professional shooting range. Many of them have guns for rent and are knowledgeable about your areas laws. You can rent some types and sizes to test out for a fairly nominal fee. This will be money well invested in helping you decide on not only a type of gun, but a caliber and model you can be comfortable with. A gun you cannot effectively use can be more of a hindrance than a help. Like all equipment, you need to practice routinely to ensure you and the gun are both ready for action.

Since every scenario cannot be covered by one type of gun, just like your standard tool box, multiple types may be the best answer. It is easier to cover all your needs with a couple of different guns. A combination of one or more will allow you to respond to the disaster you prepared for much more effectively. So take a serious look at your planning. If you are truly honest, some type of gun and proper training could be vital in anything beyond your lowest level of disaster.

Redefining your EDC when you fly

If you are reading this, there is a good chance you already have a set of E.D.C. (Every Day Carry) items or are putting a set together. On most normal days what you carry within reason is up to you, If you have the correct permit you can even carry a handgun in most instances. There are those times when you travel where you are forced to leave a lot of your items at home. This can be because of a flight, or your final destination.

These scenarios  can seriously limit your options. If you fly commercial, things like  knives, pepper spray, lighters, and multi-tools will be prohibited.  So unless you can fly via private plane, these have to stay home. That does not mean you have to be totally unprepared on the other end. Unless you will be somewhere that limits this for the majority of your stay, you can take steps to stay prepared.  If you truly want to have your preferred tools and have enough lead time, you can ship them to where you will be staying.  For a small investment in shipping each way you can have anything you might normally carry except restricted items such as a firearm. There are even ways to legally ship the firearm, but laws vary wildly on that. Check before you do.

Another way to have a kit in hand is to build a disposable kit when you arrive. This can be done if you have access to transportation and stores that can supply what you need. If you want low cost, you can build a kit at a dollar store like was detailed in “It’s Only a Dollar Kit” post. This can be carried and used while there and then either trashed or given away when you leave.  If cost is not a problem or you prefer higher quality tools, you can do the same ranging anywhere from Wal-Mart items to high end sporting good store products. In some cases, you might even be able to build a kit at a thrift store, but that can be very hit or miss. Similarly, all of these items can be disposed of one way or another at the end of the trip.

Lastly, if your travel takes you somewhere that you will not have transportation or access to stores you have to be more creative. A recent business trip required a flight and no time or transportation to assemble a kit on the other end. In this case, a 25 foot section of para-cord, some zip ties, a sturdy pen, a pen light, a roll of electrical tape, and a small sewing kit were placed in a checked bag. All of these were disposable if necessary and most also easily explained based on my occupation. After arriving in the evening, I sought out a good steak at the hotel’s restaurant. This supplied dinner and allowed me to “borrow” a steak knife. In the privacy of my room, I used some paperboard and electrical tape to fashion a sheath for it. This rode in my sock for the rest of the trip. I could have made a belt attachment, but it would have been very out of place at this event. At the end, I trashed the homemade sheath and left the knife in my room. I am sure they simply thought it was left behind from a room service order. You could take a similar approach to other items such as matches which can still be picked up at some bars and hotels. All these surrogate items did not match the complete kit I carry on a normal day, but gave me the basics to be ahead of the game if the need arose.

Here are pictures of my carry knife for that week. While not ideal, it would have been invaluable if things had gone sideways.

So in preparation for a future trip keeps these options in mind. It will let you stay prepared for whatever may arise. Just be sure to check local laws to ensure the legality of some items. Different states and countries may have much different rules than your home turf.