Survival Lab: Light 'Em Up

Wet, cold, lost, hungry: In desperate times, nothing improves your changes of survival more than a roaring blaze. We tested every fuel source under the sun to show you how to start a fire every time.
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Cotton Ball
We soaked this classic in olive oil, Vaseline, and hand sanitizer. Olive oil burns longest, but alcohol is easiest to light. Solution? Use both: Soak it in extra virgin and add a dab of Purell as an accelerant for nearly nine minutes of fire. Thirty seconds under a lighter gets it going in a downpour.
Difficulty Medium

This tasty, salty treat comes packed with enough oils to light and burn for nearly two minutes—even after being dunked in a stream. Pro tip: The increased surface area of a Tostito buys you another minute of flame—and two more minutes of thin, red-hot coals after it gutters out.
Difficulty Easy

This trail-mix staple is tough to light (especially when wet), but after attempting to light a single raw nut for 45 seconds, it caught and yielded 2:40 of inch-high flames—more than enough to light a golf ball-size tinder nest. Almonds and peanuts also work, but cashews burn best.
Difficulty Hard

SOL TinderQuik
An earplug-size knot of über-flammable TinderQuik fiber ($4; survived downpours, dunkings, and dirt/debris to burn for 3:18 in our test (a dime-size coal glows for another 1:30). Bonus: TinderQuik lights with just a few sparks.
Difficulty Easy

Key Skill: Firebow
Wasted your last match? Friction and elbow grease to the rescue! 1. Tie your shoelace to both ends of a curved, strong stick about 2 feet in length. Tie it tight to make a taut-stringed bow. 2. Carve a point at one end of another 8-inch straight stick (look for alder, birch, sycamore, or willow) and leave the other end rounded (the drill). 3. In a flat, inch-thick board of soft wood (willow or birch), whittle a divot about a half-inch from the edge to accommodate the drill’s pointy end, and then cut a V-shaped notch between hole and edge. 4. Prep a tinder bundle using shredded bark, dead leaves, or dry grass, and build a teepee of finger-width sticks. 5. Step on the board to hold it in place with the notch positioned over the tinder. 6. Loop your bow’s string once around the drill, then place the drill in the notch. Lube the rounded end with spit, and hold it in place with a stone in your palm. 7. From down on one knee, work the bow like a one-handed saw until an ember forms; when you see a glow or thin wisps of smoke, gently blow on it to coax flames. 8. Transfer the flaming ember carefully to your tinder and teepee of sticks. See how at

Advanced Pyrotechnics: Make a failsafe firestarter

Lab Notes

>>Packed a lighter? Great. Bring two.
>>Teepee or log cabin? In our testing, it didn’t matter—as long as you have good airflow. Dig a shallow X under your kindling to boost ventilation.
>>Want to impress your friends? All you need is steel wool and a 9V battery. Pull apart the steel wool to make a bird’s nest. Pile tinder and kindling on top. Touch the battery’s terminals to the steel wool to set off sparks and embers. Proceed to ignore dropped jaws and popped eyes. Works (though not as easily) with a cell phone battery, too.

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