Power’s Out and in a Pinch? How to Create 5 Makeshift Urban Survival Lights

by A Manly Guest Contributor on October 22, 2013 · 26 comments

in Manly Skills, Self-Reliance, Survival

Editor’s Note: This guest post by Creek Stewart first appeared at willowhavenoutdoor.com

It’s impossible to be perfectly prepared for an imperfect world. Sometimes you just have to go MacGyver and solve common problems by using the resources you have on hand and a little ingenuity. I’ve always said that the ability to improvise is one of the most important survival skills.

This article is a collection (not all my own I’ll admit) of a few creative, makeshift lighting solutions you may have to deploy as a last resort if the grid goes down. You just never know when one of these innovative ideas might shed some light into your darkness.

Shining Sardines

Sardines are an excellent survival food. They have a long shelf-life and are full of protein and fats. Maybe you have some sardines packed in your emergency food storage. If not, consider them.


Oil lamps have been used for hundreds of years. From rendered whale blubber to modern kerosene lanterns, oil lamps are excellent “off-grid” lighting solutions. What do sardines and oil lamps have to do with each other? Quite a lot, actually, if your sardines are packed in olive oil.

Once you’re done munching on those tasty bites of fish, place a natural fiber wick into the remaining oil and slightly over the edge of the sardine container. The wick, in this case a cotton string from a mop head, will absorb the oil. Once the wick is fully soaked, simply light the end. A sardine lamp with just a little bit of oil will burn for many hours. Sure, it’ll smell like fish, but that’s what you get for not including emergency candles in your “bug in” supplies. Running low on oil? No problem, just top it off with some more olive oil from the pantry – or any cooking oil for that matter.

Cotton Fiber Mop Head

Cotton Fiber Wick Soaking Up Olive Oil

Sardine Olive Oil Lamp

Glowing Crayolas

Games and toys are excellent items to pack in an emergency kit – especially if you have small children. Simple toys such as crayons and coloring books can help keep their mind off of the misfortune that caused the lights to go out in the first place.

But if you’ve focused only on toys and no essentials, like candles and flashlights, then you may have to sacrifice some of their least favorite crayon colors and make some Crayndles. I made that word up. Crayons are basically colored wax. If you’re in a hurry, just break the point off and light the paper label at the end of the crayon. As the wax melts, the paper becomes a wick and one crayndle will last about 30 minutes. Not too bad.


You can also get a little more creative and sandwich a natural fiber wick (like a shred of t-shirt material) between three crayons that have been stripped of their labels. Bind everything together with two short pieces of wire; paper clips work well. Then, simply light the wick. I got one of these to burn for about an hour. Not too bad for a 10-second makeshift crayndle.

Three crayons - No Paper - With Cotton Fiber Wick

Cotton Fiber Wick in Middle of Three Paperless Crayons

Three Crayons - No Paper - Wired tight around cotton fiber wick

Blazing Bottles

If you’ve listened to anything I said in Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag, then I know you at least have a headlamp packed in your 72-hour disaster kit.

Yet as nice as headlamps are, they aren’t always the perfect lighting solution. Ever tried having dinner or playing cards across the table with someone who’s wearing a headlamp flashlight? It’s really annoying and gets really old, really fast. You get blinded every time they look at you.

Instead, set a relaxing mood that’s perfect for cards and a sardine dinner using a headlamp and a water-filled clear plastic gallon jug (or any clear container filled with water). Invert the headlamp around the bottle so that the light shines toward the CENTER of the bottle. The water diffuses and diverts the light – making a nice, mellow, glowing lamp that will help set a perfect mood during any disaster “bug in.”


Headlamp Bottle Lamp

Beaconing Bacon

If you’re like my mom, then you have a jar in the cupboard where you pour and keep excess bacon grease. This grease makes the perfect improvised survival candle. Jam in a natural fiber wick and light. It’ll burn as long as any comparably-sized candle. See this post about how to make a bacon grease candle.

No bacon grease? No problem. If the electricity is out, then the bacon in the fridge is going to go bad anyway, so you might as well use it for something. Tear off the fatty pieces and jam them in a jar around a natural fiber wick, and this will burn like a candle as well. The fatty bacon pieces will melt just like wax. Mmmmm, smells like bacon. TIP:  Smear the wick with bacon fat first!

Smashed Bacon Candle

Kindling Crisco

But what if the electricity is off for more than 30 days straight and you need a light source that will shine for at least a month?

No problem, Crisco’s got your back.

Press a natural fiber wick (like a cotton t-shirt shred or a mop strand) using a forked stick to the bottom of a can of Crisco and you’ve got one of the longest burning emergency candles on the planet. Yum, doesn’t that make you hungry? Fried chicken anyone? I’ve heard reports of these burning for more than 30 days straight!

Note: Smear the top of the wick with Crisco to get it to burn better.

Forked Stick Positioned to Jam in Cotton Fiber Wick


Removing Stick after Pushing in Wick

Cotton Fiber Wick - Trimmed

Crisco Candle


What’s the lesson here? Make sure you have non-electric lighting solutions in place just in case the grid goes down. If your solutions are battery powered, you will also need extra batteries as well. Oil lamps, flashlights, candles, and glow sticks are great emergency light sources. Don’t resort to smashing bacon fat into a jar with your bare hands unless you absolutely have to.

Note: Candles have a bad reputation of causing house fires. Makeshift improvised candles are even more dangerous. Use only as a last resort, burn only on a non-combustible surface and keep close watch on any makeshift candle. A house fire can turn a “bug in” scenario into a “bug out” scenario really fast.

Remember, it’s not IF but WHEN.



Creek Stewart is a Senior Instructor at the Willow Haven Outdoor School for Survival, Preparedness & Bushcraft. Creek’s passion is teaching, sharing, and preserving outdoor living and survival skills. Creek is also the author of the book Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit. For more information, visit Willow Haven Outdoor.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gerald October 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm

if you are make a light with Fat etc.
you can also use 2 wicks.

Look up “hindenburg light” on Wikipedia, they were made with scrap-fat-tallow and 2 wicks. Brighter then single Candles and used in folding lanterns etc.


Also think about big jars etc. as a windbreak and you can also improvise reflectors and lanterns from used Cans for even more effective lighting.


2 Tom Macko October 22, 2013 at 8:31 pm

This kind of stuff always interests me. Funny enough I just listened to the podcast with Creek Stewart today. Definitely going to put together a bug out bag, good list of things to consider here.

3 Clay Williams October 22, 2013 at 8:38 pm

If you have time, or at least, think you have time. Try melting candle wax and take the wife’s cotton rounds for whatever they use them for and douse them with the candle wax. Let’em dry, strike a match, and poof….. instant fire starter.

4 AZDuffman October 22, 2013 at 8:43 pm

I just started keeping bacon grease but thought I was weird for doing so, maybe not so much!

5 Dan Vogelsong October 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm

I’m a huge fan of the Water-plus-bleach lamps for indoor lighting in third world countries. It’s very similar to the Blazing Bottle above, but doesn’t use an electric power source. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zMAWztZ6TI

A tip for those interested in Bacon candles, but think they may get sick of the smell after a bit – mix a bit of cinnamon to the ball o’ fat. The cinnamon will overpower the bacon, making it smell like Christmas. That, and other random candle-making tips, lovingly stolen from Michael Bunker’s Surviving Off Off-Grid

6 Steve October 22, 2013 at 9:19 pm


7 Luke October 22, 2013 at 9:34 pm

is it safe to burn crayolas in an enclosed area with children?

8 Jim October 23, 2013 at 2:32 am

Another easy one people may not think about are those solar outdoor path lights a lot of folks now have. Just pull them up, and use them inside during the outage. You can always put them back in the ground the next day.

9 hardwig October 23, 2013 at 3:14 am

You never know when the zombie apocalypse begins, so you better be prepared :)

10 John October 23, 2013 at 5:58 am

heheh – “Extra Light” olive oil. :)

11 David Couvillon October 23, 2013 at 7:55 am

Bacon doesn’t NEED to be refrigerated – so you don’t have to use it so fast. Though it smells and can turn green as it ages, it is still edible, just cook it thoroughly and of course use the grease!

12 Eric October 23, 2013 at 7:57 am

This goes to show that BACON makes everything better. Loved the post.

13 Byron Williams October 23, 2013 at 8:14 am

Don’t forget shoe polish. It’s also flammable and can be used in an emergency.

14 Matthew October 23, 2013 at 8:35 am

I have found that the cheapest candles out there are the Catholic votive candles at the grocery store.They’re usually around $1 and they last hours and hours and hours. I might need that crisco candle in the future though. 30 days straight day and night? that’s better than some light bulbs!

15 FeatherBlade October 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

If one isn’t into Crisco, can butter be used instead?

16 Brad Williams October 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Very cool article. If you read a lot of survival books you tend to see the same stuff over and over again. This was really fresh, so thanks for the tips.

17 Steve October 23, 2013 at 9:13 pm

I’d rather sit in the dark than waste good bacon!

Another light: Tortilla chips will burn for 5-10 mins each.

18 Allie October 24, 2013 at 9:16 am

Featherblade: Butter’s no good because of its low melting point and high smoke point. Crisco stays solid at high temperatures. Not as high as candle wax but still.

Butter turns to mush at room temperature, but unlike olive or vegetable oil which are fine for burning in these situations, it’ll scorch and produce smoke if you expose it to fire for very long.

19 JG Hunter October 24, 2013 at 11:20 am

One crayola lasts half an hour, three strapped together lasts an hour. Hmm…. I think that’s inefficient! Go with the former I say!

Anchovies comes in jars, frequently, of oil. Once they are used you could do the same sort of thing as an oil lamp.

20 Claire October 24, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Pimientos are packed in oil, too and make a pretty good candle. Uncooked spaghetti can be lit and used like a long match. Great tips!

21 bil October 24, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Funny, I just keep plenty of candles with sturdy bases, 3-4 kerosene lamps, a propane camping lamp, and some LED lamps for reading. Of course, we have regular power outages here.

22 Jim October 25, 2013 at 2:03 am

Here’s another easy one. Uses steel wool and a nine-volt radio battery. Just touch the battery to the steel wool and it will spark and catch fire (the oil on the steel wool). You can use the steel wool as tinder for a fire this way.

23 Andrew October 29, 2013 at 2:39 pm

On a similar vein, you can make your own fire starters by melting leftover candle wax and mixing in drier lint, then pouring the mixture into old egg carton pieces. The lint acts like dozens of wicks, keeping it burning for long enough to start a fire or barbecue easily.

24 Angel November 7, 2013 at 10:37 am

I would love to PIN some of your articles instead of saving them to my facebook wall. Can you please begin adding a PIN button. Great ideas, crisco idea is my favorite along with the jug of water. In a hurricane situation we always have water jugs so great way to keep a soft light in the family space as we wait out the weather

25 emily January 8, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Put a headlamp around the water jug is an interesting idea. Next time the power goes out, I might try that.

26 Jon January 28, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Squatter’s candle:
-paraffin wax
- metal container i.e. soda can
- tinder i.e. cardboard

Place tinder in metal container, drip wax until tinder is covered, and decent coat is made at bottom of container. Light tinder. Feed flame chunks of wax periodically. Flame will last for hours. good heat source and light source. * Necessary caution must be applied when using a squatter’s candle, as the container becomes very hot, and the wax may spurt.*

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