Eight ways you can use cotton in an emergency

It’s a bold strategy, but it can pay off.
cottom wrap in a medical kit
Soak a cotton ball in a medicinal liquid and fix it over a wound, and it will treat it longer than just a dab of medicine and bandage alone. Tim MacWelch
cotton balls and kendall vaseline
Cotton isn’t the best material for outdoor clothing, but when it’s used alone or with some other basic products, it can be a real asset when you’re in a pinch. Tim MacWelch

This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Diehard outdoor enthusiasts often have a love/hate relationship with cotton. This ancient fiber dates back to the reign of Egyptian pharaohs, and while it has many uses, winter clothing shouldn’t be among them. This is due to the fact that cotton holds moisture much longer than other fabrics, thereby wicking away precious body heat instead of moisture. It’s so bad, in fact, that the slogan “cotton kills” is frequently used in reference to outdoor clothing. Strong words, and good to remember when getting dressed, but cotton isn’t all bad. When applied to the right task, this fiber can start a fire, light our way, and help us acquire meat in a survival setting. Skip the cotton clothing in cold weather and instead, use this age-old fiber to help you survive.

1. Burn it as tinder

three cotton balls on fire
Cotton balls work fine alone as a fire-starter, but you can extend their life by several minutes if you coat them with something like petroleum jelly, oil, or wax. Tim MacWelch

Cotton balls are one of those everyday household items that are far more useful than they would appear. Typically used in the home to remove makeup and nail polish, these fluffy little bundles of fiber can perform many tasks in a survival situation. The thing I use them for the most is tinder. Dry cotton balls right out of the bag can be torn apart a little and used as tinder for ferrocerium rods and any other ignition source. These don’t last long when dry, but if you add additional fuel, you may get a 4- or 5-minute burn. This extra fuel could be petroleum jelly, cooking oil, melted wax, bacon fat, or some other oily, waxy, or resinous material.

2. Apply medication

Cotton is great at soaking up blood, but it can also dispense liquids. Load up a cotton ball or gauze pad with a needed medicinal liquid and strap it over the affected spot with a bandage or gauze for extended delivery of medicinal goodness. This is a great way to deliver tannic acid to an ingrown toenail or boil. It’s also handy when keeping medicines on rashes and infections. Add a few drops of oil of cloves to a small piece of cotton ball and place it in a dental cavity or next to your gum line for a toothache. You can also use a mass of cold, wet cotton material in a plastic bag to create a cooling compress.

3. Filter water

a water filtration teepee made of sticks and cotton
In a pinch, you can use cotton balls, or cotton linen, to purify water. Tim MacWelch

Getting the mud, sediment, and debris out of your water can make a big difference in water disinfection. These extra bits of flotsam and jetsam will mercilessly clog commercially available water filters and absorb disinfection chemicals before they can do their job making the water safe to drink. Thankfully, cotton can come to the rescue here. Cut the bottom out of a small water bottle and take the cap off. Pack the cavity with cotton balls, tightly woven gauze or cloth. Pour your dirty water in the larger end of the bottle (so it acts like a funnel). The cotton fibers will grab some of the filth and cleaner water will emerge from the other side. It’s still not safe to drink, but the water will be in better shape to process further.

4. Create a torch

a torch on fire in the woods
To help shed light on your situation, soak cotton in oil and fix it to the end of a 3-foot-long stick to create a torch. Tim MacWelch

Ever wonder how they make those cool torches you see in movies? This isn’t it, but it works just the same. Cut a stick 3 feet long from green wood, ideally with a fork at the end. (Use green wood so your handle won’t catch fire.) Use a bit of thin wire to wind a fistful of cotton balls onto the forked end of the stick. Spread them around and secure them tightly, so that the wad of white fiber looks like a giant Q-tip. Soak the cotton head in cooking oil for 30 seconds, allow it to drain for another 30 seconds, then light it with an open flame. The torch will begin to burn and you’ll have enough light to read in the darkness. Be aware that flaming cotton balls may drop out as they shrink from burning, so only use this in an area with no risk of fire.

5. Build a dart

a wooden dart with cotton fletching
To help create a gasket around the end of a blowdart, shred and spin cotton fibers about 2 inches from the end of the shaft Tim MacWelch

The darts for your blowgun can be made from a variety of materials. Black locust wood has been a dart choice for small game hunting for centuries due to its strength and heavy weight. Whatever type of dart shaft you choose, you’ll need a fletching at the end. This stabilizes the dart’s flight, and it acts as a gasket to make a seal for air to propel the dart. Thistle down and rabbit fur are traditional choices, but cotton balls work, too. Using thread about the diameter of dental floss (or dental floss), tie a knot around your dart about 2 inches from the end of the shaft. Begin spinning the dart and stuffing shredded cotton ball material under the thread wrappings. Tie or glue the end. There is a lot of technique involved in this skill, so practice and be patient.

6. Attract or repel animals

a dirty cotton sock on a rock
If you’re looking to really spread a scent around, apply it to something like a cotton sock and the odor will dissipate for days. Tim MacWelch

Has your family ever complained about your stinky socks? Scent can be a powerful entity, and when it comes to hunting, trapping, and gardening, cotton can hold onto a lot of it. Scent can lure or repel, based on the odor and a creature’s reaction to it. You could drip bug-repelling oils into some cotton and hang them around your vegetable plants with small paper clips. You could also add an enticing scent to cotton and use it to lure game animals into a trap. However you use cotton to hold and convey scent, keep in mind that scent wears off, and you’ll need to reapply after a rain or every few days in drier weather.

7. Poison pests

four cotton balls on a stone ground
Cotton balls soaked in water, sugar, and borax will keep pests away from your home or shelter. Tim MacWelch

In a grid-down setting, you’ll have to be your own pest-control expert. Once the last can of Raid has been sprayed, you’ll have to use another approach to control roaches, ants, and other household insect pests. Luckily, some sugar and borax (a traditional laundry additive) will kill those little buggers without filling your home with poison. Mix a tablespoon of white sugar and a teaspoon of borax with just enough warm water so that the granules dissolve. Soak a cotton ball in this solution and then set the sticky cotton ball on a piece of wax paper in an area that the insects frequent. This will really draw the creatures and each one that feeds on your sweet treat will soon die.

8. Make a wick

a homemade candle with a cotton wick
To save battery life in your flashlight, use cotton and old wax to create a makeshift candle. Tim MacWelch

Our cave-dwelling ancestors once used fluffy seed down from cattails as a lamp wick material. We can borrow this idea and use a more contemporary material for a similar purpose. In a dish of oil (edible or not), place one or more cotton balls so they are partially submerged. Light the top of the greasy cotton with an open flame and it will begin to burn like a candle wick. Going a step further, you can roll and twist a cotton ball until it becomes elongated and resembles a fat piece of cordage material. Use this as an oil lamp wick, or even stick it in a container of melted wax to become a proper candle wick.