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Video: Dryer lint as wilderness survival firestarter? No way!

600 300 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

Inevitably, at every firemaking seminar I’m involved in, somebody suggests using dryer lint as firestarter.  My response:  I have tested and tried dryer lint, don’t carry it, and recommend you don’t either.

by Leon Pantenburg

Knives Ship Free Delivers Direct

You stake your life on your firemaking kit components. Let’s apply the common sense filter to this dryer lint firestarter idea.

Here’s some related information from the National Fire Protection Association:

  • Dryers and washing machines were involved in one out of every 22 home structure fires reported to U.S. fire departments in 2006-2010.(How many millions of dryers are used every day?)
  • In 2010, an estimated 16,800 reported U.S. home structure fires involving clothes dryers or washing machines resulted in 51 civilian deaths, 380 civilian injuries and $236 million in direct property damage.
  • The leading cause of home clothes dryer and washer fires was failure to clean (32%), followed by unclassified mechanical failure or malfunction (22%).

A standard construction practice is to run the exhaust pipe through the drywall with a 90-degree elbow. This can cause the lint to accumulate at that angle, next to the hot dryer.

Dryer lint is just OK as a firestarter.

Dryer lint is just OK as a firestarter.

So the question might be, based on the evidence from the house fires: Is dryer lint really that flammable? Or is it the combination of heat, improper venting and an accumulation of dry lint next to a hot dryer that causes house fires?

Our concern is survival fire making though, so let’s consider the pros and cons of dryer lint as a firestarter.

Proponents of dryer lint firestarter claim:

  • Dryer lint is easily ignited with a match, lighter and/or ferro stick.
  • Dryer lint is  compact and easy to carry.
  • Dryer lint is free for the taking, and flammable. There are multiple internet postings showing the material being ignited, along with directions for making lint-based fire starters.

My first concern about dryer lint has to do with reliability. In 2002, as part of a project for Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, Oregon, the late Dr. Jim Grenfell and I set out to find the ultimate, practical fire ignition method that would work for the average person.

We also tested practical firestarters. Dryer lint was one of the initial items tested and it never made the first cut.
The material used for the field trials came from my dryer, and I tested the lint from virtually every load of clothes for about two weeks. That ended up being a lot of testing! At the time there were three active teenagers and a Lab in the house, along with all the clothes drying associated with skiing, hunting, snowboarding, winter sports and school athletics.

Cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly and a ferro rod are effective firemaking tools.

Cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly and a ferrocerrium rod are effective firemaking tools.

The testing method was to take whatever handful of lint was in the filter, go out into the garage and ignite it with a ferrocerium rod. This is where the reliability issue surfaced. (Dog hair was a constant in all the test samples!)

Some lint, such as that from a load of  cotton jeans, ignited readily. Lighting lint from a mixed load of natural fabrics and wool and microfibers was iffy, and sometimes the flame went out before burning up the lint completely. And several times, the lint from a load of polypropylene, wool and various synthetic microfibers didn’t ignite.

I’ve heard similar results from other scoutmasters who have checked out lint reliability.

My recommendation is to substitute cotton balls in any application where you might currently be using dryer lint.

Here’s why:

  • While dryer lint is free, a jumbo 100 percent cotton ball will cost less than a penny. The cost of filling a 35-mm film container or prescription pill container with five cotton balls is less than a nickel!
  • Cotton balls start out as a sterile medical item and can also be used for first aid needs, such bandaging or cleaning a wound or abrasion. Among the particles in dryer lint is dirt, dust, allergens and all sorts of airborne spores and microbes.
  • Both cotton balls and dryer lint can absorb moisture from the air. The difference is that cotton has long fibers which can be dried easier than lint, which is composed of small particles, pet and human hair, pieces of plastic and other, unknown materials.
  • Dryer lint mats and compacts more than cotton, making it harder to light. It’s more difficult  to fluff up to light.
  • I carry cotton balls infused with petroleum jelly as one of the firestarters in my survival kit. If I start to feel a hot spot or blister rising from a boot chaffing, I rub the area with the cotton ball and petroleum jelly. In a pinch, a petroleum jelly and cotton ball, along with duct tape, has been used to create a makeshift band aide. Never rub any skin abrasion, or try to stop a blood flow, with lint!

Grenfell’s and my conclusion was that:  There is nothing dryer lint can do that a cotton ball can’t do better. The advantages of cotton balls easily make up the cost difference.

If dryer lint is still in your survival kit, please test before trusting it! Personally, I’ll spend an extra few cents and use cotton balls. My life is worth that to me!

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19 comments
  • Leon

    I recently re-located to Mississippi, and it is easy to pick up cotton in the ditches near a cotton field. Free tinder that is reliable!

  • Steve Rawls

    Cotton balls light almost instantly with a ferro rod. The little testing I did with dryer lint wasn’t bad but took a tiny bit more effort to start. I haven’t tested a l lot of lint because I can just pick up a huge bag of cotton balls and not worry about it.

  • John Ray Essig

    I use dryer lint rolled in a thin layer of news paper, with the ends twisted like a tootsie roll wrapper. I then give the rolls a quick dip in candle wax, to water proof & make them burn longer. Granted I only use lint from a load of bath towels. Simple to ignite. Take the small water proof self contained roll, and break it in half. The fluf the lint slightly. Add the spark to the lint, and blow gently on the flame to increase the heat through oxygen flow. The waxed paper will catch, burn long enough to start small & build up. When I was in boy scouts, we called them fire bugs. I still use this method today, and have started thousands of fires with no fails. Earned my Eagle scout in 1993, served 8 years active duty combat arms Army. This method works, and has never failed me. Try it, you will love it. Takes less strikes to start lint, than cotton. Save some rod for later.

  • Steve Lee

    Leon, your article was very helpful. As a player in the fabric industry, I would like to add a few points and explain for many of your readers why results are great for some and iffy for others. The key to using dryer lint is choice of fiber. Cotton is perfect. All other fibers are not. Cotton blends aren’t good, either. Wool self extinguishes because of the lanolin contained therein. Synthetics don’t burn, they melt. Bottom line, pure cotton lint is great, and is the same as a cotton ball. But you have to keep it separate from all other fibers.

  • Aaron Benham

    Use paraffin wax, not petroleum jelly. It is dry, hard and no where near as messy. So much easier to carry in your pack. It is a great use for all those leftover birthday candles, one or two per cotton ball. Just leave enough dry cotton on the ball to strike with your flint & steel and test it a few dozen times before you bet your life on it.

  • Aaron Benham

    I believe that the point here is that dryer lint is unreliable, not that it can’t work. I prefer to use natural materials from the environment for starting fires but I always carry a supply of emergency tinder to use if I need that fire now and I don’t have time to gather what I need. I also practice building fires with those materials. If you are packing something for that purpose, you want it to be something that you know will work 100% of the time and dryer lint is not it. Try lighting it with a flint & steel. It might work this time, but not when you really need it. I attempted to light some lint out of my dryer a short time ago. I flamed for about 2 seconds then went out. As was said earlier, modern fabrics are treated with flame retardant chemicals and won’t burn long enough to get your fire going. Cultivate knowledge of your environment so you won’t need something like dryer lint to start your fires, but also carry something that is 100% reliable because it is easy to become over-confident in your ability. I like char-cloth or cotton balls half soaked in paraffin wax. They light easily with a flint & steel or an ember from a bow drill and burn for several minutes even in wet conditions. Knowledge AND experience is power.

  • Dave Whitford

    I’d thought about dryer lint as a tinder, but then as you noted, it’s not JUST cotton. Dirt, pet hair, human hair and worst synthetic polyesters. Clothing made from the later “engineered” material are created to be flame retardant or non combustible at all. Newer clothing is treated to be flame retardant also. So, you may be trying to start a fire with what might equate to asbestos tinder. Don’t think that’s gonna work too well…

  • Leon

    I have been amazed that people will argue about something as cheap as cotton balls. It anyone objects to paying less than five cents for cotton balls, I will help. Send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and I’ll send you a nichol to buy five cotton balls.

  • ED

    QUITE THE FIGHT OVER SOMETHING SO SIMPLE. DRYER LINT FREE vs 5 CENTS FOR COTTON BALLS. IF SAVING MONEY IS THE ACTUAL GOAL, WHY AREN’T YOU DRYING YOUR CLOTHES ON A LINE OUTSIDE. IF IT’S TOO COLD HANG THEM INSIDE AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HUMIDIFYING THE DRY AIR. AFTER ALL, LINE DRYING IS FREE AND GAS OR ELECTRIC DRYING IS VERY EXPENSIVE. ESPECIALLY FOR A “FREE BALL OF LINT”.

  • Joe

    Ive used dryer lint for 40+ yrs, it has never failed me, not once..best lint is drying levis or jeans..

  • Leon

    Cotton balls cost less than a penny apiece, and you can fill a standard prescription bottle with five for under a nickel. My life is worth that to me.

  • Kels

    ok. so I read all of this and tried it on my own…having just done some laundry 🙂 I just rubbed a little dab of vaseline into some dryer lint from a load I just did-we have two dogs. EW, not exactly pleasant but….. I did not use much vaseline, in fact, the lint was still pretty dry to the touch…placed a tiny piece in my fire place and put a flame to it for about a second. The lint did catch, and seemed to act like a wick,..it burned for quite a bit…I am new to prepping and have extremely limited means. I have to say, the lint caught on fire, and lasted long enough for me to put some shavings there and build it into a bigger fire. I remember in my old girl scout days filling cardboard egg cartons with the stuff and pouring candle wax on top…we used to tear off a round and light the outer cardboard on fire…worked every time. Not trying to take sides, but I really like that this is so inexpensive and something I can add enough to a little medicine bottle fire kit that I think in an emergency, it would work well enough to make fire. If I had more resources I can see the benefit of cotton balls too. But we are a family of 6, 15-52 years old, so anyplace I can save a few pennies is worth a little extra time and effort on my part 🙂 But next time I think I will put everything into a baggie and mix through the plastic 🙂

  • Keith

    “Because lint in unreliable” as I stated earlier. In my personal experience – it hasn’t ever been unreliable. But by all means, it’s your site, so keep repeating that it is.

    ” The bottom line is” that Dryer lint is free and cotton balls are not. They are indeed cheap, but not free. Additionally, because as a trained EMT, I would not use cotton balls as a wound dressing unless they were the only option so the concept of carrying cotton balls specifically as wound dressing with an additional purpose of fire starting is – well – a non starter for me.

    And of course, I would never put dryer lint on a wound, but then again this article isn’t about how to treat wounds.

  • Leon

    Lint in unreliable, but people think they can depend on it for firemaking and they can’t. I tested hundreds of pieces of lint to arrive at this opinion. The bottom line is: Cotton is so cheap, there is no savings using “free” lint. As long as cotton balls are less than a penny apiece there is no point.
    Also, you can use cotton balls as part of a medical dressing, you wouldn’t want to ever put dryer lint on a wound.
    Dump the dryer lint.

  • Keith

    I’ve used dryer lint for years and years for hundreds of camp fires. Never once did it fail me from age 8 now into my 40’s. Of course one needs to know how to build a fire in the first place – and where to place the dryer lint. here’s a hint – it doesn’t simply rest on top of your fire. And it matters not what the ignition source- Ferro’ rod, lighter, cigar. as long as the stuff is dry it works great. Maybe if you had less dog hair, I wonder?

    As mentioned elsewhere here, if you put the lint in an empty TP roll it will work faster (as long as you don’t over stuff the TP roll. And if you add some Vaseline, it will work better still.

    All of the positives you mention here that proponents of dryer lint “claim” are true actually are true, not sure why you’ve had issues with it.

  • Christopher

    I agree 100%.
    I have packed 30 cotton balls into a waterproof matchcase, and figure that it is often possible to get 20 fires per ball.
    Thistle-down seems to work better than dryer lint.

  • clarkacres

    I use both. I stuff the dryer lint into toilet tissue rollers-paper towel cardboard holder . These I use at deer camp or my cabin for the wood stoves and for the outdoor fire pits. I store them in a airtight container. I have also used pringles paper cans- oatmeal containers and even cereal boxes. Which work great for campfires! Paper lunch bags work great as well for woodstoves.
    In my BOB bag I do cotton balls simply because it’s smaller and easier to carry. I keep those in a plastic soap container after I put them in a baggie and vacumm seal.
    If you vacumm seal what you make you are safe from moisture!

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