If you’re at all familiar with Secrets of Survival, you’ll know that we very frequently refer back to the survival rule of threes – the rule of thumb that you should prioritize your survival needs in the following order based on how long you can survive without them.
- Breathable air (3 minutes)
- Shelter/warmth (3 hours)
- Water (3 days)
- Food (3 weeks)
Today, we’re going to be focusing on teaching you a very basic survival skill that could nevertheless end up being lifesaving because it can help you “provide” yourself with the second priority on the list – shelter/warmth.
Why Should I Learn How to Make Char Cloth?
In this article, we’ll be going over how you can make char cloth – an easy to make, straightforward fire-starting material that will catch with the slightest spark. You can imagine why this might be useful in a survival situation – imagine you’re caught out in a bad storm in the wilderness. You desperately need a fire. If you’ve got char cloth on you, you’re 90% of the way there because it catches so easily.
If you have a way to make sparks (e.g flint and steel or ferro rod), char cloth is what you use those sparks to get smoldering. You then use this smoldering char cloth to set fire to kindling. It’s the bridge between the sparks and an actual flame.
Keep in mind that char cloth is something you make in advance of any trek or wilderness adventure. You need a fire to be able to make char cloth – you can’t make it “on-the-spot” in a wilderness survival situation because the whole point of the char cloth is to allow you to start a fire more easily, but you need a fire to begin with in order to make char cloth.
In other words, the technique of making char cloth is something you do ahead of time as a form of preparation for a foray into the wilderness, not a skill you use when you’re actually in a wilderness emergency.
You might think that as long as you have sparks, you have fire, but you’d be wrong. It’s not that easy to get from sparks to an actual fire, especially in adverse conditions (the kind of conditions that you want to be planning for if you want to be a survivalist). Most tinder that you can find in the wilderness doesn’t catch fire easily and burns up very quickly even when it does. If you’re dealing with difficult weather, there might not even be any viable tinder around because everything’s wet. Char cloth is one solution that’ll help you go from producing sparks to getting kindling to catch fire consistently.
Making char cloth is a pretty primitive skill that’s been used by survivalists and outdoorsmen for a very long time, so we’re not talking about rocket science here. This technique has probably been around since before medieval times. In fact, when you think of the word “tinderbox” (not a word commonly used these days) – tinderboxes used to be pretty common as a way to start fires, and the “tinder” included in tinderboxes was often char cloth.
It’s the kind of practical survival skill that everyone should learn because it’s so easy – unfortunately in today’s world there doesn’t seem to be a lot of demand for people to learn anything practical.
What is Char Cloth and How Does it Work?
You can think of “char cloth” as the cloth equivalent to charcoal (which is really “char wood” if we were being consistent). In fact, they’re not just similar – scientifically, they’re almost exactly the same thing.
Char cloth is created through a process called pyrolysis. We won’t dive deep into the science of it all, but essentially what you are doing is taking some kind of organic material (linen, cotton, silk, hemp, jute etc), then you are applying heat to it but not feeding it any oxygen. In order words, you are “burning” something but without the fire. This decomposes the organic material, turning it into a fuel that burns slowly and ignites at a low temperature.
In order words, char cloth is almost identical to charcoal – with the notable exception of size and thickness. Obviously, charcoal comes in lumps, but char cloth is thin enough that it catches fire immediately (and burns relatively slowly compared to other similarly thin materials).
That’s why it’s the perfect tinder for starting a fire. It’s not going to burn out quickly, but it will catch fire immediately.
Once you’ve got the char cloth, you can light it with just a spark – from flint and steel, or a ferro rod, or a lighter that’s out of gas. If you don’t have any gear that produces sparks (you really should), you can even use the magnifying glass method with a pair of glasses or a spark from an electrical device to spark your char cloth into a state where it’s smoldering and ready for kindling.
Alright, let’s get into how to make char cloth. It’s actually astoundingly simple for such a useful survival skill.
How to Make Char Cloth
Here what you need to be able to make char cloth:
- Cloth (from a t-shirt, bandage, bandana, etc)
- Survival knife, multi tool, or just scissors
- Small tin can (Altoids tin, coffee can, or something equivalent)
- Optional: Screwdriver from multi tool or screw (or just use your knife)
- Optional: Aluminum foil
Cut some square pieces from your source of cloth. Try to make sure the pieces are similarly sized for consistency’s sake. Make sure your cloth can fit into whatever tin can you have.
Start a campfire. The goal here is to make coals, so a gas fire isn’t going to work (unless you use the gas fire to burn wood to create hot coals). Wait for the fire to burn out a bit so you have some hot, glowing coals that you can separate out from the fire.
Put your cloth into your tin can. If you’re using a tin can that already has a lid, poke a small hole in the lid with a screwdriver, screw, or with your survival knife. If your tin can doesn’t have a lid, get some aluminum foil and use that as a lid (poke a hole in your lid either way). You want a small hole for the smoke to escape, but make sure the hole is small – the whole point is to starve the cloth of oxygen so it can’t actually catch fire at this stage. If your cloth catches fire then you’ll just be left with a tin can full of ash.
Now that you have a bed of hot coals and your tin can ready, put the tin can onto the coals, lid side up. Smoke should start escaping from the holy that you poked. You need to watch the tin can carefully at this point. At some point, smoke will stop coming out from the hole – at this point, you want to (carefully) turn your tin can over so its lid side down on the heat. The smoke from the can will start up again.
We’re turning the tin can over here because you want your char cloth to “cook” evenly on both sides. If you don’t turn the can over, you’ll be left with some char cloth and some regular cloth.
Once the smoke stops for the second side, remove the tin can from the coals (again, carefully). Obviously the tin is going to be extremely hot. Set the tin can aside to let it cool without removing the lid.
Once the tin can has cooled sufficiently, you can remove the lid and the cloth that you had inside the tin can will now be char cloth.
If you’ve done this correctly, the char cloth that you have should be black, and it should hold together reasonably well (i.e it shouldn’t disintegrate or fall apart when you touch it).
How to Start a Fire with Char Cloth
If you want to test your char cloth, you can do so by using a ferro rod or flint and steel to produce sparks onto it. It should catch very quickly, but continue burning for much longer than the typical tinder that you gather in the wild (it’ll burn for minutes rather than seconds).
If you wrap kindling around your char cloth and gently blow on it, your kindling should start rapidly smoking. Progressively blow more oxygen into it until it catches fire properly.
If your kindling catches fire, then you know you’ve made your char cloth properly.
Now any time you want to start a fire, you can start with your new char cloth tinder, light kindling in the method described above, then you use the kindling to light your “fuel” (most likely wood in this case).
However, the first step in the process of making a fire is now much more straightforward because your char cloth will burn much longer and catch sparks much more easily than “regular” tinder, which can be difficult in the best of times.
To store your char cloth, keep it in an air-tight container (if you were using an altoids tin for the process above, that’s a perfect storage vessel). Carry it around with you in the wilderness along with something that can make sparks and you’ll basically have access to an easy campfire anytime you want.