make char cloth tinder

Never worry about starting a campfire again!

If you've ever experimented with alternative "survival" fire-starting methods -- like rubbing sticks together, focusing a magnifying glass, flint and steel, etc. -- you know that no matter how "dependable" the method, it can still take a while to get a spark to catch your tinder and get it glowing enough to actually get a fire going. Heck, if it's wet and rainy, it can be difficult to get a fire going even if you're starting with a lighter!

The key is in your source of tinder. Out in the wild it can be really tough to scrounge up the perfect combination of thin and light and totally dry. That's why those with Bushcraft experience always carry an emergency kit (like the famous "Altoids Kit") and always include in their supplies a pack of dependable all-weather fire-starters. One of the favorites is Vaseline-soaked cotton balls. Another is Char Cloth.

What's Char Cloth?

It's a funny word, right? Char Cloth is just cloth that is turned into charcoal. Why? Because charcoal burns very hot, and compared to ordinary wood, paper, or cloth, it's a more pure concentration of volatile carbon. And the great thing about using cotton cloth for your charcoal source is that your charcoal will be made of very thin fibers which will catch a spark even faster!

You can easily prepare your own quick lighting emergency "char cloth" with just a tin can, a cotton T-shirt, and a large source of heat such as a barbecue grill, campfire, or if you want to be tricky, by using the sun and a big magnifying glass like he does in the video below. The idea is to place your cloth in the can, heat up the can enough to release and burn off all the cotton fibers' biogases, and then simply collect what's left -- ie. pure charcoal.

If you're already pretty schooled in Bushcraft, you might be thinking ahead... What if we substituted cotton balls for the T-shirt? Would that work even better? Watch the video to the end! (He has you covered.) 

Digging Deeper...

As cool as this is, I find it fascinating to think about what's "wasted" in this process.

What if you didn't just burn off the escaping gas and actually used it for something useful? Like, say, cooking?

Essentially the video above describes the same principles used to make a DIY wood gasification stove -- like the ones many backpacking survivalists use to cook food, and which I personally use when I'm out boondocking in my camper. But rather than use the gases to cook dinner, the focus of the char cloth project is simply to get at the valuable leftover charcoal. 

The process in each is the same, though. The idea of a wood gasifier is to separate the natural combustion process. Contrary to the common assumption, wood doesn't actually burn. When you make a campfire, what you're actually doing is heating up the wood to release the gases (a stage called "pyrolysis"), then burning the released wood-gas.

Pyrolysis (gas release) happens in the absence of oxygen. That's why he puts the cloth in a tin can, leaving only a small hole for the gases to escape. A gasifying cook stove (like the SoloStove) uses the same idea to separate the pyrolysis process from the combustion process, first heating up wood in the central chamber to release the hot gases, then introducing "secondary air" from side chambers to combust the gases at the top of the stove. The result is a very clean-burning wood-gas stove that can cook dinner very quickly using only easy-to-find twigs.

To circle back around to char cloth...

If you already have a charcoal-producing gasifying camp stove -- like the SoloStove or another homemade version -- then you can make your own emergency kit char cloth without even being wasteful! All you have to do is use a cotton T-shirt or cotton balls in your fuel chamber while you're heating up leftovers, and you'll be ready for your next out-of-lighter-fluid emergency. (Helpul note; To get the purest charcoal you need to make sure your gasifier stove restricts oxygen to the fuel chamber and lets in plenty of secondary air.)

how to light an emergency fire without a match

light campfire without matches


You might be smarter than a 5th grader...

But Are You Smarter Than A Caveman?

There's obviously something primal about wondering -- if my life (or at least my dinner) depended on it -- if I could summon the spirit of McGyver and jimmy up a primitive fire out of twigs and leaves (and some random found object) like we've all seen on TV.

It's like a basic human curiosity.

If I had to... Could I do it? Could I start a fire from scratch?

Interestingly, I posted the Pump Fire Drill graphic (below) to Tumblr on a new account with only a handful of followers. Within 20 hours, it was reblogged more than 50 times and was "liked" over 200 times. Obviously, something about conjuring fire from our bare hands hits us deep. Like an instinct-level insecurity about our fitness as a human being. It's probably why Survivor has survived on TV for so long!

light fire without match

"Fire Pump Drill" - (From: 7 Ways To Light A Fire Without A Match, Field & Stream)

So How Do You Light A Fire Without Matches?

Field & Stream has a nice slideshow of illustrations describing Seven Ways To Light A Fire Without A Match. They are:

  1. Hand Drill
  2. Two Man Drill
  3. Fire Plough
  4. Pump Fire Drill
  5. Bow Drill
  6. Flint & Steel Sparking
  7. Spark Catching Tinder

So there's a start -- Six primitive ways to start a fire by either drilling with a stick or hitting the sharp edge of a piece of flint against the sharp edge of a piece of high-carbon steel, like a knife. Plus some extra tips about ensuring that you've got some highly "flammable" material to catch a spark.

(It's weird that I should put quotes around "flammable" -- Did you know that the correct word is INFLAMMABLE? But when you say that, too many people think you mean it won't burn. It actually means that it's "capable of becoming inflamed".)

If you're most interested in primitive methods of making fire from nothing but a stick and soft wood, there's at least one other really cool and efficient method I found a YouTube video for. It's really similar to the pump drill method, but slightly less complicated and works like a combination of a yo-yo and a top. Despite being totally primitive, nobody has seen it before -- it seems to be brand new!

But lest you think matchless fire-making is limited to "primitive" ways, let's mention that there are lots of other really cool ways to light fires without matches.

You're probably familiar with one of them from childhood:  Using a magnifying glass!

Works great, but unless you're out in the wilderness to study insects, you probably aren't carrying a magnifying glass on you. Or are you?

You could in fact easily carry a small flat Fresnel Lens to use as a magnifying glass. But chances are, you're already carrying around something that can readily substitute: An ordinary water bottle!

If the sun is intense enough and you can get the bottle at just the right angle, you may able to focus it enough to light some tinder, especially if you've got some ready-tinder, like some char-cloth or vaseline-soaked cotton swabs.

I've even seen a pretty surprising video where someone shows you how to light a fire using your own urine!

Have you thought of lighting a fire with a battery?

Nowadays, there's a good chance that in an emergency situation, you actually have a battery or two lying around or stuffed into the bottom of your backpack. If you have a 9V, you're in luck, but even with an ordinary AA or AAA, you can McGyver a small match-free fire. All you need in addition is some thin conductive material, like foil from a gum wrapper, steel wool, or your foil emergency blanket, and some kindling, and you're set. The idea is to send some current through the conductive material, but with just enough resistance to make it heat up the way a light bulb does and apply it to some kindling.




light fire with pee

Can you use your pee to start a fire?

You'll know after you see this! If you like survival and fire-making techniques, this video is a must see!

[Mobile Rik Notes: I totally didn't expect it was going to be about this. Nothing mysterious, but NOT something I ever would have thought of!]


If you liked this, be sure to check out my more detailed post How To Light An Emergency Fire Without A Match (Or Lighter).

USB backup charger from alto ids

Need a quick backup battery for your phone?

You can make one of these backup phone chargers from just a 9V battery and the guts of a dollar store car charger.

I found this video particularly clever because it's not obvious that to charge a 5V device, one might take a part a 12v charger and substitute a 9V battery -- but it's the the dollar store electronics that do the voltage matching. Very nice.

Watch The Video And Leave An Awesome Comment Below

I found a backup phone charger to be an essential item when I'm out on a day-long hike -- which has been known to happen to me whether I planned it to be a "day long" hike, or simply a quick morning walk!

Fortunately, this type of hack isn't as necessary as it was a year ago when I posted this, because there are finally lots of rechargeable phone booster batteries available for reasonably cheap. I have one of these, and I love it!