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.)


Want a way to filter water to near tap-quality for free?

Without spending a dime, you can construct a very effective bio-sand water filter from a recycled 2-liter bottle that, if built well, can remove almost all contaminants, including water-borne pathogens. Followed up by solar water disinfection (SODIS), you can easily produce safe drinking water with no cost whatsoever.

The main reason you probably haven't heard of a bio-sand filter is that it's a fairly recent discovery that came out of efforts to provide clean drinking water to developing countries.

In the video below you'll see a student demonstration of simple biosand filter constructed from free recycled items -- a 2-liter PET bottle (food safe), ordinary sand (pre-washed), and a bendy drinking straw. I'm sure you'll be impressed by how well it filters the muddy water into crystal clean drinking water. Of course that's just the surface appearance, but research has shown that if it's constructed properly and used correctly, even a simple "demo" model like this can remove up to 90% of contaminants, enough to complete the process with Solar Disinfection (SODIS), just by leaving a bottle of clarified filtered water under the sun's ultraviolet rays.

Cool right?

But despite it's effectiveness, there are also a few reasons why most First World consumers won't be replacing the Brita filter on their counter with one! The reason it's so much more effective than an ordinary sand filter -- the kind used not only in swimming pools, but in the early stages of your municipal water filtration system -- is that it utilizes a naturally-occurring layer of sludge that accumulates on top. That important sludge layer is actually a community of friendly bacteria that literally EAT a large portion of incoming water-borne pathogens.

Since the functionality of the biosand filter depends on the health of that microbial culture, you need to give it time to grow, and make special care both keep it wet, and not destroy it with chemicals, which... let's face it, are in pretty much everything in your house!

Where biosand water filters are best used is in an off-grid situation where you're collecting rain or river water, or possibly attempting to recycle reasonably clean greywater, on a consistent basis.

Because the bacteria culture grows to mirror the microbes in the water source, the consistency of source water is important. This also makes a biosand filter not-so-ideal for an emergency survival situation, unless of course you're stuck in one place for awhile.

But if the conditions are right, this fascinating type of water filter might be exactly what you need! If so, be sure to check out my more detailed article on How To Build A High Quality Water Filter Using Sand.

free camping blm and national forest land

Is your budget feeling a bit stretched by the high cost of long-term camping?

Then you may be surprised to find out that there are huge areas of the American West where you can simply pull off the road and camp for free. And when I say "huge," I mean HUGE!

All you have to do is look at your map to find areas marked as National Forest or BLM land, and you'll see that they literally are everywhere. These lands are owned by the Federal Government. (BLM stands for the Bureau of Land Management). And you have the right as a citizen to politely pull off the road and set up camp, so long as there isn't some local ordinance against it. It really is that easy.

Public lands held by the National Forest Servi...

Public lands held by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in the Western US. Data from (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of the cheap and free campgrounds listed on FreeCampsites.Net are within BLM or National Forest lands. Some are hardly more than a picnic bench and a fire ring, and maybe an "iron ranger" box for you to honorably deposit your small camp fee. Many more, though, are completely primitive sites with maybe a fire ring and a signpost, OR... nothing at all but an obvious clearing where others have camped. But the simple fact is, that if are a self-sufficient boondocker, you don't need to spend any time at all researching official campsites. You can simply drive into a pretty area, find a spot you like, and camp as long as you like.

There is usually just one rule that you should check on, and that is the one about the "dispersed camping" time limit. Typically the rule is that you can't spend more than 14 days in a row in the same spot. After 14 days you'll need to drive to a different location at least 30 miles away until a certain amount of time has passed (usually 14-76 days) before you can return.

Note: Some experienced boondockers will tell you that the farther you get off the beaten path, the less likely a ranger will even know you're camping out there. While it's cool to know that one could actually get away with a much longer stay, I prefer to keep to the "honor code". (And after 1-2 weeks, I tend to get excited to check out new areas anyway!)

Continue Reading: How To Find Dispersed Camping Sites