Char cloth is a substance that can be used as a fire starter (with no need of a lighter or matches). One of your biggest challenges when using primitive methods is finding tinder that will catch your particular ignition source. Primitive ignition sources include friction fire, lenses, chemical, electrical, striking, and air pressure. Some of these create a coal or ember large enough to start most tinder, and some actually create a flame.
Lenses and striking methods require tinder that is pure, fluffy, and has a ton of surface area. This is where char cloth can come in handy. In this article I will cover how to make it, how to use and preserve it. I will also cover a few ready-to-use options that you can buy to help get that fire going.
The principle behind char cloth is very simple. You are taking cotton fabric and purifying it to remove anything synthetic. This leaves pure carbon. In the right form, this is the perfect product to catch a spark or hot spot. That being said, the purification process is absolutely needed. You also cannot find this type of product for purchase because of how fragile it is.
To create char cloth, you need a few supplies. An old cotton t-shirt, a tin such as an Altoids can, a nail or knife, and supplies to start a fire. Here are the step by step instructions to create your char cloth:
- Cut your fabric into pieces that are one inch by two inches. This will be the right size to fit in the tin.
- Build a fire and let it burn down to coals
- Put your pieces of fabric in the tin
- Punch a tiny hole in the tin. It needs to be barely large enough to let air through. This hole is only to let the impurities out of the tin. If you let enough air into the tin to create a flame, then you have to start over.
- Throw the tin in the coals and let it sit for 10 to 20 minutes
- Let it cool and make sure your cloth is charred before you put out the fire. If not, throw it back in for a few minutes.
Using char cloth with a ferro rod is a huge advantage. There are only a few types of tinder that will take a spark. Good char cloth should give you an ember every time. The process is very simple. Make sure the rest of your fire supplies are gathered and arranged. Get a tinder bundle formed and have it ready to use. Put a piece of char cloth in the center of your tinder bundle. Place your ferro rod on it, and then get out your knife.
For a ferro rod, you want a high-carbon steel blade. Strike your blade on the ferro rod shooting sparks onto the char cloth. Even one spark should create an ember. During the day the ember is hard to see, but if you lightly blow on it you will see it glow red. Feed oxygen to your tinder bundle until it flares up and then apply it to your fire structure.
Char cloth is also great if you are using a lens to start a fire. Some parts of the process are similar to using a ferro rod. You still want to have the supplies gathered and arranged. You also want to have a tinder bundle and place your char cloth in the center.
The placement of your lens is essential to getting this right. You want the lens to be completely perpendicular to the sun. You also need to adjust the distance from the lens to the char cloth. When you have it right, the focal point will only be one or two millimeters across. You should see smoke almost immediately, and once you see smoke you should have an ember. Lightly blow on the cloth to verify the ember is there, and then feed it oxygen until it flares up. Place the tinder bundle in your fire structure, and you are good to go.
Storing your char cloth the right way is every bit as important as making it the right way. You have to keep your char cloth dry for it to be effective. Remember that you have a small hole in that tin. If there is any chance that water could get in that hole, you need to transfer it to a water-tight container. A plastic bag or Ziploc container would work, or you can put it in a dry box with matches.
One other product you can make to get a fire going is to rub cotton balls in petroleum jelly. You can easily get one of these to flare up with a few sparks, and it will normally stay lit for 30 to 60 seconds. If in strong winds or wet weather, this fire product does the trick.
There are also fire assistance products that you can purchase online or at any store that sells camping supplies. Several companies make waxy fire cubes that work great. Most come in individual watertight wrappers. Once you open up the wrapper, take your knife and shave a little off the side to get a pile of fine powder.
I rarely use a whole fire cube all at once, so I like to cut the rest into several chunks. Use your ferro rod to shoot sparks into your shavings, and the shavings should catch on fire almost immediately. You can then put a chunk on top and it should burn for several minutes. A few benefits of fire cubes are that they work even when wet, and only cost a few dollars. Any time I know rainy weather is coming my way, I take these with me.
Another option is a small tin called Live Fire. This little tin slides open and there is a fibrous material inside. Use your knife to rough it up a little bit and you can generally get it to take a spark quickly. I will warn that the flame is very small so you need to get some additional tinder burning right away. The best part about this product is that you can just slide the lid shut and it extinguishes the flame. You can then stick it in your pocket and reuse it over and over. It also only costs a few dollars.
Fire Sticks are very useful, but serve a completely different purpose. These wax covered sticks will not take a spark, so you have to get a small flame going before they help. However, they are waterproof, windproof, and last a long time. If your firewood is wet and you need a flame to dry it out a bit before it will catch, this is a good option. Once you have one of these lit, you can often skip over the smaller wood and get straight to larger pieces. One of these sticks will actually stay lit for about 20 minutes in the worst conditions you can imagine. When I absolutely, positively need to get a fire going on the first try, these products are awesome.
You also can purchase a ferro rod with fire assistance built in. The ones I buy are attached to a chunk of magnesium and come with a little serrated blade. You can use this to shave off magnesium which flares up nicely; however, I am not a fan of lighting just a pile of shavings. I really prefer to add these to other tinder to make it that much more likely to catch.
Sometimes thinking outside the box is the best way to get your fire going. I vividly remember a survival challenge from last fall. It took me all day to build my shelter, and night was approaching. I had tried using magnesium to get a fire started, but it would not take. I tried using a jump pack to get some sparks, but still had no luck. At this point I was really shaky from working in the hot sun all day. It was getting dark enough that I kept losing my ferro rod when I set it down.
Finally, I remembered that I had a product with me that is designed to treat poison ivy. I had read that it was simply urushiol diluted down with alcohol. I ripped a strip of cloth off of the sleeve of my t-shirt and doused it with the product. After a few tries with the ferro rod, I had it lit and a roaring fire shortly followed.
Maybe strips of paper would make good tinder. Perhaps thin strips of birch bark would do the trick. You could rub pine resin on your tinder to make it that much more flammable. A few drops of gasoline might be all it takes. Look at all the resources you have at hand and get creative.
I am always a bit torn when talking about fire assistance products. On one hand, I am a purist and feel that I should be able to get a fire going by rubbing two sticks together or just by using my ferro rod. There are plenty of survival scenarios where I would not have char cloth or any of these other products with me. Nevertheless, I also believe in giving myself the best possible chances of survival.
I intentionally go on outings without these products to develop the ability to overcome these challenges without assistance. That being said if I was bugging out today and grabbing my pack and my family to head for the wilderness, you can bet I would pack these products in each of our survival kits. Each of them works differently, so I suggest trying them about before your life is on the line.