Survivalist Training: How to Make Char Cloth

Our ancestors were on to something. Out in the wilderness, with the darkness closing in, fire is the one thing that can save your life. But making fire does not have to mean spending hours rubbing sticks together—not when you have modern innovations and science on your side. If you want to be able to start a fire anywhere, with just a spark, then you need char cloth.

charcloth burning


What is Char Cloth?

Simply put, char cloth is a material that is lightweight and super effective when igniting tinder.

The process that makes char cloth do what it does best is called pyrolysis. Without breaking into chemist jargon, pyrolysis [1] is the process by which an organic, carbon-based material, such as cloth, decomposes at an elevated temperature in the absence of any halogen—oxygen included. The material combusts in such a way that gasses are released, but it does not burn up entirely.

As a result of this process, the substance (our char cloth) as a low ignition temperature. Anything that creates a spark will set off the char cloth. An added bonus to using char cloth is that it smolders, making it extraordinarily effective in damp regions. Plus, ignited char cloth does not go out in a breeze like a match would. In fact, that makes it burn stronger.

For a survival situation, char cloth is an obviously essential item.

How to Make Char Cloth

There are a couple of methods for procuring char cloth. The must-have items for making your supply are generally the same, but one way of doing it is rudimentary and for getting what you need promptly. The other method is for creating a supply of char cloth that can be carried in your hiking gear.

What You Will Need

1. A sealable, airtight tin can. The container of choice is usually breath mints can or a Band-Aid first aid tin box. Not only is the size perfect, but they are built well. However, any clean metal can will do. Make sure that it is cleaned. If you want to make a large batch of char cloth, a cleaned metal paint can or oatmeal canister is ideal. Make sure they are 100% metal and contain no rubber or plastic parts. For a can without a lid, wrap the top tightly with aluminum foil.

2. 100% cotton material. Make sure there are no synthetic fibers, because those will actually subtract from the char cloth’s combustibility. Dyed fabrics are okay, but white cloth is best. The best examples of what to use include: cotton shirt, cheesecloth, linen, jute, hemp, burlap, denim, canvas, cotton washcloth, hemp rope. Denser cloth burns longer.

3. Scissors (or some kind of cutting tool).

4. Nail (or another puncturing tool).

Step 1.

Take your chosen cloth and cut it into pieces. Because the fabric will shrink when charred, be sure to size the pieces at around 5 cm (2 in). Do not worry about uneven edges or making every single piece the same. Ideally, you want all the pieces to be able to fit inside the tin without need to be rolled. Curled pieces will not char evenly.

Step 2.

Grab your tin and the puncturing tool—an awl, nail, or hammer. Place it in the middle of the tin’s lid. Stab a hole into the top, making it no bigger than the ballpoint tip of a pen. This hole is crucial, because you need smoke and gasses to leave the can during the charring process. Otherwise, the tin will get pressurized and could explode.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Do not make the hole too big. If the hole is too large, then air will enter the tin and set fire to the cloth. You will have nothing but ash left.

  • A hinged lid should not be a problem. Since some air with escape through those hinges anyway, you can opt to enlarge one of the hinge spaces instead of opening a new hole in the lid.

Step 3a – Into the Fire.



This method involves throwing the tin directly into an open fire. For another way of getting char cloth, please proceed to Step 3b, called “Onto the Burner.”

Now that you have the tin prepared and the cloth inside, seal it tightly. Place the tin into a small fire or on a bed of coals. The stronger the fire, the quicker the process. Smoke should be seen escaping through the hole in the can. It is also okay if flames lick around the edges or cover the tin. Keep an eye on the tin. Once it stops smoking, turn it over. It should again begin to smoke. When this smoking ceases, remove the container from the fire. Let it cool.

Step 3b – Onto the Burner.

If you are making char cloth indoors or over something other than an open flame, be sure to do it in a well ventilated area. The smoke that char cloth gives off is not only foul smelling, it can be potentially toxic (depending on the dyes or fibers used). The sources of heat can include:

  • A portable gas burner;

  • A camping stove;

  • A grill.

Light the burner on low. Place the tin directly over the flame. You should see smoke coming through the hole in the tin, which is a good sign. Leave the can in place until the smoke disappears. This method generally takes 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the tin and the strength of the flame.

Remove the tin from the burner. Place it on a fireproof surface and let it cool to the point where it is okay to touch. Because the insides of the tin—including the char cloth—will be volatile until cooled, you might want to put the nail back into the hole to keep too much oxygen from entering.

Step 4.

With the tin cooled, you now get to inspect your new char cloth. The cloth should be black, but the fibers should be visible still. To the touch, it will be somewhat rigid but not crumbly. If it is not thoroughly black, you can reheat it for a couple of minutes. If it turns to dust upon touch, it was left in the fire too long.



Step 5.

Peel the pieces of char cloth apart carefully. You can choose to store the cloth in the tin that you made it in, or you can put them in a new tin or waterproof bag to store in various places around the house or in your hiking gear.

When the time comes to use your char cloth, you will not have to struggle much with getting it to ignite. Previously mentioned, a single spark is enough to set the fabric alight. Be sure to have the char cloth directly on the tinder or logs that you are trying to light, because once the sheet is on fire, it is going to be hard to put out.

And voila! Now you know how to make your very own stash of char cloth—the ultimate Firestarter for survivalists everywhere. Char cloth can be used at home, during blackouts, or out in the wilderness, when a lighter or other fire-starting methods are ineffective. It is cost effective and easy to make, so be sure to never leave home without a few sheets of it tucked away.

If you don't have the time or the resources to make char cloth, here is a product that we recommend on amazon.



Featured Image Source:


Nelson V. Larsen

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