How To Make Char Cloth To Light Your Campfire Faster Without Matches
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 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.)