Why would it be useful to make char cloth?

Learning how to make char cloth is an essential skill set every woodsman needs to know. Why you ask? Because char cloth is simply one of the best methods for catching a spark. Its better than almost any other natural tinder source you can find. You don’t even need a ferro rod if you know how to make char cloth, because you can use flint stones to knock sparks off your knife and create fire that way. There are so many uses for char cloth it would take forever to list them all here.

First off, I’d like to say that a zippo is a great survival item to carry and has a lot more uses than a bic lighter and it also performs better. And they are super common and can be found in most gas stations for purchase.

When I was doing my Scout Survival training with only a knife at Sigma 3, I came across an old zippo lighter in the woods. I already had a fire, water, and most of my shelter completed.  Because I had my basics covered, I felt comfortable spending too much time trying to get the Zippo to make a flame.  After failing miserably I was thinking about putting some punk wood into the Zippo and using it to transport a smoldering ember to my next location….then it hit me.  I could almost hear Sage and Robs voices in unison, “You’re over thinking it Hutch.”  They would have said.

So I discarded the Zippo body into my pocket for future experimentation and used the case to char up the punk wood and later a piece of torn t shirt that I found.   Not only does the case work amazingly to make char cloth, but you can store your charred material in it so you do not have a pocket full of dust at your next destination.

make char cloth

SIGMA 3’s training pushes the mindset of becoming very very good at the skills that will work all the time and save the survival hacks for when you get home. They are for playing around with but shouldn’t be depended on. To quote Bruce Lee,”I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.” This is their mindset about friction fire and the ability to be able to start fires from nothing. No tools, no rope, no nothing. That sums up the entire philosophy of SIGMA 3’s training regimen.

This zippo survival hack should be considered what I call,”Hip Pocket skills”. Hip Pocket skills is a term my grandfather used to use right before he had me hold a flash light while he changed a tire, or fixed a garbage disposal.  They are handy techniques to make things a little faster, but shouldn’t be considered bomb proof skills to depend on. But to make char cloth, that is a core skill everyone needs.

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Step by Step: Make Char Cloth

  1.  Pull out the inner parts of the Zippo and save those. Those parts will be useful later.
  2.  Find something organic.  Anything 100 percent cotton will work.  But so will things like punk wood. The trick with punk wood is to put it into the tin in chunks.  Do not powder it like you would if making solar fire.
  3. Close the case. But leave it a bit loose so that gases can escape. Most people do not realize that you have to allow for some gas to escape when causing pyrolysis.  That is what we do when charring a material.  An actual chemical change is caused in the material.  Once performed, the charred material will catch even very tiny sparks and form a viable ember that can easily be blown into flames.  You need the case closed to prevent an abundance of air, but it does not need to be held shut or air tight to make char cloth.*Pyrolysis- when we heat a natural organic material in the absence of oxygen.  Water and other compounds are burned away leaving us with a carbon rich material with a very low ignition point.
  4. Rest the case on its side so that it does not get knocked over. Build the fire over the case.  You do not need a big fire here.   I normally use about one branch from something soft and resinous.
  5. Let the fire burn over the case for 3-5 minutes.  Usually you can see the gas escaping; it will most likely be aflame, but not always.  When the gas no longer escapes the case you have caused pyrolysis on the contents.
  6. LET IT COOL DOWN!   This is where I see most students mess up.  It is exciting any time you perform a task for the first time.  The tendency is to open the case too soon; this sudden air flow will cause a premature ember to form.
  7. Store the charred material in the case for your next fire.

make char cloth

Now, if the inner parts of the Zippo was throwing sparks you have a way to get a very quick and easy ember that can be added to your tinder bundle and blown into flame.

If the Zippo was not throwing sparks, there are tons of other ways to get an ember from charred material. If you have a high carbon knife, grab a flint rock, and do the flint and steel method for fire starting. There are tons of ways to use this material, but remember, just adding this charred material to a tinder bundle is going to substantially help you transfer your ember made from a difficult primitive method.

Charred material is a valuable asset to have on you any time you are going to affect a second fire.  Darn near any spark or heat source will give you a viable ember when using well made char material.  To see this technique in action, or to see similar skills, visit us at www.survivalschool.us, and check out the Sigma 3 YouTube channel.


Meet the Author

colorado survival school
Hutch; Lvl 1 Instructor, Colorado Survival School

1 reply
  1. Bradley Nelson
    Bradley Nelson says:

    One of the least desirable things about a Zippo in a survival situation, in my opinion, is that the fuel source evaporates. I know you can use almost any flammable liquid as a replacement, and hopefully you would be out of the situation long before that happens, but knowing how to make and store charcloth like this, with that exact same Zippo, is awesome!

    Reply

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