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How to Make Char Cloth and Use It to Start a Fire

The making of char cloth can be done in a fireplace, backyard fire pit, or anywhere you decide to start a fire. Making it with kids is a great little activity that can get them around the fire and away from electronic distractions.

Making and using char cloth are great skills to add to your toolkit. So, what on earth is char cloth and why does it make fire starting much easier?

Campsite with tent and fire in woods
Keep growing your survival skills to survive well

What is Char Cloth

Just like charcoal, char cloth is a highly flammable substance that is made through a process called carbonization. Carbonization is a fancy word for heating something up to very high temperatures in the absence of air.

When you heat something like wood or cotton fabrics up to very high heat without the flames touching and catching them on fire, the materials carbonize. This allows them to catch fire, hold flame or hold an ember much easier and more effectively. True charcoal is made using this process exclusively.

When you are making char cloth the flames should never come in direct contact with your cloth.

When you throw a spark onto char cloth it will hold that single spark and continue to burn like an ember. This ember can be placed at the center of some dry tinder and blown into a fire. The char cloth is perfect for holding a single spark from striking a steel or Ferro rod.

Having char cloth on hand will make fire starting very easy even if you don’t have a lighter or matches.

How to Make Your Own Char Cloth

Making char cloth is something that I do when I have a fire going and several other things going on around camp. It is the kind of process that does not really require your full attention. As long as you have a few things in your pack or on your person you can make char cloth quickly and easily.

The first thing you want to have on hand is a shemagh or cotton handkerchief. These large pieces of cloth can be used for so many different things. One of those things is to cut away small strips and use them to make char cloth.

You are also going to need a small metal container that you are willing to sacrifice to the process. The best container for this is an Altoids tin. These tins are a great size and are strong enough to stand up to the process.

  1. Start by cutting strips of cloth that lay flat in your Altoids metal tin. You can layer several of these strips. I usually do about 6-8 strips that are stacked on top of one another.
  2. Next, you are going to close the container and stab some holes in the top of the container with your knife. I usually stab about 3 nice holes in the top of the container.
  3. At this point, you are going to nestle the tin in hot coals next to or near the fire. At this point the process of carbonization will begin.
  4. Let the tin sit in the heat of the fire and coals for around 10 minutes. The thinner the cloth you use the shorter this process could take. I use a handkerchief so it’s usually under 10 minutes. If you cut pieces of a thick cotton shirt then it might require the full 10 minutes.
  5. Remove the tin from the fire and set it aside allowing it to cool completely.
  6. You will know you have done this correctly if when you open up the tin all the layers of cloth are brittle and completely black. If this is the case then you have made char cloth.

Next Fire Mentality

Char cloth is a part of the “Next Fire” mentality. This is simply a matter of understanding how you will start your next fire and taking the steps necessary to make that process easier. You might only have a limited amount of matches or fire-starting implements. Everything you can do to make the process quicker and easier next time is critical.

This is particularly true in an emergency. You will likely be tired and drained from dealing with the emergency itself so you want a fire to come easy. Making char cloth, carrying an ember, or building a couple of tinder bundles are all ways that you can make the process easier in the future.

Starting a Fire With Char Cloth

The process of starting fire with char cloth all comes down to what you are using to make a spark. There are some survival tools that throw sparks very easily. A ferro rod will shower sparks when you strike it appropriately.

If you are using traditional fire steel then you are going to throw much fewer sparks and they are going to be harder to capture on your char cloth.

Using a Fire Steel

The fire steel operates simply by using a hard stone ( flint, chert, quartz) or glass to shave the high carbon steel from the fire steel itself. When you shave a very fine layer of steel into the air it ignites from the friction and that is your spark.

  • Hold the fire steel in your non dominant hand.
  • Slip the char cloth under whichever striker you choose. When you strike the spark will hit the char cloth immediately.
  • You will know when the spark has hit its target because it will begin to glow orange. When the cloth is glowing you are ready to add this to your tinder bundle.
  • Place the glowing char cloth at the center of the tinder and fold the dry materials over the char cloth and then begin to blow the ember.

It will begin to smoke and eventually that tinder bundle will catch fire.

Have a tinder bundle ready when starting your fire
Have a tinder bundle ready when starting your fire

Using a Ferro Rod

The ferro rod is not just steel but an amalgamation or compound metal. It contains things like iron, magnesium, and cerium. These work together to produce a shower of sparks when they are struck.

This shower of sparks makes starting a fire with char cloth easier.

  • You can stick char cloth at the center of the tinder bundle and lay the whole thing on a flat dry surface.
  • Then you position the ferro rod over the tinder and char cloth and just shower the sparks over top of it.
  • Your sparks will create that ember on the char cloth. it might also put sparks onto the tinder bundle and that could help the fire along, too!
  • Either way you start to blow that flame to life the same way you did above.

A Good Tinder Bundle

The success of your char cloth in fire starting depends on the quality of your tinder. You are attempting to turn a single glowing ember into a fire and the requires lots of dry organic material.

Some great materials to make a tinder bundle out of are:

  • Dry Grasses
  • Thistle Seeds
  • Cattail
  • Dried Leaves
  • Pine Needles
  • Cedar Bark
  • Birch Bark

If you do not feel comfortable about your ability to create an effective tinder bundle then you can carry things in your survival kit like cotton balls or dryer lint. These can be used as tinder and are very easy to ignite with the elevated temperatures of the char cloth ember.

Add char cloth to your survival  kit
Add char cloth to your survival kit

Keep Growing Your Survival Skills

Char cloth is just another way for you to learn and practice the skill of firecraft. The more comfortable you are with starting a fire and finding the things you need to start a fire, the less anxiety you will have about maintaining core body temperature and surviving in the wild.

The real fear and anxiety that comes from being lost in the woods or dealing with a wilderness survival situation is the lack of skills or the lack of experience in the dark or in the cold.

The good news is, this kind of practice is fun and easy. The more you do it, the more you make and use char cloth the easier it will be to use. Keep growing your wilderness survival skills toolkit.

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