Primitive and modern outdoor skills

Char Cloth


Char cloth is a really neat material that helps enormously with starting fires from a spark (or from a small coal). I've been experimenting with it a bit lately and I'm a HUGE fan. It's great stuff if you want to reliably start fires from a spark... particularly a tiny spark like a true flint and steel. Also... it turns out to be stupidly easy to make.

Find some pure cotton material. My first try was bedsheets shown below, but I found T-shirt worked better

Stick it in a tin that has some small air-holes. An altoids tin has just the right amount of airflow already, so works well. Throw that in the fire for a while. Wait until it stops smoking (and jets of flame stop coming out the hinge), and then wait a while longer. If you don't feel like watching it just throw it in for a couple of hours, it doesn't seem to matter. Pull it out of the fire and set it aside. Don't open it yet.


When it's cool open it up. You'll have black material. It's fragile, but still sturdy enough you can pick it up and handle it.


And now you have char cloth.

To use it, take a small pieces, maybe a quarter of one of the pieces shown above. Drop a a spark on it. You'll see that even a tiny spark will make a little red coal that starts spreading slowly across the fabric. with better fabrics it will spread slowly of it's on accord, even with no blowing, worse it'll spread a little and go out unless you blow on it. The difference between the two is fairly significant when you go to use it.


Drop that burning piece of fabric in to your tinder bundle. Here I'm using some fairly dry fern that was common around our campsite in Michigan.


Blow in to the tinder bundle. Focus on getting long continuous streams of air, rather than lots of air fast. Continuous is more important... Increase it a bit as things start to heat up. At some point it'll start to flame up... drop it before you burn your hands.


Then use that to light your fire so you can cook.


For the last several days this is how I've started virtually every fire (usually 2 a day). I hadn't really experimented with char-cloth before this, but I'm a big fan.

Just as some other notes on interesting materials for starting fires with a spark. Cat-tail fluff is classic, but I've found the tips flash over really fast and the inner bits never burn... you have to spend a lot of time picking it apart. And it burns fast but not hot, so it's very hard to use it to actually light something else. It's probably good for turning a VERY bad spark in to something you can light with a very good spark, but that's all.

Milkweed on the other hand lights so fast and hard that it can make a little "pop" sound and burns the entire material. It still lights with the tiniest spark, but seems to have enough energy to light something like dry ferns.

Bow-drill and handrill is really neat, but I've never spent the energy to get good enough at them. Matches are a great backup, but you run out quickly. Lighters work well, but are very hard to use in the cold, and often won't light if they've gotten wet enough. Sparkers always work, you can get thousands of sparks off a single stick, and they are fast and easy... the only problem is you need good tinder.