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Don’t throw out that favorite old T-shirt or pair of jeans. Turn them into a vital part of your survival/camping kit – Char

What is char?
Char is created when organic matter is heated to high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment. Volatiles are driven off from the base material leaving only the carbon behind. The metal chamber used to make and carry your char is called a charring tin.

Why do we want char?
There are precious few substances that will readily catch the sparks thrown from metal fire starting tools. Char is one substance that does the job well. Charred material can be ignited with almost any spark from old lighters, ferrocerium rods or a sunglass.

Making Char

The simplest way to make char is to place your chosen material, generally pieces of cotton cloth, inside a charring tin (metal chamber) where you can subject it to high heat while limiting oxygen. An empty tin with lid, a stainless steel botle with nesting cup or, in a pinch, an old can with a flat rock can be used as charring tins. Tear or cut the cotton cloth into strips or squares and place inside your tin. A small hole ought be made in the top of the tin. A charring tin is ventilated just enough to allow the escape of gases while not allowing oxygen to enter and ignite the material.

The tin is then heated. In this picture, a BBQ burner was used. The tin can also be placed onto hot coals from a fire, etc. After a few minutes, white smoke will start coming from any unsealed portions of the chamber.

After a few more minutes, the smoke may ignite and burn. Treat this as you would any other open flame, it’s fine. Since there is no oxygen in the tin, the carbon from the cotton is not burning.

Once the smoke stops, the charring should be complete. It is very important to wait until the chamber is completely cool before opening. Contact with oxygen will cause the hot material to ignite and burn.

Once cool, inspect the char. If it is black and frail looking, it is probably ready. If the material is brown, close the charring tin and put it back in the fire.

Another Method for Making Char

Instead of using a tin for the process, one can wrap the cotton in some foil. The foil needs to be folded into an “air tight” packet with a hole to let the gases escape. If the hole is too big, or the packet too leaky, the char may ignite.

Make sure you use 100% cotton cloth when making char. Synthetic blends will create burning, melting and overall unpleasantness.

Char can be made from many organic items, including punky, old wood and the inner pith of plants like mullein.

Char can be also be made “on-the-fly.” Set fire to a large piece of cotton and stomp out or otherwise safely smother the flames. The charred edges of the cotton are lower quality “char.” Remember: FIRE IS NOT A GAME, be very careful if you choose this method.

Weight matters. A thin cotton T-shirt will produce a char that will readily catch small, delicate sparks. This char will also be very fragile. Char made from denim will be sturdier to handle and will usually require a larger spark to light.

Altoids and shoe polish tins make excellent char tins.

Increase the surface area for catching an ember by striking sparks from your metal striker directly into the tin. Safely transfer the char embers from the tin to your bird’s nest.

Given its variety of ignition methods, char is an essential material for your kit.

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