Char cloth is one of the easiest fire-building materials to light, whether you are working with a magnifying lens, a modern spark rod, or old-fashioned flint and steel. On top of that, you can make char cloth yourself and it is a renewable resource in the field, which is great if you run out of char in middle of the wilderness.
So what is char cloth, you ask?
The char cloth is some form of blackened, plant-based material for catching and feeding a spark. Scraps of cotton and linen cloth were traditional American frontier char materials. Most flammable plant fibers, tinder, some shelf fungi, and punky rotten wood can also be turned into “char cloth.”
To make char cloth, you’ll need a metal container that is nearly air tight, with just a few small holes poked in it by a punch or nail. A metal candy tin (like Altoids) or Band-Aid box will work well. Fill the can with the material to be charred, close it up, and place the can in the center of a campfire for 5 minutes. Smoke and maybe some flames should begin to jet from the few small holes in the container. After a few minutes, usually three to five, the smoke should almost stop jetting out. At the 5-minute mark, use a stick to carefully roll the hot container out of the fire and let it become cool to the touch. The char cloth should be black and fragile, but not burned up to ash, and it should catch sparks well. If not, it may have been a poor material to use or it may need further charring; or if it is not yet blackened and fragile, it will definitely need further charring.
Can you just grab some chunks of charcoal from a campfire to use as char? No, sorry. Charcoal was created in an oxygen-rich environment and it does not behave the same as true char cloth. Remember that the char cloth or other char materials must be created in a low-oxygen environment in order to work properly, or work at all for that matter.
If you don’t have a metal box with you, don’t give up on char cloth. There are two different ways you can still produce some char cloth without the metal container. First, just light a tinder bundle of bark fiber, cattail down, or any other soft and fluffy plant material. Snuff it out by stepping on it gently and holding your foot there for a minute. Keep the tinder bundle, as it will have black char scattered throughout the fiber. You can use your ignition source at any time to re-light the char, thus lighting the tinder.
A second way to make char cloth is with a jar or canister. Light your tinder bundle, get it burning well and throw it into an airtight container. A can or jar will work fine, as long as you get the lid on quickly. Let it sit for a few minutes, and the tinder will go out because of the lack of oxygen. Then you can save the charred tinder for future fire lighting. Got a favorite char? Tell us how you make it in the comments.