Aluminum beverage cans and steel food cans may seem like garbage in your day-to-day life. But it’s fair to say that one man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure—particularly when that treasure seeker is dealing with an emergency situation in a bleak environment. Something as simple as litter can give a creative survivor the tools he or she needs to improve their situation. Here are ten survival uses for the humble-yet-handy empty metal can.
1. Boiling Vessels
Whether your metal can is aluminum or steel, it can serve as a great improvised container for boiling. Fill it with your questionable water and set it in the ashes at the edge of your fire to boil. Steel cans are thicker and stronger than aluminum, and will also make good miniature cooking pots.
2. Digging Tool
Sturdy cans will work as a trowel, particularly in soft or sandy soils. Use the can to dig fire pits, cat holes, and anything else you need in camp.
3. Signal Alarm
A can full of stones (or several cans tied together) can be perched on the edge of your camp, and attached to thread or fishing line that runs around your camp site (about 2 to 3 feet off the ground). This will serve as a perimeter alarm by creating noise if anyone or anything trips the line. For best results, string the trip line tightly and test it a few times before you rely on it.
4. Low Tech Oven
Large cans, like a #10 size can, make an excellent oven when covered with hot coals. To make a quick Dutch oven, cut a green stick about a finger’s width in diameter and about 10 inches long. Stick it in the ground next to your fire and make sure your can covers it completely. Impale your meat or veggies upon the stake, cover with the upside-down can and then bury in red hot coals. Replace the coals as needed and check the food periodically. A bird the size of a quail will bake in about an hour and a half. Shish kabobs bake in about 45 minutes.
5. Faraday Cage
Threat of EMP’s got you down? Wrap up your electronics in insulating materials, and place them in a large can to simulate a Faraday cage. There are no solid guarantees with this technique, but this rudimentary insulation is certainly better than nothing.
Make a raccoon “can trap” by plunging your knife twice into the end of the can, creating an “X”. Push the 4 points inward to create a small opening about 1 inch across. Pierce the can edge and attach a wire or cable to it, which is also attached to a stout stake or small tree. Place the can upside-down in a baited hole. Bury and pack the dirt so that only the “X” shaped opening shows. When the coon reaches down into the can opening to grab the bait, its paw will become stuck.
7. Char Cloth Container
Cut the opened end off of an aluminum can. Fill the can with cattail fluff, cotton cloth, linen scraps, bark fiber or other suitable char materials. Fold the can opening to seal it up as best as you are able. Toss the closed can into a small fire and leave for 5 minutes. Roll it out with a stick, and allow it to cool. If the fire didn’t disintegrate the can, you should have a suitable batch of “char cloth” to be used with flint and steel fire making or optical fire making.
Depending on your can and your metal polishing skills, you may be able to buff a section of the can (like the end) to provide a slightly reflective surface for use as an improvised signal mirror.
Are conditions too dry for an open fire? Use a large can to create a wood burning cook stove. With your knife and some leather gloves, pierce holes around the bottom of the can for air intake, and cut a few square teeth into the top lip of the can for your pot stand legs. Fill with twigs, light them on fire, cover with your pot and cook. (See photo above.)
10. Fire Carrier
Attach a loop of wire to a metal can for a simple handle. Fill the can with tinder fungus, rotten crumbly wood, or shredded cedar bark strips—anything that will burn slowly without flaming up. Drop some hot hardwood coals into the can and carry your nascent fire to its new home. Make sure you use ample water to put out your old fire completely before leaving camp.
Leave us a comment to tell us what you can accomplish with a metal can and your imagination.