Char Cloth vs Cotton Balls – The Best Fire Starting Materials

Making char cloth

Fire is one of the most important resources in the wild. It can help you keep warm, make food, purify water, and boost your morale. This is why having ready tinder can save your life in the wild, especially if you’re hiking or camping in extremely difficult conditions where natural tinder is scarce or completely unusable.

There are several ways you can prepare tinder before you hit the trail and have ready fire-starting materials at hand. Char cloth and cotton balls are the most common types as they are both easy to make at home and carry with you.

Char cloth and cotton balls are very different in the manner they work, the way you need to use them, and the way you should store them. Deciding which one is better will depend on your preferences and on how you use your camping gear.

Table of Contents

The Composition of Char Cloth

Char cloth is 100% cotton. In fact, you can not make char cloth using anything else. The natural composition of cotton allows you to make char cloth and it’s exactly what makes it flammable. This makes char cloth one of the best and the most reliable sources of tinder.

Unfortunately, char cloth doesn’t last forever and certain conditions can make it lose its flammability, or ruin it completely.

  • Damp – humid conditions can ruin your char cloth completely. This is especially true if you don’t store your char cloth properly, or if you drop it into water.
  • Mechanical damage – rubbing char cloth very hard can tear it and ruin its flammability.
  • Age – not using char cloth for longer periods of time can result in it losing its ability to quickly catch fire.

Advantages of Lighting a Fire Using Char Cloth

Char cloth is easy to use because it catches fire quickly and holds the embers for a pretty long time. Additionally, this type of tinder is pretty lightweight and can find a place in your gear in almost every situation.

Finally, one of the most important advantages of char cloth is that it is pretty easy to make if you have a tin and an old t-shirt. The tin needs to have a lid with a hole in it, for ventilation. And the old t-shirt needs to be 100% cotton. You don’t want any synthetic materials, as they’ll not only prevent the char cloth from forming but they’ll emit a terrible smell.

To make char cloth, you just need to place strips of cotton into the tin and place the tin into the fire. Make sure that the hole in the lid of the tin is not covered with anything. There needs to be airflow out of the tin for char cloth to form.

Char Cloth Drawbacks

Char cloth isn’t the perfect source of tinder, though. If not stored properly, it can stop working. Also, if it comes into contact with your other gear, it can leave sooty marks on it. While this is not terrible, it is still best avoided. You should do your best to keep all of your equipment well maintained.

What Makes Cotton Balls Different?

Unlike char cloth, cotton balls are already ready to be set on fire. You don’t need to prepare them in any way. However, if you want to, you can make them even more flammable. Putting a bit of petroleum jelly on the cotton balls makes them able to catch a spark even more quickly and hold a flame for a longer period of time.

In addition to this, you can use other flammable liquids to improve the flammability of your cotton balls. However, you need to be careful which ones you choose. There are some liquids, such as gas, that will not only prove detrimental to your fire-making efforts but possibly dangerous for you and your gear.

Liquids that you can use are camp or lighter fuel. Just remember to apply them to your cotton balls just before you decide to light a fire. If you soak them in these fuels earlier than that, you’re risking injury and damage to your gear.

All in all, we do not suggest using anything other than petroleum jelly on your cotton balls, unless you’re planning to light a fire in extremely cold conditions. Alternatively, you can put a little bit of petroleum jelly on each cotton ball. This will greatly increase their longevity and allow them to hold a flame for a minute or more. This will be more than enough time for the flame to transfer to anything you’re using as fuel for the fire.

In Which Situations Do Cotton Balls Fail?

Cotton balls are not ideal in windy or humid conditions. When the wind is strong, it can easily blow away your cotton tinder, unless it’s sheltered extremely well.

Additionally, when camping in high conditions, your cotton balls can get soaked, which will make them utterly useless. No matter how much flammable liquids you soak your cotton balls in, it will not save them if they get wet. They won’t be able to either catch that first spark from your fire steel or hold a flame for more than a couple of seconds. This is definitely not enough time for the flame to transfer to your firewood and start a fire.

Finally, one of the biggest drawbacks of cotton balls as tinder is that you need to package them very carefully, especially if they’re soaked in some form of flammable liquid. Cotton balls are puffy, which is precisely what makes them such a good tinder. If you compress them, you can ruin their ability to catch a spark and ignite.

Likewise, if they’re covered in a flammable liquid, you need to be extra careful how you package them. You’ll want to keep them away from your other items to avoid transferring the flammable liquid on your other items. This is very dangerous and can lead to injury and uncontrolled wildfires. Thus, you’ll want to avoid it at all costs.

Similarities Between Char Cloth and Cotton Balls

While they are quite different in a lot of ways, char cloth and cotton balls are both reliable forms of tinder that have many things in common, apart from their flammability. In fact, they are both:

  • made from cotton
  • offer excellent value to weight ratio
  • the most reliable types of tinder you can have with you
  • work well together and separately
  • equally vulnerable to water damage

Finally, lighting a small fire under a tarp by using both of these tinder solutions is ideal because you’ll keep the elements away from them. This will make lighting a fire easy and quick if you can provide protection in that crucial moment when the sparks touch the tinder.

Differences Between Char Cloth and Cotton Balls

Most of the differences between these fire-starting aids concern preparation and packaging. Namely, char cloth is more difficult to prepare because it requires you to already have a fire lit.

Additionally, you need to have a metal container to properly and safely make char cloth in the first place. This is not the case with cotton balls. The only preparation you need for them is to dit them in some flammable liquid or apply a bit of petroleum jelly on each ball, and you’re good to go.

As far as their application and usage go, they are almost equally effective. The final difference is that char cloth tends to last longer before it loses its flammable properties. Cotton balls, on the other hand, are dipped in flammable liquids which have an expiration date or can evaporate before you get a chance to use them. This is why you should only prepare the amount you expect you’ll use when on a trip.

Other Tinder Options

If you don’t like either of these tinder options, there are a lot of other solutions you can use. One of the best ones is birch bark. The bark of this tree is full of flammable oils and it catches even the smallest of sparks, turning them into a flame.

All you need to do is strip some bark from a birch tree and scrape some shavings off that bark. Gather the shavings together and throw a few sparks on them, and you’ll get a sustainable flame instantly. You’ll still need to transfer the flame to other flammable materials if you want to keep your fire going, though.

While they’re not the best source of tinder, cigarettes are a good way to move your fire from one campsite to the next, but cigarette smoke can attract unwanted attention from animals in some cases. Also, cigarettes that are improperly put out or treated without proper care in the wild, can cause forest fires. Thus, you’ll want to be extra careful when using them, as well as putting them out.

In addition to these, you can use dry leaves as a source of tinder. Unfortunately, in humid conditions, this will be next to impossible. Also, unless you’re camping in a time when there are dry leaves on the ground, you’ll have a hard time using leaves to light a fire.

A person maing feather sticks to use as tinder

Finally, feather sticks are a great source of tinder and as long as you dedicate time to making them properly, they’ll catch the flame and burn brightly for a long time. You just need to cut them thin enough to allow them to catch that first spark.

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