Outdoor Series: Three common kinds of artificial cinder – what is the best?

And here we go: As announced I am happy to give you more articles by dear friend and colleague DeepForest. This is one of several articles on different outdoor topics we have in the pipeline. Hope you enjoy!

Three common kinds of artificial cinder – what is the best?


On an outdoor trip, when the weather conditions are cold and maybe also wet, being able to start and maintain a fire can become essential, yet a question of life and death. Depending on the surroundings, this can be a formidable challenge, even for trained outdoor practitioners. Making fire in your backyard, with matches, some old newspapers and dry wood is easy – doing it only with a fire steel in a snowstorm during winter, is challenging.

I had to face this problem a few years ago, on a trip with a friend in the mountains of Upper Styria. It was in January – the weather at the start of the tour was beautiful, wonderful snow and not very cold. But during the afternoon, when we were building our bivouac for the night, the weather changed – snow began to fall, and very strong winds occurred and blew the snow around. A fire to warm us up and dry our clothes became necessary. Even though we both had much experience with setting up and starting a fire, it took us several hours to find some suitable firewood and small (dry, more or less) branches to ignite. The fire steel and even some matches we had did not work – the wind killed every single little flame, and because of the fine snow, every cinder became wet in a second. It was quite cold at that evening – finally, we managed to prepare a small fireplace, protected from the wind by a big rock and our two bodies, and by using some paper labels out of my First Aid Kit and a match, we could light a small fire. Before this success, everything was cold, wet, and unfriendly, and we became quite cold (and pissed off too, actually) – but when the small flames appeared (and stayed), everything got better suddenly. Even when the flames did not give much warmth – the psychological effect alone made everything better and easier to endure.

Cinder as an essential resource

One of the biggest challenges is to find something thin and dry enough to catch a spark and create a small hot spot, even a small flame. There are some good natural materials to serve as a „spark catcher“ (we’ll talk about examples of such materials in another review), but it can be the case that such materials cannot be found, or only in a wet and useless state. Without such cinder material, it is impossible to create a flame hot enough to incinerate small wood and start a fire.

As a result, one idea for outdoor tours is to take a small amount of high-quality cinder material with you, to have it if nothing else can be collected (or when you are in a hurry). It is true that experienced outdoor practitioners are able to find (or produce) natural cinder nearly everywhere, but a “backup” can be useful at times. Therefore, such preparations and equipping outdoor and “survival” gear with some portions of artificial cinder is basically a good idea (even when you consider your fire-making skills to be “good” – remember the example above).

One question remains: What material is the best to be carried with you? Which materials work best, create enough heat (or even small flames) to start a fire easily, even under difficult conditions? Basically, artificial cinder has to match the same criteria as natural examples:

  • First, it should be very light – a tree trunk is not a good cinder (but I think, nearly everyone knows that!).
  • Second, a high surface-to-mass-relation. Just to explain this essential factor: a big piece of wood has a lot mass, but not so much surface, therefore a low surface-to-mass-relation. A smaller piece of wood has already a higher relation. A bundle of very thin branches has an even higher relation, because the surface of every branch adds up. And a sheet of paper has the highest relation out of the mentioned. But there are, as we will see, materials that even surpass paper here.
  • Third, it should be made out of flammable material. But actually, this is not that important as one would think – one of the examples below will show that artificial cinder can be made out of materials that are basically not flammable.

Three possible materials for artificial cinder put to the test

I want to pick three kinds of artificial cinder for this review I came across in my trainings and studies. There are more, of course –they will be likely subject to some more reviews on this blog. I chose these three for the first part because of many reasons – f. e. because I used two of them quite often so far, they are easy to get and because, from my point of view, in combination they tell a lot about main advantages and also misunderstandings concerning this topic.

Cotton Wool

The first interesting thing to get is cotton wool. It is often found in survival equipment. Usually it is used for medical, cosmetical and hygienical purposes. The advantage is that it is easy to get and, when pressed together, a large amount can be stored in a small place. One thing that some people often forget is that not every cotton wool is suitable for fire making – some wools that are used for removing makeup for example are saturated with lotions – and these lotions are not burning at all.

Cotton Wool

Therefore, with such a cotton wool, even a trained user will have major difficulties. During a training with some guys from the military, they presented a practical and smart solution to me – every one of them had some tampons in their survival equipment. They were all men, but they knew that tampons are made with pure, untreated, pressed cotton wool that even comes with a water-repellent plastic cover. The best solution I know so far – therefore, even men who travel the outdoors alone should have some tampons with them. One disadvantage for sure is that this material can hardly be produced by yourself – you have to be equipped with it.

Fine Metal Wool

The second example reviewed is fine metal wool. This wool can be purchased in every hardware store, it is used for example to clean silver plates. The idea to use it for making fire allegedly originated from the US Marines, because they were looking for artificial cinder that would work with a fire steel even under difficult conditions.

Metal wool

Metal wool consists of very thin metal fibers, usually made of steel or also aluminum, collected in a light penetrable ravel. Metal wool is easy to purchase, light and easy to store, from that point of view it has indeed many advantages. The only disadvantage also here: It can only be produced when you have the necessary materials and tools, and even then it means quite an effort.

Fuel Paper

Recently I came across another idea for another kind of artificial cinder in a so called „survival book“. The author presented another idea for an easy-to-prepare and, according his explanations, highly efficient artificial cinder: “fuel paper”. Paper from old newspapers, ripped in stripes, soaked in common petrol, folded together to rolls and dried afterwards. The advantage here: This stuff seemed to be easy to prepare by yourself, when the materials needed would be available. He recommended to keep these as “cinder rolls” in the survival equipment, to have them when needed.

Fuel paper

Let’s put them to a test.

A three-stage test

So, these three kinds of artificial cinder would be the “contestants” for my first test. To determine which artificial cinder I would choose for my outdoor equipment, I did a simple, three-stage test:

  • First, I tried to ignite the cinder with a common artificial fire steel.
  • Second, I tried to ignite it with a non-stainless rasp and a stone.
  • And third, I spilled water on the cinder, then pressed as much water as possible out of it, and tried to ignite it with the artificial fire steel again, simulating starting a fire under wet conditions.

I used the same technique and the same starting material for every cinder example, and I tried it under the same circumstances (dry, warm weather, sunny, with no wind) for several minutes, with several examples of the cinder material. And my tests showed quite clear results.

Test on the cotton wool

First, the cotton wool. The fire steel worked pretty well – the first spark ignited the small fibers of the wool, and the wool produced an actually quite big flame that lasted for nearly 15 seconds. More than enough for some small trenches to catch fire. Obviously, the very fine structure of the wool together with the hot sparks from the fire steel are a very good combination.

Burning cotton wool

Continuing with the rasp, I expected to achieve similar results. Sparks produced by rasps and stones are not as big and hot as from fire steel, but a material as fine as cotton wool should also be able catch them, and their heat should be sufficient for a similar effect. Well, I expected that – and was pretty surprised as after several tries and some minutes, not a single attempt was successful. For whatever reason, cotton wool together with rasp/stone did not work out. It is difficult to find an answer for this – to be honest, I couldn’t find a proper explanation. But it didn’t work, even though I found the remains of some small metal sparks in the wool afterwards (showing that some some sparks did in fact hit the wool).

The third test, igniting when wet, showed soon that this would never work: As soon as the cotton wool is soaked with water, it is impossible to get the water out of it just by pressing it out. A wet, pressed cotton wool is completely unable to catch a spark. To dry it, for example using the sunlight, does also not provide a usable result. Therefore, if a cotton wool gets wet, you can throw it away, it has lost its favorable characteristics.

Testing the metal wool

The second “contestant”, fine metal wool, showed some similar, but also very different results. The fire steel worked again very well – just like with the cotton wool. But this time, not a small flame was the result, but a small hot spot. When blowing on it, it became bigger very fast, and soon it was big and hot enough to ignite dry branches without a problem.

Glowing metal wool

The second test showed the first difference to the cotton wool: When using a metal rasp and a stone, already the second strike produced a similar hot spot like with the fire steel that could again easily be enlarged by blowing on it. Unlike the cotton wool, even these sparks were enough to produce a good starter for a fire. And the result could be reproduced easily two more times. Thus, also this method works here.

After being successful with the test so far, I was really curious how the metal wool would work when wet. After soaking it with water, it was not difficult to squeeze most of the water out of it again – unlike the cotton wool, the metal wool is more likely to keep its light structure during the process. After getting as much water out of it as possible, I tried the fire steel on it – it took some more attempts than before, but after a few tries I was able to produce a small hot spot. But it was quite difficult – thus, I decided to dry the wool in the sun, and to try it again. After drying, the wool worked very good again – nearly as good as before soaking it. That showed that it is true – metal wool also helps when it became wet. VERY good to know!

“Fuel paper” as a contestant

The third “contestant” was the fuel-soaked newspaper. It is easy to produce (when you have the components for it): soaking small strips of newspaper in fuel, roll it to small tubes and then dry it in the sun.

In the beginning, I was really skeptical towards this approach: as far as I knew, when common fuel dries, all the components that make it incinerable evaporate, and there is nothing left to help. But because of the fact that my knowledge in chemistry is, to be honest, rather limited, I wanted to try it out and give it a chance. Maybe, as I thought, there would be the possibility that the newspaper could somehow “keep” some ingredients of the fuel that would help to incinerate it.

Again, I tried the fire steel first: It worked. But that was no proof that this material works better than ordinary newspaper. Thus, I did a similar test with normal newspaper. It worked also, as good as the “fuel-soaked” one. This suggests that the fuel does not give you any advantage – you could keep some newspaper in your survival equipment as well, no need for further preparation.

The second test underlined this theory to a certain point. With rasp and stone, I was not able to ignite the fuel-soaked paper, although I saw that sparks fell on the piece. Their temperature was obviously too small to ignite the paper, and the dried remains of the fuel did not help.

Thus, I expected the third test to be a failure as well – and it went as I expected. After getting wet, both papers were completely useless. The preparation with fuel did not help in any way. The test proved my skepticism from the beginning: this “fuel paper” as artificial cinder is useless. I’m wondering if the author of the “survival book” I had the idea from ever tried this out – obviously not. Unfortunately, a common phenomenon as I learned already: many methods written in books are useless.


The result of the review: If you want to have good artificial cinder as a backup for fire making, use the metal wool. It’s the best solution by far, from my experience. It works also with smaller sparks from metal, and also after being soaked with water.

Cotton wool gives you also an advantage, if you are using a fire steel. The fuel-soaked paper proved to be no advantage whatsoever – thus, spare the fuel for other purposes and use ordinary dry newspaper, if you have some.

The test also showed one thing: There is only one thing how you can learn “proper” methods: by testing it out by yourself. Don’t just trust methods and “tricks” you read about somewhere. A method can just be seen as reliable when you were able to reproduce it. This is also true when it comes to cinder for a fire – so in the end, I just want to give you one recommendation: Take the cinder materials mentioned here and test them out by yourself.

And if you reach different results – let me know!

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