Back to top

Can You Start a Charcoal Fire with Rubbing Alcohol?

There are many ways of starting fires for survival purposes, and improvisation is an important part of approaching this important survival skill. You need to be able to evaluate what you have on hand and come up with innovative ways of getting your fire going, particularly if you are in a cold environment!

Why is rubbing alcohol an important consideration in fire making? You might be surprised as to where you can find this potential fire-starting ingredient for your survival fire!

Yes, you can start a charcoal fire with rubbing alcohol, due to the composition of rubbing alcohol, including flammable ingredients that will take a spark well! There are, however, techniques you can use that will improve your chances of getting a fire going with this method.

You will need a number of items to get the fire going, the charcoal, and the rubbing alcohol, of course, but a few other items will make the process easier as well.

What Is Rubbing Alcohol

Another name for rubbing alcohol is surgical spirits, and it is generally available from most pharmacies, and probably most grocery stores.

Rubbing alcohol contains either isopropyl alcohol or ethanol as the main ingredient, and it is a substance that is used as an external antiseptic. It can be wiped over scrapes and cuts to kill germs and bacteria and help to prevent a wound from becoming infected.

Alcohol is not only a great antiseptic but is also flammable, which is why it makes for an ideal ingredient in making a survival fire with charcoal or even other basic tinder.

The reason that rubbing alcohol can be considered a viable survival fire-starting medium is due to the fact that it is often included as an antiseptic in a first aid kit.

As a result, if you are stranded in the wilderness and in need of a fire, and you have a first aid kit with you that includes rubbing alcohol or surgical spirits, then you are in luck! As long as you have the other essential ingredients needed for a fire.

The Items You Will Need To Make The Fire

The rubbing alcohol is only one of the items you will need to get this fire going. We are going to focus on using charcoal and rubbing alcohol, but you can substitute other tinder such as dry grass, dry leaves, or small, dry twigs instead.

Here is the list of basic items you will need.

  • The rubbing alcohol.
  • A piece of charcoal. One fairly large piece the size of a golf ball would do, but several pieces of small sizes can also work
  • Small twigs and larger sticks, or a pile of charcoal to build the fire.
  • A source of ignition. This can be a Ferro rod that you can use with a knife or other carbon steel to produce a spark, matches, a lighter, or flint, and steel. Sometimes you can even use quartz stones which you can bash together and will produce a spark.

How To Start A Fire With Rubbing Alcohol

There are a number of steps that you can follow in order to get the fire started. We will detail the fire-making steps here, which will help you get the fire going with some rubbing alcohol to spare!

Get Organized

Get your fire-making items organized so that you don’t waste time looking for things when the fire gets going. Not having everything within reach when starting the fire may cause it to go out at a crucial moment while you are looking for things to add to the fire.

Have your small twigs, leaves, sticks, and other pieces of charcoal at the ready and within arm’s reach.

Set Up The Charcoal

Place one small piece of charcoal about the size of a golf ball or smaller on a solid surface like a flat rock. Don’t place it in the sand, as the sand can soak up the rubbing alcohol and diminish its effectiveness.

It is better to use one piece of charcoal and put more of the rubbing alcohol on one piece rather than to spread the rubbing alcohol too thin over too many pieces and risk the fire going out. This would use less of your rubbing alcohol supply, and you will have some leftover in the bottle to make more fires in the days to come, or as the situation requires.

Pour Rubbing Alcohol On The Charcoal

Pour enough rubbing alcohol on the piece of charcoal, so it looks wet. You will find that the charcoal will soak up some of the alcohol, which is what you want to happen. Pour a little more on so it looks wet.

Now you need to move quickly to get the rubbing alcohol ignited before it all evaporates from the charcoal, which happens quite quickly. This re-enforces the need to have your fire-making gear organized!

Ignite The Rubbing Alcohol

Use your ignition source to generate a spark to ignite the alcohol. It should ignite fairly easily, and the entire piece of charcoal should be engulfed in flame as the alcohol that it has absorbed starts to burn.

The piece of charcoal soaked in rubbing alcohol in this way acts in a similar way to a commercial firelighter for a barbeque.

The rubbing alcohol burns quite quickly, so you need to get your small tinder on the flame as quickly as possible!

The charcoal should burn in this way for a minute or so, but can burn off quite quickly. You, therefore, need to be prepared to work fast to get other small pieces of fuel burning, which is the next step of building a fire.

Add Fuel To the Fire

Essentially, you now have a fire, but it is not going to last long unless you give it something to continue burning. Start by adding small amounts of your smallest twigs, or dry leaves, or even dried droppings from any herbivorous animal such as rabbits or deer.

As these smaller fuel items start to catch and burn, add progressively larger twigs and sticks till the fire is burning well and requires less attention.

Don’t be in a rush and add too much fuel too quickly, as you could end up smothering the fire, and the flame will go out. Then you will have to start over and use more of your rubbing alcohol supply.

At this point, if you have other bits of charcoal, add them to the fire. As they heat up, they will intensify the fire and make it hotter and thus easier to keep the fire going.

Once the fire is well established, add some of the biggest sticks or branches to your fire. You will not have a sustainable fire that will provide you with warmth, a means to cook food, protection against wildlife, and a source of comfort in the wilderness!

Conclusion

Building a survival fire with charcoal and rubbing alcohol is not easy. Your timing when trying this method has to be just right to get the fire going properly before the alcohol burns off, and the flame goes out. It may also be a fire starting method that is difficult to get right in some weather conditions, such as if a strong wind is blowing.

A strong wind will evaporate the alcohol faster, giving you less time to build the fire and could also blow the flame out.

If the rock you place the charcoal on is hot, it will also cause the rubbing alcohol to evaporate quickly, limiting your chance of getting the fire started.

This fire-making skill is one that should you should be practicing to establish how easy or difficult it is to perform under various weather and environmental conditions. Practicing your bushcraft skills is the key ingredient to having your survival techniques work when you need them to.

While it is not easy to get a fire going using rubbing alcohol and charcoal, it is definitely possible and is another good reason to make sure your survival first aid kit contains a bottle of rubbing alcohol. It is another multi-purpose item that is always of benefit to have in your gear!

Frank Pearmain

As a homesteader, survivalist, and previously a safari guide in Africa, I have extensive bush and wilderness experience. I am passionate about living a self-sufficient, off-grid lifestyle and continuously learn and strive toward that goal!

Recent Posts