Fire is awesome. We've all known that since we were eight years old and got ahold of our first Bic lighter. It's mankind's original technology - we've used it for so long, it's become part of who we are as a species. We are people of the fire. If you're going to learn one outdoor skill, it should be firecraft.
As we all know, it's indispensable for creating warmth, cooking food, and boosting morale. And that's where most people's knowledge of it stops, which is a shame, because fire's byproducts have a whole myriad of uses all their own. If you've ever hung out with us, you've seen us do the knife-cleaning trick with campfire ash, which does a better job than any commercial cleaner on the market. But there's so much more than that, in fact, we could probably do a whole video or blog series on just ash and charcoal.
Charcoal in its most basic form is simply carbon. It's wood that's been carbonized, but hasn't been completely burnt to ash. There are some ways to make it that are superior to others, but the gist of it is to stop the combustion process during the carbon burn phase by depriving coals of oxygen. Shoveling dirt over the coals is generally best, but scattering the coals or using water works too.
The finished product has a whole host of wilderness survival uses, including water filtration, writing, camouflage, hiding your scent, and more. But today, we're going to focus on its use for emergency wilderness medicine: as a treatment for poisoning.
First, a word on the difference between plain charcoal and activated charcoal: Activated charcoal is superheated and charged with a final blast of oxygen before finishing, which creates nearly four times as many pores in its particles. You can make it at home, but it's difficult and labor intensive. Activated charcoal is superior for medicinal uses, which is why it's sold in stores and used by medical professionals. But in a wilderness survival situation, plain old charcoal will do the job just fine, you just have to use more of it.
To use, take your charcoal pieces (which will probably look a lot like the picture), grind them up in to a powder with a mortar and pestle, and mix the powder with water until it's kind of a thin slurry. Dosage is essentially quadruple the recommendation for activated charcoal - remember, it's four times as effective.
The dosage guidelines are something like this: 200-600 grams for adults, and 200-400 grams for children 12 and under. If you're not a weed dealer and don't keep a gram scale handy, 600 grams is roughly 40 tablespoons. That's a lot, and yes, it's going to taste awful. Mix it up in a 32-oz Nalgene or similar bottle and drink it slowly.
Charcoal is particularly useful for poisoning. All of those tiny pores work really well to absorb toxic substances and prevent the body from processing them. One teaspoon of charcoal has over 10,000 square feet of microscopic surface area. Crazy, right? It's essentially a chemical sponge. If you mis-identified a wild plant or skipped the Universal Edibility Test, this could save your life.
In addition to poisoning, charcoal is useful for treating many other digestive maladies. If you have heartburn, acid reflux, or severe indigestion, it helps absorb all that excess stomach acid and calm your stomach. It's great for treating food poisoning as well - it's great for reigning in vomiting, and it's excellent for treating diarrhea - all those charcoal solids will plug you right up. On the flip side of this, if you're not suffering from diarrhea, it can cause serious constipation, so be sure to drink LOTS of water if you use it.
Since charcoal is carbon, which is inert, it's totally safe in and of itself. You can't overdose on it. Other than the aforementioned constipation, the only caveat is that since it absorbs ingested chemicals, it can interfere with prescription meds. Try to wait two hours after taking medications before using charcoal, but if you've ingested a poison, please use common sense and prioritize.
Moral of the story - you should always carry activated charcoal to treat poisoning, but if you don't have it, there's a lifesaving treatment living in your campfire. For more wilderness medicine tips, join us for First Aid for the Outdoor Enthusiast this Saturday, 6/23! Register now at sarcraft.com/first-aid!