How to Make Activated Charcoal

Surprise, surprise—activated charcoal isn’t just a key ingredient in clearing out your blackheads and acne and keeping them pearly whites pearly and white! If you’re someone who frequents the wilderness and loves your camping and trekking or has ever been in a survival situation, you know that activated charcoal is manna from heaven. From surviving a poisoning to purifying water to serving in a gas mask, activated charcoal has tons of properties that make it invaluable in a survival situation. 

Therefore, not only can knowing how to make your own activated charcoal save your life, but it can also save your money—and I don’t know about you, but that appeals to me greatly! A pound of activated charcoal at the store will cost you between $12 and $15, but making your own will cost you less than a dollar for the same amount. FYI, that’s more than enough to cover your needs as well as others.

How do you make activated charcoal? Worry not, my friend, because I’ve got you covered—here’s all you need to know about making and using activated charcoal.

Activated Charcoal vs Regular Charcoal

If you’re wondering how activated charcoal is different from regular charcoal, you’re asking a very valid question. Activated charcoal is hardwood charcoal that has increased surface area in its carbon particles. This is achieved by treating the charcoal in a way that creates small pores in the carbon particles (with the use of calcium chloride and a whole process that we’ll discuss later in the article). This way, the charcoal is able to absorb more gases, impurities and toxins.

Regular charcoal, on the other hand, has some absorbing capacity, but this can, in no way, rival the absorbing capacity of activated charcoal. Therefore, regular charcoal should never be substituted for active charcoal.

But Wait! Why Do You Need Activated Charcoal?

As mentioned earlier, activated charcoal has a range of survival uses. Here’s a more detailed breakdown; if you still doubted the need for activated charcoal and learning how to make it, this list will have you convinced!

Filtering Water

Activated charcoal makes an excellent water filter. In fact, many filters use activated charcoal in their systems, whereas some have sections that require activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is known to decrease, if not completely eliminate, the amounts of fluoride, chlorine and other harmful compounds that affect the taste, smell and potency of water. In fact, all you need is a 2-liter bottle, some activated charcoal and a coffee filter to make your own working water filter!

As a Remedy for Poisoning

Charcoal is a known absorbent of toxins, which means that unlike The Fray, this element very well knows ‘how to save a life’. Activated charcoal is “the” element to turn to in case of a poisoning and while this is highly unlikely in a survival situation, this extends to those reckless nights of revisiting your sweet-16 and downing 16 shots of vodka. In a row. And at the beginning of the evening. (FYI, kids, alcohol poisoning is real and dangerous and activated charcoal’s toxin-absorbing qualities are no license to drink recklessly.)

Therefore, activated charcoal can reduce the effects of ingested poison as well as lower the levels of blood alcohol in cases of alcohol poisoning. Remember, activated charcoal is only effective for a limited window after the ingestion of poisoning—it is best taken as early as possible, not exceeding 30 minutes from the consumption of the poison. But also remember, never and I repeat, never give activated charcoal to children who are younger than a year of age.

The recommended dosage for adults is 50-100 grams of activated charcoal powder in water. For children between the ages of 1 and 12, the dosage should not exceed 50 grams, mixed with water. The logic/formula behind both these amounts is that approximately 0.25-0.5 grams of activated charcoal powder should be taken for every pound of body weight.

In case the poisoning is extremely severe, you can do a course of activated-charcoal treatments in the hours following the ingestion of poison. The recommended dosage for adults, after the first 50-100 grams with water, is 12.5 grams every hour after or 25 grams every 2 hours after or 50 grams every 4 hours after. For children up to 13 years of age, the first dose should be between 10 and 25 grams, followed by 0.5-1 gram, every 2-4 hours, for every pound of body weight.

Of course, charcoal in water doesn’t taste like red wine but don’t substitute water with substances like chocolate milk, sherbet or ice cream to get children to ingest it faster and easier. Doing so will decrease the charcoal’s absorption capabilities and thereby, its effectiveness and the speed at which it works.

It’s also extremely, extremely important to remember that activated charcoal should be used only in survival situations or as a last resort in normal situations. Never fall back on activated charcoal alone—seeking formal medical treatment, at the earliest possible, is a must.

Treating Bites and Stings

Sharing the space with insects and other critters is commonplace in the wilderness or in survival situations, especially ones that bite and sting. And if you do get bitten or stung, guess what makes things better? No prizes for guessing ‘activated charcoal’.

To treat bites and stings, a capsule of activated charcoal with half a tablespoon of coconut oil mixed in and placed inside a covering, creates an excellent charcoal poultice. So potent is this poultice that, with a larger dose, you can even treat spider and snake bites with this, including ones from super-venomous spiders like the famous (or infamous!) Brown Recluse and Black Widow.

Apply the poultice and bandage the area. Remove this wrap after a couple of hours, rinse and repeat.

As a Gas Mask

While activated charcoal is, by no means, as effective as an actual gas mask, it does come in second and definitely beats doing nothing. A gas mask with activated charcoal will minimize exposure to and damage from pollutants in the environment and any volatile organic compounds (VOCs) floating about.

If you’re creating your own gas mask with activated charcoal, you’ll need a 2-liter soda bottle, soda can, rubber bands, cotton or some kind of stuffing material, tape (duct or medical tape will do), scissors and of course, the star of the show—activated charcoal.

Cut out the bottle in a ‘U’ shape to act as the mask’s face. Seal the edges with tape to prevent getting cut or scratched by the plastic edges. Make a few holes at the bottom of the soda can, cut it in half and place a single cotton layer inside. Pour some activated charcoal over this and put another layer of cotton over it to secure the powder. As a last measure of security, put one last cotton round to the top of the can and then duct tape this entire contraption to the bottle’s open spout. Follow this up with taping the aluminum can to the bottle and if you want to keep the mask secure on your face, use rubber bands.

Other Uses

Activated charcoal can help effectively treat stomach flu conditions like gastroenteritis. Additionally, because no dentists are available in the wild and you may go weeks or days without teeth maintenance, you can use activated charcoal to help treat tooth infections.

Getting Down to Making Activated Charcoal!

As you can see, activated charcoal has a huge list of valuable uses. But how do you actually make activated charcoal?

Some folks are more enterprising and therefore, choose to make their own charcoal, blessed with sufficient energy and time to wait for the extremely high temperatures required to turn hardwood into coal. For the rest of us, a 20-pound bag of hardwood charcoal will do the trick!

Of course, if it’s a survival situation, you may have to end up making your own charcoal, so let’s cover making charcoal anyway!

Making Charcoal from Burning Hardwood

To make charcoal by burning hardwood, you can follow the below steps:

  • Gather hardwood and put it in a pile. The fire will have to burn long and will, therefore, need to be constantly fed, so find a spot conducive to both. Many folks swear by metal barrels for the process.
  • Chop your hardwood into smaller pieces before you burn it. This way, you can fit more into your barrel. For faster burning, ensure that all the hardwood is completely dry before burning.
  • Light the fire! Your big bonfire will need to burn for at least 3-5 hours, but the time also depends on how big the barrel is and how full it is (for reference, a 55-gallon metal barrel, filled with wood, will need 5 hours of burning time to give you charcoal). If you’re covering the barrel, remember to make a venting hole in the lid for airflow. Additionally, smoke is a sign that the charcoal is burning; if no more is coming, it either means the fire is out or that your hardwood has stopped cooking.
  • Before you open the barrel, let it cool, preferably overnight or even longer.

Using this method, you can make a ton of charcoal. You can use any wood, from the slag from a sawmill to old wood lying around the house. If hardwood is unavailable, you can also use materials like coconut shells or other fibrous, dense plant material.

Making Activated Charcoal—Supplies You’ll Need

The following ingredients are necessary to make activated charcoal:

  • Charcoal:  A little obvious, this one, but you can pick up any briquettes of hardwood charcoal that you like. However, ensure you don’t end up buying the ones that are already soaked in lighter fluid or have other additives. You need pure hardwood charcoal.
  • Calcium Chloride: Commonly known as Pickle Crisp, calcium chloride works out most financially feasible when you buy it in large tubs. You can even pick up the tubs available at grocery stores but these are a little more expensive than ones offered by companies such as Hoosier Hill.
  • A Glass Jar: A glass jar or a regular canning jar or any other non-aluminum mixing unit with a solid lid is good, to make your activated charcoal in. A non-aluminum or glass container is good, as mixing calcium chloride causes a heat-releasing reaction that aluminum will react to. Therefore, use a container that doesn’t have leaks and always, always protect your eyes.
  • Other Supplies: The other supplies you’ll need are:
    • A white sheet or cheesecloth
    • A measuring cup
    • Water
    • A flat pan or a cookie sheet
    • A storage container to store your activated charcoal in

If you don’t have calcium chloride, you can use lime juice or bleach instead. Use 310 ml of either with 100 ml of water.

Steps to Make Activated Carbon

Follow the below steps to make your activated charcoal:

  • Make charcoal in the method listed above, if you’re opting not to get a 20-pound bag of charcoal.
  • Using a hammer or a heavy object, smash your charcoal to smithereens. Transfer the powder charcoal to a stainless steel or glass container. Remember—no aluminum!
  • Mix 1 part of calcium chloride in 3 parts of water (100 grams of calcium chloride in 300 ml of water). Remember to use gloves here as the jar will start to heat up. To release a little heat, loosen the lid a little before resealing. It’s always a good idea to only mix as much activated charcoal as you need, as large batches can become hard to manage.
  • Make a paste by adding your calcium chloride solution slowly to the powdered charcoal. Mix the two until you have a paste on your hands that can be easily spread. If you have a leftover solution, either add some more charcoal powder or throw it.
  • Let the paste dry in the bowl for at least 24 hours.
  • Once the paste has dried, spread it on your white sheet or between layers of cheesecloth (ensure that whatever you’re spreading the paste on is unscented and free of any detergent residue). Rinse this paste in clean water and collect the water that drains—you can filter this using a coffee filter and recover any carbon that would otherwise be lost. Put both the coffee filter and the charcoal bundle on a cookie sheet or tray.
  • Pop this into the oven and dry at 250 degrees Fahrenheit so that all the moisture disappears from the mix.
  • After this, let the charcoal mix cool. After cooling, break it apart and store it in a waterproof and airtight jar.

If you don’t have an oven, you can put the charcoal mix in a clean metal pot and put it over a fire. The heat should be enough to boil any leftover water in the mixture so that the charcoal also activates. 3 hours at this temperature will do the trick.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

While activated charcoal is a literal life saver in many situations, there are some things you should bear in mind while using the element, such as:

  • Activated charcoal can interact with certain medications; therefore, double check any and all prescription drugs you’re taking to ensure that they don’t react adversely to activated charcoal. You don’t want to ruin the rest of your system to detoxify one! If you have any health issues or are taking prescription medications, always check with your doctor or pharmacist before using activated charcoal.
  • Charcoal stains. Like, real bad stains, which is why many folks prefer charcoal capsules instead of powder, as there is almost zero staining involved in the former unless broken open. Capsules are also advantageous because you know what dosage is in it.
  • With activated charcoal, it isn’t “the more, the merrier”! Activated charcoal must be used sparingly since it’s highly concentrated. Therefore, even a little goes a long way.
  • If your charcoal mix becomes wet, fret not! You can just pop it back into the oven on a tray and do the whole drying-at-250-degrees-Fahrenheit process for it to dry out.

Parting Words

Yes, making activated charcoal can be a long and laborious process, especially if you’re also making your own hardwood charcoal. So, yes, you can easily order activated charcoal online and no, it won’t decimate your bank balance.

However, when you’re faced with a survival situation, the chances that Amazon or eBay or even your local grocery store will be doing home deliveries are supremely slim. Getting even the basics becomes hard and being able to fend for yourself, at such times, holds great merit.

Whether you’re prepping to withstand a zombie-apocalypse situation or find yourself in a Christopher-McCandless-type situation or whether you just find value in learning new things, knowing how to make your own activated charcoal will take you a long way. With this guide, you can now get down to making your own activated charcoal with zero hassles and enough to withstand any survival situation out there! Get down to it and tell us how it goes.