On Chemistry: Making Activated Carbon and Hand Warmers, by R.T.

The practical usefulness of chemistry is often overlooked. In the video game State of Decay, there are various monologues that characters can randomly give. One such monologue speaks about how one person is amazed that all of the toilet paper disappeared after the zombie apocalypse. He jokes that while everyone else was worried about food and ammunition, someone realized that they’re going to continue to use the bathroom, so they’d better stock up on two-ply. In many ways, this represents the two modes of thought on preparedness. You have the people whose first thought is rightfully their immediate needs. You need food, water, shelter, and safety. And then you have the people who think beyond these needs. Both are equally important. Surviving today means little if you’re going to die tomorrow. However, tomorrow means nothing if you can’t survive today. Basic knowledge alone can help a person in both. Chemistry is often overlooked, but can provide vital supplies to us, both immediate and what might be viewed as luxury. Let’s examine two ways that chemistry can help us in these matters.

Grid Down, Bug Out Scenario

Let’s look at our first scenario. The grid has gone down and we have decided to bug out.

A Method to Make Safe, Purified Water

While we have a method to boil water, this doesn’t mean that it’s purified and perfectly safe to drink. Rivers and streams contain some degree of industrial or agricultural runoff. Let’s assume that we somehow forgot, lost, or broke our filtration method. Can we make a method of filtration with only what’s in our vehicle? If we assume that we have one common household item and a suitable container, we can.

First Step- Make Charcoal For Water Filtration

Our first step is to make charcoal. For this, we will use a variation of the methods used to create it in Pennsylvania that has been popularized by Youtube. You begin by making a pile of wood, standing it vertically, with the largest and tallest near the center. You then cover it with leaves followed by a thick layer of mud. Don’t waste precious drinking water with this, but instead use water taken directly from the source.

The goal is to have a mound of mud with a hole on top and four to six holes on the bottom. Once this is done, start a fire at the top and wait. Allow it to travel down the stack, waiting until you can see flames through the holes at the base. When you can see flames in one of these holes, plug that hole with mud to deny air flow. Once all of the holes at the base are plugged, then plug the hole at the top.

Wait For Charcoal Mound Process To Complete

Now, we wait for the mound to be cool to the touch. Depending on how much wood you used, this can take days. Once it is cool, wait a few more hours before breaking it open. You should find a supply of good quality charcoal waiting for you. However, this is where the chemistry comes into play.

Make Charcoal Into Activated Carbon

Currently, you have charcoal, but let’s make it into activated carbon. The first step is to take some of this charcoal and powder it. The more finely powdered the better. Once you have it finely powdered, it’s time to get that item from your car– salt. While table salt will do in a pinch, it’s better to use a bag of road salt (calcium chloride).

Add three parts water to one part calcium chloride, dissolving it completely. Be careful, as this will make the water hot. So if you’re using a sealed container to mix these, be sure to let it vent. Carefully pour it over your charcoal powder to make a paste and let it sit overnight, or until it has completely dried on its own. In the same way road salt will do a number on your car over time, it’s creating pores in the grains of charcoal.

This is the method used to make activated carbon in an industrial setting.

Rinse Salt Out of Activated Carbon

Once your paste has dried completely on its own, you need to rinse the salt out of the activated carbon using water that has been purified. You don’t want contaminants from the water automatically “deactivating” your carbon. Once this has been rinsed several times and allowed to dry, you have the basis of a drip water filtration system. You just put the activated carbon at the bottom of a vessel, then sand, then rocks of gradually increasing grade.

While this means that you will still have to boil the water to remove any bacteria or other biological contaminants, you now can make sure that your water is as pure as you can make it. But activated carbon has other uses. For example, if you accidentally ingest a poison, swallowing activated carbon will allow those pores to absorb the poison, potentially saving your life. Of course, it’s always better to have this made in advance.

Economic Collapse Bug In Scenario

Now that we know how to make something basic, let’s go more advanced. In this scenario, you’ve bugged in. Following the example of the economic collapse in Argentina, we can expect basic services to be sporadic. If you live in colder climates, you can expect to go without heat for days at a time. Getting into a cold bed can cost you 100 calories just waiting for it to warm up. Is there a way that we can help fight this, and perhaps give us access to trade goods? Yes!

Producing Heat

Before, we mentioned that calcium chloride and water produces heat. While true, this is inefficient, and afterwards you have to boil the solution down to get your calcium chloride back. This might even ruin cookware.

Using Home Products- Acetic Acid and Sodium Bicarbonate

There’s a better way to produce heat. This involves using acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate, both of which you most likely have in your home. Let’s look at how this could be done.

A Container

First, we need a container. A freezer-grade zip-seal bag will work in a pinch, but they’re unreliable. Have you ever had one that you felt perfectly safe having liquid in for extended periods without it leaking? Instead, it’s better to use sheets of clear vinyl, if it’s available. The thicker the better. These can be sealed with a hot iron, but you can also use your oven.

Making A Vinyl Bag in the Oven

Make your own leak-proof vinyl bag with thick plastic. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet, and then lay down your vinyl cut to size. Then lay down a smaller sheet of parchment paper where the cavity will be, with a tab extending off the vinyl. This will be where we will pour in the liquid later. Lay your second piece of vinyl down, and bake it for three minutes at 350°F. Remove the parchment paper, and you’re done. However, the pour slot will still need to be sealed through other means.

A Pot of Vinegar and Baking Soda

Take a pot and pour four cups of distilled vinegar into it. Add to this four tablespoons of our old friend, baking soda. Add the baking soda slowly, making sure to stir to keep it from bubbling over. Once it all is added, put it over medium heat. Be forewarned– cooking vinegar like this isn’t exactly pleasant to smell. If you’re the type that this bothers, make sure to ventilate the area well. I find myself comfortable with it, but everyone is different.

You want to boil it down until the liquid changes color a bit, so don’t go for a heavy boil. Turn down the heat, get another pot, a strainer or funnel, and ten coffee filters. Place the coffee filters in the strainer or funnel. If you have it, feel free and place some activated carbon in the funnel. A cup at a time, pour the hot solution through the filters to help remove impurities. If you want to make it even more pure, you can first add a cup of activated carbon directly to the solution, mix well, and then filter out the carbon multiple times before performing the hot filtration.

Boil Again and Cool to Crystallize

Once you’ve filtered it, bring it to a low boil again, and listen to the sound. Patience is key here — when it reaches saturation, the sound of the bubbles will be almost crinkly or crackly. Once cool, blow on it. If it crystallizes, then you’re good to go. Otherwise, put it back in to boil a little longer. Or you can just wait until crystals begin to form. Both methods work. Take a small amount of liquid and put it in a dish to cool it, perhaps in the refrigerator.

Once the solution is at the proper state, pour it into another clean container to cool. If it crystallizes on its own, one of two things happened. The first is that crystals from the pot transferred over, in which case you can put the container in boiling water for five to ten minutes and redissolve everything. If it doesn’t redissolve, you boiled too much water out, in which case, just add a little, bit by bit, until they dissolve.

Retrieve Crystals- Make Hot Ice

Once your solution has cooled to room temperature, retrieve a couple of crystals from the edge of the boiling pot and drop them in. It should magically turn into hot ice! Congratulations! Place the container in boiling water to “recharge” it, turning it back into liquid, and you’re ready. (You can also purify the crystals by “washing” them with isopropyl alcohol, but that’s a waste.)

An Activator

Most instructions online say to create an activator using a snap bracelet with two thin slits cut in it, but I’ve never seemed to be able to find these. Instead, I place two pennies in the bag. Be warned that they may rub against each other and set it off prematurely! The goal is to create mild friction to provide a place for crystals to form, setting off the rest of the solution.

Seal Bag and Have a Warm Bag

Regardless, pour in the solution and seal your bag. Now, fifteen minutes before bed, activate two or three of these, and place them in your bed or sleeping bag. They’ll warm up to between 113°F and 130°F, leaving you warm when you crawl in.

However, using the Argentina collapse as a model, we can also assume that trading hubs will appear. These make excellent trade items to people who are cold and miserable. There are stories of people selling these on hiking trips for quite a tidy profit, so imagine what they could fetch when you’ve been without heat for a few weeks.

Chemistry can be scary, filled with confusing terms and instructions, but it doesn’t have to be. The DIY crowd has often broken it down into the most basic components that anyone can understand. With it, we can improve our odds at survival, or improve our lives if the worst should happen.

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been another entry for Round 75 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

  1. A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
  2. A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate. This can be used for any one, two, or three day course (a $1,095 value),
  3. A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses, excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
  4. DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper. These have hammer forged, chrome-lined barrels and a hard case, to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel. This can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools. It also provides a compact carry capability in a hard case or in 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
  5. Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
  6. A $250 gift certificate good for any product from Sunflower Ammo,
  7. Two cases of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), courtesy of CampingSurvival.com (a $180 value), and
  8. American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses.

Second Prize:

  1. A Model 175 Series Solar Generator provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
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Third Prize:

  1. A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
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  6. Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord (in-stock colors only) from www.TOUGHGRID.com (a $240 value).

Round 75 ends on March 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. Activated Carbon, aka Activated charcoal, can be found in most pet stores that cater to salt water fish. I used this to filter the water for my old reef tank. It’s an excellent way to absorb pollutants from water. Unlike standard charcoal it won’t turn your filtered water into something that looks like mud.

    1. I’m debating on which of my topics I should use for the next time. Originally, I was going to write one about the unpleasantness of making your own matches from scratch, but my tests haven’t been going well. Until I can make them reliably and with easy-to-follow instructions that are (mostly) safe, I don’t want to go with that.

      My logic is that if you can save the calories and time in making a fire, it’s worth it. If you’re sick and already shivering, a bow drill fire is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

      Writing is easy. Choosing a subject and making sure that it’s easily usable is hard.

  2. Very interesting and useful information, however you have the order for layering the filter upside-down. How do I know this? Because, I’m a Professional Engineer, I do this for a living, and this is a very common mistake. Your course gravel goes at the bottom of your filter, your fine sand in the middle, and your GAC (granular activated carbon) goes at the top. I know this sounds backwards, however it’s the best way to prevent your filter from getting clogged by allowing the heavier material below to support the lighter material above and is also helpful when cleaning your filter, since that is the order in which the particles will settle out.

    1. I keep doing that. The sad part is, I know better. I know that I know better. In my personal test, I did two layers, coarse, fine, carbon, coarse, fine, carbon. Yes, it’s overkill, but I was playing around and doing my own tests. I rather liked that setup, and they didn’t settle out as much as you might think.

      May I blame sitting down and writing this with only occasional glances at my notes in just fifteen minutes?

  3. Great information. I have used activated charcoal for years and always wondered how it differed from regular charcoal.

    Valuable stuff. More articles along these lines would be welcolme.

  4. I bought 40 pounds of activated charcoal on amazon for my large water filter in a 55 gl drum. It works great. If your buying it make sure your get the kind that works for aquariums, not the kind for air filters. What one uses a different method and is not for use in water.

  5. I did not see it mentioned but activated charcoal has several medicinal uses, such as in making poultices to draw out infection in wounds. One can also make a slurry to stop chronic diarrhea. It also can be made into a toothpaste that works well.

    1. You can also use it to stop food poisoning. While we were traveling in a foreign country my husband got a case of food poisoning and I gave him activated charcoal capsules (which I carry with me all the time). He barfed black goop for a while but it got the bad stuff out and he did not have to go to a foreign hospital.

  6. I enjoyed the article – thanks. I would personally rig up a still to distill clean water from a dirty source. Since you are going through the effort of bringing it to a boil anyway. Discard the first and last parts of the distillate and keep the rest.

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