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BUSH CRAFT – Shiny side up


A material of many uses

Words & pictures Paul Donovan

We’ve all cooked a Sunday roast in tin foil (more correctly aluminium foil), but there are of course myriad other uses we can put it to. In my opinion, it is almost up there with the likes of duct tape and zip ties, so a roll is always in my camping and survival kits.

Vessel for boiling water

Purification of water is obviously important to make it safe to drink. The easiest way of doing this is to boil it. But what happens if you don’t have a suitable container? Well, you can fashion one from a length of tin foil. Just form it into a bowl or rectangular shape.
If you put this directly on hot coals, it will boil the water but will fall to pieces when you lift as the heat will have made it brittle. Better to fill the receptacle with water and then put in hot stones. Preheat these in a fire (take care not to use any which will explode), and then gently add them to the water until it begins to boil. You now have safe drinking water.
With care, you can use the container a number of times before it eventually falls to bits.

Make a camp oven

With a full roll of tin foil, you can fashion a cooker. Make a tube of foil to the desired diameter – best to use the foil doubled over to add rigidity. Make a lid for it, and you have an oven. Put some coals inside the tube, set whatever you want to cook on top and put the lid on. If you really want to test your cooking skills, make some holes about a third of the way through which you can skewer lengths of wire or metal tent pegs. Set a pot on these supports, and you can bake biscuits or a small cake.

As a reflector

If you cannot boil water, or have a commercial filter, you can still purify it. All you need is a clear glass bottle (or plastic if you are desperate), a piece of tin foil, and a few hours of sun.
Simply fill the bottle with water to be purified. Find a really sunny spot and lay the bottle on the shiny side of the foil. The foil acts to intensify the UV light, and, depending on the clarity of the water and strength of sun, you should have safe water to drink within four to five hours.

Signal mirror

In a situation where you need to attract attention, having some sort of signalling device is imperative. During the night, a torch is an obvious choice, but it has limitations during the day. By folding a length of foil around an object, you instantly have a reflector.
Don’t worry about trying to smooth the creases out. A crinkled piece of foil will actually reflect more sunlight than a smooth piece. In the right sort of environment – an exposed area, or on top of a hill – enough glint will be seen over several kilometres; certainly, enough to be seen by an aircraft.

Making char cloth

To get a fire going you need something which will combust. Many survivalists carry char cloth, comprised of small pieces of material which have been placed in a container on the fire and charred. It is ideal as tinder, as it will catch alight using a spark from a Ferro rod, or anything that makes a spark.
If you don’t have a suitable container for making char cloth, wrap the fabric in a piece of foil, and then put this on the fire.

Starting a fire

A lot of people may be surprised to learn that a fire can be started with little more than an AA battery and sliver of tinfoil. Place a thin sliver of foil on either end of the battery. Touch both ends together on a piece of bone dry cotton wool or char cloth (it really must be bone dry and contain small filaments).

With a bit of messing about, you should eventually get an ember. Blow on it, and you will have fire. This method may or may not work. A lot will depend on the amount of charge in the battery, the quality of tinfoil being used, and the tinder being used.

Parabolic mirror for fire starting

For the really adventurous amongst you, why not have a go at making a parabolic mirror? This can be used for fire starting, and also for cooking or purifying water. Fashion a dish of foil approximately 15-20cm in diameter, and 9-10cm in depth. The profile should be slightly tapered. You may have to play around with the exact dimensions. In my experience, the least creases you can manage, the better. However, this won’t be easy given how easily foil creases.
Place some tinder (char cloth is ideal) at the centre of the dish, and angle it towards the sun. The foil will concentrate the sun’s rays downwards towards the tinder and create an ember. It works on a similar principle to using a magnifying glass to concentrate light and heat into a small area, though it must be said, the hotter the sun the better. For cooking or purifying water, a much larger dish will have to be fashioned – perhaps up to 1m in diameter.
This is quite an effective means of utilising the sun’s rays. Commercial parabolic mirrors are available on the market, albeit made from slightly more exotic materials.

Shelter heat reflector

In a dire emergency, layers of tin foil can be attached to the inner of a shelter to reflect heat back down. Providing you do not move around too much, you could also lie on the foil to reflect body heat back upwards.

Pot cleaner

Keeping your cooking/eating utensils clean is fundamental to avoiding a bad stomach and the runs. A scrunched-up piece of foil will get rid of food leftovers and keep your kit shiny clean.

Fishing lures

Slivers of foil of different sizes and shapes can be fashioned into fishing lures, along with a hook. There is, however, no guarantee you’ll catch anything.

Create a fire windbreak

If it’s blowing a gale and the fire keeps blowing out, fashion a windbreak with a length of foil, and hold it in place with some sticks or stones.


These few ideas have only scratched the surface as to the potential uses of tin foil. Your imagination is the only real limit. Be sure to pack a roll or length in your survival kit and/or your 4×4. As I always say, bush craft is all about thinking out of the box.