We’ve all walked in the pristine wilderness and suddenly seen that someone threw their beer or soft drink beer cans on the ground. 

Of course, one should never litter. If you packed it in, pack it out.

But an aluminum can is one of those multipurpose objects that can literally save lives.

With a bit of skill you can use a can to make a fire, purify water, cook, signal aircraft and do a few other things. That’s makes the discarded aluminum can a “multi-purpose tool.”



I was a bit skeptical when I first heard about making a fire using the bottom of an aluminum beer or soda can, but it actually works. The very bottom of an aluminum can is not a true parabolic dish, but when highly polished, it can be used to focus the sun’s rays to a point and ignite tinder.

To do this, you need to bring the bottom of the can to a high polish, typically using fine steel wool. You then point the bottom of the can towards the sun, and hold some tinder in the focal point. This takes patience, but you can do it.



One of the most important skills in the back-country is the ability to purify water. Just fill the aluminum can with your suspect water, and boil it over a fire. Boiling will kill any of the biological contaminants that might make you sick. If the water has stuff in it, then pour the water through a cloth first.



If for some reason you can’t get a fire going, you can use that aluminum can for a makeshift water filter. You will punch little holes into the bottom of the can, and you will cut off the top of the can.  A variety of filter materials have been tested, such as packing the can with clean socks. 

In experiments done in Great Britain in 1980, Stefan Kallman cut off the top of the can, punched holes in the bottom and added in sphagnum moss. Then he filled the bulk of the can with a blend of charcoal, peat, and more sphagnum.  He added a thin layer of small pebbles to the top.

Other filters could be clean sand, mixed with a bit of charcoal, or the clean socks or other fabric that can be packed into the can.



You can also take the top off the can and use it as a small coffee pot or soup pot.  Just punch two holes in the rim at the top so you can add a wire and suspend it over the fire. 



I have seen several versions of candle lanterns using a beer can, but the easiest is to simply cut two “doors” into the can, and set the candle into the can securely with a bit of hot wax.  You then use the tab on the top to hang the lantern wherever you want it. The doors can be adjusted so that the light reflects where you want it, and to help protect the candle from the wind.



Cut a circle or a square from the can. Aluminum is soft and you can do this with the scissors on your Swiss army knife, or with any knife. If you’ve ever used a regular signaling mirror, you know that it helps to have a little hole in the middle of the mirror to sight through. Cut a small hole in a rectangle of the aluminum through which you will attempt to observe your intended target.  If the sun is in the ideal spot in the sky, and if the person flying overhead happens to be looking your way perhaps someone will notice your signal mirror and respond appropriately.



You don’t need a pencil, just find a thin stick to carve your letters into the aluminum. Then hang it in a prominent place for others to see whatever you need to communicate. The piece of aluminum will be shiny and will be more obvious than a paper note which might get blown away or rained on. 

Christopher Nyerges has written “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He leads wilderness walks to teach about the uses of plants and survival skills. He can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.