Eat Like An Explorer – Making Hardtack or Ship’s Biscuits

We glamorise the life of an explorer, but it was largely a miserable existence. If the expedition was a success the leader got some glory and could regale its fascinating tales to an intrigued, paying audience. But as for the remainder of the crew; they mostly got the opportunity to repeat the wretched experience on another expedition. With the prospects of survival being wafer thin, not many people turned exploration into a career.

Nevertheless, despite a grim life explorers didn’t seem to complain too much. In fact the only thing that frequently caused complaint was the food.

Expedition food needed to be very energy dense. If it was being hauled it also had to be lightweight. But most importantly it needed to be non-perishable, even in harsh environments. Not many suitable foods were amenable to extended preservation, typically via salting or dehydration. So explorers found themselves eating a very limited and unappetising diet for potentially up to 5 years.

Few food items escaped complaint, but there was one that literally took the biscuit – hardtack. When it was in good condition it was almost impossible to eat. But invariably improper storage caused it to be spoiled by mould or have an army of weevils move in and call it home.

weevils on flour grains
Weevils love hardtack. You might get hundreds in every bite.

And hardtack wasn’t just for explorers. There’s hardly a military campaign outside of the last hundred years where some kind of hardtack didn’t feed the marching armies.

What Exactly Is Hardtack?

Well, tack means cheap, inferior food and hard means erm… hard. Basically hardtack it is an unleavened bread that is devoid of moisture. That is the secret to its immense shelf life.

In some respects it is not dissimilar to damper or bannock bread. However these are cooked with a hard crust and a soft interior. You may also compare it with a cracker, but crackers are made with fats and although very dry are still somewhat soft. Most likely you will, as many did, compare it to a brick, but bricks are made from clay and hardtack is made with flour.

Sailors usually called it ship’s biscuits. It’s a term that actually predates hardtack and to the uninformed gives it a deceptive air of culinary appeal.

modern chocolate covered ship biscuits
Fancy a ship’s biscuit? Unfortunately they weren’t this good.

Anyway, enough of this history lesson – let’s make some hardtack and see what all the whinging was about.

Hardtack Ingredients

packet of rock salt, bag of plain flour and a glass of water

250g Plain flour – For true authenticity go with wholemeal. But no cheating with self-raising. It may be more palatable but the leavened hardtack ends up twice as big. Space is at a premium you know!

5g Salt – Didn’t make the final product notably salty to me. Perhaps I should have added more?

150g / 150ml Water – I used clean, but you can use dirty if you really want to hammer the authenticity line home.

The above ingredients will make enough to cover a 12″ pizza tray. It’s plenty for a taste test. You can easily scale up if you’re contemplating a long term cache for when real disaster strikes.

Making Your Hardtack

Place the three ingredients into a bowl and mix until you have formed a firm dough.

Roll out the dough to a thickness of about 5mm and cut the dough into squares. I used a pizza cutter. Re-roll off-cuts to make more squares or embrace a bit of irregularity into your hardtack.

hardtack dough rolled out and cut into irregular rectangles with a pizza cutter

If you have OCD you can use a cookie cutter or something. I made a second batch and used a small plastic tub as a cutter and they look pretty good.

hardtack dough rolled out and cut into rectangles with a plastic tub

You now need to place some holes into your hardtack to assist with drying out the centre. I used a toothpick. Give it a good wiggle not just a pinprick. Flip them over and poke the hole from the back to ensure it goes all the way through. It’s a bit tedious, but unless you have a mini lawn aerator what can you do?

hardtack biscuits on pizza tray and ready for baking in oven

Place your hardtack onto a baking tray (well pizza tray for me) and its ready for the oven

I baked mine for 45 minutes at 180oC. But do whatever it takes so they look golden brown. We’re not on MasterChef here.

Hardtack – Take 2

The word biscuit (bisket) is French for baked twice. Your hardtack has only been baked once and almost certainly is not crisp in the centre. So once cool it needs a further baking to fully dry out. It was customary to do this on the following day. Sometimes hardtack was baked up to 4 times to ensure all traces of moisture had been eliminated.

Remember the second bake is not to cook the hardtack, but to simply dry it out further. So you will need a longer bake at a lower temperature. I went down to 120oC for a couple of hours and then left it for several more elevated above my woodheater.

hardtack drying on a pizza tray placed above a wood heater.

The final product

Once completely dry the hardtack will be very hard and disappointingly difficult to eat. Many stories exist regaling the inventive methods people used to break it up and consume it.

a mug of hot coco and several hardtack biscuits

The most popular methods were to dip your hardtack into a hot drink, crumble it into broths or fry it in fat. I’m going with some Scout friendly Milo. Still quite authentic as many explorers frequently had a meal of coco and hardtack. Even after dunking in the hot Milo for over a minute it wasn’t very soft – simply tough and chewy.

How did you get on?

How was your hardtack? Try putting some in an air tight container and try it out next year or when the zombie apocalypse strikes. There is hardtack in a museum and it’s nearly 200 hundred years old.


Making Fire From A Solitary Spark

Remember that time before matches and gas lighters? Na, me neither, but it did exist apparently. It was a time when your options for starting a fire were extremely limited and involved very simple materials. Modern methods of fire starting have made these primitive methods quite obscure. Anybody that possesses the skills nowadays is considered some kind of magician. It’s like being part of a exclusive club – and here’s you chance to join.

The spark of an idea

Here I’m going to demonstrate how to light a fire from a solitary spark. At one point in history this was a technological advancement as it was much easier and more portable than using friction techniques.

Traditionally two materials were used to create a spark:

Flint – this is a very hard mineral, typically found in chalky ground. Plentiful in parts of Europe, but the only place you’ll find flint in Australia is along the Limestone Coast in SA.

Steel – this is a combination of iron and carbon. The more carbon the harder (and more brittle) the steel.

Now it’s pretty easy to acquire steel, but what do you do if you can’t obtain flint? One good substitute that is far more plentiful is quartz. It’s abundant here in the Adelaide Hills. Go for a walk and you’re bound to find some, usually the white milky quartz.

a fist sized piece of quartz held in the hand
A good size piece of brown quartz. Notice the ridge line.

Hitting a hard mineral like flint or quartz with a piece of steel will dislodge bits of carbon from the steel’s surface and the friction will cause it to ignite. We call this a spark.

Okay, enough theory. What materials do we need to make fire?

Materials required

hand file, cotton wool balls, char cloth and a lump of brown quartz

Steel – The more carbon the better. The type commonly known as high carbon steel is perfect. It’s used in tools that cut other metals – like files and drill bits. Other forms of steel will work too. So don’t despair if you can’t find the ideal type. What won’t work is stainless steel. So don’t bother rummaging through your kitchen draw – you’re much better off searching the shed or toolbox. If it’s rusty – it’s got potential. Hmm, what about the tent peg from the electromagnet?

Quartz – A tennis ball sized piece is comfortable to hold and hit. It’s best if it has a ridge line, so maybe find a large piece and shape it with a few whacks of a hammer (you may even see some sparks!)

Char cloth – This is our tinder of choice for catching a spark. Hopefully you have already made some.

Cotton wool – This is our combustible tinder. In the bush you’d be using dry grass or something else that will easily ignite from a heat source.

The shortcut method

ferrocerium rod showering sparks against a piece of char cloth

If you have a fire steel / ferrocerium rod you can generate a perfectly aimed shower of very hot sparks. In fact they are so hot they will usually ignite combustible tinder. But using a ferrocerium rod does require some practice and I expect many people have failed to light a fire with one despite making plenty of sparks. Using char cloth will make this task much easier. Just place the end of the rod against the char cloth and firmly scrape downwards at about a 45o angle. A shower of sparks will have it glowing with orange embers almost immediately.

embers glowing on char cloth after being showered with sparks from a ferrocerium rod
Notice the orange spots where the sparks have lit the char cloth

Is this cheating? Only a little bit. But a shortcut to success is more rewarding than no success. It’s also worth noting that this kind of intermediate step is sometimes necessary with a ferrocerium rod because if your combustible tinder is not perfectly dry it won’t ignite. But the sustained heat from glowing char cloth will get it going.

The traditional method

The first thing you need to practice is hitting the quartz with the steel; just to see if you can generate sparks. Firm, glancing blows are best, not demolition blows.

striking a handheld piece of quartz with a steel file

Once you know that your materials work you need to master aiming the spark. Hold the quartz with the ridge line near your fingers, then strike downwards with glancing blows. You’ll notice sparks have a will of their own, but this technique does encourage at least some sparks to follow the downward trajectory.

When you’ve been able to do this with a modicum of consistency it’s time to try and get a spark to land on the char cloth. Place a strip of char cloth along your fingers and rest the quartz ridge line over it. Then repeat striking the quartz with the intention/hope of a spark landing on the char cloth. Take care not to hit the char cloth with the steel. The cloth is very fragile and won’t survive any form of abuse.

striking a handheld piece of quartz with a steel file and generating a spark
There’s a spark. And it’s a miracle I got it on camera!

If the char cloth caught a spark you will see a tiny orange spot glowing and spreading. If you’re uncertain just blow on the cloth and see if that encourages it to light up.

I did it! Now what?

handheld strip of char cloth smouldering next to a piece of quartz

Firstly, don’t worry about it going out. That won’t happen. The char cloth won’t burst into flames either. Instead the hot, glowing spot will slowly spread over the cloth leaving behind a few fragments of ash. It will probably last for a couple of minutes. If there’s a bit of a breeze it will be consumed a lot quicker.

Secondly, be mindful that the char cloth burns very hot. You don’t want to leave the cloth on your hands. Place it in a small dish.

a small blue dish containing cotton wool balls next to some smouldering char cloth

If you were out bush you would now cocoon the char cloth with some very dry grass and blow on it. The grass would start to smoulder and smoke and eventually it would ignite.

We will substitute grass with cotton wool. So with your char cloth in a dish place several fluffed out balls of cotton wool on top of it. The cotton wool will soon start smouldering and you should feed it oxygen by gently blowing on it. You’ll notice the volume of smoke increasing. Keep blowing until it eventually bursts into flames.

cotton wool alight in a small blue dish

How did you get on?

If you managed to do it – congratulations. You’ve achieved something that humans have been practising for thousands of years, but few can actually do today.

Sparks are not easy to photograph, but if you managed to take a photo of your endeavour send it to me and I’ll publish it in a gallery below.


Making Char Cloth

Lighting a fire with a flint and steel is a phrase we’ve all heard, but those 2 items alone won’t create a fire. You need a third item – tinder. It’s the magic stuff that catches the spark and will smoulder and burn. Nature provides a variety of tinder, but many are quite challenging to catch with a weak, solitary spark. There is however one material that will catch a spark very easily and offers anyone with a bit perseverance the thrill of creating fire from the simplest of materials. That tinder is char cloth. You’ll find it in the fire kit of almost every bushcrafter because it’s easy to make and works brilliantly.

Materials required

a rolled up strip of green cotton and an empty tin of eclipse mints

You’re going to need a strip of 100% cotton cloth. Mine is cut from an old T-shirt and is about 8cm by 50cm. You will also need a small tin that can store the cloth when it is rolled up.


a rolled up strip of green cotton placed into an empty tin of Eclipse mints

The shortest set of instructions ever! Lightly roll your strip of cloth, place it into the metal tin and close the lid.

Fire time

Next you’re going to burn the cloth, but because it’s in an oxygen deprived environment it will not actually ignite. The heat will drive off all moisture and combustibles in the form of smoke. What gets left behind is a thin, fragile roll of carbon cloth.

I have lit a small campfire because Scouts and campfires go together like fish’n chips – right? But if you’re unable to light a campfire you could alternatively use an indoor wood-burner or a gas camping stove. I might be stating the obvious, but your kitchen stove is not an option.

a small tin placed on the embers of a small campfire

Once your campfire is down to embers drop on the metal tin and sit back and watch. Actually not a lot happens. But after a few minutes you will notice smoke escaping near the lid. Some people like to pierce the tin with a small hole, but this isn’t usually necessary because a tin box rarely seals so tightly that smoke cannot escape.

a stream of smoke escaping from the lid of a small tin that sits on the embers of a campfire
notice the smoke escaping from the tin

You may also observe that the smoke ignites. If it doesn’t you can hold a flame next to it and it will. It behaves a bit like a candle. Perhaps you’ve seen the trick where you can blow out a candle and relight it by holding a flame next to the plume of smoke? This is basically the same science.

a flame appears from the lid of a small tin that sits on the embers of a campfire
you can ignite the smoke and it will burn like a candle

After about 15 minutes the smoke will stop and that signals that the char cloth is ready. I left my tin on the campfire for 30 minutes – just to be sure, but also because I went off hunting for quartz. Drag the tin off the embers with a stick and let it cool down.

DIY char cloth - the finished product alongside the charred tin in which it was made

When you open your tin you should discover a beautiful roll of char cloth. It’s quite fragile, so if you used a tin like my mine you might need to use a pair of pliers to remove it. You can unroll it. It should be completely black and there should be no sign of the original cotton design.

That’s it – you have made char cloth for your tinder kit. Next we need to create a spark and use the char cloth to catch it.


Making A Fire Torch

I’m sure every Scout fancies themselves as adventurer like Indiana Jones. Searching for lost treasure and exploring mysterious, dark caverns with the aid of a flaming torch. Well, fire torches are remarkably easy and economical to make. So with a horse-whip on your belt and a fedora on your head, let’s get started.

Step 1 – Materials

Wooden stick, aluminium foil, lamp oil, sisal, thin wire, tea towel and rolled up cotton strips
Example of materials required to make your fire torch

A straight stick – About 1m long and 3cm in diameter is ideal. Greenwood is preferable as it won’t burn, but if you’re happy with a ‘single use’ torch any sturdy stick will do.

Oil for fuel – Vegetable oil is fine. Lamp oil will ignite much easier, but is more expensive and frequently pongs of citronella. Traditionalists may prefer animals fats, but you’ll need to liquify it first. However, once the oil has ignited they all work similarly.

Absorbent cloth – Cotton or hessian is good. Old bed sheets are ideal as they can be cut into long strips. Bath or tea towels are another good choice as they absorb a lot of oil. A bundle of old socks will also work well. Make sure the cloth is not man-made (e.g. polyester) as it may melt.

Aluminium foil (optional) – A few layers wrapped around the top of the torch will separate the burning head from the wood. If you’re not using greenwood it will give you the opportunity to refuel or reuse the torch.

Thin wire (optional) – Non insulated. Provides extra security for keeping the head attached to the handle.

Step 2 – Assembly

a magenta tea towel being wrapped around the end of a wooden stick
Wrapping an absorbent inner layer around the stick. A tea towel in this case. Notice the underlayer of aluminium foil.

To construct the head of the torch you’ll need to apply a bit of ingenuity as technique will vary with whatever you are using. The best advice I can offer is to imagine you’re administering first-aid to someone who’s just had their hand amputated. A bit grisly, but you get the idea.

If you are using sheets cut them into strips about 15cm by 1.5m, roll them up and then unroll them over the head of the torch. Keep criss-crossing as you go and make sure everything is pulled very tight. You can secure the head by cutting the final 25cm of cloth down the middle and tying it back on itself.

Thicker fabric, such as towelling, is harder to keep tightly bound. It’s best used as an absorbent layer underneath a few long strips of thinner fabric. Although a tight fitting sock pulled over the top might keep it in place.

a finished DIY fire torch bound with sisal for additional security
A long strip of cotton sheet was wrapped around the absorbent layer and then finished with some sisal binding (not totally necessary in this case)

If you are concerned about the security of the torch head you can improve it with a few turns of thin wire. Use pliers to twist and tighten the wire. Alternatively you can use natural cordage such as jute or sisal. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the cord will not actually burn and come undone.

Step 3 – Fuel up

You can load the torch with fuel by simply pouring oil over the head. Tilt the torch towards the ground and slowly rotate it as you carefully pour on the oil. You may need to repeat this process as it will take time for the oil to fully saturate the head.

My preferred method is to put the torch head into a tub or bucket and pour oil over it. Leave it there for a minute or two so the oil can fully absorb into the fabric.

Important point – when removing the torch from the tub allow plenty of time for the excess to drip off. You don’t want the head overloaded. Once burning the heat will thin the oil and it may start dripping or running down the handle.

Step 4 – Ignition

Lamp oil will ignite quite easily with a standard lighter. Vegetable oil will require a bit of perseverance however. A sustained heat source certainly speeds things up. Shoving the torch head into a campfire will get it going in no time! Once you have one torch lit you can light the others off it. Scouts really enjoy doing that.

two fire torches illuminating near by foliage
Fire torches give off a decent glow, but not as much as the movies suggest

Hold the torch in front of you at 45o so you can see what you’re doing with it. Be mindful of vegetation overhead. You know how easily gum leaves ignite!

Burn time will depend on head size and oil reserves. I’d say 20 minutes is typical. Initially the torch will burn very brightly as the outer layer of oil is consumed. It then starts wicking the inner reserves of oil which reduces the burn ferocity.

Variations to try

Go small – You can of course make mini torches. Perhaps you fancy juggling with them?

The candelabra – If you use a forked stick you could make a torch with 2 or more heads! I’ve never done this, but I’m certain in would be quite impressive.

My observations

You should be able to reuse your torch several times. When it goes out just reload it with more oil and relight it. Although in my experience if you are not using greenwood the heads will burn at the neck and drop off in about 45 minutes.

If you overload the torch with fuel you may notice oil running down the stick towards your hand. Probably chased by a line of fire 😲. One trick to minimise this is to cut, file or saw a groove around the stick, about one third of the way down. This will encourage excess oil to drip off there.

a used fire torch with the cloth outer charred but intact
This charred fire torch was made from only a tea towel and 3 pieces of wire keeping in place. It’s still in good shape and can be reused.

After a single use you will notice that the head has not actually burned away, but the cloth has turned into a black, brittle shell. This is commonly known as char-cloth. We’ll explore that in a future activity. It is not dissimilar to charcoal, where oxygen deprivation and heat are used to drive off combustibles and moisture, leaving behind almost pure carbon. Char-cloth is exceptionally good at catching a spark and is commonly found in tinder kits with a flint and steel.

How did you get on?

Let me know how you got on in the comments. How long did your torch burn? Was it an impressive sight? I expect the hardest part was keeping the head tightly bounds to the handle. It’s certainly a good excuse to learn some useful knots!

You might like to think of a fire torch as an inside-out candle. The wick being wrapped around the fuel source. If you’ve ever made a candle from a crayon, the principle is very similar.

Send me some photos and I’ll add them to a gallery below.


Make A Tent Peg Electromagnet

Sometimes it’s convenient to have magnets you can turn on and off. For example, the magnets recyclers use to pull steel cans out of general rubbish and then drop them into containers. Similar magnets are used for moving large, heavy steel objects – like dropping cars into crushers at an auto-wreckers.

These types of non-permanent magnets are known as electromagnets; not surprisingly because they use electricity. Turn on the power – you have a magnet. Turn it off – you don’t.

Making an electromagnet is quite easy and you can have a lot of fun trying to improve it.

Step 1 – Materials

Steel tent peg, AA batteries, insulation tape, network cable and bundles of thin insulated wire
The stuff you’re going to need to build a simple electromagnet

A steel rod – I’m using a tent peg because Scouts should always have lots of them. If you also want to use a tent peg make sure it’s not a soft aluminium peg which are frequently included with hike tents. They won’t work. Otherwise you’ll find a good source of steel rods in the household toolbox. Screwdrivers are the obvious choice, but a large bolt or nail will also work.

Batteries – We’ll use common 1.5v AA batteries and join them up to make more power.

Insulated wire – You’ll need a lot of this and it needs to be thin. Communication wire is ideal. I’m using wire from an old network cable. It’s about 5m long. A network cable contains 8 separate stands of wire (you only need 1) – unravelling it will keep you occupied for quite some time! Alternatively the phone wire on your landline is very similar. Would anybody notice if you took it? Probably not. Forget 3 core household electrical cable. It’s much too too thick. Your electromagnet will become very fat very quickly.

Adhesive tape – To join batteries together, connecting wires to terminals and for general usefulness.

Step 2 – Assembly

A tent peg wrapped with thin insulated wire and 2 AA batteries joined together with tape
Nearly finished. Just waiting final assembly

Starting about 20cm along the wire begin winding it around and down the peg. Keep the windings tight and close together. When you get a few cm from the end of the peg wind it back up. Continue doing this until you have run out of wire. Keep the final 20cm off the peg so you can connect it to the battery. To stop the wire unravelling you can tape it to the rod.

Remove a few cm of insulation from each end of the wire. You might be able to do this with your finger nails as the insulation is very thin. Otherwise delve into the toolbox and see what you can use.

DIY electromagnet made by wrapping thin insulated wire around a large nail
A large nail also makes a good electromagnet

Next we’ll join a couple of 1.5v batteries together with tape. That will give us a total of 3v. Make sure the positive and negative terminals are touching when you put the tape on.

Now tape one end of the wire to the negative battery terminal (the flat side). Don’t tape the other end to the positive terminal otherwise you won’t be able to turn off your electromagnet. You can simply hold it in place with your thumb.

I found it quite convenient to also tape the batteries to the electromagnet itself.

A tent peg wrapped with thin insulated wire and a pair of AA batteries taped to it. The wire ends are connected to the poles of the batteries
The finished tent peg electromagnet – ready for work!

Step 3 – Action!

You’re ready to go! See what you can pick up. A bunch of small nails or tacks can be fun. The magnetism spreads through them and you will pick up much more than you expect. Rifle through your cutlery draw. You’ll be surprised at how strong the magnet is. It will easily pick up spoons and forks.

DIY tent peg electromagnet lifting tacks, a spoon and a smaller tent peg
The tent peg electromagnet picking up another tent peg, a spoon and some tacks

There’s something satisfying about disconnecting the power and watching all the objects clatter to the ground.

Test the strength of your electromagnet by weighing the heaviest object it can lift. Or load it up with lots of small things and weigh those.

Making it Better or Worse?

The Voltage – How does the voltage affect the power of the magnet? Try a single 1.5v battery or add extra batteries and pump up the voltage to 4.5v or 6v.

The Windings – If you have spare wire extend what you’ve wrapped around the peg and create more windings. Does it make any difference to the power?

The Core – Does the diameter of the steel rod make a difference? Try making an electromagnet from something really unusual? How about a pair of scissors or a spanner or a steel ruler?

Getting Creative – If you are feeling especially creative you could make a Lego or cardboard crane and attach your electromagnet to it. Or how about making a simple switch to turn the magnet on and off.

DIY tent peg electromagnet connected to a simple switch made with 2 thumb pins and a paperclip
A simple paperclip switch makes it much easier to operate your electromagnet

My Observations

Not wishing you to suffer unnecessarily, here are some tips to put you on the fast-track to success:

For maximum attraction the steel rod needs a large flat surface. The tip of a tent peg or nail is not ideal. A bolt head might be better – but I haven’t tried it.

Plastic tape is not very good for joining up your batteries. It stretches just enough to break the connection. I ended up using masking tape which was much better.

Prolonged use of your electromagnet will drain the batteries quickly, so consider 1.5v C & D types if you intend to do some intense work with it.

You may notice that the wire coil becomes quite warm after a little bit of use. It does depend on how thick the windings are and how long the rod is. There was a noticeable difference between the nail and the tent peg. If you apply too much voltage it will possibly get hot enough to start melting or at least fusing the insulation. Be careful.

How did you get on?

Let me know how you got on in the comments. What tricks did you discover? How strong was your magnet?

Send me some photos and I’ll add them to a gallery below.


The coats of arms of Australian states and territories

Here are some large images of the coat of arms of Australia and those of each state and territory. I had trouble finding high resolution versions of them on the Internet, particularly the state and territory coats of arms. So I’ve uploaded these to correct matters.

If you are a cub or scout in Australia you need to understand the composition of your state’s coats of arms. Not easy when the only printable resources are tiny – even from government websites.

Kim’s Game – Coat of Arms

When you examine a coat of arms it’s remarkable how many symbols it contains. It’s a bit of a dry subject for scouting, but they do make a surprisingly good Kim’s game. Just download and print any of the PDFs below and you are all set to go. There is one for each state and territory. Give one to your cubs or scouts and let them have a minute to study it. Then allow them a few minutes to recall as many symbols as they can. If you remind them that every symbol and even colour on a coat of arms is somehow representative of its state or territory it will help jog their memory.

Of course times change, and in some instances symbols on a coat of arms become historic representations. As a variation you can play part one of the game, but instead of getting them to recall what they remember do a true or false by calling out actual symbols as well as symbols that might be on the coat of arms if it were redesigned today. It’s amazing what the powers of suggestion can achieve. All the cubs will be convinced the colours of the wreath are the same as the local football team and that a Holden lion was in there somewhere.

Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
Norfolk Island
Northern Territory
South Australia
Western Australia