How to Make Soap in the Wild | Cleaning With Mother Nature

how to make soap in wild
Image Credit: Abigail Ducote

Soap is undoubtedly a necessity – especially in our world today. Lucky for us it’s always in hefty supply- but in the wild where germs and bacteria run rampant and there are no Purrell pumps insight, you might get stuck in a pretty dirty situation if you are not careful… So how can you make soap if you are in the middle of nowhere? It certainly does not have to be a huge chore, but it could also end up being very dangerous if not done properly.

Ultimately making soap in the wild consists of three main ingredients: Lye, soft water, and animal fat.

Soap in its basic form is simply a chemical reaction between fat and an alkali substance. When you wash your hands, for example, you are basically surrounding any unwelcome microorganisms on your skin with molecules from the soap, which then essentially wedge themselves into lipid envelopes of potentially dangerous microbes and pry them apart like a crowbar to a door. Soap molecules are a hybrid structure: the tail of the soap molecule is hydrophobic, so it evades water. The head of the molecule does the opposite by bonding with water, allowing it to travel and trap dirt and bacteria all at the same time.

Our Ancient Ancestors Had It Right

The name “soap” is derived from an old Roman legend involving Mount Sapo; as rain hit and fell down the mountain, it picked up things like animal fat and ashes, which would result in a clay-like mix in which the Romans realized was a great cleaning agent. Humans began creating soap as early as 2800 BC in ancient Babylon, evident by material that was discovered in clay cylinders with an inscription labeled “fats boiled with ashes”. This classic recipe has not changed over the course of time, as you will be making soap in the wild eerily similar to those ancient Babylonians. Let’s break down these three main ingredients:

Putting It All Together | What Do You Need?

  • Lye: A metal-based chemical compound that is obtained from pure wood ash. Lye is naturally antibacterial which is why it is used in common hydroxides. Once you have a wood-burning fire out, safely collect as much white ash as you can and separate any large chunks; you just want the silty, fully burned ash. That is the lye.
  • Soft water: Spring, rain and distilled water are all deemed “soft” water as they lack any metal or acid in them. Specifically, water that contains less than 85 parts per million of calcium carbonate is deemed to be soft.
  • Animal fat: Any animal fat (or tallow) will do, however bird fat should only be used frugally. Also make sure to use only fat from the animal- you want to clean the fat by process of “rendering”, which is just making sure all of the meat tissue, blood and any other particles are removed.

Okay, now let’s follow the lead of our ancient ancestors and make some soap the good old-fashioned way!

The Proper Steps

  1. Collect lye. As previously mentioned, you want the ash of a hardwood burning fire. Hardwood like ash, beech and hickory work well. Softwoods like Spruce, pine and fir typically do not perform as well because of the lack of potassium. Any large chunks of wood should be discarded as they are chock full of carbon, and we aren’t making Dove for Men Charcoal infused body soap. We’re making dirt soap.
    • This is a process called leaching, which is basically the procedure of draining a material through a percolation of liquid, typically water.
  2. Boil the soft water and pour over the lye. Carefully add more soft water and stir.
    • A word of warning: lye water is extremely dangerous considering its caustic properties. It can corrode the skin and most cheap metals, so make sure to mix in steel, a bucket or a durable hard plastic. Make sure your eyes and mouth are protected as well, because lye can burn. Also, don’t drink it. It will kill you, and that would be embarrassing to die by trying to make soap.
  3. Leave the product overnight (or longer if possible) until mixture is cooled and browned. Sift remaining ash from the mix; you want a smooth, almost “creamy” substance.
  4. Melt the animal fat over heat to separate grease and pour through some cloth in attempt to draw only liquid. Boil the grease again, this time with water, and let it cool. Combine the grease and lye water. This is the most tedious part of the process as the proportions of both will determine the validity of your soap and too much lye over grease will burn your skin. Generally, add more lye if there is a thick film of grease resting on top of the mixture, or add more grease if the mixture isn’t thick enough.
    • The term “green soap” is used when the mixture you made is first poured out into a mold. This soap can still have a high caustic level and can burn your skin, so safety is paramount.
  5. Leave the soap for a couple of days, then remove from the bucket. Cut it up in a well-ventilated area.

When Chemistry and Hippies Clash

Let us get sciencey for a moment so we can further understand the process before jumping right into the step-by-step soap-making process. As a survivalist, safety should be your first concern, and soap-making can actually end up being fatal if done incorrectly (more on that later).

When fatty acids derived from the animal fat are mixed with an alkali substance (in this case, the lye), that alkali causes a split in the acids, resulting in fatty acids and glycerin. Many forms of glycerides provide antimicrobial and antiviral properties and are extensively used in FDA-approved treatments.

The remaining fatty acids are chemically merged with the potassium that is naturally present within the alkali substance and produce potassium salts, or potassium hydroxide – soap in its basic form.

Any Substitutes or Additives?

If you don’t have animal fat for your soap, you can use a vegetable or plant-based oil just fine. Coconut oil, shea butter, even just plain old vegetable oil you pick up at your local grocery store will do just fine. It may be a little difficult if you do not have any lye water, as that contains the antimicrobial and antibacterial portion of the soap itself.

Making soap without lye is called “Melt-and-pour soap making” but the problem is this: this process is best done at home with proper ingredients and there is still a form of lye within the soap itself; that process is already done. If you want a nice smelling soap, you can add something like peppermint or lavender, even dandelions! You could also add lemon or vinegar in an attempt to neutralize the smell.

But be careful with what kind of wood you use to create the lye from its ashes. It was stated before that hickory, ash, and beechwood work great as they are common hardwoods, but palm, oak, and apple trees work well too. Even dried banana peels will suffice, and if you find yourself looking to spiffy yourself up on a floating board in the middle of the Pacific, kelp or seaweed also make great substitutes.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I’ll just carry some hand sanitizer with me so I don’t have to do any of this”, but hand sanitizers are not always as reliable as soap. Those with over 60% of ethanol act very similarly to soap as they can easily destroy bacteria and viruses by cutting up those nasty lipid membranes, but soap is still best for completely removing certain microorganisms from the skin itself.

In Conclusion

The world we live in is certainly scary and full of things that will kill us. We’re all going to die eventually, but might as well fight it off as best we can until the very end, and making your own soap in a tight situation might be the one thing that changes the course of your “due date”.

What is most fascinating is the process we reviewed here is so strangely similar to the very first traditions of soap-making from our ancient Babylonian ancestors, clearly not too much has changed. No, go wash your hands, for at least 20 seconds!

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