This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I'll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you.*
There is one item that every prepper in the world is guaranteed to have: canned food. Even if they mostly have dehydrated or freeze-dried food, every prepper has at least one can or corn or beans somewhere.
And of course, canned food usually comes in tin cans. Most people throw them away without a second thought, but in a survival scenario, they can be put to good use. As you’ll soon see, there are lots of different applications for tin cans.
1. Storage / Organization
We’ll start with the most obvious one. Tin cans are used for storing food, right? Well who says they can’t be used for storing and organizing other things as well? Screws, nails, sand, herbs, matches, utensils… the list goes on and on. Bonus tip: Punch two holes in opposite sides of the can near the top and use a wire to turn the can into a pail.
2. Makeshift Knife
As you probably already know, the edge of a tin can’s lid can be very sharp. So if you need to cut something and you don’t have a knife, just use a tin can lid instead. But be careful not to cut yourself. Either wear thick gloves or use some pliers to fold over one side of the lid so you can grab onto it without gashing your hand.
3. Arrowheads / Hooks
Tin is great for making arrowheads and fishing hooks. The easiest way to do this is with some heavy-duty scissors, but if you don’t have anything to cut the tin with, there’s another way: Take the lid you removed with the can opener and fold it in half. Be careful not to cut yourself (you should probably be wearing work gloves).
Then fold it in half again in the opposite direction along the same crease. Keep doing this until the lid breaks in half. Now use the same method a few more times to form the shape you need. When you’re done, lash the arrowhead to the arrow or tie the hook to the fishing line and you’ll be good to go.
Hopefully, you won’t get so hungry that you need this trick. But just in case, here’s how to use a tin can as a trap: Simply bury it in the ground with the top open to use as a pitfall for very small animals like insects, frogs, and even mice. If you bury a whole bunch of cans in the right area, you could collect enough food for a decent meal or possibly more.
5. Fire Transportation
When your supply of matches or lighters is running low, you’ll need to come up with more creative ways to get a fire going. One idea is to carry your fire with you in a tin can. Simply punch four or five holes in the bottom and sides, then place coals from your most recent fire into the bottom of the can.
These coals will burn for hours, and to keep them going, you can add tinder and kindling as you go. Don’t let your skin come into direct contact with the tin can for obvious reasons.
6. Water Filter
You’ll still have to at least boil your water after using this method, but it can make the water a lot tastier. Punch a few holes in the bottom of the can, then fill the inside with several layers of gravel and sand. When you pour water into the top, the makeshift filter will remove larger pieces of matter.
7. Cooking Pot
It’s very easy to convert a tin can into a cooking pot. All you have to do is hang it over a fire (adding a wire handle to it will make that easier). You can boil water, cook food, make soup or coffee, and sterilize medical instruments. Just be careful not to burn yourself when you remove it from the fire.
8. Mini Stove
This is a little different than the cooking pot method. Instead of putting the can over a fire, you put a fire inside the can. To do this, fill the can with sand, then wet the sand with a flammable liquid like alcohol. Then add some tinder on top and light it. With this method, you’ll have a flame burning for five to ten minutes which is long enough to cook food on a small skillet above the pan.
9. Rocket Stove
In addition to a couple of regular-sized tin cans, you’ll also need a #10 can and some other materials for this one. Unlike most of the other things on this list, this is something you’ll want to make ahead of time rather than after the shit hits the fan. But I wanted to include it for people who enjoy DIY projects. Here are the instructions.
10. Candle Lamp
If the only source of light you have is a candle, but the wind keeps blowing it out, use a tin can. You can either make a large hole in the side of the can facing away from the wind, or you can punch several small holes in the can. If you do it the latter way, you could hang up a bunch of them for plenty of ambient lighting.
Personal hygiene is very important in a survival situation, especially a long-term one. Simply punching enough holes in the bottom of a tin can is enough to make an effective makeshift shower. Obviously you’ll need a system to ensure that water keeps pouring into the top of the can, but it’s still a survival use that you shouldn’t overlook.
12. Hobo Alarm
I already mentioned this in my article about floss. Set up a perimeter of wire, cordage, or string around your campsite and attach tin cans and lids to it. If someone tries sneaking onto your campsite, they’ll accidentally walk into your alarm, causing the cans to rattle and alerting whoever is on watch.
13. Scoop / Shovel
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you need help scooping or digging but only have one shovel, just tell everyone else to grab a tin can out of the trash and pitch in.
14. Seed Starter
Just poke some small holes around the bottom edge of the can for drainage, add your soil, and plant your seeds. When they’re ready, transplant them to your garden. Or…
15. Garden Pot
You can use tin cans as garden pots for smaller plants. But before you do this, be sure to wash out the can first. If it had oil in it, then wipe out the oil before you wash it.
16. Signaling Device
For many people who have made it out of the wilderness, signaling for help was what ultimately made the difference between life and death. If used properly, a tin can is an excellent signaling device. Punch a hole in the center of the can’s lid, then polish one side of the lid with chocolate or charcoal until it becomes smooth and bright.
If the sun is also bright enough, you can signal aircraft, search parties, and vehicles by reflecting the sunlight at them. To aim it, look through the hole toward whoever you’re trying to signal.
17. Target Practice
Everybody knows about this one. Line up tin cans on a fence and use them to improve your shooting skills. Compete with others by seeing who can knock down all the cans in the fewest shots. (Assuming you have plenty of ammo to spare.)
I know I’m really scraping the bottom of the can with this one, but I’m gonna mention it anyway. Hopefully you remember this from your childhood, but in case you don’t… Poke a hole in the bottom of a tin can, put a string through the hole, and tie a knot (the knot should be inside the can).
Now take the other end of the string and do the same thing with another can. Put your ear in the can, and you’ll be able to hear someone talking into the other can. Or you could just shout at each other. This is normally just for fun, but it could be good for people in adjacent tents or something.