To build a fire, you start with a source – a spark or flame which is applied to ‘tinder’.
The purpose of tinder is to catch the flame and burn long enough to ignite larger pieces of ‘kindling’. First tinder, then kindling, followed by progressively larger pieces of firewood.
The quality of your tinder is important and often necessary to successfully build a fire.
Tinder should be the lightest, driest, and most combustible materials.
Regardless of your choice of tinder material, fluff it up or shred it so that more surface area is available for the flame to grab hold.
Tip: Keep your tinder dry! (in weather proof container)
Tip: When preparing a fire, consider gathering wood in this order: large, medium, then small (kindling), and lastly the tinder.
The reason for this seemingly ‘backwards’ order: if you prepare or expose the tinder first, and then go out and start gathering firewood – by the time you get back to the tinder, it may be wet or damp (depends on weather conditions).
So, gathering or preparing the tinder should be the last step, just before starting the fire.
(in no particular order)
Cotton Balls & Petroleum Jelly
Mix some cotton balls with some Vaseline and store them in a container. Vaseline (petroleum jelly) is flammable and will enable the cotton ball to burn much longer.
I keep a small candle in each of my kits! I count it as tinder…
First look for fallen trees in the area but avoid rotten bark. The inside of most bark will remain fairly dry even in wet weather. Shave it. Peel bark from a limb. Cedar is particularly good. Birch bark is uniquely thin and easy to peel off and burn.
Pine needles (brown/dried/dead)
These can be found in plenty. Be wary of damp needles though.
Very Small Twigs
From dead branches, snap off very small twigs and then shave them with a knife into shredded pieces. The key here is small shavings.
A length of wood which is shaved to produce a cluster of thin curls protruding from the wood. It allows damp wood to be used to start a fire when dry tinder is hard to find.
Recommended by Dave Canterbury:
Morakniv Full Tang Fixed Blade Knife
They must be completely dry to burn well. Crumple into small pieces.
Burns fast, but needs to be very dry.
All sorts of paper including newspaper, paper bags, etc., except glossy papers from magazines which do not burn well.
Shavings From Firewood
Use axe or knife to shave off small dry pieces which can be further shredded or chipped.
Best in the fall and found near water. Look for the brown sausage shape piece. Take this off and break it open for the fluffy stuff inside.
Fine Steel Wool
Yes the fine steel wool which you might be using to scour your pots and pans is flammable.
Make this ahead of time. Cut small squares / strips of 100% cotton cloth and insert in a metal container which can seal air-tight (e.g. metal water bottle). Place container on fire or hot coals for about 5 minutes. Remove and let cool off. Unseal the lid and check that the cloth has turned black. These pieces will accept a spark nicely and flame. Store in a weatherproof container.
Collect some of this and stuff it in a small weatherproof container. Try it yourself – gather up a ball of dryer lint and try lighting it outside – it works – varied results.
You can raid your first aid kit for gauze.
Tampons & Pads
It will burn. Mix with petroleum jelly for longer lasting flame.
Pull apart to form a ‘nest’. With enough of them, this can make for an effective tinder bundle.
Dried Organic Plant Material
Just about any dead dry plant material will burn. Break it into very small pieces and fluff it up.
This resin-impregnated heartwood becomes hard and rot-resistant. The stump (and tap root) left in the ground after a tree has fallen or has been cut is an excellent source of fatwood.
Cut off several feet, spread out the fibers, and form into a bird’s nest.
Rubber Bicycle Tire Inner Tubes
Cut in to strips. The high density rubber is extremely flammable and long burning.
Size 0000 steel wool and a nine volt battery works every time.
Don’t laugh! Talk about starting a fire! It will emit sparkling hot flame for many minutes. It will strike easier (the friction cap) than trying to use a lighter on other tinder with very cold hands/fingers.
One very good source that will produce copious amounts of sparks to ignite your tinder is from a U.S. based company, FireSteel.com where the U.S. Military buys their ‘FireSteel’ rods. Check them out! I keep one of their rods in each of my kits.
What are some of your additional suggestions for tinder?