Tinder is critical for starting a fire. And no, we’re not talking about the dating app (if the dating app is the only thing that the word tinder means to you, you’re probably on the wrong website).
Basically, tinder is any material that can be easily ignited. Not cardboard or paper, but an extremely combustible material that will burst into flames with the slightest spark. This is the stuff you need to quickly build a fire even if all you have are flint and steel or a ferro rod to generate sparks with. Knowing how to make tinder from the most basic of materials is a critical skill for any outdoorsman.
How to Make Tinder Fire Starter
Today we’re going to talk about all the great stuff you can use for tinder, straight from the forest floor. Pretty much anything that will erupt in flames is going to work. And while you can definitely use stuff that’s in nature, you can also use anything you might have handy in your backpack or just on your person. Cotton balls work great, and so does lint (assuming you have enough of it in your pockets).
Here’s a quick tip – if you’re going to use cotton balls, you should probably swab them in petroleum jelly first (otherwise known as Vaseline). If you have cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, you can start a fire with even the slightest spark. But chances are you might not have Vaseline and cotton balls handy with you – in which case you’re going to need to rely on nature.
One more tip before we dive into the real wilderness skills – one of the best things you can use for tinder is steel wool. Believe it or not, if you combine a little piece of steel wool with a 9-volt battery, it immediately becomes a fire starter. This is one of the best alternative methods. for starting a fire that we know of.
But again, you need a 9-volt battery and some steel wool, and most of us don’t walk around with this kind of stuff. You might want to consider keeping some with you in an “emergency stash” anytime you’re heading out into the wilderness. The big bonus with steel wool is that you can even use it when it’s wet. Just don’t forget to store your steel wool and battery separately, otherwise you could inadvertently light your pack or your pants on fire.
What is Tinder? Tinder vs Kindling
You might be confused when thinking about tinder and kindling. Both are super important, but they’re actually not the same thing. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but for wilderness and survival experts, failing to understand the difference between tinder and kindling could be the difference between having a fire and not having a fire – in other words, it could be life or death. If you don’t have tinder, your kindling won’t start. And if you don’t have kindling, you might not start the big, sustainable fire you’re looking for – the kind that will keep you warm through a cold night in the wild. This distinction is particularly important in difficult weather conditions and especially when it’s wet.
Tinder is what will catch the spark. Whether you’re using the bowdrill method or using a flint, your goal is to get the spark to land on the tinder. The tinder is (hopefully) going to catch, and that’s where the kindling comes in. Kindling is basically just cedar bark, dry leaves, and small twigs broken up to be tiny enough that they can catch fire from the initial burst from your tinder. After your kindling catches, you then proceed to burn larger sticks and eventually logs.
Think of it like a pyramid, with tinder at the bottom, kindling in the middle, and larger pieces of wood on the top. The issue with tinder is that it flares and dies very quickly. You need kindling already set up so that during that first burst of fire, the kindling can be used as fuel to keep it going.
In some cases, you can use kindling as tinder if you prepare it properly it. For example, if you’re using twigs for kindling, just peel them into little slivers, like large chunks of sawdust. This will make them catch more easily, but also burn out quicker – which functionally turns kindling into tinder.
What is the Best Tinder for Fire Starting?
Tinder For Fires: Natural Materials
There are actually so many tinder materials that we can’t go through them all here. At least, not in depth. But we will make a quick list of the best natural materials that you can use for tinder and tell you a bit about each.
Leaves: Leaves are obviously a great material to use for starting your fire. But don’t just make one big pile of leaves and expect it to work. You want to find dry leaves and then you want to crush them into smaller pieces. Dry leaves should be relatively brittle, and they should break apart fairly easily to give you a sort of dust. This works great for tinder. Wet leaves, on the other hand, will sputter, won’t catch, and will wet any other tinder that you’ve gathered.
Dry Grass: Dry grass is functionally pretty similar to leaves. If it’s that time of year when there is lots of dry, brown grass sprouting from the soil, you can make a bed of it and use it as the base for your fire. Dry grass will ignite instantaneously.
Shaved Bark: Shaved bark is a little trickier. It definitely works, but it’s not as reliable as dry grass or leaves. Shaved bark is an awesome intermediate material to go between your tinder and your kindling. Obviously, you can use bark for your kindling, but if you shave it into really thin strips, it can be used to make tinder. Just make sure you add any other dry materials you can find to ensure the best burn. It’s definitely not ideal though.
Birch Bark: Birch bark is super flammable. It’s the same idea as shaved bark. You want to rip it into extremely thin pieces. You will need to peel the bark until you have strips that are about as thin as a sheet of paper. But just like with shaved bark, we highly recommend adding some dry grass or dry leaves into the equation if you have them available, because any kind of bark is generally not an ideal material to work with.
Dandelion Head: If you have ever put a flame to the head of a dandelion, you know they erupt right away into a little ball of fire. If you can gather up enough dandelion heads, you can definitely use them as tinder. They will also work really well with bark, as they have a quick burn time. They will catch fire, burn intensely for a few seconds, then die. But they are great as a starting point to get a fire going.
Cattail Fluff: The fluff from a cattail is even better than the fluff from a dandelion. It ignites instantly and it burns for a little longer than the dandelion fluff. Use it the same way as you would when using the dandelion head. Cattail fluff is a useful way to get that initial burst of flame and heat.
Pine Needles: Dry pine needles will catch flame right away. Not the green ones, but the ones that are dry and turning brown. They are the most flammable. Build a small nest of dry pine needles and start generating your sparks into the nest, and you’re going to have a solid foundation for a fire super quickly.
Moss/Old Man’s Beard: Moss is extremely flammable, particularly “old man’s beard”. If you are in a place where old man’s beard is clinging to all the trees, you should never not have a fire. Old man’s beard erupts instantly and burns for a fairly solid amount of time. If you’re not sure what old man’s beard is, it’s basically just really dry green moss. However, you want to try to avoid wet moss.
Fatwood: Fatwood is a unique type of pinewood that is going to be saturated in resin. It works excellent for starting fires. You can typically find it in a broken pine tree stump in the woods (so long as there are pine trees in the woods that you’re in). In fact, you would have to be blind not to find a pine tree stump somewhere in a forest that has any pine trees, since they’re pretty recognizable.
You can recognize fatwood easily by its smell. Resin has a very distinct scent. You should even be able to follow the smell to a tree stump. It’s a smell like sticky trees and wet sap. In damp conditions, fatwood is especially useful for not only starting a fire, but also for maintaining a flame. It’s recognizable on the tree stump as a kind of discolored wood, and it’s probably leaking sap. It’s a little tricky to explain, but you’ll definitely know it when you see it. It should have a distinct scent and be a little sticky.
What you want to do is take your chunk of fatwood back to your camp, then use your knife to “chop” it into a really fine dust – as fine as you can. You’re not actually going to light the piece of wood itself on fire, you’re going to create very tiny shavings – getting as close to sawdust as you can (obviously you won’t get it that finely powdered, but for tinder, essentially smaller is better). You can then use this dust as a very potent tinder.
When you take your piece of fatwood from the stump, give it a good sniff. The pieces with the most resin are going to have the strongest smell, and you really want maximum resin to maintain your flame once you get down to business.
Tinder Fire Starters: Man Made
We already discussed the usefulness of the cotton ball, the steel wool & 9-volt battery, and the pocket lint. But you can use so much more to start a fire. The inner tube of a bicycle is highly flammable if you happen to be trapped while mountain biking (not the rubber bit, which will likely release toxic fumes if you try to burn it). If you rip paper into tiny shreds, you can use that as tinder. Basically any non-natural material that you expect will be flammable can work as tinder as long as you shred it or cut it into small enough pieces.
Here’s a good one that you might have overlooked – your socks (or any non-polyester cloth) can make great tinder as well. This probably won’t work if they’re wet, but if you have a spare pair of socks in your bag or if you have a really woolly pair of socks, you can collect a ridiculous amount of lint off them and use that to start a fire. You might even consider using an alcohol swab if nothing else is handy. You would be surprised how quickly an alcohol swab will burst into flames, and for how long it will burn.
Starting A Fire With Tinder (and Not Much Else)
If you’re going into the forest prepared, you are undoubtedly going to have a lighter, a backup fire starter, a knife, and everything else you need to survive. But what happens if you’re caught out unawares? For example, it might be that an emergency forces you to evacuate on foot, leading to an expected journey into the wilderness. What if you have nothing to make a spark? What if you don’t even have a knife to chop up tinder?
In this case, you are going to need to rely on your wit and your natural tinder materials to create fire. The ideal material would be a flint as you can use a flint and a rock to make a spark – but without one, you’re going to have to rely on friction. This can be extremely difficult.
The first step is to create your nest of tinder. Get together something that looks exactly like a bird’s nest created from one of the materials we’ve already talked about. There should be a small hole in the nest that is going to cradle your ember once you have made it. Secondly, make sure you have the larger space set up with your kindling and bigger logs. It’s all going to happen very fast.
Since all we have to work with is friction, you’re going to have to literally rub two sticks together to make a fire. Assuming you have shoes or boots with laces, you can make yourself a fire bow drill. We’ll dive into how to make and use a bow drill in another article, as it’s an wilderness skill in it’s own right. Here’s a brief rundown of how you can do it though:
Start by finding a curved branch about two feet long. You’re then going to make a bow as if you were going hunting. Use one of your shoelaces to create the bowstring. It’s important that the bowstring is super tight so that the piece of wood that’s going to bring you fire doesn’t slip out of it. You don’t want the “string” on your bow to have any give – you’re not actually using this bow to shoot arrows with. You should be able to figure out how to tie the strong taut length of string between either ends of the stick.
Second is to make your fire stick. You basically want a completely straight stick that’s about a foot long and preferably pointed like a thick spear on one side. Then, you want to twirl your stick into the drawstring of your bow. The idea is that with one hand you move the bow front and back, the tight string spins your stick, and your other hand presses down to create the necessary friction, and to keep your stick rigid and upright.
Of course, you will need your fireboard. For this, you can just use any dry piece of wood with a flat side. Step on it with one foot, use the previously mentioned method with your makeshift bow and your fire-starting stick, and use the friction to “drill” a hole in your fireboard. You will see smoke – keep going – and then you will see more, blacker smoke – keep going. Don’t stop until the smoke is really pouring out and you have drilled most of the way through the fireboard.
Quickly, tilt your embers out of the hole and into your nest of tinder. If you’ve done it correctly, then you’ve made fire with virtually no equipment or gear to start with.