dry tinder
Assorted dry, natural tinder. Tim MacWelch

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Tinder is the dead, dry plant based material that is capable of turning a coal, ember or spark into a flame. Tinder is one of the foundation pieces for fire making, and you can often find excellent tinder in the form of grasses, leaves, pine needles, fibrous tree bark, weed tops, seed down, wood shavings, and more unusual stuff like palm fiber and certain mosses. Whatever you choose, these natural materials should have several things in common.

First, it should all be dead—but usually not rotten—plant based materials. Rotten plants usually lose more and more of their fuel value as they decompose. But there are always exceptions. Just remember … dead plant based materials.

Second, it should be as dry as it possibly can be. In rainy weather this may mean finding a few scraps of tinder at a time, even one leaf at a time, and KEEPING the tinder dry while you search for more.

Finally, it should be light, airy and have a lot of surface area for its mass. In other words, it needs to be fluffy. Materials that are not fluffy should be processed in some way to increase their surface area so that they can reach their combustion temperature as quickly as possible.

Not every tinder type is “ready to use” when you find it in nature. It may be too coarse, too flat, or too solid to burn effectively. But with the right processing technique, we can change this vital material – increasing its surface area and enabling it to burn quickly and easily. Here are three ways you can get your materials in shape for fire starting.

Assorted dry, natural tinder Tim MacWelch

1. Shred It

That’s right, tear it apart by hand! Start by tearing at large sections, and then tear the remainders into shreds. This technique works well for tree bark fiber (like tulip poplar, basswood, cedar, paw paw and many others). You can also shred weed tops and seed down into a fluffier form.

2. Pound Away

Easy and therapeutic, pounding your tinder with a rock can separate the fibers nicely (and give you a constructive place to vent your rage). Most of the fibrous dead inner tree barks and plant stalk fibers work really well with this trick. Wad up the fibers into a ball or fold them into a linear bundle, and pound them with a rock or similar hard object. Turn the bundle often, and you’ll cover all of your surface area with no trouble. Pound your tinder on a hard log or a stone for best results. Keep working until your tinder has the desired fluffiness. If you don’t have a dry place to work, shred the tinder instead of pounding. By pounding on damp or wet surfaces, you’re driving moisture into the tinder and reducing its flammability.

3. Scrape and Scratch

When dealing with trees that have a fibrous outer bark (like cedar, cypress and juniper), you can use your trusty knife or even a sharp stone to scrape off fibrous tinder. This can even be done on live trees, without harming them. Just scrape off some of the fibrous outer bark, and collect the fuzz you remove. You can also scrape wood to make wood shavings, if no other tinder is available (or dry).

What’s your favorite tinder material? Please share your top pick by leaving a comment.