Fire Building: How to Find the Best Tinder in Survival Situations
Tinder is the dead, dry plant-based material that is capable of turning a coal, spark, or tiny flame into a...
Tinder is the dead, dry plant-based material that is capable of turning a coal, spark, or tiny flame into a crackling fire. You typically need it to get a fire going with flame ignition sources (matches, lighters); and you definitely have to have it for spark ignition sources (flint and steel, ferrocerium rods) and friction fire building. Tinder is the first “food” that a fire will eat, and it’s the foundation of most fire-making endeavors. Luckily for us pyromaniacs, there are many different plant materials in the wild that can either be processed into tinder or used as is. Before you spark your next fire, gather some ideas with the following collection of tinder materials.
Any natural tinder that you would want to use for fire making must have three characteristics:
First, it should be dead, but usually not rotten. Rotten plants usually lose more and more of their fuel value as they decompose. But there are always exceptions, which we’ll get to.
Second, it should be as dry as possible. In rainy weather this may mean finding a few scraps at a time–even one leaf at a time–and then keeping the tinder dry while you search for more.
Third, it should be light and 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 ignition temperature as quickly as possible.
Most dead grasses make excellent tinder, and the hundreds of species of grass native and introduced into our country can be used by themselves or mixed with other tinder. Use leaf blades and seed tops primarily, and stems and stalks secondarily.
Usually grass doesn’t require much processing to become tinder, as long as it is dry and broken off above ground. If the grass is pulled up out of the ground, the damp roots and lower stalks should be cut or broken off. If there are seed heads, the seeds should be shaken out if possible, as seeds are not flammable. The grass must be dry and it needs to have died on its own. Live grass that is cut and then dried (like hay) retains a lot of nitrogen and moisture, both of which are flame retardants. If the grass is damp, place it in the sun to dry. Wind can also help dry it, as long as the humidity is moderate to low. Grass can be coiled around to form a bird nest-shaped tinder bundle, which is easily done by hand with most grasses. The finer materials should be placed in the center to provide the best fuel for coal and spark ignition.
Grass is very vulnerable to dampness and might not light or stay lit if damp. Conversely, if it is very dry it can burn so fast that it doesn’t have time to light twigs and other small fuels. But don’t let these problems discourage you from using grass as tinder. It is abundant, it works well, and it’s usually ready to use right away.
Most dead leaves from trees and plants can be used as good tinder. Leaves tolerate dampness differently, but in general leaves are a much better tinder than grass. Some dead leaves remain on their trees (i.e. oak and beech) making them a great resource when the ground is damp.
Frequently, twigs with dead leaves still attached to them can be found hanging on branches and shrubs in the woods. When it is raining, look for dry leaves under leaning tree trunks and rock overhangs, in hollows at the bases of trees, in the dry centers of piles of brush and leaves, under evergreen trees, and in other sheltered spots. If the leaves are damp, place them in the sun to dry. Again, wind can help in the drying process as long as the humidity is low. To make dry dead leaves into useable tinder, you should crumble them. Leaves work best with open flame ignition. They often perform poorly with spark rods, as the sparks just bounce off the flat leaf surfaces.
The dead needles from most pines (and evergreens like cedars and cypress) can be used as tinder. Pine needles handle dampness very well, perhaps better than any other tinder. Because of the small amount of flammable pitch in the needles, they should burn well unless they are soaking wet or rotten.
Pine needles usually need no processing other than drying, although some pounding will split and shred the needles, increasing the surface area of the longer needled species of pine. Pine needles can be collected under the protection of their trees or from sunny spots where they collect from blowing in the wind.
Pine needles can be used alone, mixed with other materials or used as an outer layer on tinder bundles. If using only long pine needles, use them in a long bundle, like a tightly packed torch. If the needles are loose, they will cut the coal up as it falls down through the bundle. If the needles are small or loose, mix them with some other tinder.
The dry inner bark from countless dead trees and plants can be stripped and processed into excellent tinder material. Look for the dead inner bark from trunks and branches of tulip poplar, cedar, juniper, mulberry, and some oaks. Plants that are used for cordage material, such as milkweed, dogbane, stinging nettle, and fireweed, can also provide inner bark tinder.
Inner bark can be processed by pounding, tearing, twisting, scraping, or buffing. Pounding is usually the best way to fluff up barks. When processing in any of the ways listed above, catch the fine fibers in some container and use them as the core of the finished bundle. These fine fibers and dust will make the best fuel.
Bark can be coiled around to form a bird nest-shaped tinder bundle. This is easily done by hand; the average size of the bundle should be 6 inches across and 3 inches thick, with a depression in the center. The finer materials should be placed in the center to provide the best fuel for coals, though that shouldn’t be necessary for spark rods or open flames. The inner bark of trees are among the longest and steadiest burning tinders.
Some outer bark, such as that from cedar, juniper, and birch can also be used like inner bark. Outer bark that is fibrous can be processed in the same ways as inner bark. Birch bark should be shredded as finely as possible.
Cedar and juniper tend to smolder, without flaming up too much. This can be frustrating if you’re trying to build a friction fire, but it’s a great quality if you’re trying to build a long match. The papery outter bark of most birch species makes a great tinder for open-flame fire starting, though it isn’t very easy to light with spark rods. The best feature of birch bark is its high oil content. This acts like a waterproofing, allowing the bark to burn even when soaked with water.
Weed Tops and Seed Down
The dead tops from many plants can be used as tinder. Some tops, such as goldenrod, have several grades of tinder in their top. Goldenrod has a fine down that is surrounded by a papery chaff, which is on slender twigs. These mixed grades of tinder can burn furiously and serve as an example of how different grades of tinder burn well when mixed together. Seed down can also be used as tinder. When used with friction fire coals, it usually doesn’t produce flame on its own, and instead just smolders. But apply a spark rod or open flame to the seed down, and it is explosive. Collect this downy fluff from thistle, cattail, milkweed, and even certain trees, like cottonwood.
Weed tops usually need no processing. Seed down may need to be removed from pods, fluffed, and shaken to remove the seeds, which, as stated, are not flammable. It’s neighborly of you to drop or plant these seeds to renew the resource you are using.
Weed tops can be mixed together into bird nest bundles, with the finer material in the center. There may need to be some outer layer to hold loose materials together. Any dry leaves or fibrous tinder should make a fine outer layer. Seed down can mixed throughout any tinder bundle for a quarter or a third of its volume. It can also be used as an inner core for friction fire tinder bundles.
Another tinder source can be made from your firewood. Wood shavings are often the driest tinder around in perpetually wet areas. The inside portion of standing dead wood is usually dry under the bark and below the surface of the wood.
Scrape fine wood shavings from dead, dry hard and soft woods with steel knives or stone scrapers. The wood needs to be dead and dry in order for the tinder to scrape and burn properly. Place something under the branch or log to catch the shavings, and always scrape away from yourself to prevent injury.
The shavings can be held in a bundle of coarser tinder, or packed tightly for an all-wood-shaving tinder bundle. A bird nest shape is good, unless the shavings are too small to hold together. If the shavings won’t hold together, use them in some other tinder as a core, or mixed throughout the outer bundle. This is the most labor intensive tinder to make, but if there is firewood to burn, then there is tinder to light it.
In southern coastal areas, there are all kinds of tinder that work well for fire building. The fabric-like bark of certain palm trees can be excellent tinder when ripped apart or folded into a wad. Some coconut shells have fiber in their husk, which makes a good tinder, and the dried husks can even be used as “firewood” where fuel is scarce. Certain mosses, such as dead and dry Spanish moss, can be used as tinder when mixed with other tinder. The gumbo limbo tree has a papery bark that readily peels off the tree and resembles a red-colored birch bark. This papery bark can be shredded and used as great tinder in tropical areas.
All smoke is carcinogenic, so be careful not to breathe much of it when handling and blowing on any form of tinder. However, some good looking tinder should not be used at all because of its toxicity. The inner bark of the black locust is toxic and can cause a headache if smoke from it is inhaled. Large, old poison ivy vines are covered with a fuzzy, brown fiber that appears to be a great tinder source, but even handling the fuzz will cause those who are allergic to it to break out in a rash. Burning any part of poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak can even more dangerous. The smoke can carry the toxic oils into the lungs, and cover exposed skin and clothing.
Not a Tinder
If you think you’ve hit the tinder jackpot on the barbershop floor, think again. Animal-based materials like hair, fur, and feathers always seem to show up as tinder in Hollywood’s survival movies and shows, but these are actually terrible tinder materials. Hair, fur, and feathers cannot stay lit when fire is applied to them, unless they are very greasy or oily. They can burn up in a fire, but they cannot burn on their own. As such, they should not be considered or categorized as tinder.