One of the reasons we pay so much attention to fire-making here is that fire and heat are essential elements in survival, both at home and along the trail, and the ability to build a fire in out of the way places can literally mean the difference between life and an alternative most people find un-appealing. Drying soaked clothes, fighting hypothermia, cooking, and signaling can all be critical needs in the wild, and a basic knowledge of how to start one can prevent your dried bones from becoming an archeological curiosity a hundred years from now. Having simple devices on hand to create a spark or flame is half the battle, the other half is knowing what to apply your flame or spark to. In other words, it’s a bit more involved than just holding a lit match under one end of a log, or dropping a shower of sparks on a chunk of bark. Knowing how to create the essential foundation for a good fire doesn’t have to be complicated, but you’ll get your blaze going much quicker and infinitely easier if you know what that foundation is. It’s called tinder, and it’s the little stuff that grabs your flame or spark and burns long enough to get the bigger stuff going.
My loose definition of tinder is a substance or material that’ll catch a spark or hold a small flame to build on, and in that loose definition there are two classifications for tinder types: natural and chemical. Natural tinder is organic and based on fibrous plant material such as wood, chemical tinder is manmade and based on combustible artificial compositions such as petroleum derivatives. The primary advantage of natural tinder is that it’s usually found in its natural habitat when you’re passing through vegetative areas and you don’t have to carry it on your body. Using what you find along the way beats adding weight to the pack or pockets and the price is very appealing. The downside to natural tinder is that it can be hard to deal with when wet, and it can take some time and effort to “process” in getting it ready to go. The upside of chemical tinders (or fire starters) is that they’ll frequently burn in wet conditions, they ignite instantly with little or no prep time, and they can burn longer size-for-size than some natural varieties. The disadvantage is that they’re not free, and some types may have a relatively limited shelf life.
Good examples of natural tinder include several species of tree bark, and the terrain you traverse will determine what you have to work with. In my part of the arid western U.S., dry outer layers of cedar and juniper bark can be easily stripped off trunks and shredded into small “nests” ignitable by match or spark; in other areas peeling or fallen birch bark “paper” also works well. Scraping or shaving deadfall twigs or small branches into a small powder pile, building a small nest of dry weeds, using cattail “fluff,” crunching dried sagebrush bark into a small pile, and so on are all viable tinder starter methods.
The key is dry, and the more individual fibers you can expose to your flame or spark the better chances you have of the tinder taking off right away. Use a knife to scrape bark with, pound on a flat rock with another rock to spread fibers or create a powder pile if you committed the cardinal outdoorsman’s sin of leaving home without a knife, and remember to keep the pile pieces small.
If you’re using matches or a lighter as your heat source, the tinder pieces won’t have to be quite as diminutive. With a match, your trusty Zippo, or a dependable disposable lighter, you’ve already got your initial flame and it’s just a matter of transferring it to the tinder. The nest-in-a-teepee is a certified classic for match use, with a small nest of tiny twigs, wood shavings or dry grass inside a teepee-shaped structure above it. Don’t make the teepee too elaborate and don’t fill in the “walls” too densely. A fire has to have three elements to burn—heat, fuel, and oxygen, so let it have plenty of room to draw air in from the bottom. If you’re using a spark as your heat source things can get a little trickier, and this is where smaller bark scrapings and more exposed fibers work best in catching that spark.
A cotton ball from your neighborhood drugstore falls into the “natural” category by default (even though you do have to carry it with you), it’ll grab a spark and run with it like a banshee from even the most inexperienced fire-builder, and it’s simple enough to be highly endorsed by cavemen around the world. Bridging the gap to chemical tinder, smearing petroleum jelly on a cotton ball will increase burn time substantially while you’re adding twigs to grow your flame. You normally throw away a similar tinder material that catches a spark every bit as well and it’s free, if you have a clothes dryer. Even dryer lint from synthetic clothing will burn easily.
Fatwood, a pitch-dense section of heart wood in dead pine tree trunks and stumps, is another favorite tinder found in some parts of the country. By shaving small sections into a pile it can take either a match or a spark (Hint: very small shavings work best with a sparker). Fatwood can also be bought in sporting goods stores and through the Internet in either stick or “dust” form. Look for Light My Fire’s Tindersticks (six 8-inch 80 percent resin content sticks to a package for roughly $5) and Maya Dust (28 grams of small fatwood shavings in a plastic “tobacco tin” for about the same price), available through amazon.com.
Chemical tinder can be treated paper, treated sawdust, hard tabs, gel, and paste. The tabs and other “dry” chemical tinders are used in the same way as natural tinders, with a small amount on the ground or a good-sized flat stone to catch a flame and then other larger wood pieces laid on top. Gel and paste tinders can be laid under twigs in a conventional pyramid or they can be laid out along the top of a small twig or two and ignited to set the fire’s base going, with larger twigs and branches either pyramided above the base or hand fed individually. Tabs, gel, and paste will tend to be more reliable in wet weather, more wind-resistant, and will generally light better with matches.
Good choices for chemical tinders include the older military trioxane tabs and the newer diethylene glycol gel packs available through surplus and sporting goods sources such as Acme Approved (acmeapproved.com, 424-204-1903). Fire Ribbon from Amazon comes in a $5 3.75-ounce toothpaste tube and squeezes out the same way. The Swedish HAMMARO Lighting Paper includes six 8×4-inch sheets of treated (non-petroleum) cardboard that break up into 18 single-use squares that burn something like a candle ($7.95 from Survival Metrics, survivalmetrics.com; 877-968-2012). Tinder Quick Fire Tabs of treated cotton that burn wet or dry sell at $2.49 for a 10-pack from Four Seasons Survival (fourseasonssur vival.com; 814-234-0698).
Remember, if using natural materials look for dry and fibrous ones. Start small to ignite your flame and build larger to grow it. Have your kindling ready to lay on top because tinder tends to burn quickly and you may not have much time to feed that flame. The same with chemical tinders—preparation before the moment of ignition is critical. If your first try with a sparker doesn’t take, or the embryo blaze goes out, keep trying and don’t give up; check your basics, start a little finer on the tinder pieces, a little larger on the tinder pile, a little smaller on the kindling, and spark it like you mean it.
Wind is also a factor; try for a sheltered nook where it won’t blow you out before you get yourself truly lit, or construct some type of windscreen around your tinder base. Practicing these skills with the materials you intend to use before you find yourself in a live or die situation is always beneficial, ditto on carrying more than one way to skin a fire (as in matches and lighter, sparker and matches, and so on).
Fire doesn’t have to be hard to build if you know what you’re doing, but you do need the makings and the know-how to use them. Remember, you can succeed when you plan ahead and keep your head.
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