Fire is one of the most important tools in an emergency situation, because your ability to make fire can directly control your body’s core temperature and your ability to disinfect water. With the advent of the ferrocerium rod, there are many ways to create fire other than with matches and lighters, or the ancient way of rubbing two sticks together. The most important thing to remember when using this rod is that the tinder source must be highly combustible. Secondly, an instant short-term flame is not always the answer. In many weather conditions a longer-term flame lasting approximately five to seven minutes may be necessary to create a sustainable fire.

Homemade Tinder

Commercial tinder is available at many sporting goods and camping stores, but you can also make tinder at home very easily. To create what I would call “sure flame,” you must combine highly combustible material with an accelerant. There is a difference between accelerants and fuels. Fuels require open flame to ignite and burn, but accelerants will ignite through the release of fumes. Vaseline is considered a fuel, while gasoline is an accelerant.

To create sure-fire tinder, one must combine highly combustible materials like cotton with accelerants like lighter fluid or charcoal lighter, and then ensure that they are waterproof by impregnating them in wax.

Two common household items that can be used as tinder if they are placed in a waterproof container are cotton balls covered with Vaseline. They can serve the purpose but there are better options on the market today, products like the Mini Inferno (, which combine highly combustible material with accelerants that are sealed in wax to make them waterproof. This type of tinder can be made at home, but the process is somewhat time consuming and difficult to do safely.

The lint from your dryer trap is highly combustible. Combining it in a waterproof container with Vaseline is a semi-viable option. A better one in my opinion is to combine dryer lint with an accelerant like lighter fluid or charcoal lighter, then seal this mixture with wax. Many bug sprays incorporating DEET can be used as an accelerant in an emergency. Material soaked in it will readily ignite from a ferro rod’s sparks.

Understanding and controlling embers—knowing how to create, control and manipulate them—is important when starting a fire in an emergency situation if sure fire is not available. You can make embers from natural materials found in the woods, like shredded bark or dry plant materials, or through the use of charred material.

Charred cloth fuel
Burning charred material. To create it, you put combustable material in a metal container and starve it of oxygen. it becomes highly combustable and easy to ignite.


Charred Material

To create charred material, you must eliminate the oxygen factor from the fire triangle: heat, oxygen and fuel. You provide fuel in the form of combustible material, heat it within a metal container (char tin) or coal bed, then starve it of oxygen. You ignite this highly combustible material in many ways—a ferro rod, flint and steel, or with a magnifying glass.

When combined with highly combustible natural materials, it’s easy to create a flame by slowly blowing on an ember so it heats the surrounding material until it ignites. Controlling and making embers other than from char to use for solar ignition is an art in itself. Cattails, fungus and compressed flower tops are good natural ember materials.

Natural Fuels

When traveling through the woods, we should have what I call an opossum mentality: collect any tinder resource you see. Even during foul weather, you can find dry tinder by looking under overhanging objects for dry plant materials. You should also look for bird’s nests and collect them from trees. You can scrape bark from trees like cottonwood, cedar, or tulip poplar and effectively create your own bird’s nests, which when dry will be highly combustible.

Birch and pine are great sources of natural accelerants since they contain volatile oils. Birch bark will take a hot spark from a ferro rod even if damp, and the resins in pine can be used effectively to create wet weather fires as well, especially if pinesap or fatwood is available. To use fatwood effectively, you need to scrape (not carve) dust-like material from the fatwood slab to create a dime- to quarter-sized pile. It will be highly combustible when sparks from a ferro rod hit the surface area.

The secrets to a highly combustible manmade bird’s nest is to combine fine fibers with medium and coarse ones, and increase the surface area for sparks to land on when using the ferro rod. For success, rip and tear at the pieces of bark to create finer fibers.

Natural tinder fuel
Here is a good example of various tinders that can be collected in the wild, including inner bark, fatwood, and cattail heads. Stow your items in a space Ziploc to keep them dry.


Wildland Fire Kit

Items like duct tape with an adhesive backing are almost always flammable, and can be shredded finely to create a sort of bird’s nest that can be ignited with the ferro rod or added to an existing small flame to extend the burn time until better fuel can be added or dried out.

Steel wool is another excellent source of highly combustible material that burns very hot (keep #0000-grade in your kit to maintain tools and the like). It will burn from the sparks of a ferro rod. Attaching a strand or two of steel wool to the negative and positive terminals on two AA or AAA batteries will ignite a larger piece. In my opinion, using steel wool is one of the best ways to light a marginal bird’s nest when conditions or material may be damp or inconsistent.

The bottom line is that you should always have a ferro rod attached to your body so it cannot be lost. Between that and a good knife, you should be able to manage with the manmade and natural materials listed above. I carry a lighter in my pocket as well as a small Fresnel lens in my wallet (5X magnification). With these tools, kept in a place where they are unlikely to be lost, the knowledge about both natural and manmade tinder sources and utilizing the items in my kit, I feel 100-percent confident that I can make fire in the most extreme conditions. 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

Related Stories: Mastering the Flame: Strengthen Your Fire-Making Skills

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