Let me first say that this article isn’t about learning how to start a fire. This article is specifically about choosing that all important tinder and kindling so you have a chance of starting one and keeping it going.
What are Tinder and Kindling?
Before you can know how to find the right fire tinder, it is helpful to learn what these items are. First of all, they are not the same thing. You cannot use the terms tinder and kindling interchangeably, just as you cannot use the items themselves interchangeably. One is used for easy ignition and the other to create a flame that will burn long enough to catch larger pieces of wood.
Let’s start with tinder. Tinder is any substance that will easily ignite. In other words, it’s a very combustible, highly flammable material, so it only takes a small spark to light it on fire, which makes it ideal to use even when you have a fire starter such as a rod and striker. The purpose of it is for it to catch quickly and burning hot long enough to catch the kindling and it is the most important part of your fire.
In contrast, kindling is slightly less flammable than tinder. It will catch fire more easily than larger pieces of wood, but it doesn’t burn as long or with the same intensity. You just won’t get that roaring blaze you want to cozy up to and roast marshmallows over. The purpose of kindling is to get a fire going long enough that the larger pieces of wood will catch and burn.
Choosing Your Fire Tinder
The first thing to know about tinder is that moisture is not your friend. What you want from your tinder is that it be dry and fluffy. The more moisture your potential tinder contains, the less likely it is to catch decently enough to ignite kindling, if it catches at all. When searching for it, find the driest material possible and if you are carrying it with you, take measures to keep it dry.
When it comes to selecting the best material for tinder, I will discuss the topic from two different angles. The first is what you can bring from home or what is manmade and will work well as tinder. The other is what you can find in the wild that will make good tinder.
There are a number of different materials you can find laying around the house that make great tinder. Perhaps the most popular manmade tinder is newspaper, something that is used frequently to start fires in home fireplaces, woodstoves, and campfires. Aside from newspaper (or other types of paper), the following make great manmade tinder:
- Dryer lint
- Cotton balls (coated in Vaseline if possible)
- Tampon fluff (from all-cotton tampons)
- Pieces of rubber tire
- Inner-tube rings from a bicycle
- #0000 steel wool
- Lint from cotton socks
- Potato chips
- Saw dust and melted wax (these can be premade and carried with you)
- Firestarter sticks
- Char cloth
- Wetfire (a synthetic fire starter)
- Purell (makes a great fire starter)
- Trick birthday candles
Tinder Found in Nature
It’s really not an issue if you haven’t packed some material from home that you can use as tinder, because as long as the ground outside is dry, there are numerous materials you can use as tinder. Even if it’s wet out, there are still tricks you can use to get something usable. Here is a list of things you can find in nature to use as tinder:
- Birch bark or small pieces of other tree bark
- Pinecones (smaller, lighter ones)
- Shaved wood
- Very tiny twigs
- Fluff from cattails
- Dry cattail leaves
- Dry pine needles
- Dry grass
- Dry leaves
- Dandelion fluff (seeds)
- Milkweed fluff
- Fatwood (you can buy this if you’re not luck enough find it in the wild)
- Bird down
- Husk from hornets’ nest or beehive
- Hanging moss
A note about fatwood. You can find fatwood in the old stumps of pine trees or other trees that produce a lot of resin, otherwise known as pitch. This is particularly the case when the tree was cut down or otherwise broken. When the tree is cut down, the resin from the roots rises up into the stump and saturates the wood at the core, directly above the tap root.
Fatwood is the wood that is soaked with resin that gets left behind at the core of the stump as the other wood rots away. Depending on the size of the fatwood, it would make good tinder or good kindling.
What makes this so great? It’s due to the terpene in the resin, which is the primary ingredient in turpentine. Terpene is extremely flammable, which makes fatwood such a great fire starter.
Even when fatwood is wet, it only takes a spark to light it, and if you can make fatwood shavings, you will have some of the best tinder available. Now you just have to get out there and find those pine stumps!
Kindling is larger than tinder, made to get a fire going for the short-term by being placed on top of the tinder. The idea behind the use of kindling is that it is small enough to catch fire from the burning tinder and large enough to burn for a long enough time to allow the larger wood (fuel wood) to catch. It is also less likely than larger fuel wood to smother the small flames of the tinder.
When it comes to choosing the wood for your kindling, softwood, such as pine, is better than hardwood. Softwood will be easier to split and will burn more easily. In a pinch you can use cardboard if it’s available or you can roll up newspaper really tight and tie it in a knot. Put the knot near the flames of the tinder and allow it to catch on fire and it will burn for a while. Large pine cones can also be used.
Again, it is critical that your kindling is dry. Nothing defeats the creation of a fire like moisture. If you have wood that is wet, then you can split it and use the dry wood from the interior as kindling. Kindling is not very big in terms of size.
It is generally fairly small, thin twigs or sticks or larger wood splinters. You want your kindling to range in diameter from the size of a match to the size of a pencil. If you can’t snap it with your bare hands, then it’s too thick to effectively get your fire going.
Another option would be to use your knife to carve your own feather sticks like so.
Finding the right tinder and kindling will mean the difference between having a fire and not having a fire. Simply put, if you don’t have either of these, you can have all the fuel wood you want and you won’t get a fire going. Here are some final tips to help ensure you have good functional tinder and kindling:
- Carry some on you (natural or man-made) in a sealed, waterproof container, such as a 35 mm film container or a Ziploc bag
- Make use of your knife to turn dry sticks and bark into a powder or to shred paper
- Whatever you think you need for tinder and kindling, collect twice that amount because you’ll most likely go through it faster than you anticipate; if you run out too soon, then you won’t have a fire
It is very important that you practice your skills at building a fire and these skills include the selection and gathering of tinder and kindling. Like all aspects of prepping, this should be practiced ahead of time. Try out different types of tinder with your various fire starting methods to determine which works best and is the most practical based on the most likely survival scenario you’ll be in.
The same goes for kindling. Practice gathering different types of wood, different sizes, and varying levels of moisture. Test them out to determine what types of wood in your area make the best kindling and learn how to gauge the moisture level of wood and split wood to make kindling. Try making a fire with wet kindling (and wet tinder, too) and see how adept you can get at getting a fire started in the toughest of conditions. The more familiar you become with the different types of tinder and the different types of wood the better off you and your loved ones will be when the time comes that you need these skills to survive.
Good luck lighting those fires!