There are several different steps in the fire-building process and you’ll need different tools or materials for each one. You’ll always need an ignition source to start the process, such as a bow drill, flint-and-steel fire starter or match. Because you can’t ignite a 2” thick branch by holding a lit match to it, you’ll also need an assortment of fuels.
The most energy-packed fuels, like big oak or maple logs, will release a ton of heat and burn for hours. But you’ll need smaller fuel sources to light these logs, such as small conifer branches and twigs. These items are called kindling. But as you may have guessed, it’s difficult to ignite kindling with a short-lived ignition source such as a spark or weak heat source such as a match.
Instead, you’ll need to get the kindling ignited by first lighting a bit of tinder. This is the lightest and most flammable type of fuel. Finding good tinder is often the most difficult part of building a fire. The failure to do so is undoubtedly responsible for many failed campfires. But this needn’t be the case as there are a variety of natural tinder sources in most wilderness areas.
Some of the most helpful sources are listed below:
1. Fibrous Tree Bark
Several different types of trees, including cedars and junipers, produce tough, fibrous bark. This can be lit with an open flame. Simply strip off a 6” long bundle of the fibers (you may need a sharp knife to do so) and then pull the individual fibers apart a bit to ensure the fuel gets plenty of oxygen. Turn the bundle upside down while lighting it for best results.
2. Paper-Like Tree Bark
Birch bark is perhaps the most famous natural tinder source and there’s no doubt that it is one of the best. Shavings made from the inner bark will even ignite when damp. Birch bark is also easy to find in most hardwood forests (look in stream valleys if you’re having trouble finding some).
However, there are many other trees that produce paper-like bark (including the appropriately named paperbark maple) and most will work adequately as tinder.
3. Tinder Fungus
The fruiting bodies of tinder fungus (roughly akin to mushrooms) can serve as a great source. Common throughout most eastern forests, tinder fungus can be found on tree trunks.
It often resembles a horse’s hoof and can be brown, gray, or nearly black. Tinder fungus should be broken into small pieces or crumpled into a dust before being used.
4. Dead Grass and Leaves
Dead grass blades can be bundled together to make an incredibly effective tinder source. Dead grass blades ignite easily and they are one of the best tinder choices for survivalists using spark-generating fire starters. Several types of dead leaves also work well in this context (grass blades are leaves after all). You may have to experiment to find ones that will work best in the habitat you’re in. Dead leaves are best prepared by crumpling them into a small pile. Then use them to catch sparks from your fire starter.
5. Decayed Wood (Punk wood)
If you rip into an old, dead log, there’s often lots of wood that crumples completely if touched. This wood has been broken down by bacteria and fungi. This leaves behind a fine, flammable material which can be lit with a flame or a spark. The nice thing about punk wood is that you can almost always find plenty of it although it takes work to access.
6. Cotton Like Plant Fibers
Cattails, dandelions, and many other plants produce cotton-like fibers which serve as great sources of tinder. These types of fibers often ignite very easily whether lit with a flame or a spark. They’re often easy to find depending on the time of year. However, these types of plant fibers burn extremely quickly so you’ll need to gather a lot to keep the flame going long enough to ignite the kindling.
7. Conifer Needles
Like leaves, the needles of conifers are great sources of tinder. Look for dead needle clumps in low tree branches as they’ll stay drier than those lying on the ground. You needn’t remove them from the branch either. In fact, the branch will make a convenient handle. Needles ignite better with an open flame than a spark. Try crumbling very dry needles into a pile to use a spark to ignite them.
8. Pine Cones
Pine cones aren’t the easiest type of tinder to ignite but it’ll burn for much longer than other forms of kindling. In this respect, pine cones are more like kindling than tinder. You’ll likely struggle to get a pine cone lit with a spark. Instead use a long-lasting flame such as a cigarette lighter or candle. Note that you’ll only want to use mature, opened pine cones as kindling as green ones aren’t suitable as tinder.
9. Parasitic Mosses
Old Man’s Beard and similar mosses make great tinder sources. Those that hang in a downward orientation tend to dry out fairly quickly after storms. If you need to dry a bit of Old Man’s Beard out, put it under your clothes where your body’s heat will accelerate the drying process. Make sure you get the moss from the tree, and not from the ground if you plan on putting it in your clothes.
10. Bird’s Nests
Bird’s nests are like ready-made tinder bundles just waiting to be collected. This shouldn’t be surprising, as they are made from many of the same materials that are listed here.
Don’t risk injury by climbing high into a tree to collect a nest. Instead spend your time looking on the ground and in nearby shrubs.
Hair is arguably a good source of tinder but it shouldn’t be your first choice. Hair is pretty easy to ignite but few oil-free hairs will support a lasting flame. If you have no other option available, give it a try. In such a situation, opt for the oiliest hair available. Prepare a significant amount and ensure that it’s bone dry before using your match or trying to toss a spark at it.
12. Wood Shavings
With a sharp knife and a dry place to work, you can almost always make your own dry tinder from a branch or log. You’ll simply need to tunnel into the dry interior of the wood and begin shaving or chiseling off small pieces. These pieces can be arranged into a small pile then can be lit with a flame or spark. The thinner and finer you make the shavings, the easier they will be to ignite.
13. Forest Floor Litter
Most forests are covered in a floor of rich organic matter, which can make an excellent and easily collected source of tinder. It’s comprised of various bits of leaves, twigs, and similar materials. This litter must be dry to work effectively. Accordingly, it is often wise to search for it on sun exposed hillsides rather than flat, low-lying areas with a tree canopy.
Paper isn’t exactly a “naturally occurring” source of tinder but you can often scavenge bits of paper from any high traffic wilderness area. You may even have a small amount of paper in your bug out bag in the form of food packaging or instruction manuals. Paper is very easy to light with an open flame and will burn for a reasonably lengthy period of time for a tinder. Be sure to cut or tear the paper into long strips before trying to ignite it for the best results.
There’s no lint in a natural habitat but that’s alright because you probably have plenty from your clothing. Look closely at a pair of cotton socks and you’ll see scads of tiny bits of cotton clinging to the outside.
Collect enough of these fibers and you can form a very effective tinder ball. You could even take individual threads from an article of clothing, cut them into very small pieces, and achieve the same effect.
Ultimately use the tinder available in the habitat you’re in to get a fire started. Because you may not be in familiar surroundings it’s more important to understand the characteristics that make a good tinder source. This means try just about any light, airy, and dry material if you’re having trouble finding the ones that are familiar. Just be sure to avoid dangerous sources of tinder such as poison ivy, black locust bark, and other toxic materials.