There will come a time when you no longer have matches, the lighter went dry, and night is descending across the land faster than you can blink. What do you do? Call it quits? No true survivor would try to tackle the darkness of uncertainty without knowing how to create fire. Even if you have nothing but the clothes on your back, take a look around. There is a good chance you are surrounded by natural tinder.
What is Tinder?
No, not the dating app. Use that when you need to repopulate the Earth. Right now, you need the natural stuff. Technically speaking, tinder is any material that can be easily ignited. Now, you might be confusing tinder with kindling and not realizing it.
An example of excellent tinder would be cotton balls or char cloth, which ignite at the slightest spark. Kindling is what keeps the fire going after the flame is present. An example of that would be twigs, branches, and sheets of bark.
Some kindling can be used as tinder, like the bark, if properly prepared. That will be explained later.
The Best Natural Tinder
So if you need to make a fire pronto, these are the materials you look for:
1. Dead Grass
As long as the grass is dry and broken off above ground, it can be used as tinder. Try to avoid pulling up grass from the earth, as the ends will be damp. If there are seeds, try to shake them out, as they are not flammable. Also, if you try to dry the grass after cutting it to use like hay, keep in mind that this process retains nitrogen and hydrogen—which are flame retardant.
How to use: Coil the dead grass to form something of a wreath or bird’s nest. Finer strands should be placed at the middle to provide fuel for coals and sparks. Since grass can burn rapidly, try to pair it immediately with small twigs and other sorts of fuel, like wood shavings.
2. Dried Leaves
Since leaves deal with dampness differently than grass does, dead leaves are the overall better tinder. Dead leaves that remain on branches, like oak leaves, are even more useful since you can pluck them off and not have to worry about retained moisture.
How to use: The best way to utilize leaves as tinder is to crumble them. Open flame works most effectively, whereas the sparks from spark rods over bounce off leaf surfaces.
3. Pine Needles
Included in this is evergreen and conifer branch tips as well as the dried, brown pine needles you may find on the ground. Try to find the dead ends, as these make for decent kindling. Pine needles usually do not need any extra processing as long as they are dried.
How to use: If only using loose pine needles, mix them up with some other tinder types. If using branches, snap off several about as long as your arm and bend them back onto themselves. Wind them with twine, if available. The bundle will catch flame almost instantly.
If you find hardened resin on the trunks of conifers, shave some off and blend that in with the needles. Resin prolongs the duration of the flame. Additionally, pine cones can be crushed and used in the mixture. Once you have a fire from pine needles going, scatter the pine cone fragments over the flames.
4. Weed Tops and Seed Down
This includes anything that gets dried tufts, like goldenrod, thistle seed, and cotton. Some tops even have several grades of tinder, meaning that if you are fortunate enough to find them, like goldenrod or thistle seed, you get the ultimate tinder. The seed pods will burn immediately, but the rest of the materials will take longer for the fire to consume. Other materials in this category include cattail tufts, milkweed, and cottonwood. Also consider fireweed (also called willowherb), a purple-pink flowering plant. Dried or alive, it catches fire quickly.
How to use: Gather up enough weed tops and seed down to form a pile. Apply to an open flame instead of coals, which would just make the seeds down smolder.
While there is an aptly named “tinder fungus” (also known as clinker polypore, hoof fungus, and tinder conk) out there that is nature’s fire-starting gift to man, it is also very rare. Since tinder fungus has medicinal properties, use the Rule of Three to decide what you need first: fire or medical care? That said, any type of polypore fungus, such as the ubiquitous bracket fungi (also known as shelf fungi) that covers rotting wood and tree trunks.
How to use: Break off a number of this fungus and use the pieces as you would charcoal. Tinder fungus works best when paired with nests of dried grass.
6. Western Red Cedar Bark
What separates Western Red Cedar from some other variants is the texture of the bark. When you slice off a sheet, you will notice that the bark is rough, fibrous, and somewhat flexible. On the inside, there are fibers which act as an organic kindling. If you cannot find cedar, juniper is another evergreen bark that works well.
How to use: Use cedar bark as a wrap for other dried tinder, like pine needles or seed down. Do note that these barks tend to smolder rather than lighting up immediately. If trying to build a friction fire, it is best to pair cedar or juniper bark with another tinder that lights easily. However, once you get the fire going, cedar bark sustains the flame for a long time.
7. Birch Bark
The papery bark of many birch species make it wonderful tinder, especially in an open-flame. Do not count on it too much if you are using a spark rod, though. What makes birch ideal, especially in humid or wet climates, is the oils found in the bark. These oils make it highly resistant to moisture, so even if it just rained, this bark will go up in flames.
How to use: Peel away sheets and shavings either with your fingers or knife. Also try to scrape “dust” from the bark in dry conditions. The dust is an excellent firestarter. As soon as you introduce an open flame, the bark should catch quickly.
8. Dead Wood or Dried Inner Bark
You might hear this called “punkwood.” Dead wood has minimal structural integrity and is dry, dusty, and basically flame bait. Shave dead wood and bark down then pair it with birch bark, dead grass, and other tinders.
Lastly, a quick mention to what should not be used as tinder. While some things in nature can be a boon, others are not. An example of that would be the inner barks of black locust and similar species, which is toxic. Also, refrain from using poison ivy, sumac, and oak. Though the tried tendrils may appear like good tinder, handling it will cause a rash. Moreover, burning the poisonous oils creates noxious fumes that you do not want to inhale.
Fire is the ultimate tool, but getting one started and maintaining it takes some work. When you use tinder and kindling correctly, you can sustain the flames more easily—provided the weather has mercy on you or you have found shelter. That said, knowing how you can use to make fire when lost in the middle of the woods is a significant skill that can and will save your life.