Besides the initial spark or flame, tinder is the most important part of successful fire starting. Good tinder will make the job easier, while poor tinder selection could make it virtually impossible for the most ardent survival instructor to get a fire going.

For tinder to be effective, it must be:

  • Dry (unless wetted by an accelerant)
  • Able to burn at a low temperature
  • Thin enough to burn easily, with adequate air spaces
  • Available

There are a number of materials available in nature which make excellent tinder, such as birch bark, dried grass, the fluffy down from cattail heads and milkweed plants, dried pine needles, dried moss, and the flaky bark from cedar. In olden times, travelers kept their eyes open for good sources of tinder along the way and would collect it in a tinder bo x (which also contained their flint and matches) for their next time of need. That way, they wouldn’t have to hunt for tinder when the time came.

If you are caught in the wild and need tinder quickly, look for any deadfall tree that is propped up by other trees or rocks. The underside of these often provides a wealth of tinder, as well as kindling and fuel for your fire. Another great source that can be commonly found in the wild is bird and rodent nests.

Natural tinder is often used in the form of a “tinder nest” rather than just a bundle or pile of tinder. The name comes from the fact that it looks much like a bird’s nest. The natural tinder is crushed between the hands to break it down. In the process, you’ll find that you have larger pieces and smaller pieces. The larger pieces are formed into a bowl and the smaller pieces placed inside.

It is necessary to repeat this process of breaking down the tinder and adding the broken pieces to the inside of the nest several times. You’ll find that each time, the broken pieces get finer and finer, until you are literally adding dust to the tinder.

When using a tinder nest the idea is to focus the sparks or coal into the inside of the nest, where the pulverized tinder is. This will be the part of the tinder which will burn the most readily. When the coal or spark is added, it will start the dust burning. Blow on the coal, adding oxygen, until flames appear. While all of these sources are excellent places for finding tinder, you shouldn’t count on finding them. When you find yourself in a survival situation, the last thing in the world you need is to have to go running around trying to find the things you need to have in order to survive. If you want to beat the survival game, you need to stack the deck in your favor; that means preparing your tinder ahead of time.

There are a number of commercially available fire starters, which are essentially forms of tinder. This can be a bit confusing, as we’ve just spent a lot of time talking about starting fires and different fire starters. However, both the means of creating the initial flame or spark and commercially available tinder are referred to as fire starters, so be sure you know what it is that you’re buying.

You can also make a variety of very effective types of tinder at home, so that you fulfill the old Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared.” After all, any real man at least pretends to having been a boy scout. So, let’s look at a few basic homemade forms of kindling.