Tinder is the stuff we use as the first building block of a fire – stuff that catches from a spark or a glowing ember allowing it to be applied to the next link in the chain which is small kindling.
When traveling in the backcountry it makes sense to carry a supply of ready-to-go tinder rather than relying on what you can find when you need to light a fire. With some notable exceptions, plant tinders need to dry to catch a spark so need some preparation and need careful storage in wet weather.
I use a tobacco pouch to store my tinder. These are available from tobacconists and only cost a few quid but can sometimes be difficult to get hold of. I usually carry the pouch in a small stuff sack which I keep in a thigh pocket.
The stuff sack is also handy for any other small items I need to access regularly and which are best kept on me rather than in a rucksack.
I usually carry a few tinders I’m really familiar with. In the real world – especially further from civilization where a fire could make the difference between life and death – we need reliability. It’s great to use primitive fire-lighting techniques but sometimes we just need a fire pronto!
I carry a modern firesteel. Not to be confused with the strike-a-light used with a flint, the modern firesteel is made from a pyrophoric alloy. When scraped hard with a steel striker, such as the back of a knife blade, small pieces of the firesteel are scraped off and ignited by friction.
The sparks created are way hotter than those from a traditional strike-a-light and can therefore be used to ignite a wider range of tinders. They can also be used as light stoves. An almost essential bit of kit for wilderness expeditions.
You’ll notice there are two firesteels – this is not due to the likelihood of them breaking but an extra one’s always handy when teaching! These things are bulletproof – they’ll even work when wet.
The only thing to watch for is not storing them for long periods when damp – the next time you go to use your firesteel it’ll look like it’s been attacked by termites and there will be a load of firesteel dust in the bottom of your tinder pouch!
Also in there is a cheap gas lighter. This is the sort of thing some (in my humble opinion, misguided) people would claim is “cheating” or “not bushcraft” but, as I say, at the end of the day it’s about lighting fires. If you find yourself in a survival situation there’s not going to be someone there giving you marks for artistic effort!
Birch bark – An old favourite. The stuff shown here is really thick bark taken from felled trees in Northern Sweden. In the UK the bark will be nowhere near as thick. The bit we need is the outer bark.
Birch trees shed this as a natural part of their growth and you’ll find it peeling off the tree in ragged strips. It can be gathered from living trees without harming them but should NOT be cut from them. Only take what you can peel from the tree without feeling like the tree doesn’t want to give it to you.
This stuff is great. It’ll light when wet as it contains a lot of oil so can be a lifesaver in poor conditions. To light with a spark from a firesteel, scrape the bark up to give a greater surface area for the spark to catch.
Western red cedar inner bark – this is the inner bark or bast from the tree. This can’t be taken from a living tree without doing severe damage so find some that’s fallen or been felled. Prise the bark from the tree and you’ll notice the inner bark is fibrous.
To obtain tinder, scrape it off the outer bark with a knife or whatever. As you scrape it’ll get really fuzzy like the stuff in the picture. Dry it out and you have a great tinder for friction fire lighting or taking the ember created from a flint and steel.
The next exhibit isn’t some of Jimmy Saville’s hair but Pampas grass – This is the exception to the rule – it’s not something I normally use and certainly in the UK not something we find growing all over the place! This was given to me by my mate George who is a bit of a friction fire-lighting nutter. It forms the ideal material for the fine center part of a tinder bundle.
Last but definitely not least, two manmade tinders are in there too:
Wax tinder card – used in Scandinavia to light barbecues and what have you, this is great stuff. It costs £3 or £.
4 for a pack which will last ages. It takes a spark from a firesteel or a flame.
Wetfire blocks – these are the least natural tinder here and I reserve them for poor weather conditions when I really need a fire with minimal fuss.
They come in little individual packets which contain a chemical (but apparently non-toxic) block of flammable material which is a bit like domestic firelighter. Easily lit by a flame or they can be crushed up into a powder and lit with the spark from a firesteel.
Something else useful which doesn’t live in the tinder pouch is a little pump action dispenser of alcohol hand-cleaning gel. Thanks to the alcohol content this can also be lit from a flame or firesteel. There’s a part of me that likes all my kit to have two or three different uses so this stuff gets a big thumbs up.