Natural tinder is any dry tinder you can find in the outdoors, has a low flash point, and can be easily ignited with a minimum of heat, including a spark. Many books list the various types of natural tinder available in the outdoors, but without knowing what they look like, many people have a difficult time identifying them when they see them. Therefore, I will make an effort to show various types available, in the Northeast U.S., where I am located. Of course there are many more types of natural tinder in other areas and countries, and it is up to you to learn those indigenous to your area.
PAPER (WHITE) BIRCH
The first that comes to mind is Paper Birch, also known as White Birch. Very few people have not seen a picture of the beautiful bark of a Paper Birch. Almost pure white, with pieces of bark peeling off like sheets of paper. This was the bark that was harvested over the centuries by the northern tribes of Native Americans. They used it to make canoes, houses, and fashion utensils such as cups and bowls. Small rolls of the bark can be used to start campfires. The bark is very flammable, and because of the oil in it, it even burns when wet. It has also been used to make torches.
The outer pieces of peeling bark can easily be pulled from the tree with little effort, without damage to the tree, as it peels and falls off naturally. However, if you are going to cut into the tree for other purposes, do not cut all the way around as it will kill the tree. You can often find Paper Birch that have fallen and are laying on the ground. These trees can be stripped completely of bark, and again, even though it has been laying on the ground, the bark will burn because of its oil.
YELLOW (CURLY) BIRCH
One of my favorite finds in the woods is a Yellow Birch (often called “Curly Birch”). It is, in my opinion, one of the best tinder found in the woods. Yellow Birch has thin, paper-like, yellowish gray bark that peels from the side of the tree in curls. The trunk has randomly placed fine horizontal lines on it called lenticels. Leaves on the curly birch are alternate, simple, but you will identify it by the bark. The paper-like curls of bark can be collected quickly and, after buffing a small amount between the palms of your hands to break up the fibers and being placed on the remaining curls, easily ignites with just a spark. When you find this precious tinder, collect some in a zip-closure bag and carry it in your pack. I always have enough for several fires in my day pack.
River Birch is my next favorite tinder, if the trees are not too old. When this tree gets older, the remarkable peeling bark becomes rough and ragged. However, where there is an old one, you can often find a younger one. The younger bark is a salmon pink to bronze-brown and peels loose horizontally in sheets of various layers, and is easily harvested by the hands full. Just shredding a few pieces without buffing is usually enough to ignite it with a simple spark. I have several of these trees in my yard, and even though they are about 7-8 years old, they are still considered young and the entire tree provides tinder year round.
Cedar, especially Red Cedar, is another one of my favorites. The outside bark can be pulled off in shreds, and buffed into usable tinder. However, once the outside bark is removed, the tree can be scraped with the blade of a knife to get really fine shreds of bark that make excellent tinder .
Cattail has been called the grocery store of wild edibles. It is found in fresh and brackish marshes and shallow water. In the late fall, the female flower which looks like a brown sausage-like head, starts to open and a bunch of whitish-yellow fluff (seed down) exudes from inside, hanging on to the side. This is what you use as tinder. Collect a few of the sausage-like heads and the contents of just one should be ample to start a fire. Pull the seed down out and, without pressing it together too tight, ignite with a spark. This is one of those tinder that is a flash-in-the pan. Be ready with the remainder of your other fire starting materials because it doesn’t last long.
The next seed down I will discuss is milkweed. This is found in dry soil, fields and roadsides. In the summer the milkweed has beautiful pink flowers and the broken stems produce a milky, rubbery, substance. In the fall, the seed pods open and, like cattail, exudes fluffy seed down. This is another flash-in-the-pan tinder so be ready to go when lit with a spark. It is easily collected and can be kept in a pocket or zip-closure bag until needed.
The seed down from various thistle can also be used as tinder but they provide a small quantity, and if you have another option, I would suggest you use it.
Many dried grasses make excellent tinder and are often available from fall through spring. I have collected dried grass that was sticking up out of the snow and had been dried by the sun. It worked as tinder without even having to be dried.
An often overlooked tinder is Phragmites, also known as Reed. This can usually be found in the same locations as Cattail, and are often more abundant. In the fall they have a large silky, plume-like, terminal flower cluster that not only ignites easily with a spark, but stays burning for a reasonable amount of time – more than enough to get a fire going.
The left photo shows Phragmites in the late fall with the soft plume-like terminal flower cluster. This is the part used for tinder. The right photo shows a close-up of the clusters collected for use as tinder.
Another overlooked item found in the field for tinder are bird nests. They are often made up of fine dried grasses and shreds of bark, etc. They are often an excellent tinder ball all by themselves.
Another great tinder is the resinous wood from pine or other sappy conifers. Often called Fatwood, it is made from the heartwood of pines that are naturally saturated with dried resin, also called pitch. This wood often comes from stumps of trees that died standing. Under the right conditions after a pine tree dies, the hartwood will fill up with resin, which eventually crystallizes and hardens. This wood is very resistant to rot and will usually last until it is burned. It is the same material that amber is made from. It is common for the sapwood to rot away from the fatwood and the fatwood will be all that is left of the tree or stump.
It only takes a small amount of fatwood kindling to get a fire started. You can light a piece of fatwood fire starter directly with a match or lighter. I have found with good Fatwood, that if you make some very small shavings in a pile, they can often be lit with just a spark.
TINDER FUNGUS – CHAGA
Tinder Fungus, also called Chaga, is found on live birch trees and looks like a black blotch and is hard on the outside. It is the reddish-brown material inside that is used for tinder. It can be used to catch a spark and will smolder, which can then be placed into a tinder bundle and blown into flame. It can also be used to carry an ember.
There is also a False Tinder Fungus which grows on dead birch trees. With this fungus you cut away the outside and use the thin layer of cottony material that can be sliced off with a knife. It can be used as a substitute for char cloth.
There is more to processing both Tinder Fungus and False Tinder Fungus than I wish to present in this article. However, if you are interested, there are some good articles and videos which elaborate on the subject.
Even if you can’t find Fatwood, You can take any wood you find, and using a hatchet or batoning with a knife, split it several times so you have some pieces with the center revealed. Scrape the center with the blade of your knife at a 90° angle to the wood, and you will get fuzzy scrapings which should be rather fluffy. Then make some shavings with the knife blade. Place the shavings around the scrapings. These can usually be ignited with a spark.
You can also obtain tinder from the crushed fibers of dead plants. Often a dead tree will begin rotting, and if you can find one dry, you can break up the rotting part with your hand to make some fine tinder. Dried leaves can also be easily crushed for a fine tinder. Dried pine needles also make an excellent tinder.
In order for natural tinder to work, it must be dry. It also must have fibers that can catch a spark. If the tinder has any hard bark or pith, remove it before use. Loosen the fibers by either twisting the tinder, or rub it between the palms of your hands, which I call buffing. Buffing tinder can also help remove slight moisture that might remain in it. You can also pound some tinder with a rock or wooden baton in order to break up its fibers.
You want a fluffy bundle of tinder when you are done. One that is loosely packed so that when it takes a spark, oxygen can circulate (remember the fire triangle).
As I indicated at the beginning of this article, this is not all inclusive, but should provide you with a starting point to start identifying Natural Tinder. There are plenty of other natural tinder depending on your location.
One last hint about tinder, is when you find it, collect it! Don’t wait until you need it as it might not be available. I don’t think I have ever passed a Yellow “Curly” Birch tree without taking some of the curly bark, and add it to the zip-closure bag in my pack. I always know that I have dry tinder when I need it.
Copyright © 2016 by John D. McCann