Copyright © November 1, 2017 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.
The following article is included in my book: The Most Important Survival Skills of the 1800s.
Introduction to Tinder
Good quality dry tinder is absolutely necessary to start a fire. If you do not have some good tinder material then your chance of starting a fire will be significantly reduced. This assumes you are not using gasoline, or kerosene, or any other extremely flammable substance or material. The most important property of the tinder material is the minimum temperature at which it will ignite and catch on fire. A tinder's combustion temperature is a function of its density, its surface area, and how well the material resists the absorption of humidity from the surrounding air. The surface area of a tinder material can be increased by pounding it with a rock to smash and spread out its fibers into tiny strands. If you have access to a variety of different tinder materials then you should test each one to determine which material catches on fire the easiest.
Most good tinder materials burn up very fast and you must add the kindling to the burning tinder quickly or the tinder will burn up and you will have to start over.
In the 1800s people would carry their tinder with them inside an item called a "tinderbox." This was usually a small wood box with a tight fitting lid that would keep the tinder inside the box completely dry. Some people would also put a piece of flint rock and a piece of steel inside the tinderbox so they could generate a shower of sparks by striking the flint rock with the edge of the steel. (Note: Today a tinderbox could be a small waterproof plastic box, such as a plastic food storage container with a tight fitting lid.)
People would carry their tinderbox inside their clothing (but not next to their skin) in order to keep the tinder inside the tinderbox extremely dry. This would also keep the tinder at a reasonable temperature so it would catch fire a little easier during cold weather.
Types of Tinder
Good tinder should be extremely fine and extremely combustible. Some tinder materials work well with some fire starting methods but not with other fire starting methods. Some examples of good tinder are:
- Clothes Dryer Lint: This is the best tinder material for all fires, including spark, friction, and solar fires.
- Fat Wood: Fat wood is a pine tree stump that is saturated with pitch or resin. Remove inner pieces of the stump and shave the wood into tiny slivers. It will catch fire very easily if it contains pitch residue.
- Charred Cloth: A two-inch square of cotton fabric (old t-shirt) that has been heated until it turns black.
- Fabric: Scraps of old clothing that is made of cotton or linen (not wool). The frayed edges of old clothing can be cut off the clothing and used as tinder. In a serious emergency you could remove a very small piece of cloth from the outside edge of an article of your clothing. Unravel the very small piece of cloth until it is just tiny thin threads. Or pound the cloth with a rock until the fibers are crushed and broken.
- Paper: Thin strips of shredded paper.
- Dry Grass: Extremely dry grass can be used as tinder.
- Cattail Seed Heads (picture on right): The chaff (or fluff or down) inside the brown hotdog shaped seed head of cattails can be good tinder. Fluff them up by hand into a very loose pile so they can easily catch on fire.
- Dry Leaves: Dead dry oak leaves that are still clinging to the branches of an oak tree during the winter can be used as tinder.
- Dry Brown Pine Needles: They do not absorb rainwater so they are usually relatively dry.
- Dry Pine Cones: Crumbled and beaten and shredded into very tiny pieces.
- Dry Decayed Wood: Very dry decayed wood that has been separated and fluffed up is good tinder.
- Birch Bark: The ragged looking curly bark on the exterior of a birch tree can be easily peeled off the tree by hand. Do not peel all the bark off the tree in a circle around the tree or you could kill the tree. Instead peel off some bark at different heights on one side of the tree, preferably the side of the tree that faces south in the northern hemisphere. Finely crumble the birch bark to use it as tinder.
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