Would you believe me if I told you that there are two essential pieces to every fire and these pieces decide if your fire will start quick and easy or not at all? When you build a lot of fires you start to appreciate all the phases, parts, and pieces that go into making fire.
Tinder and kindling are the heart of any fire. The skill and success you have with tinder and kindling will determine the outcome of that fire. If you have ever been bent over a stack of wood, lighting and blowing and struggling to get the fire started, you weren’t using tinder and kindling correctly.
This is why we are bringing you this great guide to both kindling and tinder.
What Really Makes a Fire?
You never learn more about making fire than when you struggle to get one started. Most of us have heard about the fire triangle and we understand how to apply oxygen, fuel, and heat to create a flame. However, creating a flame is much different than creating a self-sustaining fire that allows you to gather around it, cook over it or use it to keep you warm.
The things that give you real power over the making and sustaining of fire are your tinder and your kindling. You can have all the fuel in the world and it won’t make a difference. You can sit with a lighter flame on a log for an hour and you won’t have a real fire.
You need more heat than that to ignite real wood fuel. That comes from a combination of tinder and adding lots of kindling to the fire which generates a bed of coals.
Tinder Starts Fires
Tinder is a collection of dry fibrous material that is easy to catch on fire. This can be a variety of materials all collected and processed together or it can be one material like a bunch of dried grasses.
A spark, a flame, or even a magnified beam of sunlight can be used to light tinder and if you have gathered and processed it effectively you will get a flame with ease. The process of lighting tinder with an ember, blowing fire to life, often really excites people. It’s a skill you can practice all the time.
Gathering a tinder bundle or a bird’s nest and lighting it is great practice for the first part of making any fire. If you can get a flame in a number of ways using tinder, well, you are well on your way to dominating fire.
The cool thing about tinder is that it exists all around you. Once you understand this it is kind of like seeing The Matrix. You can easily recognize the types of materials that will make for good tinder and the things that will not.
Let’s look at all of the natural materials that can be used for tinder.
- Dried Leaves
- Dried Bark
- Dried Flowers
- Dried Dead Plants
- Dried Grasses
- Dried Funghi
- Cattail Heads
- Pine Needles
- Pine Cones
My favorite specific sources of wild tinder:
- Dry dead plants with dead flowers on them are by far my favorite source of tinder.
- Dry Grasses
- Shredded Dry Leaves
- Cattail Fluff
- Torn River Birch Bark
Finding tinder is just one piece of the puzzle. Most kinds of tinder require processing. Processing is just a fancy word for tearing, ripping, pounding, or something along those lines.
The finer the tinder the easier it will be to start a fire with it. Barks need to be shredded finely, some dried plants can be pulverized with the butt of the knife. Cattail fluff needs to be pulled apart and then piled together.
The driest and the finest. That is the goal when it comes to processing tinder for making fire.
What’s a Bird’s Nest
An actual bird’s nest is often made up of a variety of natural materials that the bird has processed into a nest. In a survival situation, you could harvest a bird’s nest and use it to start a fire pretty effectively.
For the average wilderness survivalist or bushcrafter, you simply want to emulate the shape and makeup of a bird’s nest to create your own.
With a large bundle of dry grasses in both of your hands, bend the ends around to meet each other and you will see a nest shape take form. You can hold the ends of the grasses in one hand now and add other processed tinder to the center of your nest.
Your ember, your spark, or your match is the egg that will sit in the middle of all this tinder and this nest. This bird nest will go up in flames and start your fire. If you have kindling at arms reach then you will be on your way to a great fire.
There are also some types of tinder that you can bring into the wild from home. These are things like cotton balls, cotton pads, and dryer lint. You can pack these things up in a Ziploc bag and store them in your pack.
You can improve them even more by dipping all of these materials in melted wax. If you have paraffin or extra candle wax around homemade tinder can be turned into a fire starter that burns for up to 15 minutes!
Take your old dryer lint and put it into a ziplock bag, drizzle in melted wax, and then squeeze the bag to combine it. When it’s dry this is a great tinder fire starter and extender.
The flame that you generate from your tinder has to catch something on fire. It will be your kindling that really gets the fire going. From this wood, you will get your bed of hot coals. The kindling is the first wood that you ignite to make a fire.
A strong base of burning kindling is what will catch your larger fuel on fire. Most people who struggle with making fire are not using enough kindling to get the job done properly.
Types of Wood
A mixture of soft and hardwood kindling is best because these two types of wood have some great properties when it comes to early-stage fire-making. Resinous softwood like pine is great because it catches fast and burns hot. Hardwoods like oak are great because they put off a more consistent heat and take longer to burn away.
- Douglas Fir
If I had only one option for kindling then I would go for the resinous softwoods.
Two Sizes of Kindling
You want at least two different sizes of kindling to work with. The first can be gathered easily and is simply made up of pencil-sized sticks. You can use smaller sticks, too but pencil-sized and smaller sticks are the first kind of tinder that you want to hit the flame.
This smaller kindling goes up in flame almost instantly and takes full advantage of that flame you brought to life using your tinder.
The next size is larger sticks and pieces of wood that have been split off your wood fuel. These pieces should be about an inch to an inch and a half in diameter. You can have some that are larger because this sized kindling will be added slower and more carefully.
For both sizes, you should at least have a substantial pile of each. I find that the more time I spend sourcing the smaller kindling, pencil-sized sticks, the better my fire turns out.
You can use everything from your hands to an ax when it comes to processing kindling. One of the best tools to use is a small woodsman’s ax or even a handheld hatchet. These smaller axes are great for splitting wood down into smaller and smaller pieces.
Sometimes a branch or large stick can be simply split in half to make for great kindling.
On YouTube, you might even see survivalists splitting wood with a survival knife. This is a great way to dull the blade on your survival knife. If you have no other options then you might consider doing this to your knife but I certainly would not make it my go-to method for splitting wood or kindling.
A tool like a machete can be used to effectively baton wood to create kindling. Again, you will sacrifice the blade to some degree but at least it won’t be your primary survival knife that you are dulling. A machete is a hacking tool anyhow.
What is Batoning?
Batoning is a method of splitting wood when you do not have an ax to do it. This method works but it is tough on blades and sharpened edges. You start with a piece of wood that is shorter in diameter than the length of your blade.
You are also going to need a baton. This is simply a thick and strong piece of wood that you can easily grasp. You are going to use this to beat your blade through the wood.
Using a knife, machete, or another type of long blade, you are going to place the edge of the blade on the wood that you want to split. The length of the blade that sticks out past the wood is where you are going to hit with the baton.
Hold the knife with one hand and a baton with the other.
As you start to hit the end of the blade that extends beyond the wood it will drive the edge into the wood. You continue hitting the end of the blade sticking out of the wood until it goes all the way through the wood.
This method only works if you are splitting wood with the grain. If you try and do this against the grain then you will do serious damage to your knife or bladed tool.
Using Tinder with Kindling Together
So, let’s go over the entire process so that next time you start your fire with tinder and kindling you will have success.
It all starts with setting a few small sticks from your pile of kindling on the ground. Get your tinder up off the wet ground. There is no reason why you shouldn’t have fuel-burning beneath your fire and above it.
Next, you are going to choose a fire lay. My favorite is the log cabin fire lay but you choose whichever type of fire you want to build. We have a variety of fires that you can learn about here at Survivor World.
At this point, you are ready to use that tinder bundle that you have created. Before you light it, make sure that both piles of kindling are close by. You are going to use the small pencil-sized kindling first.
Place the tinder at the center of your fire lay or in the best area to start the fire. Then use whatever method or fire starter you prefer to get that tinder bundle burning.
Once the flame is well established you are going to take a nice handful of your small kindling and lean it, teepee style, over top of the flames from your tinder. These sticks should light quickly. Just be careful that you don’t smother your fire with too much kindling landing directly on the flame
As the flames grow higher than the kindling you have added it is time to add a few pieces of the larger kindling. Again, consider airflow when adding these. As your larger kindling starts to catch fire you should add some more kindling.
Now, you are ready to start adding fuel to the fire. Don’t throw your biggest log on there but add some of the smaller fuel and then get out of the way and let the fire do its thing.
Dominate the Fire
It’s easy to get confused about what you need to really dominate fire craft. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the many different fire starters that are on the market. It’s also easy to be hyperfocused on the processing of wood and the tools you should have for that.
In reality, there is a magic window in all fire-making. It starts when the tinder is lit and continues until you add that first piece of real fuel. If you can manage tinder and kindling effectively, you will never want for fire again. You will dominate fire in all of its forms and in any environment.
For more fire building tips check out our page on All Types of Fires here.