Tinder is dead, dry plant-based material that is capable of turning a spark into a flame. Without some form of tinder, sparks and small flames cannot grow to be fires. Lucky for us, there are always materials relatively close at hand in the wild that can be used as tinder. Any natural tinder used for fire making should have several things in common.
First, it should all be dead—but usually not rotten—plant-based materials. Rotten plants tend to lose more and more of their fuel value as they decompose. There are always exceptions, but just remember to always use dead plant-based materials.
Second, it should be as dry as it possibly can be. In rainy weather, this might mean finding a few scraps at a time, even one leaf at a time, and keeping the tinder dry while you search for more.
Third, it should be light, airy and have a lot of surface area for its mass. In other words, it needs to be fluffy. Materials that are not fluffy should be processed in some way to increase their surface area so that they can start burning quickly and easily.
Most species of grass can be used alone or mixed with other types of tinder for good results. Use tan or brown leaf blades and seed tops that are obviously dead. Some of the stems and stalks can help too. Most dead grasses make excellent tinder, providing they died on their own, and are very dry. Live grass that is cut and then dried retains a lot of nitrogen and water, which are naturally flame retardant. That means lawn clippings and hay aren’t too good for tinder. Grass is very vulnerable to dampness, and it may not light or stay lit if it is damp.
Most dead leaves from trees and plants can be used as good tinder. Leaves’ tolerance to dampness varies among the different types and their level of decay, but leaves are usually somewhat dampness-resistant.
If it’s not raining, leaves are best harvested up off of the ground. Frequently, twigs with dead leaves still attached can be found hanging on branches and shrubs in the woods. Also, many members of the beech family (red oak, white oak, beech, and others ) hold on to a lot of their leaves through the winter.
When it is raining; look under leaning tree trunks, rock overhangs, in hollows at the bases of trees, in the dry centre of piles of brush and leaves, under evergreen trees and other sheltered spots to find dry leaves. Leaves usually catch fire the best from an open flame. Sparks tend to just bounce off them.
3. Pine needles
The dead needles from most pines and similar evergreens like cedars and cypress can be used as tinder. Pine needles handle dampness very well, perhaps better than any other tinder. Because of the small amount of flammable pitch in the needles, they should burn well unless soaking wet or rotten.
4. Inner and outer bark
This is my favourite type of tinder for any fire-making method. The dry inner bark from countless dead trees and plants can be isolated and processed into some of the best tinder materials. The dead inner bark from trees and branches of tulip poplar, cedar, juniper, mulberry, some oaks and other woods can be processed into great tinder. Some outer bark can also be used, such as cedar, juniper and finely shredded paper birch.
Inner bark can be processed by pounding, tearing, twisting, scraping, or buffing. Fibrous outer bark can all be processed in the same way. Pounding is usually the best way to fluff up barks, except birches, which should be shredded as finely as possible. Bark tinder can be the longest and steadiest burning tinder, great for most conditions.
5. Weed tops and seed down
The dead tops from many plants can be used as tinder. Some tops, such as goldenrod, have several grades of tinder in their top. Goldenrod has a fine down that is surrounded by papery chaff on slender twigs. These mixed grades of tinder can burn furiously.
Seed down can also be used as tinder. Things like thistle, cattail, milkweed down, and even a few trees like cottonwoods make a fluff that can be used. These are very useful with spark-based fire starting methods like flint and steel.
6. Wood Shavings
Another type of tinder can actually be made from your fire wood itself. Wood shavings can be the driest tinder around in perpetually wet areas. The wood inside of standing dead wood is usually dry under the bark and below the surface of the wood.
Fine wood shavings can be scraped from most dead, dry hard and softwoods with a knife or even a stone scraper. The wood needs to be dead and dry in order to be scraped and burned properly.
Don't use dangerous tinder
All smoke is carcinogenic, so be careful not to breathe much smoke when handling and blowing on tinder. However, there is some good looking tinder that should not be used at all because of its toxic smoke. Black locust inner bark is toxic and can cause a headache when used. Large, old poison ivy vines are covered with a fuzzy brown fiber that looks like a tinder source, but even handling the fuzz will cause a rash to those allergic. Burning any part of poison ivy, poison sumac or poison oak can be even more dangerous. The smoke can carry the toxic oils into the lungs, and cover exposed skin and clothing.
Got some other suggestions for natural tinder? Let me know in the comments.