Tinder is vital to starting a fire especially in an emergency situation where fire is vital. It’s that tiny, easily flammable material that allows any fire to grow hot enough to start burning the small twigs and peelings and other kindling. There are a fair number of common sources for tinder such as bark fibers, steel wool, and vaseline-covered cottonballs, but there are also a number of oddball sources that may present themselves when the common ones aren’t present. Whether you need to start a fire in a cozy corner of the city streets or in the middle of the empty plains, there is always tinder available if you know where to look.
1. Dandelion Seeds
We’ve previously looked at the helpful uses of dandelions, and here’s another use for that humble weed. Although the living flower won’t be much use, any dandelions that turn into nice little puffballs of seeds make perfect cottony firestarting tinder. Just grab a few heads, mash them together (the tangling makes them less likely to fly off, and the oils on your hands are helpful there as well) and light them with the tiniest spark. Be advised that this doesn’t burn like newspaper and tends to flare up rapidly and burn out just as quickly, so make sure that your kindling is already close by before you light it!
Dandelions are extremely common and easy to find, even in places without much tree bark or other tinder available, so be sure to keep those little puffballs in mind.
2. Tinder Fungus
There are multiple kinds of tinder fungus, but the most common in North America is known as the chaga mushroom. Found growing primarily on birch trees, this fungus has a distinctive black charcoal appearance that sets it apart immediately. But in a situation where you’re surrounded by birch limbs and bark, why use this mushroom? Well, most natural tinder doesn’t last very long, and some (like the dandelion heads above) are more like flashes of heat and light than a true burning flame. The chaga mushroom, on the other hand, is able to smolder and burn for hours making it useful for starting fires in less than ideal conditions (after a rain for example) when you might need to grow a fire very slowly.
Who knew that random garbage could help start fires?
If there is one ubiquitous piece of trash, this is it. The ever-present Wal-Mart bags that blow through every city street, country lane, and town in the U.S. are actually great tinder if you can get past the smell. You don’t necessarily use them like you would regular tinder, piling stuff on top and then lighting the fire underneath your kindling. Instead, you want to light the plastic bag and then let the hot, burning, melted drops hit your kindling until a fire gets going. Like tinder fungus, this can last quite a while compared to lighting some shredded bark on fire so its great for when you need more time. Be warned that plastic smoke is poisonous, so don’t breathe the smoke or cook on it until the fire has burned all the plastic away.
Yes, you read that correctly. You have a naturally occurring source of tinder that grows each day and needs to be removed periodically…your hair. Properly dried, human hair is a great source of tinder, though like dandelion seeds it tends more toward flash burning than a slow steady smolder. Be aware that burning hair does give off a nasty smell, though it is otherwise harmless.
Yes, but think of all the tinder!
Aside from chewing tobacco, almost every other tobacco product is designed for a slow, steady burn. This even includes cigarette butts, which are pretty easy to find even in our “smokeless” society. Be sure to split the cigarette open first and remove the actual tobacco for best results. Many modern tobacco products have flame retardants added and are labeled as such, but these are still more than capable of lighting objects so don’t discount them when searching.
Much of the talk about starting fires or finding tinder can make it seem like it’s difficult to improvise and find the proper materials. In reality, a little imagination can net you some easy tinder if you just think outside the box.
Other firestarting emergency improvisation you know?
These are just the top 5 that I thought were particularly useful but not commonly mentioned. Can you think of any others to share?