To Build a Fire II
The winter is proving to be unseasonable warm. Precipitation amounts are on the high side. Rain in place of snow. This day, late in the season, is no different. Today marks yet another period of relentless, steady rain, thoroughly saturating my person and everything around me.
I arrived in this wet location deep in the woods two nights ago. I opted for a cold camp, no fire, to keep my presence in this woodland to a bare minimum,
but sometimes plans change.
I now wish to break the fast. My thoughts on the welcoming warmth a fire gives; not only to begin the drying out process of gear and clothing, but also in an effort to raise my damp spirit.
I know the area well. Each time I journey here I scout out an ever increasing radius, noting resources that will be of use to me if and when the time comes. On a previous trip I located a small stand of river birch in a poorly drained bottom, northwest of my camp. There I set my sights to retrieve the bark of the birch. A fire maker’s gold.
I make it a habit to keep a dry source of tinder in my fire kit at all times. Only using it when conditions descend into dire straits. In this case, my need for a fire is more a desire for comfort, not survival. So my tinder stays put, dry and secure.
I follow the tracks in my memory to the forest of birch, select a suitable bestower, and respectfully remove only as much of the oily bark as I need.
With thanks given, I set off to return to my home in the woods.
Along the way I gather the most suitable kindling I can find: long, thin twigs found on the lower trunk of a large spruce. This delicate wood, somewhat protected underneath sheltering boughs will dry fast with minimal heat applied to it.
On arrival at camp, the rain has slowed to a drizzle. Nevertheless, I take the necessary precaution of draping my wool blanket over my head and shoulders as a rainfly. Doing so ensures that my gathered wood does not take on further moisture. Beneath my makeshift shelter, I take my birch bundle and prepare the bark by scraping its surface into dust shavings to readily accept sparks from my ferro rod. I methodically build a tipi of the long, thin twigs I collected, the architecture of which works brilliantly in these conditions, allowing the heat of the flames to collect and generate upward, drying the damp twigs as they alight.
Soon enough my efforts are rewarded with a bright, warming blaze of orange and yellow. I apply additional kindling, crowd the flames, and allow the moisture to visibly evaporate from my drying clothes. With the steam and smoke, my spirit rises to new heights.
: a very flammable substance adaptable for use in lighting a fire.
As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, tinder, in its most basic form, is any material with ignitable properties. Simply stated, that is true, but there is more to tinder than what is lightly touched on by this brief definition. I feel the subject of tinder is deserving of more than just a glancing mention. So let us take the time to give it its due respect.
Tinder is not a handful of magic that will summon flames at the tap of a wand. It is a critical component in the creation of a fire that needs to be thoroughly understood and wisely selected. Within this ever-so-important decision making process, there are subtleties that need to be known and addressed, such as what distinctive qualities and reactive properties does the chosen material have? Will it perform well with the application of sparks, an ember, or flame? Will current environmental factors affect the tinder?.. and so on. Proper tinder selection is in fact a reflection of the one who skillfully gathers it. Depth of knowledge evident in one’s deliberate preparation techniques. One’s comprehension clearly manifested as the flames take hold of the carefully constructed tinder bundle.
In this second article in the To Build a Fire series, I’ll touch base on five excellent tinder choices, how to locate and prepare the materials, and also which type of ignition they collaborate with best.
From the genus Betula comes a number of deciduous trees whose bark can be utilized as a high quality natural tinder. The common name is Birch, and there are many individual species that you should familiarize yourself with, including Paper, Yellow, Black, and River. The bark from birch trees is rich in resins. The oils act as a natural protectant against pests and disease, but these oils can also be used to your advantage when kindling a fire. The oily properties in the bark make it, not only extremely flammable, but also, highly water resistant. A twofold benefit for one who builds fires.
Look for dead standing or downed birch trees to remove sections of bark from. If these can not be found, harvesting the bark from a living tree can also be done, but only with the utmost respect and care for that tree. The intent is not to harm or kill, so I recommend just removing the loose peels from the outer bark.
Whether it be peelings or larger segments of bark, both will eagerly ignite by applying an open flame from a match or lighter. If you prefer to use a ferro rod or a flint ‘n steel combo, it’s best to take a flattened piece of harvested bark, scrape the outer side with your knife until fine shavings are produced, and then with accuracy, throw sparks upon it. The most outstanding quality of this first-rate tinder is its ability to burn even when wet.
Utilizing the healing properties of coniferous trees, an extremely flammable tinder referred to as pitch pine can be located and derived from the bark of these softwoods. On trees where an injury has occurred or a limb has broken off, sap will rush to these vulnerable sites to begin the healing process for the tree’s survival. The sap, or resin, will often coagulate into sticky lumps. These extraneous balls of pitch can be removed and used as an incendiary tinder material. They work just fine by their lone selves or if applied to other tinders, they will give you an increased chance of lighting success. An extra plus with pine pitch is that it will light even when wet. Its inflammable quality is immediately apparent when a flame is applied to it. If using a ferro rod or a magnesium fire starter, place a collection of wood shavings directly on the pitch and then light with sparks.
Pine pitch can also be used to make another excellent tinder called “pitch sticks.” Place pitch balls in a flameproof container. Sit the container on the coals of a fire and allow the pitch to safely melt into a liquid state. Small splints of wood can then be added into the molten sap. After letting the melted pitch thoroughly coat the wood, carefully remove and give the liquid the opportunity to solidify on the splints before storing away. You now have an incredibly fire ready tinder that’s primed to be used in any weather condition.
Char cloth is a great addition to any fire kit. Works wonderfully well in concert with flint ‘n steel due to the cloth’s ability to catch and hold sparks of low temperature. As a general rule, traditional flint ‘n steel produces cooler sparks compared to the hotter sparks from a high quality ferro rod. Charred cloth will not burst into a flame on its own, the charring actually allows an ember to slowly burn the carbonized fibers of the cloth. Only after it is added to an accompanying tinder bundle and given ample oxygen will a flicker of flame be produced.
Making char cloth at home or in the field is truly a simple process. My recipe is as follows:
Cut 1.5” x 1.5” squares out of a 100% natural fabric. Make sure you are not using any fabric containing synthetic material. Synthetics will not char, they will melt.
Place the cloth squares into a fire proof tin. Altoids’ boxes will work just fine. If your tin container is air tight, poke a hole in the lid to allow a little air to safely escape.
Sit the tin on a bed of glowing coals. Allow to remain until smoke slows or ceases to emanate from the tin.
Remove and let cool. Check cloth to see that it is evenly charred. If not, return the tin to the coals to complete the process.
Acceptable char cloth is black from edge to edge, and should not easily disintegrate when handled.
Cattails are tall growing acquatic plants common to wetlands, marshes, and at the edges of ponds. Found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, these plants are easily identified by their flowering spike, or head, which resembles a sausage link on a stick. The heads contain cotton-like seeds that actually make excellent tinder if dry. The downy seeds can be easily removed from the stem and fluffed in preparation for ignition. Keep in mind that, once it catches fire, this light, airy tinder will burn extremely fast. For this reason, cattail tinder makes an effective additive to a mixed tinder bundle. Collect in fall and winter when seed heads are ripe. Gathered heads can be thoroughly dried, then stored in a paper bag for future use. Works well with all fire starting sources.
Like all-natural cloth, cattail fluff can also be charred to enhance its efficiency and practicality. Follow the charring procedure described above for natural fabrics to produce another useful tinder to incorporate into your tinder box. Cattail char is a great alternative to char cloth, for it reacts similarly to sparks and can be applied to your tinder bundle in a like manner.
Another worthwhile option that can be purchased at your local hardware store and added to your tinder box is an affordable twine known as jute. Jute is an all natural fiber extracted from the herbaceous plant known by the same name. It grows in and around India, is earth friendly and biodegradable. Jute twine yields a large amount of tinder in relation to its size, meaning the twine can be untwisted into individual strands, then each strand can be further seperated by pulling and teasing the filaments apart, resulting in a sizable nest of loose, airy fibers that catch fire with ease. An open flame, sparks, smoldering char cloth and the glowing ember from a friction set all work wonderfully well with jute. Jute can also be waxed for increased insurance on a reliable tinder in adverse conditions. Simply cut the twine into desirable lengths, dip in melted wax, then allow to cool. This results in a water resistant tinder that will light with minimal effort.
The five tinders mentioned above are only a scraping off the top of a legion of natural and man-manipulated materials that can be used in your fire starting efforts.
Always carry a variety of materials on your person and in your fire kit.
And when it comes to all things related to fire: have a backup to your backup.
There are few moments more frustrating than ill-fated attempts at creating a fire.
In essence, the more you know, the more adequate your abilities will be.
Build upon your knowledge by inquiring what others use and why. Notice where they search and how they gather. What are their methods of processing the material? Do they mix different tinders into a bundle to make it more effective? Or do they use a purebred source?
Tinder selection is based off of knowledge, and also self-practice.
Don’t shy away from trial and error. They are an excellent teaching pair when it comes to building a fire. If you come across a material that you think may possibly make good tinder, try it. You may be onto something.
Tinder is a language unto itself.
Take the time to learn it.
To the point of fluency.
Your very survival may depend on it.