Fire Tinder – Breaking Down the Most Combustible Materials

by | Sep 22, 2020 | Fire Building

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Today, starting a fire is as easy as striking a match or even turning on your stove. Within seconds, you’ll have a nice flame going that can be used to keep your warm or even cook over. But starting a fire wasn’t always this easy.

If you’ve ever been camping, or tried to build a bonfire in your yard, then you know how frustrating things can get. Especially if the weather isn’t on your side. Holding a small flame to large pieces of wood usually gets you nowhere, which is where fire tinder comes into play.

Tinder plays an important role in building fires outdoors. But what is fire tinder exactly, and how does it work? 

What is Fire Tinder?

When building a fire, tinder refers to any materials that are easily combustible. The material used as tinder for fire is very thin, and completely open. The natural design of tinder sets the stage for you to easily create a small flame. That flame can then be used as the foundation for a larger fire.

Tinder doesn’t refer to a single type of combustible material either. Any combustible material that fits the above criteria can essentially be used as tinder. From thin wood shavings to dry leaves, nature has an abundance of materials that are perfect for building a fire.

How it Works

Due to its open state, tinder will begin to glow under even the smallest of sparks. Once glowing, gentle air that blows across the tinder can cause it to burst into flames once it reaches it’s ignition point. Typically, the flame is small and doesn’t sustain well, but can be used to ignite your larger kindling.

The reason being, oxygen is one of the main components in fire, it needs it to survive. In order for a fire to burn, it needs to have a minimum of 16 percent oxygen content. On average, air contains about 21 percent oxygen content, which is more than enough to ignite the flame.

Tinder vs. Kindling – What’s the Difference?

There’s usually some confusion between what tinder and kindling actually are. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they really shouldn’t be. While both are used as fuel for larger fires, they’re actually quite different, and here’s how.

Tinder refers to the highly combustible material that is used to ignite the initial flame for your fire. On the other hand, kindling refers to the less combustible material that is used to sustain your fire until it’s strong enough to light your larger pieces of wood.

Both tinder and kindling are used as fuel for your fire, but they refer to the different steps in the process. Tinder is the initial step, where you use small embers to ignite a flame, which then burns very quickly. 

Since the initial flame usually isn’t strong enough to light larger pieces of wood, you instead use it to light slightly larger and less combustible materials known as kindling. Once the kindling is lit, the fire will burn longer and stronger until it can be used as fuel for larger wood.

Do You Need Tinder to Start a Fire?

Building a clean and successful campfire requires three types of fuel, tinder, kindling, and wood. So yes, you will need to tinder to start a fire, and here’s why.

If you’ve ever tried lighting a branch or log with just a match, chances are It didn’t work. Even If you held that match for as long as it burns, it just isn’t strong enough.

Now, if instead of holding your match to a piece of firewood, you hold it to a dry leaf, what happens? You’ll notice that it easily catches fire, and produces a slightly larger flame that doesn’t burn for very long. This is because materials like dry leaves and wood shavings are more easily combustible than pieces of firewood.

When you’re outdoors, you may not even have access to a match or lighter, which means you’ll have to build a fire from scratch. Building a fire from scratch means using friction to create small sparks or embers, which can only become a flame with the help of carefully selected tinder. 

Best Types of Natural Tinder

The good thing about tinder is that it’s literally all around us. Whether you’re at home or in nature, you can find natural tinder just about anywhere. However, not all tinder is made equally. Some combustible materials work far better and faster than others.

Based on how easy materials are to collect and light, we’ve put together a list of the best natural types of tinder to get your fire started.

Wood and Bark Shavings

When you think of nature, trees are often the first thing that pop into your head. Their unique ability to process the air we breath, shade us from the sun, and provide wood for shelter make them one of the most versatile and important resources.

It probably comes as no surprise that they also provide us with all the necessary fuel to build and sustain our campfires.

Some of the best natural tinder comes in the form of wood or bark shavings because they are thin and open. Better yet, they are easily bundled, which helps them catch sparks and embers. 

Your best options are cedar bark, birch bark, or fatwood. Chances are, you’re not going to find the shavings naturally, but you can easily use your knife to create the shavings on your own.

Cattail Fluff

Don’t worry, we’re not talking about fur from the tail of your cat. In this instance, cattail refers to the plant genus that contains over 30 species of plants that are typically found in temperate and colder regions.

The availability of cattail will largely depend on where you are. Considered aquatic or semi-aquatic, cattail plants are tall and reedy marsh plants that inhabit fresh and brackish waters. So, if you’re not near a water source, you’ll probably have to go in a different direction.

Once you collect your cattail, you want to use your hands to squeeze or crush the heads. By carefully working the cattail heads, you’ll begin to expose the inside fibers. Those fibers are what you’ll want to use for your fire tinder. 

Cattail fluff, or fibers, make some of the best tinder because of how easily it catches fire, and how easy it is to bundle. Be careful though, cattail fluff burns fast, so make sure to have your kindling ready beforehand.

Dried Grass

It’s fairly easy to locate dried grass outdoors. In fact, it may be more difficult to find a trail or campsite that has no grass at all. The tricky part is finding dead grass that is already dried out, because that is what’s going to make for good tinder.

If you can’t find dead grass, we know what you might be thinking. Wouldn’t it be easy to just cut or collect some live grass and use it for tinder?

While your head is in the right place, it won’t do you much good. Grass is very good at retaining water. So, even when you cut it, and attempt to dry it out, it will still contain a lot of nitrogen and water. Two ingredients that are natural enemies of fire.

Dried Leaves and Pine Needles

With the abundance of trees in nature, you can only imagine how many dead and dried leaves you can find. Which is good for you, because dried leaves and pine needles make for excellent tinder when you’re trying to build a fire.

Similar to grass, you’ll want to make sure to collect leaves and pine needles that are already dead rather than harvesting them yourself. They will be more combustible, and will catch fire far easier.

The only problem you may face is bundling can be challenging. If you’re having a tough time getting your fire started, try using your leaves or pine needles for kindling instead. They do a great job of keeping your flame alive.

Your Own Hair

If you’ve ever singed your own hair with a lighter or match, then you know just how awful the smell is. Unpleasant smells aside, your own hair can actually be used as tinder if you have absolutely no other options.

Don’t think that you can get away with just plucking a single strand of hair from your head though. You’re going to need a collection of hair, that you can then bundle up. That’s why you should only use it as a last resort.

Best Non-Natural Materials

There’s doubting that there is plenty of natural tinder you can collect. But what happens if the conditions make it extremely difficult to find dried leaves, grass, or other materials to start your fire?

The truth is, it’s always good to learn basic survival skills, but that doesn’t mean you should always leave things to chance. If you’re going to spend time out in nature, you might as well be prepared, and bring fire tinder that you can use to get your fire going.

Here are some great tinder options that you can bring with you on your travels.

Cotton Balls

When it comes to combustible materials, it’s hard to beat cotton. Especially if you’re looking for a fire tinder option that is both affordable and lightweight.

Cotton is extremely combustible, but doesn’t burn for a very long time. Which is why many people prefer to soak their cotton in petroleum jelly prior to their trip, which will help the cotton balls burn for a few minutes while you build your fire.


Paper also makes for great fire tinder, especially when you shred it and bundle it up first. Just like cotton, it burns pretty quickly, so you’ll want to bring more than just a single piece. Try to find a newspaper, since it comes with plenty of tinder, and is already folded nicely for you.

Not all paper works well though. If you come across paper with a glossy coat, a magazine for example, you should absolutely refrain from using it in your fire. First, it won’t make for good tinder. Second, burning paper with a glossy coating releases toxic chemicals.

Premium Fire Starters

Premium fire starters are the best materials that you can use for tinder. However, since they are made in facilities and not found in nature, you’ll need to do a bit of shopping in advance. But if you’re in an emergency situation, you’ll be happy you have them.

Brian Segal

As an outdoor enthusiast, I was drawn to bushcraft at a young age. I constantly find myself trying to learn and improve on my survival skills, and enjoy writing about everything I discover to help pass along to others.

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At Bushcraft Wild, our goal is to help people learn the necessary skills to reconnect with nature. From basic survival skills to recreational camping, we’re confident you’ll find a way to spend more time in the great outdoors.

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