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Finding Dry Tinder

Photos and text by Zeb Allison

Finding dry tinder material for a "birds nest" can be very difficult. It might not be as hard to do on a sunny day when you are in good health and you arenít hungry, but imagine the situation where you had a plane crash, fell and broke your leg or wrist. And if you have a lighter you are already at an advantage. A lighter gives you something that almost nothing else can, a flame.

Now with a bow drill hand drill or ferro rod you have the potential to get a fire, it can be done but never bet your life on it. With a lighter you have a flame, with primitive friction fire you get a coal, and with the ferro rod you get sparks. True, the coal or sparks are hot but youíve got to remember that water won't burn!

There are many ways to find dry tinder, or just tinder itself. That is what I will be discussing in this article - finding the right materials. When you think of tinder you probably think wood chips or cotton. Well that works but more often than not you wonít have cotton or wood chips. Tinder preferably is a dry fluffy substance used to make a flame spark or coal into a flame. So with that said it's time to discuss the tinder.

Cedar & Cottonwood
I think my first resource when finding tinder in my neck of the woods is cedar bark, see photo 1. What you want from the cedar is the inner bark. This layer is almost always bone dry. One thing you can do with it is to tear it into thin strips and rub it against each other in your hands. Got an injured hand? Rub the bark on a rough rock. No rough rock? Rub it on your boot. No boot? Well you better hope you donít need tinder if you donít have boots!!
If I couldnít find a cedar tree I would look for a cottonwood. The inner layer of cottonwood bark is good for many things: rope, tinder, and twine are just a few. But in this article it is just the tinder we are concerned about. What you do is simply take a knife, hatchet, machete, or whatever else you have and cut off a large chunk of it. See photo 2. Now the next step is to strip off the cord-like strands of the inner bark. These should be dry unless it has just rained. If it has just rained shove them in your shirt and your body heat should dry them off shortly.

I think that sums up cedar and cottonwood for tinder, now on to my next tinder resource.


Cattail & Leaves
Before I discuss leaves I will go over cattails.

Cattails themselves are not the tinder. It is the head you want. See photo 3. Cattails grow throughout North America and in some other countries. Cattails tend to grow near slow or still moving water. Once you find the cattail grab it below the head and give it a quick snap.


Depending on the time of year and weather the cattail head may be busted open. If it is just take the fuzz off of the head - this is the tinder you want. See photo 4. It doesnít really matter if it is wet or not but if it is just put it in your coat for about five minutes. This type of tinder ignites better than cotton and is easier to find than cotton.
The next type of tinder I will discuss is leaves. Leaves are not the best tinder ever, but if you know what youíre looking for they can work. Most people would look for leaves say under a tree, or on the forest floor. This can work, but what if it has just rained? You could put them in your coat but they dry off slowly - they need time to dry. So your only option is to find them where they are dry.
But where to look? If it is raining, where is there a dry place? Caves and large crevasses under rocks. See photo 5. Oftentimes animals will make these spaces their homes. If they have then they picked that spot because it is warm and dry. And that is the perfect place to look for leaves. Oftentimes animals will bring in fluffy things such as cotton or animal fur. All you need to do is look under the rock or cave and pull out a couple of handfuls and there you go - warm, dry, ready-to-ignite tinder. Now, with that being said, please donít use this technique unless you really need to. A handful of tinder to an animal is a day of work and a night of coldness. Now on to my next resource.
Char cloth & Bamboo
Char cloth is probably the ultimate tinder. Char cloth is made by putting cotton cloth in a sealed airtight container. A metal water bottle works great. You cut the cloth into pieces about 1" by 1" and put it into the container. Make sure no air can get in. Then put the container on a bed of hot coals for about 5 minutes. Take it off of the coals but donít take off the lid until the container has cooled off. Once it has cooled off, take off the lid and remove the cloth squares. They should be black. If they are not, repeat the first step until they are.

This type of tinder should be pre-made and packed in your survival kit. The reason they turn black is because the heat takes out the impurities of the cloth, leaving nothing but dry cotton behind. See photo 6. This type of tinder will take the tiniest spark you can imagine. If you have a good carbon steel knife and a piece of flint the char cloth will take it.


Now on to Bamboo. Bamboo is not a very common resource of tinder but it can be used to some extent. The bamboo itself is not what you want, it is the shavings. Hold your knife at a 90 degree angle over the bamboo and rub it back and forth over it. This should create something that looks like sawdust except fluffier. This is more of a lighter or ferro rod type tinder although it can be used with bow drill, hand drill, and other friction fire methods.

There is also a tinder for bow drill or hand drill called the one leaf tinder bundle but it is very difficult to explain, and very hard to use. It is best to just stick to the tinder materials that I have discussed.

That sums up this article but never forget be creative. Survival and bush craft is all about thinking outside the box, and always keeping a positive mental attitude.