As Bryan Houser (aka, The Beer Man, a Denton, TX musician who likes to be tipped with Budweiser) often says “a plane won’t fly without fuel”.  He’s right!  The music usually picks up speed, energy and lyrical grit after the Beer Man has hammered down his first few tips.  A fire won’t burn without fuel, either.  If you want a good one, you have to feed it an ample supply.

But you can’t light a big fat log with a single match.  You need smaller sticks and logs (kindling) to catch fire first, and those can’t be lit easily either.  To get it all started, you need Tinder – a substance loose enough to catch a spark and flammable  enough to light the kindling.

Finding Tinder in the Wild and in the Home

You can find smaller pieces of tinder in almost any outdoor environment.  Small leaves, the dried bark of some trees, small sticks.  Any of these could be used as an effective fire starter – as long as the tinder is dry.  Being a good Boy Scout, I stay prepared by keeping my own pre-made tinder available in my bug out bag.  Here are a few ideas for making your own tinder from items you find in nature, or that may be lying around your own home.

Mesquite Bark

When camping in west Texas, or out in the Hill Country, I’ve frequently used mesquite bark right off the tree as a fuel.  The bark of the mesquite tree is very fibrous and stringy, and it burns fairly hot.  Find a loose chunk of the bark and begin pulling it off the tree.  If you bend and twist it in in your hands, it will begin to come apart into a tangled mess of fibers.  This is great if you’re in an area with lots of mesquite, and everything is dry.  Save some for future use by packing some in a small ziplock bag.  It will be dry and ready for you any time you need it.

Homemade Petro-Cotton Balls

This is my current favorite fire starter, and what I have stowed away in my current bug out bag.  Making these small fire starters requires two items you probably already have at home:

  • Cotton balls and
  • Petroleum jelly

Follow these steps to create your own:

  1. Pull the cotton balls to spread them apart to about 3 times their normal size.
  2. Rub the cotton ball in a glob of petroleum jelly until it’s fully coated, having absorbed almost enough to saturate the cotton ball.
  3. Press these together and seal in a ziplock bag or other waterproof container.

I made a couple dozen of these for our family’s bug out bags, and decided to pack mine in a metal Altoids (the curiously strong peppermint) container.  Each container can hold about a dozen cotton balls saturated and pressed together.  Throw the container in a ziplock to make it waterproof. Spread it out and light it, and you’ll have a portable effective fire starter that burns hot and long enough to light more substantial fuel.

Pine Heartwood

If you’re blessed enough to live around a pine forest, or simply have a few full-diameter pine logs laying around, pine heart-wood can be one of the best options available anywhere for Tinder.  Heart wood is from the center of a pine log.  It contains a higher concentration of pine tar  – a flammable sap of the pine tree.

Cut small wedges our of the center core of a pine log.  They can sometimes be lit with a single match, and they burn extremely hot.  They’re very effective at starting fires, due to the high concentration of pine tar saturated into the wood.

Now all you need is a heat source to create a flame capable of lighting a few sticks.