Thanks to my friend Jon Ruch for the idea for this article and video. Jon is the founder of Ruch Builders, LLC, specializing in the construction of high efficiency custom homes. They’re built so you spend less money paying utility companies for the energy you use. Like many people from all walks of life, Jon is interested in general preparedness for all the risks that come our way. Ask him about his home-integrated security shelters and check out his RESNET certified high efficiency construction methods at RuchBuilders.com.
By far the easiest way to start a fire is with a butane lighter. I’m hardly ever more than 10 feet away from a lighter. I have one in my EDC bag, one in my bugout bag, one in the night stand, one or two in the truck, one or two in my wife’s truck, and all the kids have them in their bags. There’s also one in the kitchen drawer, one on my desk, and a pack of them in the pantry. Oh, and one by the fireplace, one one the bookshelf by the back door, and one on the top shelf next to the iMac.
I’m probably forgetting some.
But what do you do when you’re on a hike or a bugout and the butane runs out? Well, I have strike-anywhere matches, but I also have a Light My Fire ferrocerium striker. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s high quality, lasts for a claimed 12,000 strikes, and comes with a whistle. I think it’s worth it.
To make it pay off, though, you need something that will take a spark and ignite. That’s tinder. Tinder takes a spark, makes a flame that ignites your kindling and sets your fire ablaze.
So let’s take a look at some tinder options that are effective and easy to carry in your kit.
- Drier lint. This is the probably the easiest tinder to obtain. Just clean the screen in your drier, and instead of throwing it away, keep it for your kit. You can pack enough tinder for many fires in one small plastic baggie that weighs practically nothing. I also have a few pages of phone book paper to flare up and make a big flame for damp kindling.
- Fat-impregnated cotton balls. These are also easy to obtain. Petroleum jelly is a good option here because it remains thick in a wider range of temperatures than, say, lard or taloe. But you can even use vegetable oil if needed. The trick to making it easy to take a spark is to tear off the cotton in a long, loose strand so the cotton fibers are loose. Watch the video for a demonstration. If you choose a liquid fat like olive oil, it will soak the fibers and make them harder to light, so use the oil sparingly in the container.
- Fat wood. Fat wood is a stick of pine that is saturated with resin. It occurs naturally, and you can find it by breaking off dead branches from a mature pine, or chopping away the rotten outside of a fallen pine log. You’ll have best luck digging into the stump. A large dead pine will yield more fat wood than you can carry. Split off pencil-sized sticks for stupendous kindling, or scrape shavings for a tinder that will easily take a spark. It’s light and very easy to carry everywhere.
- Char cloth. Watch the video for a demonstration of how to make char cloth, but use thin cotton instead of the thick cotton kitchen towel I used. A thin, high thread count cotton sheet will make a better ember than the towel I used. Basically, you just cut off 1 inch squares of cloth and char them in an altoids can until they stop smoking. The carbonized cotton will then take a spark and smolder, and you can use this ember to fan a bundle of dry grass into a flame. It’s not as easy as the previous methods, but it’s fun, and it’s a good technique to teach to the kids.
In the video I also experimented with a candle. I worked the wick with the tip of my knife to spread out and fray the fibers, and somewhat to my surprise, it took a spark! Don’t be afraid to experiment!
All tinders need to be kept dry. I carry my tinder in Loksaks and small aluminum cases. Loksaks are plastic zipper bags on steroids. They are dustproof, waterproof to 200 feet, mil-spec, tested and approved by the US Navy. Very tough. They keep my drier lint dry forever.
The Ultimate Survival Technologies aluminum “pill bottles” have a rubber gasket and are perfect for petroleum jelly/cotton tinder because they don’t leak when the petroleum jelly melts in the heat.