The 101 on Tinder


Tinder is any dry material that readily takes a spark, match or other intense heat sources and easily ignites. They are the “fire starter” fuel and the foundation for most all campfires.  Besides twigs, bark and other natural materials, there are also a variety of commercial tinders on the market. They are especially handy when you need to start a fire but conditions are such that dry tinder is scarce or in capable of starting/burning on its own. 

There are basically two types of tinders: 1) a form of compressed fibers or chips that are formed into sticks, wafers and other easy-to-handle shapes; 2) flammable chemical/element formulations in the form of pastes, granules, cakes or ignitable metal (magnesium). Each has its own characteristics, advantages and limitations, from the ability to ignite by spark, to being waterproof, or simply being particularly efficient. 

One of the most critical factors in rating these fire-starters is how easily they can be ignited with nothing but a well-directed struck spark from your fire kit. Here’s a look as the common fire-starters:

Compressed wood-like fibers:

Fire sticks are perhaps the most common form of fire starters. Made of wood-like fibers impregnated with paraffin or perhaps some other combustible additive and compressed into a small “stick”, they are easily handled or stackable. Too compacted to take a spark, you can shave off a few fibers into a pile to generate a flame and then light the end of the stick for a long, hot burn.

Wafers are basically just another form of fire stick. Safe Lite’s Fire Starter Squares for example, are scored panel of 8 wafers that can be broken apart into smaller pieces depending upon the size/amount of firewood. Like the fiber sticks,  the wafer needs to be frayed apart to create a small pile of fuzzy shavings in order to catch a spark.

Another advantage of fiber-based starters is that when soaked in water for several hours, and dried, I was able to ignite them with match and spark.

Sawdust, typically formed in domes or balls, and mixed with paraffin, they work almost as effectively as compressed wood fibers – but weren’t as durable. They, too, must be shaved to form a flake pile for sparking. After soaking for several hours, the Lightning Nugget Firestarter I tested took longer to dry but did start. However, they lost some of their compactness and crumbled readily. A home version of these is the egg-carton sawdust and wax fire plugs (shavings from these must be VERY small to catch a spark).

Chemical Firestarters:


The easy combustibility of certain elements is used to create a mixture that will ignite easily and serve as a fire starting component:

Plastic ‘Cakes’ are like a mini bar of soap, a white/milky cake of polymer plastic that ignites readily, even when wet, and can be used whole or broken into myriad sized pieces/granules to easily catch a spark. 

Magnesium Bars are common on many ‘flint & steel’ fire kits. A few shavings of silvery magnesium will catch a spark immediately and burn with an intense, hot flame. (They are a flash ignition so shavings need to be strategically placed next to quick-igniting tinder to be most effective).

Combustible granules are a mixture of proprietary chemical solids and sometimes wood nuggets/chips that are combustible with a spark or flame. They need to be deposited onto a base to ignite to keep the granules together to burn effectively. 

Pastes and Gels are toothpaste consistency mixtures that are combustible and are basically squeezed out onto wood and ignited. An effective variation of this is EZ FIRE,  essentially a paste-like, accelerant/paraffin mixture that, when the sealed packet is ignited, it begins drips flaming goo down into your fire, like mini napalm, setting all the kindling it comes in contact on fire. 

The instructions say to use a match to light the UN-opened packet. No sparking here—unless you pierce the packet and squeeze out a smear of the paste—then mixing it with some dry flecks of leaves or pocket lint that will catch a spark and produce a flame that you can then use to light the entire packet. This dripping of flames is so effective and penetrating, you don’t need a lot of kindling to ignite larger firewood.

All fire starters are aids to basic fire building techniques and should be considered as part of your fire starting skills and survival gear. As with any new skill or technique, try it out at home before you are forced to need it for real.  Be Safe, Be Smart, Have Fun!

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