It’s Easy to Get the Firewood—but not Always Easy to Start a Fire
You can pick up bundles of firewood from grocery stores, gas stations and drug stores before you head out to your campsite. You can even choose between hard woods (for a slower, longer burn time) and soft woods (that burn hotter and faster). Use the soft woods to start the fire and add the hard woods to keep it burning longer. But what they don’t give you is kindling and tinder—the two things you need in order to get those thick logs to burn. And if the wood is damp, it’s a bigger challenge getting it to burn than you might think. Most state and national parks do not allow you to gather wood, even dead wood on the ground. It serves a purpose in nature and with thousands of visitors a year coming through there, you can understand their reasoning. So you have your fire wood. Now what?
First Things First: What is Kindling and Tinder?
Kindling: These are smaller branches, bark and pine cones that catch fire quicker than the larger logs. They help keep the flames going, so the logs will get hot enough to catch fire. If you have a hatchet or axe you can split one of the larger logs into smaller pieces to use for kindling. I carry a small hatchet with me when camping. Or you can split smaller logs using your bushcraft knife (like an axe) and another log to pound it down into the wood until it splits. You can also purchase commercially made fire sticks (or compounds) that light with a match and take the place of kindling by burning hot and long enough to catch the logs on fire.
Hint: I gather small branches and twigs in a canvas bag when I’m out on my walks during the week. When it’s time to head out camping I simply grab up the canvas bag to bring with us.
Tinder: To catch the kindling on fire you first need to start a flame. You can utilize dried grasses and leaves, cattail heads, thistle down and other light, fluffy substances that will catch fire from a match or a spark thrown from your ferro rod, or flint and steel. On the left you can see that I’ve gathered some seed heads, dried grass seeds, thistle down and a few eucalyptus leaves for tinder. Make sure you have a supply of tiny twigs and sticks handy and ready to quickly add to the initial flame. Once you get the flame going the additional fuel will not only keep the flame burning but will allow it to grow larger and hotter. Keep adding the twigs so it will in turn burn long enough to catch the kindling on fire. Now with the kindling in flames, the fire is hot enough, and can sustain itself long enough to start the larger logs burning. You made fire!
Household Hacks to Replace the Natural Resources
If you don’t have the resources I’ve mentioned above, fear not. There are quite a few items around the house that will serve you very well.
Paper: you can roll up newspaper, paper packing, cardboard, or even pages from a discarded telephone directory to create small paper “logs” that will easily catch fire from a match or lighter. Make sure you give them enough air circulation so they keep burning long enough to catch the wood on fire.
Cotton Balls coated in Petroleum: Use commercial cotton balls and coat them in Vaseline to create an excellent fire starter that will burn longer because of the petroleum. You can store them in an empty egg carton, or plastic bags, until needed. They will easily light from a match or lighter.
Chips (Crisps): You’ve probably heard the one about using Doritos to start your fire. I’m guessing all that oil the chips are cooked in is the accelerant on this one, meaning just about any thick chip might work. I haven’t personally tried this one. But, hey if you have a bag of Doritos at your campsite and need a way to get your fire going – there you go!
What if your matches get wet?
Matches can get damp or wet— or if you are like me and like to practice starting fires without matches or a lighter you definitely need some tinder that will catch a spark. Here’s what has worked for me.
Cotton from Medicine Bottles: the next time you open a prescription bottle and pull out the cotton from the top, don’t throw it away. I keep this cotton in an empty plastic medicine bottle and always make sure there is one in my camping gear, to use as an emergency fire starter. A few sparks from a ferro rod struck by my steel knife will cause the cotton to quickly burst into flame, so you can imagine what a match or lighter would accomplish.
Dryer Lint: This is a favorite of mine. Whenever I dry bath towels I save the thick fluffy lint in an empty medicine bottle and add it to my fire-making supplies. A few sparks from my ferro rod and I’m sure to get a flame!
Note: when using cotton and dryer lint to catch a spark (or flame from a match) make sure you have other materials ready to add to the flame as it will be a hot, but quick burning fire. The flame will be enough to catch small dry twigs and sticks on fire, but wouldn’t burn long enough to catch kindling or large logs on fire.
Do you have a favorite hack you use to start a fire?