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 rarely do they give you any kindling or 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 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 (as an wedge) and use 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. But I’ve often been disappointed in the erratic performance of these and prefer using Fatwood.
A Few Words About Fatwood: Although Fatwood can be purchased already commercially packaged, it’s good to know that it is made from the heartwood of pine trees. So the stump and tap root of a fallen or cut tree gives you access. Or even the joint of where a limb attaches to the trunk of the tree. Fatwood is 100% natural and will light even when it’s damp or wet (yes, I’ve tested it) and it burns hot and long because of all the resin. It can give off some smoke, but if I’m trying to make fire in a damp or wet situation a little smoke won’t bother me at all if it means I can make a warm fire!
Hint: I gather small branches and twigs from our yard, or 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. Since we have lots of evergreen trees where we live I gather small fallen limbs still containing dried needles, as they are excellent to get a hot flame going.
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 (even pocket lint!) that will catch fire easily. On the left you can see that I’ve gathered some seed heads, dried grass seeds, thistle down and a few dry 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 you can add to your camping gear 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. I lay two logs parallel to each other with space between them for the paper logs. Then add kindling pieces crosswise on top (you can also use the tipi method). Make sure to give the paper logs enough air circulation so they keep burning long enough to catch the kindling on fire. As the kindling catches fire keep adding more pieces until the fire is hot enough to start the logs burning.
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!
But What if Your Matches get Wet?
Matches can get damp or wet. Or maybe, like me, you like to practice starting fires without matches or a lighter. In this case you definitely need some kind of tinder that will easily catch a spark. In an emergency situation it could even mean the difference of whether you survive or not.
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.
Dryer Lint: This is a favorite of mine. Whenever I dry clothes in the dryer I save the thick fluffy lint balls in an empty egg carton I keep close at hand. A few sparks from my ferro rod and I’m sure to get a flame! I keep one of these cartons handy for making fire in our fireplace, and add one carton to my fire-making supplies when heading out to camp.
Note: when using cotton and dryer lint to catch a spark (or flame from a match) make sure you have other materials ready to immediately 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. I actually create a little tinder nest and put the lint or cotton in it. When my spark catches, the flames almost immediately catch the other tinder on fire. Then I start adding small kindling.