Seasoned survivalists have a “possum mentality.” Possums gather things as they go and never pass a resource. (Did you know they curl their tails like a napkin ring to carry twigs, leaves and grasses?) Gathering is a good habit to develop.
Learning some of the important resources for natural tinder that you should gather – instead of walking past – will help you to keep a sharp eye out for what works best. It also makes the walk into your campsite a productive time. As you walk, keep your tinder pouch on your belt and start filling it as soon as you reach the wood line.
One of the best tinder resources is dried natural grasses to use for a grass bundle. Think of each tinder bundle as having three key textures: fine, medium and coarse. In fair weather, you’ll need a bundle about the size of a softball. In less than good weather, double that size.
An example of wildflower that makes good tinder resource is dog fennel, a plant that can grow more than six feet high and look “hairy” or “feathery”. This short-lived perennial plant forks off a woody crown and has a distinct fragrance. Another great resource for tinder is a grass called broomsedge bluestem, sometimes called “whiskey grass”. The 3-6’ stems have fine, white hair and the green plant turns yellow during the fall months. Broomsedge can be found growing throughout the United States in different varieties, even in the snow, and is a perfect and complete tinder resource.
The fine material is at the top – often dried flowers or seed heads that will catch a spark. The waxy cuticle of the plant that holds in moisture is worn away at the top of the plants so it will accept the heat source more readily.
A little farther down from the dried seed heads is the medium tinder- the smaller stems of the grass. The seed heads grow from the smaller stalks.
The main part of the stem is the coarse material. It still has a shiny, waxy cuticle that feels like straw, and won’t readily accept a spark from something like a ferrocerium rod.
Pine needles are another example of something that has a cuticle and are difficult to start with a Ferro rod (if you have a lighter or matches, it won’t matter). The cuticle is a wax, so the wax has to be melted into a liquid before it ignites. It takes more heat to get it liquified than to combust, and a Ferro rod spark does not last long enough to make that happen.
Once your tinder is gathered you can make either a grass bundle or a bird’s nest. Start at the fine end and wrap the grass into circles to form a nest, with the coarse material on the outside and the fine toward the center. Then you can place a coal ember in the center, or hit it with a ferrocerium rod.
Punk wood, a soft, rotten area of a tree, is great for making char and can be used to char instead of cotton. The best punk wood is found in softer hardwoods like the apsen or birch. Keep it as chunky as possible. It will still char when it’s wet. It just takes more fuel to char it wet because the heat must first dry it out before the charring process begins, so you may want to lay it in the sun to dry.
Another resource that will take spark when it’s wet is pine sap. You can find it where the tree has been injured and the tree is pumping sap there to recoat it and protect it from bacteria. Other uses for sap are (1) making pine pitch glue, (2) first aid since it is a natural antiseptic and (3) packing it in a tooth if a filling is lost while you’re in the woods. It’s an outstanding resource.
Look for fatwood in an area that has dead pines. When a tree dies the sap begins to pool at its base and into the roots. Look where the tree is starting to decompose. The fatwood is in the center of the branches where the sapwood has decomposed. When you start to cut the wood, you’ll see the fatwood dust which is slightly wet and resinous. The interior is a dark orange-colored solid wood that has been preserved by the resin, and it smells like turpentine.
Fatwood is good for starting fires because pine resin is infused in the wood, and it burns for a long time. It’s a good wet weather tinder resource. I have a video on my YouTube channel with more information about finding and using fatwood here.
It is important to remember that while fatwood is a natural resource that can be gathered in the woods, it is also a very good resources to have at the ready in your kit BEFORE you head into the bush. It can be carried both in the form of sticks and shavings.
Hope you’ll follow us on social media and watch our YouTube videos for more helpful advice on how to survive – and enjoy – the outdoor experience.
Hope to see you in the woods,
Josh (aka the Gray Bearded Green Beret)
P.S. You can download my full Into the Woods packing guide and recommended gear list here!