FirestarterIn 1991, when Otze the 5,000 year old iceman was discovered in the melting ice of an Italian glacier he was carrying tinder in the form of tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius). For millennia explorers, hunters and trappers carried tinder with them wherever they went. It insured that they would be able to start a fire in even the wettest conditions. It was simply wise to gather some dry tinder when it was available to have it at hand when it was not.

These days, backpackers carry their fire in their packs in the form of tiny, fuel-powered cooking stoves. They have no need for tinder – or do they?  Stove fuel can run out at unexpected times. What then? Well, tinder and a spark will get a fire started. Whether it’s for cooking or to help someone find you, a fire can be a matter of life or death and a fire requires tinder.

There are a lot of materials that can be used for tinder for example:

  • pitchwood shavings
  • dry leaves, pine needles or grass
  • inner fibers of birch bark from a dead tree
  • cloth
  • paper
  • and many more.

I have two favorites.

First, petroleum jelly-cotton balls. Simply mix about 1/3 petroleum jelly (like Vasoline® ) and 2/3 cotton balls (or the cotton that comes in pill bottles) by volume. A lot of small balls can be packed into a tiny space, but be sure to seal them in a container, so the petroleum jelly doesn’t make a mess.

Second, magnesium shavings. You don’t want to carry shavings because they are so extremely flammable. Instead carry a solid block of magnesium and use your knife to make the shavings when needed. I carry one manufactured by Doan Machinery and Equipment, pictured above. Unlike similar products produced in China, it actually works. The Doan fire starter also includes a “sparking insert” (a small bar of ferrocerium) that generates sparks when scraped with a serrated blade.

If I need a fire, I use the cotton balls first and light them with sparks from the sparking insert on the magnesium bar. That saves the time and energy needed to create a pile of magnesium shavings. If I run out of cotton balls, I turn to the magnesium block.  Beware that either of these types of tinder will ignite easily and burn for quite some time.  Don’t light them on top of something you don’t want to destroy.

What’s your favorite tinder?  Share your comments below or join the conversation at the Camping Babble forum.

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