Photograph courtesy of Stephanie Sicore/Flickr
When you're cold and lost in the wilderness, being able to make fire may determine if you live or die. Do you have matches? A cigarette lighter? A steel for showering sparks? Good. Now all you need is lee from the wind and tinder. (Technically speaking, tinder is defined as material that will glow from a spark; if the material requires a match to catch flame, it's fine kindling. But with your blood congealing you're not going to be overly concerned about definitions.) Look around. Chances are very good that one of the following natural tinders is within sight to save your life.
Found under the bark of living birch trees, this is the only natural tinder that will readily glow from a shower of sparks. The bark that conceals it has a charred, shelflike appearance. Underneath, the fungus is light brown and corky in texture. It will crumble into a powder. The false tinder fungus found on dead birch will not crumble.
TO IGNITE: Crumble the tinder fungus into a cup fashioned from a curved piece of bark. Shower sparks directly onto it, using a flint and steel. When all you have is a knife (only carbon blades work; stainless is too hard), you may be able to get a spark by striking its back with a sharp stone chip, such as chert or flint. Transfer the glowing tinder to a bundle of fine grasses, cattail fluff, or other very fine kindling.
Shavings or scrapings of inner birch bark will catch fire even when wet, but the bark of cedar, poplar, cottonwood, and many other trees also flames readily. Finely shaved wood from the outer rings of standing dead trees can be a close second.
TO IGNITE: Form the shavings into a loose mass and tuck it into a hollow in a bundle of fine twigs. Ignite the tinder mass by holding a match flame, cupped from the wind, underneath it. When it has started to burn, transfer it to a dry surface and build a teepee over the flame using kindling sticks and larger pine splits.
Dry grass that's been shaped into a loose ball ignites easily with a match.
TO IGNITE: A ball of grass can be set on fire in the same manner as a mass of shredded bark. It also excels in catching flame from a glowing ember of tinder fungus.
OLD MAN'S BEARD
This hanging lichen is most often found in tamarack and spruce thickets but can adhere to the limbs of deciduous trees in deeply shaded areas. Old Man's Beard absorbs moisture from the air and won't light on damp days (you can dry it by putting it inside your shirt against the heat of your body).
TO IGNITE: Old Man's Beard must be used in its natural fluffy state. When it has been compacted, it simply won't burn. Use it in place of or together with dried grass or bark shavings tucked into a twig bundle. Light a match and poof!
SPRUCE TIPS AND PINE NEEDLES
The dead branch tips that quill the undersides of spruce and pine trees remain dry even during rainstorms. Use them with or without the dry red needles adhering to them. Dry twigs from deciduous trees also provide good kindling. Twigs require a flame of some duration, such as that from a kitchen match or butane lighter, to catch fire.
TO IGNITE: Snap off several twiglike branches as long as your arm and bend the tips back on them-selves, then bind together with twine. Or snap them into even lengths of 8 inches or so and hold them in a fist, with the finest tips projecting out the farthest. Hold a match underneath these protruding ends and move it back and forth. The bundles catch flame most readily when the tips are loosely spaced for air circulation.
You can find hardened resin on the bark of conifers where branches have broken off or in spots where the tree has otherwise been injured. Along with birch bark, it is the best tinder you will find in the northern woods.
TO IGNITE: Tuck a chunk or two of resin into a pocket formed in a twig bundle and ignite it with a match. It requires a prolonged flame to catch fire but burns for a long time once lit.
POCKET FIRE STARTER
Bottle-cap fire starters provide the strong, long-lasting flame that ensures ignition of fine kindling. Small and convenient, they are great for stuffing into pants or jacket pockets for emergency use. To make a batch, shave wax from a candle into a pan and melt it on a burner. Cut the wick into inch-long lengths. Pour the wax into plastic bottle caps. When it begins to congeal, insert two or three wicks.