Natural tinder may just save your life

Submitted photo Natural tinders can be used to build a fire.

As we hit the trails for outdoor recreation, we must be aware that even on the most innocent of hikes things can go wrong.

Preparing yourself for the worst of scenarios can help turn a potential tragedy into a triumph.

Imagine … you lie back down on the trail wincing in pain as your ankle continues aching and swelling. Three more miles of easy hiking and you would have already been in the parking lot and on your way home. But no, you took your eye off the path for a split second and a loose rock ruined a beautiful day of hiking and awesome mountain views. Now, as you wrap your ankle the only view is of lengthening shadows reminding you that daylight is fading and it will soon be dark. Time to make camp while there is still enough light. Instead of having a “cold one” with friends you may be in for a cold night all by yourself.

At least you have a large poncho to make shelter for the night but right now what you need most is to build a fire. Fortunately you thought to pack that metal fire starter with the striker (also known as a fire steel or a ferro-cerium rod). But, then you realize you have no tinder to start the fire and now you wish you had your survival kit.

With your pocket knife you whittle a small pile of shavings from a dead stick, but the sparks from your fire steel just won’t make it light. Next, you try crumbling some dried leaves from a Beech tree but again they won’t light from a spark. To start a fire using fire steel you need better tinder.

Usually people carry cotton balls or some brand of store-bought tinder made from cotton soaked in a flammable gel. A spark is enough to make it light and the gel is an “extender” that makes the cotton burn longer. But, even if you accidentally leave your matches or man made tinder at home you can still find natural tinders that work great.

The soft sap oozing from a cut Pine or Spruce is very flammable and can be lit from a spark. Another good tinder is the outer bark of Eastern Red Cedar. When the thin strips are crushed, and finely shredded into a small pile, the fibers will light from a match or a spark. Also, there are plants such as cattail, milkweed and dog bane that produce a fluffy “down” that makes good tinder when dry.

As you crawl around gathering some kindling you realize there’s no tinder to be found and your hopes for a fire begin to fade. Then you suddenly remember an old trick that might just be your one chance. You break off a small dead limb from a nearby tree and with your knife you slice away the outer bark leaving the dead inner bark exposed. Now you hold the knife perpendicular and scrape the sharp edge along the stick scraping off dry fibers of inner bark into a fuzzy pile. The bigger the pile the longer it will burn.

Then, using your fingers you shred the dry scrapings into even smaller fibers that will readily catch a spark. By the way the same technique works on a green tree limb by slicing off the outer and inner bark, then scraping off wood fibers into a pile. After the fibers dry out for a few minutes they will readily light from a spark. In the meantime you can be gathering more kindling and a supply of wood for the night. With some dry tinder, kindling and firewood you now have everything you need to keep warm. A couple of hard scrapes with the striker and sparks will get a blaze going. The larger the fire steel the easier it is to hold the rod steady against the tinder and scrape off a hot shower of sparks.

Now by fire light you arrange your poncho shelter and settle in for the night, hoping that tomorrow will bring help. After a good night’s sleep you can plan your next move and decide whether to stay put or set out for the parking lot. At any rate you can sleep with confidence knowing you’ll be able to get a fire going whenever you need it.

For more information on wilderness living and training in survival skills, check out www.mountaineerwilderness.com.