A fire is started in four stages. It all begins with a spark, of course. Followed by the addition of some tinder. After that comes the kindling and, if you’re lucky, you’ll eventually get to the big fuel log stage, otherwise known as the marshmallow-roasting stage.
Modern conveniences such as a ferro rod or a good ol’ Bic lighter make the spark part pretty easy, so you don’t have to worry so much about that. Good tinder can be a challenge to find, especially in wet conditions, but it can also be as simple as tearing out a few pages of that self-help book you were given by an ex-spouse. Believe me, that will catch a spark and turn it into a sizable flame.
That gets us to the kindling stage. Finding good kindling can be as simple as going to Walmart (or Menards if you reside in a certain part of the country) but despite the insane proliferation of such kindling-selling stores, you probably won’t have one nearby if you’re stranded in a survival situation and desperately need a fire.
And if you are in a survival situation but you are also right next to a Walmart, either things have gone terribly, terribly wrong in our world or maybe you and I have very different definitions of “survival situation.”
I’d also note if you are a true bargain hunter, that forests are literally full of free kindling. And the best part is you can tell just by looking which forests will have kindling — the ones with the trees.
Just know that you may need a permit to collect firewood in certain protected areas and you should probably ask permission before collecting kindling on someone else’s land, especially if that someone else is an ex-spouse.
The point is, you should be prepared to find kindling on your own. You won’t be able to start a fire without it.
There’s a significant difference between the kindling you buy at the store and the type of kindling you need to find if you are trying to start a fire from scratch in the wilderness.
The store-bought stuff is bigger and most often much drier than anything you’ll find in the woods. It is designed for fires that will be built under very controlled conditions, like in a large fireplace right below a giant reprint of a Norman Rockwell painting.
In the wild, the best kindling is often just the driest, smallest twigs and sticks you can find.
They actually make devices that test the moisture level of wood, but you’d have to be the most over-prepared person in the world to carry one of those in your disaster kit. Instead, you’d probably be better served testing how dry your kindling is the old-fashioned way. Snap that twig in half. If you get a good, hard snap, it’s dry. If the wood has any sort of bend to it before it breaks then it’s still a bit green and will take much longer to catch fire.
In terms of size, the kindling you’d use for a survival or wilderness fire will be quite small, think pencil-size and even smaller.
The reason is that in a survival situation you’ll probably be starting your fire with a tinder bundle, which is a small nest of extremely flammable, dry grass, strings of bark, pine needles, wood shavings, and the like. A tinder bundle doesn’t stay lit very long, so you need to transfer the flame to your kindling in a very short time frame. The smaller the kindling, the quicker it will catch fire.
As your fire grows you can add larger and larger kindling, but be extremely careful not to get ahead of yourself. If you throw anything too big on the fire you could easily smother it and you’ll be back to square one.
Best trees for kindling
This is another big difference between store-bought kindling and what you will forage in the woods. What you get in the store could be from just about any type of tree, but often it is from oak (at least around here).
Oak can make for good kindling if it’s been seasoned, meaning it’s been thoroughly dried for six months or more. In the wild, a hardwood like oak retains a lot of moisture and can be very difficult to get burning.
Softwoods like cedars, pines, and firs provide much better kindling if you’re collecting in the wild.
If you don’t know your tree species at all, there’s a pretty simple way of remembering. If the source of your kindling looks like a Christmas tree, you have a much better chance of getting good kindling than if it looks like the logo from Timberland (or Malibu Rum for that matter).
Small dry, dead branches from any sort of softwood tree give you the best chance of making a good fire.
People love talking about fatwood. If you google the word “fatwood” you get 2.3 million results! If I have this figured right, that means more people have written about fatwood on the internet than there are people living in Phoenix, AZ.
Why does fatwood have such a devout following? Part of it has to be the name. It’s great. It should be the name of a country music album, or maybe a really great music festival. (“Who is playing Fatwood this year?” “I dunno, but I’m going!”)
Its popularity probably also has a little something to do with its incredible effectiveness as a fire starter. Fatwood can take the flame from your tinder and get a full fire going better than any other kindling you’ll find in the forest.
So what is fatwood? It is a part of a dead pine tree that has become completely “fat” with sap (resin). Pine sap is extremely flammable, so any wood that has a lot of sap in it will ignite in a hurry.
Fatwood develops when a pine dies and the resin found in the roots is drawn up towards the tree trunk. The main root that connects to the trunk is the fattest wood of all, so look for dead pine stumps and find the largest root. Cut off small pieces and you’ll have the ideal kindling.
If you don’t have the tools to access and harvest the main root or if you’re in an area without a lot of felled pines, pinewood is also fat with resin anywhere a branch connects to the main trunk. So if you find a standing dead pine, pull as many branches off as you can, and use those joints to get your fire going.
Then, like me and 2.3 million others, you’ll probably be compelled to write about it on the internet.
Finding kindling in wet conditions
Finding effective kindling in wet conditions can be a challenge. Fatwood is a great fire starter in wet weather, of course, but if you can’t find any, you’re going to have to get creative.
If you have a knife, ax or another blade, one of the best ways to produce decent kindling is to remove the outer bark and wood, exposing the drier wood in the middle. You can then carve this inner wood into smaller, kindling-sized pieces.
Failing that, you can also look for kindling in unusual places; anywhere that it might be protected from the elements. Ideal places would be under rocky ledges or fallen trees. You can also look at the branches above you. Many times trees die but don’t fall all the way to the forest floor. These hung-up branches aren’t getting saturated on the ground and are also protected from the rains by the branches above them.
Dead trees that have yet to fall over are also good potential sources for kindling material. Their branches may be wet on the outside but won’t get saturated in the middle.
Live trees can also have some dead branches that make for good kindling. Pine trees in particular have a number of low-hanging branches that are no longer alive. Just look for the branches without any pine needles.
It’s important to note that in wet conditions, the kindling you seek should be even smaller than the kindling you’d typically collect. A lot of smaller sticks provide a much greater surface area than a few bigger sticks, which means your fire has a much better chance to get going.
You should also collect twice as much kindling as usual. Wet conditions mean your large firewood is going to take a really long time to get going so your kindling is going to have to do the heavy lifting for a long time.
You might be surprised to know that transporting firewood, including some kindling, over the legally stipulated distance could land you in trouble. In some places, you are not even allowed to transport wood across county lines.
This might seem like the biggest overstep in government history, but it actually is important to regulate firewood movement in some places to prevent the spread of exotic insects that may be hitchhiking in your tinder, kindling, or firewood. (It’s far more likely they’d be in your larger firewood than your tinder or kindling, but you can’t be too careful.)
Insects like the emerald ash borer have killed millions of trees and one of the reasons they’ve spread so quickly is that people often travel great distances with their firewood.
To prevent further spread, try to purchase or collect your kindling and firewood as close to your fire site as possible.
Put out your fires
We spend so much of our time thinking about and preparing to make a good fire, that we don’t often take the time to think about the bad fires. Often the only difference between the two is just how responsible the person with the matches is.
A responsible fire starter is also a responsible fire stopper. Whether you’re building a campfire or a survival fire, don’t leave a single hot ember behind.
I remember all the times I sat for hours trying to make a fire (particularly in the days when I thought it sacrilege to bring a lighter into the forest with me) and I’m amazed when I see a massive fire on TV and how effortlessly the flames burn through an entire forest. It feels like mother nature is mocking me.
Fires can be so delicate one moment and so deadly and destructive the next. Don’t let them fool you.