You’ve stocked your hiking pack or bug-out bag with multiple ways to light a fire. You’ve practiced using all of them, in good and bad conditions. You’ve stashed some firewood at home and learned how to get more in the field. But when you sit down to build the blaze that’ll keep you alive on a cold dark night, what will you start it with? You need tinder: an easily ignitable substance that can spread your fire to larger, more inert pieces of fuel. And while many manmade materials can serve this function—paper, cotton balls, store-bought fire starters—when those run out, you’ll need a backup plan. Or backup plants, I should say. The plant kingdom is full of tinder sources, and no matter where you are or what time of year it is, you should be able to find some. Here’s what to look for.
If you don’t feel like learning a new set of plants for each season, these mainstays should be available at any time of year.
Tree bark – Several types of trees yield bark that’s thin or fibrous enough to serve as tinder. In the first group are the birches, especially the paper birch, and some species of pine (their bark is thicker than birch bark, but the resin in it helps it catch). Not all peeling bark makes for good tinder, though—some types, like the thick rubbery bark of the sycamore, resist catching fire. In the second group, with fibrous bark, are trees like tulip poplar, pawpaw, and the junipers and cedars. Twist and pound a few strips of their bark, and you’ll get a mat of fiber fine enough to catch sparks from a ferro rod.
Dead evergreen needles – Unlike the leaves of deciduous trees, you can find dead needles on pretty much any evergreen tree at any time. Look for pines, firs, spruces, or cedars, and use needles that have dried to brown and fall from the tree easily when disturbed.
It’s just our luck that the coldest season of the year, when a fire is most necessary to survival, also boasts the widest assortment of dead plant material to burn. Try these ones out:
Deciduous leaves – You may have heard that leaves make poor tinder, but that’s not always the case. It all depends on the state they’re in, the thinner and drier the leaves, the easier they’ll catch fire. The papery leaves of the beech tree work particularly well, plus they tend to stay on the tree through the winter, which makes them easy to find and keeps them dry enough to use.
Dead grass and stalks – Like leaves, grass and the stalks of summer plants can work quite well as tinder if they’re dead enough. Wait till they dry to brown or gray and crumble easily.
As our plant allies wake from their winter sleep, you can gather the dried remnants of last year’s growth from among them. But once things leaf up by the middle of the season, tinder pickings can get slim. Here’s what to look for as spring gets underway:
Dandelion fluff – The ubiquitous dandelion is one of the first plants to bloom each year—and one of the first to set seed. It might take several flower heads’ worth of seed fluff to get your fire going, but in most places, that won’t be hard to find.
Cottonwood fluff – If you’ve ever walked along a riverbank in late spring, you’ve likely passed beneath a cottonwood tree setting its fluffy seeds a flight. Snatch a handful out of the air, and you’ve got tinder for your next fire.
Although summer is an excellent time of year to forage for food, it just might be the worst for tinder-gathering. Fortunately, fire-building in the summer is rarely life-or-death—in fact, in some regions, like the dry and highly flammable Southwest, you might be safer going without. But if you do want or need a fire, there are still a few plants around to help:
Dried stalks – By midsummer, several early-spring plants will be done growing for the year, like dock, Land Cress, and garlic mustard. Look for their dull, dried stalks poking up from the lush green of everything else. If the stalks snap and the leaves crumble, they’re ready for tinder.
Leaves from dead branches – The fierce storms of summer often snap a few branches off trees. Once the leaves on these branches are dead and dried, they’ll work just as well as fallen leaves in the winter.
As the days shorten and temperatures drop, several plants kick into tinder-making mode. Here’s the cream of the fall tinder crop:
Bald cypress needles – Most deciduous leaves won’t be dry enough for tinder until well into the winter, but these little needles, from one of the only deciduous conifers in North America, dry much faster than the rest. For best results, collect them right off the tree once they turn brown and let them sit for a few days before using them.
Mullein stalks – The mullein earned the nickname “torch plant” for a reason: each stalk tops out in a foot or more of dried buds that serve as excellent tinder on their own (and, if dipped in tallow or wax, can make a fairly long-burning torch). Look for mulleins in dry soil under full sun.
Fluffy seeds – Autumn fields are full of plants with fluffy, flammable seeds, including ironweed, goldenrod, thistle, and boneset. Just be careful not to take all the seeds from a particular patch of plants, or else there might not be any there next year.
Milkweed fluff – This marvelous material deserves a special mention. Milkweed fluff, which you can find by cracking open the plant’s seed pods and brushing off the seeds, is basically nature’s cotton balls. Its long thin fibers catch sparks like nothing else. The only drawback is how fast it burns—you’ll want to mix it with some slower-burning tinder to give your kindling time to catch. Milkweed pods are fullest when they ripen in early fall, but some of the fluff will persist on and around them through the winter.
What Not to Burn
Last, a quick note on what not to burn. Top on this list is poison ivy: if you think that plant’s oil is bad when it gets on your skin, just wait till it’s inside your lungs. People have died from inhaling poison ivy smoke. Don’t be the next—leave any hairy vines or three-leaf clusters well alone. Poison oak and poison sumac are just as bad. And although I haven’t heard of deaths caused by burning other toxic-to-eat plants, I wouldn’t recommend it either. Yet another reason to learn the dangerous plants in your area—a few hours of study here could save you a lot of grief in a survival scenario.
And there you have it, four seasons’ worth of plant tinder sources! Keep them in mind, and you’ll never again have to shred your notebook pages or shiver through the night.