Lost While Hiking – Part 3 – Tinder

When you build a fire, you normally have to start with small things that light quickly and easily, and use those to light larger pieces of wood, which then light even larger pieces of wood. It takes significant energy to get a log of any size burning, and a match or lighter just isn’t going to do it. If you try to light a sizable piece of wood with a lighter, say something a couple of inches in diameter, you will find that the lighter gets too hot to hold, and will probably run out of fuel long before the wood ignites.

Tinder is normally something that lights easily but burns relatively quickly. It produces a small flame suitable for igniting larger pieces of wood.

There are lots of kind of tinder, I want to look at a few here.

Natural Tinder

You can use natural tinder such as cattails, dry leaves, pine needles, or other plant material. If you can find it, fatwood shavings are fairly easy to light and will burn long enough to get something larger going. But when I had my lost-hiker experience (actually a lost-snowshoer experience), I was in deep snow and there wasn’t much natural tinder available. I found some dry grass under the tree where I spent the night, but aside from that, all I had was what I brought with me.

In my case, I was near a stream and there were probably cattails near the water. But it was down a steep incline and in deep snow. Not worth the risk, especially in the dark.

Tinder you carry with you

Keeping in mind that you are probably not going to have much time to prepare to spend the night, you will want to carry tinder with you.  You don’t want to be looking for dry leaves or fatwood in the snow as darkness is falling.

When I was lost, I had several pieces of wax paper that I used; it works well although it doesn’t burn very long. Cotton balls and dryer lint work as well and are trivially easy to light, but they burn up in a few seconds.

Many people swear by cotton balls with petroleum jelly worked into them. I’ve tried these, they work and they burn a long time. But they are messy and I’d be concerned that they aren’t really waterproof. The petroleum jelly is waterproof, but it’s not a solid and you don’t know how well it has saturated the cotton fibers. Plus, although cotton balls light very easily, cotton soaked in petroleum jelly is a little harder to light.

Paraffin-based tinder

I still want to carry dry tinder rather than something based on petroleum jelly. Paraffin, like petroleum jelly, is a petroleum product, but it is solid at room temperature. It makes a dense fuel. The key to getting a long burn time with compact tinder is the amount of fuel you can get it to absorb. I’ve done a lot of experimenting with various types of tinder since my experience, and I’ve settled on three that I really like.

The first is jute twine (you can get it at Walmart or your local hardware store). Braid three strands of it together, dip in melted paraffin, let it dry, and you’ve got waterproof tinder that lights easily and will start a fire. To use it with a ferrocerium rod, fray one end to expose the individual fibers; this provides a “fuzzy” surface that will catch a spark. A 2” piece will burn for about 2 minutes.

The second thing I like is Coghlan’s Fire Sticks. These are a mixture of wax and sawdust that will burn for a few minutes and produce a good-sized flame. They are a little harder to light, you need to either shave some off or break the stick to expose a ragged edge. A quarter of a stick will produce a usable flame for 3-4 minutes. My only objections to these are that they are a little larger than I like, and they are somewhat brittle; if you carry them around in your pack or pocket for a while, you may find that they have crumbled when you need them. They will still work, though, as long as it isn’t so windy that they blow away. I carry one of these in my pack, but I don’t carry one in my pocket.

I really like jute twine, but I wanted it to burn a little longer. The fuel for the jute twine is the paraffin, the twine works like a wick and absorbs the paraffin. I wanted a way to get more paraffin into the jute twine, something like a tiny candle, without making it too large for a pocket. I tried making little cardboard tubes and paper envelopes and filling them with wax, but I didn’t like the results. I tried a few different things and finally hit on something that is so simple I kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner.

To make the long-burning tinder, you start with a piece of jute twine about 2 ½” long. You also cut a piece of facial tissue or toilet paper about 2” x 3”. One square of toilet paper makes two of these. You roll the tissue around the jute twine and put a couple of tiny drops of glue on the end of the roll to hold it in place. Once the glue is dry, dip the assembly into melted paraffin long enough for the wax to saturate the paper.

The extra wax absorbed by the paper makes the tinder piece burn significantly longer; about 4 minutes. This is enough to light even a stubborn piece of kindling.


Jute twine and tissue paper, soaked in paraffin

There are other things I’ve experimented with such as threading jute twine through the holes in a piece of corrugated cardboard and dipping it in wax. About any combination of jute and paraffin will work. But nothing I’ve found beats the jute twine and tissue combination for a waterproof, compact, long-burning tinder source.

I have tested both braided jute twine and the twine/tissue tinder pieces by soaking them in water and then lighting them. I even used a weight to keep the tinder at the bottom of a container of water, to simulate what might happen if you fell in a river and had to wade out. As long as you saturate the piece with wax, it will be waterproof.

You can also saturate the jute twine in hardened pine resin, but I don’t find much advantage to it. I think it burns hotter, but it’s very smoky and a little brittle when dry.

I’ve used paraffin and wax here interchangeably. Some people swear by beeswax. I’ve tried both; I don’t see any advantage to beeswax other than the fact that it smells pleasant while it’s burning. The beeswax I’ve used has a lower melting point than grocery-store paraffin, so it may melt in your pocket or pack on a hot day. However, if you look up the melting point of beeswax, it is comparable to paraffin so the beeswax I used may be atypical.

You can purchase tinders such as Baddest Bee, Zippo (and other) waxed tinder sticks, Wetfire tinder from Ultimate Survival Technologies, and Coghlan’s Emergency Tinder. All of those will work, although some are going to be more waterproof than others. I haven’t tried them all, but I have tried a few of them. Some of them have exposed cotton fibers at the ends; they light easier than paraffin-soaked jute or cotton balls with petroleum jelly. If you carry that type, I recommend putting them into a waterproof match holder, or putting a few in a small balloon and tying the end. Either will protect them from water.

Chemical Tinder

In the course of my experimenting, I hit on the idea of using lighter fluid as tinder. I purchased one of those “matches” that has a piece of cotton soaked in lighter fluid that you light by striking a small ferrocerium rod. It occurred to me that, while that tiny piece of cotton won’t hold much lighter fluid, a brass container will.

I made a brass container by starting with brass tubing that you can get at your local hardware store. I soldered an 8-32 brass nut in one end and crimped the other end closed, soldering it to seal it. I then used an 8-32 screw with a knurled head and an O-ring.

To use it, you just remove the screw, hold a small piece of wood or rolled-up paper over the hole, and invert the tube so that the fluid soaks into the wood/paper. Replace the screw, put the soaked tinder in your kindling pile and light it. You want the soaked tinder to be as vertical as possible so the flame burns up as the lighter fluid is burned off.


Brass tube to hold lighter fluid

The obvious question is why go to all the trouble to make a brass container? Why not just use a plastic bottle? The reason is that lighter fluid is essentially naphtha and it will evaporate through the walls of some plastic bottles. I tried a small bottle that is made of (I think) PET plastic. Over the course of a week or so, the lighter fluid evaporated out. So if you want to do this and use a plastic bottle, try it first or you may find it empty when you need it most. And be sure the cap of the bottle has a good seal.

You could also store lighter fluid in one of those waterproof aluminum pill bottles. I like the brass tube because if you drop it while the cap is off, you will lose a few drops out of the hole instead of the entire thing. Although the pill bottle has the advantage that you can just take the top off and dip whatever you want to light right into the fluid.

Other chemical tinders include Sterno and hand sanitizer. Smear some Sterno on a piece of wood or piece of paper and it will burn. Hand sanitizer that is 70% alcohol works also. It’s a little harder to light than Sterno, but it works.

In my pack, I carry some Hexamine fuel tablets, such as those made by Coghlan’s and Esbit. They are hard to light with a ferrocerium rod, but if you crush them to powder with a rock or the side of a knife, they light without too much difficulty. The nice thing is that they burn for a very long time since they are intended to boil water. If you are carrying a small stove that uses these tablets, they make a good backup tinder if you use up everything else. You could also crush one of the tablets and carry the powder in a small plastic bottle. Pour out a little pile, light it, and start your fire.

UST Strikeforce

Ultimate Survival makes a StrikeForce fire starter, which is a ferrocerium rod and striker in a plastic housing, with room for a wetfire tinder cube. This has everything you need to start a fire in one plastic housing, although you only have room for one wetfire cube. This isn’t really tinder, it’s a complete package with one tinder cube, but it’s worth mentioning.


As I mentioned in part 1, you see a lot of recommendations for the magnesium blocks with an attached ferrocerium rod. I had one of these at Brainard lake. I don’t carry one now. The concept is a good one; like the UST StrikeForce, your ignition source and tinder are together in one block. All you need is a knife to make it work. The problem is that it’s some effort to shave off the magnesium; the instructions say you need a pile about the size of a quarter, and I would say you need at least that much if not more.

The second issue I have with magnesium is that it won’t work if there is much wind because the magnesium shavings won’t stay put.

In its favor, magnesium does work very well as tinder under the right conditions. Once you get it lit, it burns incredibly hot. You essentially have a pile of red-hot semi-molten metal. Stick the end of a piece of wood into that and it absolutely will catch fire. Magnesium doesn’t burn very long, but it doesn’t take very long if you have the wood in direct contact with it. I tried this with a piece of wood that was about the diameter of a dime; it caught fire within seconds.

If you decide to carry magnesium, I wouldn’t carry the bar of magnesium. Instead, use a hacksaw or file to remove enough shavings from the bar to fill a small bottle. Carry the bottle with you. When you need to start a fire, pour a small pile of that out and light it. It’s much easier than trying to carve the magnesium under adverse conditions. If you want enough magnesium for a couple of different fire kits, or to experiment with, you can buy magnesium rods and blocks from Amazon or Ebay.

I’ve experimented with magnesium quite a bit; an acquaintance was machining some magnesium and gave me the scraps and shavings that were left over. So I had a lot of material to work with. I have a bottle of magnesium shavings, but I decided I like lighter fluid better; in my opinion, it’s more versatile.


Next time we’ll look at emergency tinder.

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