But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames” (Anne Dillard)

tinder_bundleI was doing a demonstration of the bow drill last weekend and, unsurprisingly, there was far more interest in the part of the process where you create an ember than the nursing of that ember to flame with a tinder bundle.  This is a very natural reaction as the bow drill side looks like some sort of primitive magic but the tinder bundle side of the equation looks deceptively simple (“I could do that.…”) and boring in comparison.

damp_tinder_bundleFailure is a great teacher and I discovered some time ago, as I imagine many others have done before me, that the fire starting process requires getting all the necessary stages  to work: the ember must light the tinder, the tinder must be sufficient to light the kindling, there must be enough kindling to light the firewood.  If any one of those stages is poorly done then you don’t get a fire and all your efforts will produce nothing more than wisps of smoke that drift away with your hopes of a hot drink or a cooked meal.

This happened to me once using the tried and tested inner tube as a firelighter (a usually bomb-proof method of firelighting even when it’s wet) – it was during the rainy season and the twigs I had collected simply refused to light up.  Rather than start again (and split down some wood) I persisted with the inner tube, burning more and more of it until eventually the heat from the burning inner tube dried out the twigs enough for them to, cautiously, take light.  However, even then I had to nurse the fire (blowing on it for about 10 minutes) to really get it to catch.  The mistake I had made was an obvious one – by not putting enough effort into processing dry kindling I had been forced to put much more effort (and use a ridiculous amount of inner tube) to get the fire going…I’d misunderstood the fire-starting equation for that particular day and the state of the materials I was dealing with… and I’d paid the price.

birds_nest_tinder_bundleOne of the dangers of TV programmes and Youtube videos when it comes to firestarting is that presenters (and I’m as a guilty as everyone else here) rarely show the amount of time and effort that has gone into finding and processing the materials prior to getting the ember.  The reason for this is understandable; it’s simply a bit boring and most viewers would lose interest.  Equally (but not intentionally) deceptive is when presenters are using extremely dry materials in an arid environment.  All this can lull the viewer into thinking that firestarting is very easy, whereas the truth is that when things are damp it can be very tricky and will only work well if you prep all the stages correctly and are practised at nursing the fire to life.

In extremely damp conditions in the jungle it could easily take you an hour to find reasonable firewood, another 30 mins to prep the kindling and the same again to prep the tinder bundle: 2 hours in total!  However, if it’s dry the whole process could take 30 minutes or less, from start to finish.

large_tinder_bundleThe other aspect to bear in mind is the law of diminishing returns which, simply put, states that there is a point in any process where improving/increasing one factor alone (whilst keeping all other factors the same) ceases to produce any overall improvement to the result.   For example, there is no need to produce a massive amount off kindling to light up firewood that is already dry and split.  Similarly there is no need to split firewood down (to get at the dry inner wood) if you can keep a fire hot enough to dry out the damp from the logs you’re using.

When it comes to tinder bundles you want to put in just enough effort to produce the result you want (by which we mean a flame that can light the kindling) – if you put in any more effort that, then it is simply wasted effort….the law of diminishing returns.

The principles behind the tinder bundle (the triangle of fire that is heat, fuel, oxygen) also apply to all stages of fire making and the tinder bundle provides a useful learning exercise in this respect.


In the short video below I show another sort of tinder bundle (although purists might argue that it isn’t a tinder bundle as such) and that is using inner tube and how to light it up with char cloth.   Inner tube is a great ally for those of us living in wet climates as it is impervious to the damp, it burns well and a band of inner tube can be quickly snapped onto your sheath and will stay there until you need it.  Perhaps it isn’t a true tinder bundle, but anything that can light up your kindling is producing the result you want and, if there’s no dry tinder around, it can save you having to process wood shavings from a split down log.