I originally wrote this article on late summer tinders for the Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL ) Bushcraft Special Interest Group (BSIG) newsletter which came out in October 2014.
When I’m teaching fire lighting I tell this really bad joke –“I’ve got tinder constipation; I can’t pass a birch!” I hope that it will help people get into the habit of collecting tinder as they come across it rather than waiting until they need it. So if I see a birch, instead of passing it by, I’ll stop, collect some bark and put it in my pocket so that it’s ready to use when I want to light a fire. I usually use a trouser pocket next to my skin, so that body heat will remove any residual dampness; make sure to empty your pocket of any unused tinder before putting in the washing machine!
During late summer and early autumn I collect downy flower heads. Mostly I’ve been gathering from thistle and rosebay willowherb, both of which are abundant in our part of Kent, but there are plenty of others around. Along with developing tinder constipation, the other thing to remember is experiment; if you see something that looks like it might make good tinder, try it!
When it comes to using downy flower heads, I tend to use them in a tinder bundle as a coal extender when I’m blowing an ember into a flame. I prefer the rosebay willowherb for two reasons – 1) it’s easier to collect, and use, than thistle heads, and 2) it has some ‘woody’ bits that help develop a more ‘robust’ ember.
Another good tinder source in late summer is from dried grasses. Our ancient woodland camp is bordered on three sides by meadow so I’ve been out in the fields collecting hay (the cows seem puzzled by this). I’ve also been scouring the fences; cleavers seem particularly fond of fences and I’ve collected loads. I use both of these materials to make tinder bundles.
Cleavers give a hot, intense flame when they catch, but it doesn’t tend to last as long as hay, so make sure that you’ve done all the preparation for your fire first. I also use a different approach to my breathing for hay and cleaver tinder bundles. For a hay tinder bundle, I use long, slow breaths, a bit like the type of breathing used in yoga, with a couple of hard blows once the smoke is really thick. Whereas with a cleavers tinder bundle, I blow quite a lot harder right from the get go.
Recently I used an alder hearth board and birch drill to create an ember. I made a tinder bundle from cleavers with a little rosebay willowherb added as a coal extender; worked a treat.
One last thing, when I’m foraging for tinder, I apply the same rules as when I’m foraging for food. I only take what I need, and even then only a little from any one plant or location. Remember that downy flower heads are a mechanism for dispersing seeds, for reproducing, so by only taking a little the plant will sow seeds for the future.
Good tinder gathering!