This article on tinder bundles was originally published in The Bushcraft Journal issue 13 published in February 2018. As it’s now completely free there’s no excuse for not getting a copy!
As I come towards the end of discussing various methods of ignition, I think it’s time to take a look at tinder bundles. Many of the ignition methods we’ve seen don’t actually produce a flame, rather they give us an ember, so fire pistons, traditional flint & steel, lenses, parabolic mirrors and indeed that most iconic of bushcraft skills, fire by friction (of which more to come in the next issue). We need to take that ember and turn it into a flame and that is best achieved using a tinder bundle.
When I’m teaching tinder bundles I often start students off using meadow hay (which I collect from the adjacent field), but there are plenty of materials to be found that work at least as well, if not better – cleavers, bracken, honeysuckle and many inner barks are all great. I’ll be writing more on tinders in the future.
I tend to go with a big tinder bundle, mostly because I don’t like taking chances with fire lighting, and I also go a little against the norm and make a rectangular shape rather than a bird’s nest. I do this for four reasons: I’ve seen too many people make their tinder bundle too thin and then lose the ember out the back and, if you have a round tinder bundle, when it ignites it’s right where your fingers are.
Folding the tinder bundle into a rectangular shape also helps with getting it at the right ‘density’. If it’s too lose, then it‘s easy for the ember to fall out; if it’s too tight it makes it harder to get oxygen to the ember. Folding it into shape seems to get the tinder bundle about the right density.
People often have a tendency to bend over when they are blowing into a tinder bundle; try to avoid doing this as you’ll end up breathing in smoke and when it ignites there is a good chance that your face will be directly above the flame.
Now and again people will lean backwards and blow up into a tinder bundle. Here there’s a chance that the ember, or other bits of the tinder bundle, can drop onto your face, or more seriously into your eye. There is also the chance that you might just topple over backwards!
Before you start blowing into the tinder bundle, it’s important to align yourself with the wind; I stand so that the wind is blowing onto my back. This prevents me from breathing in the smoke that the tinder bundle produces and greatly reduces the chances of a flame being blown into my face when it ignites.
The wind plays a big part in igniting a tinder bundle. When it’s windy you often don’t need to do anything more than hold the tinder bundle so that the wind blows directly into it; if it’s a still day, then you need to breathe into the tinder bundle and, depending on the materials you are using, it might take a few minutes.
How you breathe into a tinder bundle is really important. First up, don’t get too close as the moisture in your breath can have a detrimental effect on the ember, so I tend to blow from a couple of inches away. If you start blowing into your ember in the same way as you would blow out candles on a birthday cake, don’t be surprised if you get the same result. I use long, slow breaths into a tinder bundle. If you’ve ever done yoga or tai chi, it’s that same kind of breathing. When you breathe in, make sure that you move the tinder bundle away from your face so that you don’t end up breathing in smoke. Often people get the bit about long slow breaths into the tinder bundle but forget to make sure that they are taking big breaths in as well – make sure that you breathe in at least as much as you breathe out – or you’ll make yourself dizzy! Often if I’m teaching this to children I’ll get them to take in two breaths for every out breath.
So, using a rectangular tinder bundle, I then make a small depression about a quarter of the way from the top; this is where I place the ember, or charcloth in the photo. Make sure that you bring the sides of the tinder around so that the ember is covered in all directions. I hold the tinder bundle at the bottom, so that when it ignites the flame is away from my fingers. And then start to breathe into the tinder bundle.
Initially you are likely to see thin wisps of smoke coming from the top but gradually the volume of smoke will increase. As long as smoke is coming out, don’t be tempted to open your tinder bundle for a look, keep blowing. As a general rule, the more smoke you see, the harder you can blow into your tinder bundle. Once you’re getting dense clouds of smoke, you’re very close to flames being produced so double check that you’re positioned correctly in the wind (if you’re not, you’ll likely be choking from the smoke anyway).
People will often try to put their lit tinder bundle down by bending over, but this places your face and torso directly above the flame and means you could burn yourself.
Instead, once the tinder bundle is alight, I kneel down and place it into my fire lay.
Earlier I said that there are four reasons why I make a rectangular tinder bundle, the more astute may have noticed that I only gave three! The fourth reason is that once my tinder bundle is alight I can simply put it onto my fire lay upside down; because the ember is a quarter of the way down, when the tinder bundle is turned upside down most of the fuel is above the flame.
If you’re wondering why I’ve written about tinder bundles before fire by friction, it’s because that’s the order I teach these skills in; you’re better off knowing what to do with your ember before you make one!
Thanks to Jack and Jessie Frimodig, our nephew and niece from San Diego, for helping out.
As always, get out and practice, igniting a tinder bundle is a crucial part of your fire lighting repertoire.
We teach how to prepare and use tinder bundles on our 2 Day & 5 Day Bushcraft Courses, the IOL Bushcraft Competency Course and also our 2 Day & 5 Day Survival Courses. You can see plenty of photos from all of these courses on our Facebook page.