Firelighting is an essential part of bushcraft and s******l skills. Ideally one should be able to go out into the wilderness and be able to sustain one’s being with what can be found around you. Ideally.
So what I thought I would do is a test of the most popular and well known natural tinders. By ‘natural tinders’ what I mean are those things that can be found and can be used with minimal preparation, ‘in the field’ as it were. In some cases the tinders can be used straightaway (e.g. birch bark), in other cases it must be allowed to dry (e.g. fungi tinders).
In my test I have used two different methods of providing a spark – a traditional flint and steel, plus the ubiquitous firesteel.
AMADOU – Amadou is a name given to the soft, suede-like, layer found in bracket fungus. It can be found in most types of bracket fungus, Horse Shoe Fungus being the most popular since it often yields a thicker layer.
The amadou is best extracted whilst the fungus is still soft. Soft is a relative term, of course, because bracket fungus is notoriously ‘woody’. You can see the amadou in the above photo, it is the auburn brown layer on top (in the photo – in reality it tends to be toward the bottom layer). To get the amadou you have to cut away the tough outer layer and then slice away the amadou and leave it to dry. This is the stage at which I used the amadou. Many people go further and then soak the amadou in water before leaving it to dry again before soaking in salt petre. This extra preparation will provide an even better tinder, but for my purposes I wanted to test it as you may use it when found. So all that’s been done to the amadou I used in this test is that it was removed from the fungus and allowed to dry.
Before dropping a spark into the amadou you have to rough the surface. It can be quite easily scrapped with a knife to create a mound of downy material that will take the spark.
Once the spark has hit the amadou and taken you will see it smoking. Gently blow on it to give energy to the ember. As the smoke increases so must your breath, until you can blow quite hard into it.
It is worth noting that amadou will not provide you with a flame. You will need to transfer the ember into some other combustible material and blow this into flame.
DRIED BRACKEN –
Dried leaves and grass are perhaps what we most associate with fires. But experience has shown that they tend smoulder a lot, and give off a great deal of smoke. Bracken, however, has a good reputation as a tinder mainly due to the fact that it dries out quickly, lessening the amount of smoulder and smoke given off by other dry leaves.
I found that it readily took a spark from a firesteel, though the flame was short-lived. It was important to get the spark at the bottom of the pile so the modest flame could lick through the tinder. This can often be the problem with lighter, more insubstantial, tinders since the material burns too quickly before you can get your kindling going. So add more!
I found that it proved a considerably greater challenge lighting the bracken with flint and steel. That said, it was a bitterly cold day with the low temperature taking the life out of the sparks. Be that as it may, it is on cold days that a fire is most needed, and so cold days are the best days for testing skills and materials! I found that if the bracken was roughed up by rubbing it together then that created smaller fibres that were more likely to catch. That said, not an ideal tinder for flint and steel.
BIRCH BARK – An old favourite! Birch bark can be collected by carefully pulling at the wispy strips of bark one often sees as the birch tree naturally shreds its bark to make way for new growth. The great thing about birch bark is that, being a bit more woody, it also provides a more substantial tinder fuel, giving rise to a more robust flame that lasts long enough to get your kindling alight.
It also requires minimal preparation and can be collected more or less all year round. It took very well from just the first strike of a firesteel.
It’s not all good news though. It was less susceptible to a spark from a flint and steel. That’s only natural though – the sparks are cooler and I was testing on a particularly cold day. That said, by scrapping up the birch bark, in a similar way to that you would for amadou, it did take a spark to which more tinder can be added.
CRAMP BALLS – Another tinder fungus, also known as King Alfred’s Cakes. Cramp balls can be widely collected from dead trees. They look like shiny black mounds, about golf ball size.
This has long been a favourite of mine. What I like about cramp balls is that they take a spark quite easily and just smoulder away, which means they can be used to hold an ember if you need to travel and transfer your fire.
Like amadou the cramp ball must be allowed to dry out thoroughly before use. And, like amadou, all it provides is an ember to which you must add other material to create a flame (birch bark, for instance). The trick is to drop your spark on to the concentric rings on the underside of the fungus.
Once done, the cramp ball will glow quite hot. Blow into the fungus to allow the ember to take firm hold.
The advantage with cramp balls over amadou is that the amadou ember is nestled in the down you have scrapped up so you have to be careful you don’t blow too hard and send the ember flying. Not so with cramp balls – the ember is in the body of the fungus.
CLEMATIS DOWN – Also known as ‘Old Man’s Beard’, these are the wispy balls of down you often see in hedgerows and gardens during the winter months when the clematis flowers have died.
This was a new one for me, having never tried it before (and also been given a pointer to what to look for by Paul).
Very soft, very wispy, you can tell this one will catch nice and easily. Which it did. However, the insubstantial nature of the material means that, like the dried bracken, it can burn out very quickly. Which it did. It took a spark very well, even from a flint and steel, but it flared up very quickly and burnt out very quickly. You need a lot of this, or be lucky enough that your spark hits near the bottom.
CONCLUSION – Before this test I had never used amadou or clematis down before, so was looking forward to seeing how they would perform, particularly the amadou, which a lot of people like.
I must say, I was underwhelmed with the amadou. I should emphasise though, that I was just using the dried material with no other preparation done to it. Although, that was the point of the test – tinders you can find and use with minimal work. Don’t get me wrong, it worked well enough, but there are other tinders that work just as well, and are less hassle. Of course, if you are in a survival situation and it’s the only one you can find, then you will use it. For that reason, it’s as well to be aware of, but as a natural tinder then it was my least favourite of the lot. If you’re going to the extent of more extensive preparation then I would sooner use char cloth.
Next comes clematis down. It takes a spark really well but it is so insubstantial that it burns too quickly. You need to shelter this one well, and have lots of it!
Third place goes to cramp balls. Two things let them down – the need to let them dry out (this could take several days) and the need to transfer them to another material to produce flame. On the plus side is the fact that they take a spark really well, and hold it, giving you a bit of ‘play’ time. Larger balls can be used to hold an ember whilst you move camp.
Second place goes to dried bracken. If wet, then this also needs to be dried out, but dries better and quicker than fungi tinders – stuff it in your pocket and your body heat may be enough to dry it out (this does work. A couple of years ago Paul and myself were out on a very wet day. We collected dried grasses and leaves, stuffed them in our pockets, and did get a fire going after a great deal of effort. But it did work). Damp dried bracken would be a sore test to get going with flint and steel. But then any damp natural tinder is going to be difficult – therefore, look after your tinder! The only reason I put dried bracken over cramp balls is that bracken will provide a flame. If you had both, then I’d use the cramp balls to take the spark and move the ember into the bracken…
The golden child of the test was birch bark. It takes a spark well and it also provides a good flame that can be put straight to your kindling. Maybe not the best tinder for flint and steel, but still possible with preparation. It’s also widely available, easy to collect, and can be used straightaway. What more could you ask for?