Whether you’re making a fire at home or outdoors, the building blocks remain unchanged. Understanding the difference between tinder and kindling is essential for lighting a fire quickly and keeping it burning. This guide examines how they compare and provides examples of each.

What’s the difference between tinder and kindling?

Tinder and kindling are used at the start of the fire-lighting process before bigger logs get added. Tinder is fast-lighting material smaller than kindling, used for starting a fire. Popular materials include bark, newspaper, leaves, or other dry foliage. Kindling is often sticks or small pieces of chopped wood. It burns slower than tinder and helps bigger logs to start burning.

Starting an outdoor fire in the snow
Kindling is usually placed on top of the tinder.

The most important factor when choosing tinder is that it lights easily. It should be bone dry, non-toxic, and smaller than the size of a pencil. With kindling, you can get away with it being a little wet.

Although fires can be built in many ways, most agree that tinder should be placed on the bottom in the center of where the fire will burn. Kindling can then be stacked over it, allowing the rising heat to ignite it from below.  

A small pile of split kindling next to a hatchet
Kindling is easy to chop from firewood if you have a hatchet.

In the outdoors, finding kindling is usually the easiest to find. Most natural debris, such as dead branches, is excellent. Finding tinder can be more of a challenge if dry bark or leaves aren’t available. You may need a sharp knife or axe to slice thin slithers from larger wood.

Tinder is much more volatile than kindling, so it should be stored appropriately. Sparks or excessive heat can quickly ignite fine material. Avoid this fire hazard by keeping it in a cool, dry spot away from ignition sources. Tins, jars, and other containers are good options for safe storage. 

While kindling can get a little wet, storing it away from the elements is best to make starting the fire easier. It has less surface area, so the wood won’t catch alight as easily. However, it is still best kept away from sparks.

Pine needles and leaves (tinder)
Pine needles and leaves are useful tinder.

What’s the difference between kindling and logs?

Split firewood logs are excellent for giving off heat and burning for a long time. Kindling is much smaller, so it is easier to light but won’t burn as long.

Closeup of a silver birch tree
Silver birch can make a good source of tinder and kindling.

12 types of tinder for starting fires

  1. Commercial fire starters: Commercial fire starters are easy to find online or at camping and survival stores. These cubes or sticks are reliable, easy to light and burn longer than natural options. Brands like Blackbeard, Coghlan’s Fire Sticks, and UCO Stormproof Match Kit.
  2. Paper: Starting a fire with paper is one of the most popular choices. Easy to light, it can be crushed into tight balls or tubes for a longer burn time. Paper is ideal tinder for home, but outdoor adventurers traveling on foot may not want to carry extra weight.
  3. Bark: Dry bark is ideal tinder. Some varieties, like silver birch, are as thin as tissue and contain a volatile oil that burns hot.
  4. Pine straw: fallen pine needles are a bountiful source of tinder if the trees grow nearby. They must be dry, as green ones won’t do much more than smoke. 
  5. Leaves: Dry leaves on the forest floor are often easy to find and burn like paper. Like pine needles, they need to be dead dry. Finding them can be challenging, depending on the season.
  6. Wood Shavings: scrapings from dead branches take effort, but you’ll usually get a dry fuel source. Make sure you have a razor-sharp knife or axe to make the job easier. 
  7. Dried Grass: Dried grass will burn fiercely, but bits will easily blow away in the wind. Be careful when lighting fires with grass to avoid starting an unwanted bushfire.   
  8. Steel Wool: Fine-grade steel wool burns well, even if it gets wet in a pack or kayak. Never inhale smoke from burning steel wool, as it can cause health complications.
  9. Vaseline and cotton balls: For longer burning tinder, consider soaking cotton balls in Vaseline that’s been heated into a liquid. Store them in a plastic bag until needed.
  10. King Alfred’s Cakes: Found in many parts of the world, King Alfred’s Cakes are typically found growing on the branches of ash trees. They’ll burn longer than most tinder and continue to smolder for hours.
  11. Char Cloth: Cotton or linen fabric charred in the fire will ignite with even the smallest spark. To make it, place cloth in a tin with a tiny hole, then cook in the coals until the smoke stops.
  12. Cattails: The old, fluffy part of cattails burn well, making them an excellent natural source of tinder. Remember, they’re highly combustible, so make sure the kindling is in place before lighting.   
Closeup of dry cattails going to seed
Dry cattails are great for tinder.

What to use for kindling

Kindling must be small enough to easily catch alight without smothering the tinder flames. It should also be big enough to burn until the larger wood starts burning.

Dense hardwoods are not ideal for kindling as they’re slow to light. Instead, use softwoods like spruce or pine, which are also easy to split. Pine cones from these softwoods also work well as kindling.

If you have firewood out in the rain, split it into kindling-sized pieces and use the dry wood from inside the log.

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