Starting a fire isn’t as easy as it looks on TV or even YouTube. I don’t know how many times Ross and I struggled to get our fires going, only to be disappointed after it goes out. We were too antsy, and we just didn’t know what to use as the best kindling for fire starting.
After many failed fires, we’ve learned better. We now know that we can’t simply rush the process of building a fire, whether it’s a big one in fire pit, or a much smaller one in our Bushbox XL titanium stove.
It’s important to understand how to start a fire properly to save yourself both time and energy at camp. There’s nothing worse than gathering what you need, lighting it, and burning it—only to watch your fire slowly fizzle out and leaving you to start from scratch all over again.
What is kindling?
To understand what kindling actually is, it’s important to know the three main types of fuel to start a fire and get it going.
Step 1: Tinder. ;No, w’re not talking about the popular dating app. Tinder is actually the smallest, lightest, finest, and driest materials that can be used to light your fire. It’s the first step in your fire-starting process.
Step 2: Kindling . This is the next size up from tinder and is generally made up of similar materials to tinder, which is why you might hear people using the terms “tinder” and “kindling.” There is, however, a subtle difference between the two in that tinder gets your fire lit and kindling gets your fire going. You need both to build a successful fire.
Step 3: Fuel. This is the largest, heaviest, and least combustible materials in your fire-starting arsenal. Think of your typical logs for firewood. You use it to keep your fire going once it’s been lit.
That covers the basics of what you need to know about fire-starting. Now let’s dive into the best types of kindling you can find in the natural world, perhaps right on your campsite!
The best kindling for fire: Natural options
When it comes to gathering the best kindling for fire-starting, dry is always best. Wet kindling will only make your fire harder to get going and can quickly put it out.
Birch bark, which comes from white birch trees, is a great kindling to use because it is easy to find and very lightweight. The oils in the bark make it easy to light, and it burns hot. In fact, it even burns wet, making it a great choice for those times when you’re caught in the rain and need to get a fire going quickly.
An important note about gathering birch bark: Don’t take it from live trees, as it will kill them. Instead, look for birch bark that’s fallen off of nearby trees or take them from dead trees. If you have to, you can take pieces of birch bark that peeled away from live trees, but be careful not to damage the tree too much in the process.
You can use other types of bark from dead trees to start your fire, but nothing will ever compare to birch bark from white birch trees. It’s always our first choice for tinder and kindling. It’s usually pretty easy to find, and when we come across some, we make sure to pick it up and throw it in our packs to bring back with us to camp. You can never have enough birch bark when you’re camping!
Small, dry twigs and branches from dead trees
This one is a no-brainer. If you’re looking for the best kindling for fire, then you should go for small, dry twigs and branches from dead trees. They’re easy to find, lightweight, and they burn easily. In fact, this is probably the most common type of kindling that people use when starting a fire.
If you’re lucky, you should be able to find loads of these all over your camp. Ideally, these twigs should be less than one centimetre in diameter—the thinner, the better! To test the dryness, take each side of the twig or stick and snap it. If it snaps easily and cleanly, then it’s good to go.
This takes a little more work, but it’s definitely worth it. Wood shavings are basically small pieces of wood that have been shaved off a larger piece with a sharp knife or blade. Even if you find dead pieces of wood or branches around your campsite, if they’re dry on the inside, you should be able to shave off the bark and get to the dry interior quite easily.
If you have a knife or blade with you while camping, which you should, this is a great alternative for when your campsite has been picked clean of dead twigs and branches, or when everything is mostly wet from rain. Just be careful when using knife. It can be easy to cut yourself if you’re not paying attention.
Dead, dry pine needles
Pine needles from trees like spruce and cedar make great kindling because they have a high resin content, which means they ignite easily and burn hot. This is our next go-to for kindling when we camp in areas where white birch trees don’t typically grow—such as in the boreal forest of Northern Ontario.
Look for brown, dry needles covering the ground beneath pine trees. If you find some, there should be lots. We recommend collecting them in a bag or a pot or something since they’re pretty awkward to carry around in your hands.
If you really need to, you can use pinecones as kindling for your fire. But they definitely won’t be our first choice. They tend to be big, bulky, and often difficult to break down. Not to mention, they don’t ignite as easily as some of the other options we’ve listed.
If at all possible, always go for the smallest and lightest pinecones you can find. These tend to have the most resin and be the easiest to light. And if all else fails, you can always resort to using them as your last resort kindling.
Dead and dry grass, leaves, or moss
This is definitely the easiest and most plentiful type of kindling to find, but it also has the lowest burn temperature. So if you’re looking to get your fire going quickly, this probably isn’t the best option.
But if you’re just trying to keep your fire going strong once it’s been started, then using some dead grass, leaves, or moss as kindling is a great way to do that. Just make sure it’s dead and extremely dry—otherwise it won’t light and you’ll just be wasting your time.
Cattail fluff, dandelion fluff, or milkweed fluff
FAll of these materials are extremely lightweight and they ignite easily, but they can be hard to find. You’ll probably need to look near water sources for cattails, whereas dandelions and milkweed plants are more likely to be found in fields and meadows depending on the time of year.
We’ve never used fluff for kindling since we’re hardly ever around it, but we know it’s an option. If you’re desperate, and you can actually find some, it’s worth a try. Just make sure it’s as dry as possible before trying to light it up.
The best kindling for fire: Modern options
Although natural sources of kindling are always preferred because they’re free, organic, and can be picked up on the fly (usually), we know that not everyone is lucky enough to be camping in an area where natural materials are readily available. If that’s the case for you, never fear, because we’ve got some great modern options for kindling that will do the job just as well.
Store-bought fire starter
We always carry a few of these with us, just in case we need them. They look like small balls of dry wood shavings, made of all natural hardwood and paraffin. You can get them off of Amazon, like these Kingsford Quick Light Fire Starters.
To make them last longer, you can be break them apart and use portions of them to save yourself from going through them fast. They’re very effective and we prefer to use them as tinder first to get our fire lit. Once it’s lit, we typically move to kindling like dry twigs and smaller branches. Works like a charm!
Other manmade types of kindling you can use for your fire include:
- Wood chips
- Cotton balls
- Dryer lint
When we went winter camping, we forgot to bring our store-bought fire starter. Since it was February, there was no way we’d find any dead or dry twigs on the ground, and there were no white birch trees in the area.
At first, I decided to sacrifice some of the blank pages of the book I had brought to read, which seemed to work okay. Then we realized that we brought a box of 200 matches, which was they key to us getting our fires started every morning and night. We had to use a lot of them, but they got the job done.
What not to use as kindling
Now that you’re familiar with the best kindling for fire—both in natural and manmade forms—let’s go over what what you shouldn’t use. It’s important to be aware of these things, especially if you’re out camping and don’t have any other options.
This is probably the most common mistake people make when trying to start a fire. They’ll try to use green wood as their kindling, which won’t work because it’s not dry enough. Green wood will just smoulder and won’t light, so it’s a waste of time and energy.
This is the other big no-no when it comes to kindling. If your kindling is even a little bit wet, it’s not going to light and you’ll just be frustrated. Make sure your kindling is completely dry before trying to use it.
Pitch or sap
This is a big no-no because it can give off toxic fumes when it’s burning. Not to mention, it’s very difficult to ignite.
This is an obvious one, but just in case you’re wondering, gasoline should never be used as kindling for a fire. It’s flammable and explosive, so it’s not safe to use under any circumstances.
Believe it or not, some people actually try peeing on their kindling as a means of getting their fire started. We don’t even know where to start with this one. Just don’t do it. Trust us.
Cardboard, newspapers, and magazines
You’d think these would be great for kindling, but since they often contain chemicals that can release toxic fumes when burned, it’s not a good idea. Save your cardboard for recycling instead.
It may seem harmless to throw used aluminum cans or foil into the fire, but they likely won’t burn all the way, leaving your fire pit full of garbage.
This one is a big no-no because it doesn’t burn and will just melt and release toxic fumes into your fire. Avoid using plastic as kindling at all costs.
Plan ahead so you don’t get stuck without a fire
Now you know the best kindling for fire, it’s important to incorporate them into your camping trip planning process. This might involve researching the area you plan to camp in to gain an understanding of the types of natural sources of kindling that may be available to you, as well as gathering backup sources—like store-bought fire starter—in case you run into trouble.
Preparation is the key to a successful camping trip, and being able to start a fire is a crucial part of that. Good luck, and happy camping!
Once you know exactly what to do, you’ll be able to start a fire the first time, every time. It just takes a little bit of awareness and patience.
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).