Natural Tinder Sources #1 – Birch Bark

Birch bark – Easy to identify, gather and process. Grows readily in the area and can burn even when damp due to natural oils infused in the bark.

Drinking spoon/cup/ladle crafted from white birch bark. Photo c/o The Woodsman School and Guide Service

There are many different types of birch including, River birch, Yellow birch as well as Sweet birch but White birch trees are my favorite. They are arguably the most beautiful tree in New England and probably one of the most useful. The bark can be used for canoe, shelter and container crafting or processed into tar, medicine, food… not to mention, tinder and kindling.

It’s always a shame to come across campsites and trails where these beautiful trees have been ringed. If the bark is completely removed in this manner the tree will not survive. When you harvest from a live tree, try to peel away the light and papery outer bark which is already flaking off. This shouldn’t harm the tree and is the best tinder material anyway.

Students collect birch bark during a basic survival course.

If you’re near a popular camp site, chances are the trees will be picked bare or ringed, so don’t count on that perfect birch tree to be there. Dead standing trees are optimal but not always easy to come by either, so I often hunt around live trees for deadfall which isn’t soaked through or rotten. I normally don’t advise collecting tinder which has been lying on the ground but I believe this can be an exception. If this is your only option, take the bark from the side facing up and not in contact with the ground. If the wood is rotten and falling apart when you touch it, leave it there, and try to find something else. When you find a fallen birch log or dead standing tree don’t be afraid to cut into it and harvest some for your tinder pouch or even bring the whole thing back to camp. Like I said before, don’t count on a resource being there when you need it. Be prepared. Carrying and storing dry tinder is a useful habit to develop.

Birch bark cut and peeled from dead tree. Photo c/o Steve Mason Photographer

Loose strips of peeled birch bark make great kindling but need to be processed down properly before being used as tinder. The bark is made from several layers of inner and outer barks which can be peeled apart like a fruit roll up. It’s helpful to build a bird’s nest or tinder bundle to contain the material as you process it. Next hold the peeled pieces between your forefingers and thumbs and simultaneously pull them apart while grinding them together. Try to consolidate the dust, powders and other fine particulates which develop as you work. Do this for several minutes until you have a good size pile of pulverized birch bark to work with. If you are having trouble getting it to catch a spark and you know the material is dry, go back a step and continue processing it down further.

Common mistakes people make are not gathering enough material, so they don’t have an adequate volume of stuff to work with, or they don’t process the material enough, so the quality of what they are working with is insufficient.

Feel free to message me or comment below if you have any questions, useful tips or anecdotes you’d like to share. Thanks for the read, I appreciate you taking the time. Have a good one!

2 thoughts on “Natural Tinder Sources #1 – Birch Bark

  1. Where I grew up in Connecticut, we had an abundance of Sweet and Yellow Birch. Every now and then you’d see a Gray Birch here and there. I did some research into the pre-European settler history of my locality, and found that birch bark canoes were relatively infrequent. The majority of the tribes (including Quinnipiac, Paugussett, Schaghticoke, and Mattabesic), at least in western Connecticut, used dug-out canoes. There was even one found in a lake a few miles from where I used to live.

    Still, one of these days I HAVE to build one. It would be quite the project, but well worth it in the end :). I’ve heard that some bark canoes in Canada were made so light that they could be carried long distances (if needed) by wrapping your arms around the cross-braces. Phenomenal trees, birches. I’d argue that they contributed greatly to the foundation of Canada as we know it.

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