3 min read

Firestarter is an ambiguous term

What is a "firestarter" and what are the terms we should use instead?
Firestarter is an ambiguous term
Photo by Timon Wanner / Unsplash


  • Firestarter is an overloaded term that's often used to refer to any/all of: ignition method, tinder, or kindling.
  • Use these specific terms instead of "firestarter" to prevent confusion and reinforce a clear mental model for fire-craft.

The Problem

When I search "firestarter" on Amazon, I find this:

These are 3 pretty different things [example-classification]:

This categorical conflation isn't specific to Amazon listings. Here's OutdoorLife, a magazine focused on the hunting/shooting/survival crowd, with the "Best Fire Starters of 2023". It too has a mix of items:

So if you're going on a camping trip with someone [camping-typology], and they ask you to bring a firestarter, what should you bring?

"Firestarter" is too ambiguous a term. More importantly, it impedes a proper understanding of how to build a fire.

The Solution

Instead of "firestarter", use these more specific terms that fit well into a mental model for fire-making:

  • Ignition method: the initial source of heat that sets off the self-sustaining chemical chain reaction that is fire
  • Tinder: the first bit of material that you ignite
  • Kindling: the next set of material that combusts, its thermal energy unlocked by the tinder
  • Fuel: the material that sustains a fire, ignited by the kindling

As we've seen, "firestarter" is often used for any of the first three terms. Instead, identify what you need and name it accordingly: ignition method, tinder, kindling, or fuel.

These steps—in that order—compose the "Fire Train" (Surviving the Wild, p. 103). This is a mental model for understanding how we build up a fire. We want to bootstrap an ignition chain, where we use a small amount of energy to unlock stored energy, which in turn unlocks even more stored energy. That metaphorical train builds up momentum as more and more material catches alight.

Here's a video that illustrates this progression well, as well the related core concepts of the Fire Triangle (heat, fuel, air) and a unique Fire Lay (how you layout the materials to burn):

Some items can be combinations of these steps:


[camping-typology]: The different types of camping is its own blog post. For the purposes of this post, assume car-camping, defined as driving to a campground, setting up a tent separate from the vehicle, and sleeping in that overnight. Anyone doing anything beyond that is best served by taking at least one wilderness survival skills class.

[example-classification]: Now that we know our terminology, we can identify the pine/paraffin bundles as tinder and the ferro rod as an ignition method/source. The Duraflame wrapper is tinder and its contents are kindling.