Aspens are one of the most beautiful and widespread trees found in the Rocky Mountain high country. When Aspens die, their bark, which is soft and velvety to the touch when alive, becomes hard and separates from the main trunk. This bark is actually one of the most useful wilderness survival tools you'll find in the high elevation forests.
The reason Aspen bark is so versatile is because of its shape and consistency. Aspen bark is easy to carve and cut into pieces, yet strong enough for simple bushcraft tasks. The concave nature (bowl-shape) of the pieces makes them great for a number of things, including making crude utensils, emergency bowls/containers, tinder holders, kindling, and shingling on shelter roofs. The inner bark also makes a great tinder, as you'll see further below.
A crude spoon carved from Aspen bark using a small hatchet. Note the beautiful colors on the bark after it has been scraped clean:
Aspen bark is great for keeping tinder and kindling from coming in contact with wet or snowy ground when starting a fire. A second piece of bark can be placed over your tinder/kindling to keep it dry from falling snow or rain.
An Excellent Tinder
Many bushcrafters are familiar with using the inner bark of Cedar, Juniper and Cottonwood trees for tinder. What's not as well known is that the dead inner bark of Aspen actually makes fantastic tinder. The fibrous inner bark smolders very well and easily blows into a flame, making it ideal for catching the ember from a bow drill. It's easy to ignite with charcloth, or light with a firesteel, match or magnifying glass.
To find the best tinder, look for dead-standing trees on south-facing slopes. The best trees will look like the one below, with almost perfectly dried fibrous inner bark ready to be peeled off and made into tinder. If you can't find a tree with bark that looks like the photo, just look for any dead standing Aspen with the bark still attached. Pull off a couple of pieces at least 2-3 feet above the ground.
Then take your knife or axe blade and scrape the inner bark vigorously to remove the fibrous material:
This is what the inner bark should look like after scraping or pulling out the fibers. (tip- cut a separate piece of bark to hold the raw tinder).
To prepare the tinder, make sure it is as dry as possible by putting it inside your coat or laying it on a dry rock in direct sunlight for a few hours. Then roll it in your hands vigorously a few times to make it finer in texture:
Once the fibers are ignited, they will start to smolder, ready to be blown into a flame (this particular bundle was ignited with an ultra-thin, credit card-sized magnifying glass).
Blowing on the tinder pile to intensify the burning:
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, and the author of Edible & Medicinal Survival Plants of the Rocky Mountains Pocket Guides. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ hotmail.com (without spaces)