Trees that can save your life in the wilderness

I have always had a fondness of all kinds of trees, ever since I was a little boy…would you believe me if I told you that I can still recall a time when my father picked me up to show me a big tree…when I asked him about that time, he told me I was about 3 years old…wow…I didn’t know human memories could go back that far!

Anyways, being able to identify trees can not only be a source of pleasure, but a matter of survival. If you become lost in the woods, trees are an abundant and easy-to-utilize resource, and can be used in a variety of ways, including as food, shelter, cordage, and materials for fire-starting and tool-making.

Below we discuss how to identify six trees that are particularly useful in survival scenarios, and the different ways they can be employed to keep you alive. Keep in mind that because many trees drop their leaves in the fall, it’s important to be able to identify them by both their leaves and buds, and their bark.

White Birch (Paper Birch)

birch

White birch is easy to identify with its distinctive, white, papery bark. The sycamore tree also has white bark, but it does not sluff off in thin, paper-like furls like the white birch. The sycamore also has large hand-shaped leaves versus the white birch’s smaller, oval-shaped leaves with a pointed tip. The birch leaf is also irregularly toothed. These grow almost exclusively in northern climates.

birch-leaf

White birch survival uses:

  • Sweet drinkable sap that does not need purification.
  • Containers can be fashioned from the bark (and even canoes – hence the nickname “canoe birch”).
  • Its papery bark makes some of the finest fire-starting tinder on the planet, which will light even when damp because of its resinous quality.
  • A fine tea can be made from the small twigs at the end of a branch or by shaving the bark from new growth. Toss a palmful of these elements into boiling water for a fresh, wintergreen-flavored tea.
  • The tinder fungus (chaga — a variety of mushroom that grows on the tree bark) grows almost exclusively on the white birch tree. The fungus is one of the only natural materials I know of that will take the spark from flint and steel. A piece of tinder fungus along with flint and pyrite to create sparks were even found on Otzi, the “iceman” who was uncovered in the Austrian Alps several years ago.
  • Pine tar can be extracted from the bark of the white birch by heating it over a fire. Pine tar makes an excellent natural adhesive, which indigenous peoples used for all kinds of purposes including securing stone points on arrows.

American Basswood

basswood

The American basswood (also called American linden) is a very common tree – especially in the eastern U.S. It prefers moist soil and is often found by creeks, streams, and ponds. It likes to grow several shoots from the base so it’s not uncommon to see the basswood growing in what appears to be clumps. Basswood trees have large, heart-shaped, coarsely-toothed leaves and dark red young leaf buds. One of the most distinctive features of the basswood is what I call the “tongue.” A tongue-shaped leaf (the small, light green leaf in the picture above) grows at the base of the regular heart-shaped leaves on mature trees. Hard, little, nut-like fruits dangle from the center of this “tongue” leaf throughout the summer.

basswood-cord

Basswood survival uses:

  • Delicious edible leaves – especially in spring.
  • “Bass” comes from the word “bast,” which is an old word for rope. The inner fibers from the basswood make some of the best natural cordage on the planet. In one of my wilderness courses, two adult men could not break a 1/2″ thick strip of basswood bark.
  • Basswood is my favorite wood to use in fire by friction setups. It is soft and makes a perfect friction firewood for bow drill spindles and hearthboards and for hand drill hearthboards.
  • Basswood is preferred by most wood carvers and chainsaw carvers because of how easy it is to work and carve.
  • Inner bark layer is edible and can be scraped off with the edge of your knife. It has a very sweet flavor.

White Pine

pine-tree

The leaves of the white pine grow in batches of five needles. Every fall the white pine loses all of its needles, except those that grew that year. Pine is an evergreen; evergreen trees keep some green leaves year-round, unlike deciduous trees, and have needle-like leaves. They also produce cones (pine cones) instead of flowers.

pine-needle

White pine survival uses:

  • Resin can be used as a fire extender when mixed with tinder material.
  • Resin can be heated and mixed with crushed charcoal to make a natural epoxy.
  • Resin-rich joints and stump pieces make incredible fire kindling.
  • Make pine needle tea from the green pine needles – very rich in Vitamin C.
  • Inner bark layers are edible.
  • Harvest pine nuts from the pine cones.
  • Pine needles make excellent fire tinder.
  • Pine needles make excellent natural insulation material for debris huts and survival shelters.
  • Green pine boughs are perfect for lean-to shelter roofs.
  • Green pine boughs are great for making a bed to protect from the cold ground or snow.
  • The lower, dry, dead branches of the pine tree (squaw wood) is often some of the driest fire kindling available. It is exposed to the wind and also protected from the elements by the year-round needle canopy above. I’ve also used these branches for making bow drill fire friction sets.
  • Very effective candles and lamps can be made from pine resin.
  • Pine resin can be used to waterproof seams in clothing or crude containers.
  • The very pliable surface layer roots make excellent (and strong) natural cordage. Use as a whole or split into smaller pieces.

White Oak

oak

White oaks have rounded leaf lobes instead of pointed ones like red oaks. Contrary to popular belief, acorns are edible. I like white oak acorns better because it seems they are less bitter and it takes less effort to leach out the tannic acid (which causes this bitterness) to become more palatable. An abundance of acorns in mid-summer makes the oak family almost impossible to misidentify. Oaks are some of the largest trees in the forest; I have many white oaks at Willow Haven that are over 100 feet tall and easily 3-4 feet in diameter.

White oak survival uses:

  • Acorns (after leaching out the tannic acid) can be ground and used as flour to make acorn bread.
  • Tannic acid (which can be extracted by boiling or leaching acorns and/or inner oak bark and twigs) is anti-bacterial. I’ve used it as an antiseptic wash before and have heard of it being used to quell diarrhea.
  • Acorns can be used as trap bait for squirrel and other small game animals.
  • Can tan leather using the tannic acid found in bark, acorns, and wood.
  • Oak is a very hard wood that is good for ax handles, digging sticks, and shelter frameworks.
  • When dried, the white oak flowers make suitable tinder bundles and can be found in great abundance certain times of the year.

Sugar Maple

maple

The sugar maple is one of my favorite trees and probably one of the most abundant in the Eastern woodlands. Its beauty is on full display when the leaves change each fall into bursts of red, orange, and yellow. The leaves usually have five lobes, and the tips are pointed. Young maples have smooth silvery bark. The unmistakable “winged helicopter” seeds are a tell-tale maple tree indicator. The sugar maple is the source for maple syrup; this tree is preferred because its sap has high sugar content. It takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.

maple-tap-bucket

Sugar maple survival uses:

  • In late winter/early spring when the sap is running, the sugar maple is an excellent source of drinkable water (sap) that needs no purification. Maple sap is nature’s version of an energy drink – rich in sugar and nutrients. I’ve filled a 1-liter canteen in as few as 15 minutes before. Maples don’t have fully developed (or any) leaves during this time of year – hence the importance of being able to identify in all four seasons.
  • The seeds inside the little helicopters are edible, just like edamame. I just boil them and lightly salt. They can also be fried or added to stews. Remove the outer helicopter.
  • I almost always use maple branches for wilderness cooking. Whether it’s a spit roast, a hot dog stick, or utensils, I can always find a maple branch suitable for the task. Maple branches naturally have a lot of forks, which is great for pot holders and other wilderness kitchen uses. I also use the leaves to wrap fish or other small game animals when cooling in an earth oven.
  • Young maple leaves are also edible. Toss them into a salad or boil them down with other spring greens. They get bitter and rough as they mature.

Willow Tree

willow

There are tons of different willow varieties, but every willow I’ve seen has a similar leaf shape. The leaves are narrow, lance-shaped, and grow in great numbers along the branches. Willows must be in moist areas to survive. If you’ve found a willow, then there is a water source nearby.

Willow survival uses:

  • Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin, which is similar to aspirin. I can personally attest to its effectiveness in relieving headaches and inflammation. Just chew on a few small green twigs and swallow the juices.
  • In spring and summer, willow bark will peel away from the wood and makes excellent cordage that can be used for a huge variety of tasks.
  • Young willow branches and saplings are very flexible and can be used to weave a variety of different baskets and funnel traps.
  • I’ve used dried willow wood on many occasions for friction fire sets – both hand drill and bow drill.
  • Willow saplings make excellent frog and fish gigs.
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I can never start a fire quickly enough…

That’s a common complaint I hear from several of my friends when we talk about hiking in the wilderness, where it can sometimes be so damp that starting a simple fire for cooking etc can take a long time, if it is successful at all…I know many people give up after just a few tries!

So here’s a fabulous tip that I picked up from another hiker and it involves using nothing more than something we all carry, or should carry on our hikes or in our cars etc.

It is nothing else but that simple little bottle of HAND SANITIZER…..yes, indeed…..you can start a roaring fire in the dampest of conditions with just a small squeeze of your hand sanitizer onto a piece of paper or cotton wool.

Once the fire takes hold of the paper kindling, slowly place small wood shavings, twigs and other combustible material on your fire and in no more than a few minutes you will have a nice, warm, comforting fire.

How does it work? All hand sanitizer contain alcohol as the active ingredient…it is the alcohol that kills the germs on your hands!

Magic!

 

3 most important items if you are lost in the wilderness…

By taking part in a pastime that necessarily involves an element of danger, we should always be prepared for times when the worst can happen.

Having a set of the important tools for survival is the first most urgent point.

Let’s have a look at these 3 items.

Knife

Compass

Fire lighter

Of course,it really depends upon where you are lost….if it is a barren area, or solid frozen snow-covered wilderness or the desert, then we may require a few other items than those listed.

If we are in a dense forested area or a jungle (very rare in N America!), then these items will save your life, if used correctly.

The knife is one thing you DO NOT want to lose when you’re hiking….it is said no matter how honed your survival skills, if you don’t have a knife, you’re chances of survival are very low indeed.

What can a knife do? Well, a knife can offer you:

  1. Immediate protection and self-defense while you construct more suitable weapons.
  2. The ability to quickly sharpen a strong stick to make a spear for hunting and for protection.
  3. The ability to cut fruits or edible green matter
  4. The ability to cut vines and/or animal hides into thin strips to use as cord so you can make or build things.
  5. The ability to cut and build a variety of primitive traps and snares to capture wild game.
  6. The ability to properly skin an animal and slice the meat 

The important thing about a knife is this….you cannot make a knife from raw materials if you are lost in the wilderness, period. You may be able to use things like broken glass for cutting edges etc but nothing as useful as a proper knife.

For this reason, I always carry not one but TWO knives, one is a folding one and the other a full length sheathed type.

Types of knives

There is a plethora of knives on sale for hikers and campers…it is up to you to make the correct choice and not be taken in by fancy marketing. First and foremost, my advice is not to waste your money on those Swiss Army knives…they may be good enough for the Swiss Army, but there are cheaper and better alternatives closer to home…we” come to that in a minute.

The best knives are those made of stainless steel…these will never rust and will keep their edges far longer than a non-stainless steel knife.

Also, the construction of the knife is of paramount importance….buy one on which he blade extends all the way back to the end of the handle….that will be a very sturdy knife compared to one on which the blade ends at the start of the handle.

A belt sheath is very useful indeed and ensures your knife will always be handy for immediate use.

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The next item in order of importance is a fire. No matter where we are stranded, a fire immediately raises your morale and composure, making us less likely to give up survival.

And we all know that having a fire going will keep dangerous animals away, as well as providing much-needed heat for warmth and cooking….in some cases, a fire may well signal your presence to those searching for you.

Again, as with knives, there are hundreds of suggested ways of starting fires, but from experience, let me say this much….if you are stranded in an area where it is very damp, or raining, or snowing heavily, the so-called primitive fire method is almost next to useless.

Picture the scenario…you are soaking wet, the air is damp or freezing, you are depressed at being in such a situation and any sparks you are able to create, soon disappear due to the amount of moisture in the air.

As well, in extreme weather, one is very likely to become quickly irritable and fearful, so starting a fire using friction or other primitive methods is very difficult indeed during times of emotional stress.

At present, there are 3 methods of starting a fire….butane cigarette lighters, matches and magnesium fire starters.

Matches

There are many kinds of matches available that promise the ability to light fires in any terrain or condition, but they all depend upon you having the very best, dry tinder, as well as being dry themselves.

If at all your matches get wet, then it will be almost impossible to use them…I have tried reusing dried matches that have been wet, but the material on the match head just crumbles off, so keeping matches dry is paramount.

Next we have butane cigarette lighters….these are very cheap and cost around a $1.50 each. Bear in mind that one of these little beauties, though cheap and simple, has the ability to light around a 1000 fires…that’s one fire a day for THREE years….buy a bigger sized one and you’re talking about over 4000 fires. Butane lighters are very reliable and will light up in the wettest weather…I have used them in rain, sleet, high winds and snow with excellent effect.

Finally, we have the magnesium method. This involves shaving thin strips of magnesium off a block and creating sparks from the flint by striking it with your knife. This can also be very good and reliable, as magnesium catches alight very rapidly.

From my experience, it pays to have all 3 with you, as then you have a fail-safe system. Undoubtably, the best method I can vouch for is the butane method.

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And then we come to the compass.

A compass is vital if you are lost. Even though you may not know zilch about map-reading or using a compass to find your way through to civilisation, it will at least allow you to walk in a straight line, hopefully to a road where help will be available.

Without a compass, your chances of walking in a straight line consistently are next to zero.

Always go for a decent compass….you can pick some up in dollar stores, but would you place your trust one of these? Not me!

There are very useful models available that have several life-saving features included in them…..some have the compass as well as a mirror (for signalling), a whistle (for attracting attention) and a small torch.

I have selected the very best items for you here, that I have used myself and that have proven their worth countless times over.

All these items can be purchased at Backcountry.com

SOG Knives Team Leader Knife

SOG Knives Team Leader Knife

The SOG Team Leader Knife exemplifies simplicity and versatility with its plain-edge AUS-8 stainless steel blade and no moving parts to gum up and fail in the field. The comfortable, no-slip checkered Zytel handle with lanyard hole and included leather sheath round out this simple, effective tool to ensure that you have every possible option for survival.    Price: $62…reduced from $103.45

Suunto MC-2G Navigator Global Compass

The Suunto MC-2G Navigator Compass features:

patented global needle that functions flawlessly anywhere in the world

large mirror

additional sighting hole

luminous bezel ring

magnifying lens

standard issue for Military Special Forces.  Price: $75.56

Ultimate Survival Technologies Strikeforce Firestarter

Ultimate Survival Technologies Strikeforce Firestarter.

WetFire tinder wrapped and stored in the tinder compartment starts without hesitation.    Price: $19.96

Matches and butane cigarette lighters can be purchased from any general store.

Hiking/camping cooking package…

I know myself how difficult it is deciding what kind of stuff you need to buy when planning a hike or camping trip.

Especially when it comes down to cooking utensils etc…..there’s such a huge variety available, that I normally come back home with nothing in hand and my mind spinning with choices!

So here’s a great, well-priced package of everything you need to cook and eat during your hiking.

It contains a very reliable stove, utensils and fire-starter.

FireSteel fire lighter
Weight: 29g
Originally developed for the Swedish military, it functions in the dark, in the wet, and when the wind is howling up the fjords.
Made of magnesium alloy and stainless steel.
Offers at least 3,000 strikes.
Built-in emergency whistle.
Dimensions are 77 x 24 x 14mm.
Price: C$12.50

Stainless steel cutlery set, on a handy O ring to hold everything together.
Price: C$7.50
Weight: 45g

Weight: 935g
This super-efficient woodstove recharges your phone, camera, and other small USB-compatible devices. Via a thermocouple, heat from the flames converts to electricity and loads an internal battery to top up your gadgets. It also powers a 2-speed fan, running a stove so lean and mean that less than 60 grams of dry wood boils 1L of water in under 5 minutes. The BioLite CampStove happily burns twigs, pinecones, wood pellets, and other biomass. Keep your gizmos charged without endless hand cranking or worrying about cloudy days. Campers and preppers rejoice.
Made of stainless steel, aluminum and plastic.
Maximum continuous power output for USB is 2W at 5V. Peak is 4W at 5V.
Charging times vary depending on the device and fire strength. For reference, 20 minutes of charge time typically powers an iPhone® 4S for 60 minutes of talk time.
Pot weight limit is 3.6kg.
Includes stove, fire-lighter, instructions, stuff sack, and USB cord for internal battery charging. USB cables for individual devices not included.
Battery requires intial charging via USB and recharging if the stove is not used for 6 months.
Price: C$130.00
MSR Alpine 2 Pot Set

Weight: 601g
Stainless steel is robust, and the pots can be scrubbed out with sand or pebbles, but this set is intended for ongoing hard use and expeditions rather than delicate haute cuisine.
Made of 0.5mm, 18-8 stainless steel.
Stepped bottom prevents warping.
Minimalist design employs a pot holder rather than attached handles.
Set includes one 1.5L pot, one 2L pot, a pot handle, a nylon stuff sack, and a lid that fits both pots that can also be used as a plate.
Price: C$48

There you go!

This package costs a total of C$198.50…a very reasonable price indeed, for items which are designed to last many years.

Note also that as per my recent post here about the dangers of using aluminium cookware (leaching of aluminium residues into your food etc), I have chosen stainless steel utensils and cutlery, so you don’t need to worry about ingesting aluminium from your cooking pots!

All these items are available from my favorite hiking suppliers, MEC.

😉

The single most precious item in my backpack!

Hardened hikers and outdoor people will agree with me when I say that one of the most important things that can save your life, and bring you instant comfort and feeling of safety, is a fire.

Whether you light that fire with a fire lighting kit, an old cigarette lighter, rolled up tissues or whatever, once it gets going, you somehow feel so good.

I carry a proper fire lighting kit with me at all times when I’m hiking, but it’s always a good thing to err on the side of safety, and have a standby method as well.

UCO Stormproof Match Kit

For that, I carry storm-proof matches. The pack has 25 matches in a totally waterproof container. There is a striking surface on the outside of the container, but just in case that gets damaged, there are 2 more surfaces inside as well….forward thinking!

The matches are very long-lasting, burning for around 10 to 15 secs and here’s the thing…they will relight after COMPLETE dunking in water!

See them here

 

Cold that put out my camp fire!

We all know that sometimes starting a camp fire can be a bit of a pig, especially if the timber you’re using is wet or damp.

But what I experienced once on a hike left me absolutely baffled.

I was hiking in an area way up north in the Yukon in the middle of a very cold spell indeed. You may say that is sheer foolery, putting yourself at such a risk, but, heck, wouldn’t life be one big boring episode if we didn’t take risks now and then….calculated risks?

So anyway, there I was, in an area of absolute wilderness, not a single person or habitation to be seen for many, many miles. And I was very tired indeed, cold and hungry, with the light fading fast.

I didn’t really have much of a choice but to seek out a suitable place to make camp, away from the high winds etc. Upon finding a spot, I stopped, took off my heavy backpack and immediately started erecting my tent, which fortunately was one which you can set up very quickly, no matter what the conditions.

But by the time I’d finished, the wind had stepped up a fair bit, and with it of course came the dreaded killer, windchill. My hands were frozen and I could hardly think clearly, a sure sign of possible hypothermia setting in.

Anyway, the tent was up, which was a major coup for me in those conditions…at least I had shelter! Next up was a fire. Luckily, I had collected some odd pieces of wood, twigs etc during my hike, which I’d wrapped in a plastic bag and tied to my rucksack, so at least the timber was dry.

I managed to get some kindling going, to which I added the timber pieces. And by this time, the wind had really got so damned cold, that my cheeks were hurting from the windchill, and I could even feel the hairs in my nose were frozen.

It’s then that I saw something I’ve never seen before. Sitting crouched in front of the fire, I noticed the timber had started to freeze…yes, really…I could clearly see the pieces of twig and larger branches beginning to turn white with a frosty covering! How could that happen, when the centre of the fire was still burning and giving off ample heat?

Cut a long story short, I sat there desperately trying to get the fire going as much as I could, but to no avail. The conditions were so harsh, that eventually all my material on the fire just became so damn cold, that the fire eventually petered out..absolutely unbelievable!

The night was saved by my stove, that I lit inside the tent and which thankfully worked just fine, and it was only then that I was able to make  some coffee and heat up some ready-to-eat food.

Otherwise, were it not for my tent and stove, I just don’t know what I would have done that night!

So the moral I learnt that night is this, no matter if you have the most advanced fire-making equipment with you, if it gets really cold, you can be in deep trouble, especially if you are in an isolated area, unless you are prepared for it like I was.

Take care….brrrrr!