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.

Hunting wild animals for pleasure…

Like me, you must have seen photos of that lady tv presenter in the USA who is shown smiling cheerfully by the head of a beautiful lion she just shot and killed in South Africa.

Now my personal stance on this is that, ok fine….she paid upwards of $40 000 or so allegedly for the chance to shoot that animal, so in her mind, she has the right to do so.

On the other hand, we cannot condemn people like her for doing so either, when there are others in our world who are quite happy to raise wild animals in semi-captivity, and then allow hunters to pay huge sums to kill those very same animals, for the sake of a living. It’s a tough world we live in…we all need to eat, right?

But hang on just a minute there, buddy….do we really, really need to kill such wonderful animals for the thrills it gives us….and do we really need to provide such facilities for those people…all in order to put bread on the table?

I say no, we don’t. Fine, if I were in a jungle and my life was in danger from just such an animal, then yes, I would be out of my mind not to shoot it and save myself.

But to actively raise that animal, then release it for the purposes of hunting it down….that is not right in my books…sorry.

I know, I know…people will say well if such facilities didn’t exist, hunters would go killing those animals anyway, albeit illegally….and some would say that of the alleged $40 000 or so that it costs to hunt one of those animals, most of the fees go towards conservation. That last point is a semi-fallacy….I know what I’d be doing with that amount of money if I was making it……

So what’s the answer? Well, there isn’t one….I’m not offering an answer here..just making a point against what I believe to be wrong. In closing, there is no sane reason why action like that needs to be taken in this day and age…..that belongs to the Stone Age…when we lived in caves….time moves on….thankfully, we humans have taken huge steps in improving our lives….those poor animals are stuck exactly where they were 1000s of years ago. Don’t they deserve a measure of respect for their lives, just as we do ours?

 

So long life isn’t linked to eating tiger bones then….?

My earlier post today highlighted how endangered tigers are still being killed illegally for their bones, which are supposed to have miraculous healing powers and are said to ensure long life.

Well, the latest news is that researchers have found a little village on a tropical island off China, that boasts an incredible 200 citizens out of a total of 560 000, who are over the age of 100 years old, three of whom are over 110.

The residents live in almost primitive conditions, there is no pumped water and has to be fetched from nearby wells, housing is in homes made of simple concrete, with sparse furniture…but they do have electricity at least.

Work has always been the only exercise the residents get, but it is hard work, all agricultural, planting and harvesting crops, and their diets have always been based on mainly vegetarian plant-based foods.

Aside of simple foods, they do not eat anything else that is extraordinary…no tiger bones, no bear bile extracts, no elephant tusk, no rhino tusk….no snake bile…

One thing, say the researchers is certain though….of all the long-lived populations in the world, none are in wealthy areas.

As my grand-pappy always said…”living in the woods is good for ya..”!

😉