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.

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!

 

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!

Basic wilderness survival — Fire

photo courtesy ehow.com

It’s all very well posting new and never before tried walks or hikes, but if you happen to be caught out in a storm or inclement weather, and are wet, cold and hungry, the first thing you will need to have is a fire.

A fire has always been the main prerequisite for campers and hikers. There’s nothing else in this world that boosts your moral more than a fire you’ve made yourself.

In this series of posts, we’re going to be talking about some of these very important points, and today we’ll choose fire.

I always like writing from a worst case scenario, so let’s assume the weather is very cold, possibly in icy or snowy conditions, or raining. And yes, you’ve located your matches…but they’re soaking wet and useless.

So, how do you make a fire in this circumstance? Well…with difficulty, is the short answer! But it’s not impossible, so here we go.

Of all the methods that I know of, the very best one that uses just pieces of wood you’ve found, is what I call the Groovy-Slide method (call me a groovy dude!). There are other methods as well, such a using a long stick and turning it like a drill with both hands onto another piece of wood…very ahrd work!

Then there is the lens method, whereby you use a small magnifying lens to start the first spark, but what if you’re caught out in complete darkness….? Another method is to use a carbon steel rod on a piece of flint, a very easy method, but I’m assuming you didn’t pack this!

Ok, so we’re assuming you’ve been lucky in being able to locate some dry wood to use; if you haven’t got any dry wood, then you are in deep trouble really, as dry wood is an absolute essential here, unless you can somehow dry it out. The method I’ve been successful with is what I’m going to describe here, but I warn you now — it’s not easy, no siree!

Right, so you have found some dry wood; one big piece and one long slim piece. Firstly, try and chop the big piece in half lengthways; this will be the bottom half of the firemaker. Then try and trim the end of the longer piece with your knife, and end up with a slightly tapered end, but this is not essential.

Next, with your knife, cut a shallow groove in the bottom piece; this groove is where you will slide the long piece, which hopefully will create some embers relatively quickly and allow you to start the fire.

With the 2nd half of that big piece of wood, scrape some shavings off it with the knife again and put to one side in a dry place; these shavings will be your tinder.

Now holding the long piece of wood at a slight angle, begin sliding it up and down the groove. You will find that after a few strokes, some powderish shavings will begin to build up at the far end of the bottom piece with the groove in it; once enough friction has built up, these scrapings will start glowing as embers and it is these embers you will use to add to the shavings that you saved earlier, to start the fire.

Continue sliding the stick up and down until you can see little puffs of smouldering embers in the bottom wood. Next, very carefully add the shavings to the smouldering embers and very gently at first, blow on them, and soon the shavings will burst into flame.

Once the flame has caught, quickly pile on small, dry pieces of wood or shavings that you saved up earlier, and then gradually put bigger pieces of timber on.

There you are! You’ve started the fire with nothing but 2 pieces of wood, and you now feel really safe, your dark mood has lifted, you are warm, any animal nearby will not dare come near the fire and you can prepare some food. I’ve dredged up a little drawing explaining all this below; hope you can understand it!

But remember, before setting out on your hike, always, always have a back-up plan in case you are drenched and all your fire-making equipment is soaking wet. I always carry a flint and steel set, with which you can start a fire very, very quickly. My suppliers, MEC of Canada, sell a very cheap and thoroughly reliable set here.