Road flares, magnifying glasses, newspapers, and dryer lint. By design or necessity, all these things can be and have been used to build countless campfires. I’ve warmed myself to many a fire helped along by a generous dousing of white gas. With the availability of modern survival gadgets, including high-tech lighters and squeeze tubes of flammable paste, it’s easy to forget nature’s older, proven resources. Certainly, it’s wise to carry a reliable means of producing fire on any wilderness excursion. It is also advisable to know what to rely on when that Zippo is running low on lighter fluid.
Pitch Pine for Fire
Fatwood. Pitch pine. Fat lighter. It goes by many names, but this evergreen wood, rich in flammable resin, is an unbeatable natural fire starter. Now often sold in precut sticks at hardware stores, this traditional survival aid can still be found in the forest, when you know where to look. While all conifers, like spruces and firs, can contain the sticky pitch, it’s pines where it is usually most abundant and accessible. The inner wood of stumps and knots, as well as the areas around injuries to a tree, often contain the most resin. It can be some hard, messy work to chop this fatwood out. But it’s worth the effort for a long-burning and naturally waterproof fire starter. Once lit, it burns like a smoldering candle, producing a black, sooty smoke, and is capable of getting even damp kindling alight.
Birch bark is another valuable resource for cranking up the heat on a cold night. Identifiable by its peeling, paper-like bark, birch trees contain the chemical betulin. It’s betulin that gives the bark its water-resistant and flammable characteristics. Suitable bark can be easily peeled from living or freshly dead trees; down, rotting specimens should be avoided. To use, simply separate the layers of the papery birch bark and light before carefully adding small tinder to the young fire. Abundant in northern forests, birch bark stores well in packs for emergencies. The Alaskan river guides I know always keep some on hand in the event they need to warm a hypothermic guest.
Tinder Fungus for Fire
Another resource often associated with birch trees is tinder fungus, a.k.a., Chaga (Inonotus obliquus). Unlike fatwood and birch bark, when properly prepared, Chaga doesn’t need the flame of a match to get going. The fungus, which resembles a charred knot growing from the side of a birch tree, has an orangish, cork-like interior. This material, once dried and crushed into a powder, can catch the spark from a flint-and-steel or even an empty butane lighter. Once smoking, the tinder fungus can help ignite dry, fine natural materials, like shredded bark.
Evergreen trees are abundant in many American forests and can provide some of these easiest fire-making materials to obtain. Some of these softwoods, like spruce and hemlock, have dense canopies that shelter their lower branches from drenching rain. There you’ll find not only a good place to wait out a rain storm, but also ample kindling to warm you up after it passes. Break off a sizable bundle of these lower, dead limbs, focusing on the smallest in diameter. Look for pencil-thin branches and whisker-thin twigs. While these are often shielded from precipitation and dry out quickly, you should discard any that don’t make a crisp cracking sound when broken. Bundle the thinnest twigs together and light, adding more small fuel as the flames build. As your fire grows, gradually add larger sticks, progressing from finger thickness to wrist sized wood without overwhelming the flames.
Remember to follow local regulations on fire building and fuel collection and practice leave-no-trace ethics. Most importantly, whether using birch bark or a propane torch, locate, manage, and extinguish your fire with full consideration for the safety of people, land, and property.