Friday, 20 January 2017

Fire Pits, Mounds, and Platforms

Fire is one of our best friends in a wilderness emergency, and we need to plan accordingly for it. When it’s time to set up a fireplace, you’ll need to figure out exactly where and how to build it. Some conditions require a mound underneath your fire, while other circumstances demand a fire pit. And in a few situations, the fire has to be on a platform in order to burn at all. Here are some of the conditions in which to use each.

Fire Pits

These are the most common places to build and maintain a fire. Most fire pits are circular, dish-shaped depressions or holes. They can be almost any size or depth, depending on the size of the fire you need. These depressions cradle the fire, grouping the coals in the center to help them burn longer and hotter. You don’t want to make the hole so deep that it keeps in all the heat, unless you’ve had to build a fire under very windy conditions. For this case, you’ll want to create a Dakota fire hole. This is a Native American fireplace style which burns wood efficiently like a wood stove; and it provides a greater margin of fire safety by keeping coals and flames fairly contained in windy conditions. This setup involves two holes in the ground with a tunnel connecting them at the bottom. The “upwind” hole stays empty and acts as a funnel to catch the wind. The fire burns in the “downwind” hole, relatively safely.

Fire Mounds

In wetter climates, or in areas prone to sudden downpours of rain, the fire mound makes a lot of sense. Fire pits can easily fill with water and drown your coal bed. When this happens, your fire is doomed. The ancient forebears to the Seminole natives started using simple mounds of sand to keep their fires going in the wet and swampy terrain of the American southeast. This technique is still in use there today. Fire mounds can be made from almost any non-flammable material: Sand, soil, mud and stone can all be used to give you a mound for a high and dry fireplace. Build the mound as tall as you need, from a few inches to a foot tall.

Fire Platform

Burning a fire on top of the snow is often one of those things that you never really think about until you have to do it. In areas with little snow, you can always dig down to the soil surface to build your fire. But if the snow is very deep, or you lack digging tools, fire on top of the snow is the best option. Less experienced outdoor enthusiasts often get a rude shock the first time they try burning a fire directly on the snow. The fire starts out normally enough. Then the snow melts, which puts out your coals and leaves you with no fire and a jumble of wet, black sticks. To solve this problem, you’re going to need a platform. This can be a manmade material such as a piece of metal for a platform. You’ll just need some logs or rocks under it, so the metal doesn’t melt the snow underneath. If you don’t have metal, the platform can be made of dead wood, rotten wood or green wood. This last choice is the best, because the live wood has enough moisture in it to keep it from burning for a few hours, but not so much moisture that it puts out your burning sticks or bed of coals. You can use whole chunks of wood or split the wood in half to create a very flat platform. Obviously, the whole pieces will last longer than split wood. Replace the raft as needed.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Paradisiacal Pine Resin

Pine resin or pitch is the secretion from pine trees caused by cuts in the tree trunk or from broken limbs. The trees secrete the resin to seal up any cuts or damage to the tree. If you find yourself lost or stranded in a wilderness environment one of the best-case scenarios is that there are pine trees in the area. Pine resin exposed to the air will harden/crystallise but it can be softened for use by heating.

Medical Uses for Pine Resin

Treating wounds

A traditional use for pine resin has been as an external treatment for burns and sores. A long-term study was done by Russian scientists and published in the April 2002 issue of the “Byulleten’ Eksperimental’noi Biologii I Meditsiny” found that pine resin, as a main active ingredient in Biopin ointment, inhibited antibodies found in bodily fluids but aided healing and prevented infection by boosting cell immunity. The ointment did not cause irritation or allergic reactions.


Native Americans have used pine resin to treat rheumatism because of its anti-inflammatory properties. The resin acts to remove the joint inflammation caused by rheumatism, which helps to restore movement and to alleviate pain. The Costanoan Indians gained these benefits by chewing on the gum-like resin.

Other Uses for Pine Resin

During the American Civil War, the Confederate surgeon Francis Porter used pine resin as a stimulant, diuretic, and laxative. In China,  the resin from a particular pine tree is used to treat abscesses. Resin from the spruce tree was used by colonial Americans as a cold and cough remedy, as well as straight from the tree as a cancer treatment. Physicians in colonial America also recommended tar water, or ground pine resin mixed with water, as a remedy for ulcers, smallpox, and syphilis. These are traditional holistic medicinal uses for pine resin that have not, as of yet, been confirmed by modern science as effective, but that does not mean there is no basis for some of the claims made about resin’s anti-inflammatory properties.

This may be so but the fact is that the resin once applied to a cut or scrape will inhibit the growth of bacteria because it denies the bacteria the moisture it needs to survive. Because of its very sticky nature, pine resin can be applied directly to a bleeding cut to help stem the flow of blood and close the wound up similar to stitching. Some survival experts use pine pitch in place of super glue to seal up cuts. Leave the resin in place, and reapply as needed. There have been reported cases where serious bleeding wounds have been stemmed using pine resin.

Waterproofing Shoes and Other Materials

Pine resin is essentially impervious to water so it can be used to treat objects to make them resistant to the damages caused by moisture. It can be used to seal seams, repair breaks/holes in boats, shoes and structures to prevent water leaks. In a survival situation, you may have to repair holes in boots, shoes and shelters. You can also use the resin to waterproof the lower half of your hiking shoes or boots.

The resin must be heated to liquid form so it can be applied to the material. Avoid heating the resin in a shallow container over an open flame because the flames from the fire can easily ignite the resin, which is highly flammable. Let the fire burn down to coals before heating the pitch. Find a short green stick and repeatedly strike one end to create bristles in the wood, (paintbrush) or chew on the end to break the fibres apart so they can be used to apply the pitch. Use the resin to repair holes in canvas and heavy nylon. Lay the material flat where the rip or seam is exposed. Once the resin is heated to liquid form, apply using the fibrous end of the stick.

Pine Pitch Glue

Warm the resin to liquid form and while the resin is heating, crumble some charcoal from the fire as fine as possible. Once the resin is ready, remove it from the heat and stir in the powdered charcoal. The amount of charcoal added should be about one-third as compared to the volume of the pitch. Find a solid stick with a blunt end and dip repeatedly in the mixture to form a ball of pitch on the end. You may need two sticks. This is how the glue is stored until needed. The glue will harden and to use heat until pliable.

Use the glue to form fishhooks, repair the soles of shoes and use to repair holes in water containers. Use the glue to apply feathers to homemade arrows or allow hardening on the ends of fishing/hunting spears to prevent splintering. Glue in a survival situation has unlimited uses.

Fire Starting

Pine resin is flammable and can be used to help start a fire in damp conditions. You may find yourself in a situation where all of the available wood is damp but this does not mean you have to go without a fire.

Find some hardened pine resin and some pine sticks/branches. Split the sticks and look for streaks of resin in the wood. Use magnesium shavings and a flint bar or you can use a Ferro rod to ignite the pitch. Lay some dried pine needles near the pitch and ignite the pitch. It will burn like a candle long enough to dry the needles out and you can begin adding small pieces of the pine which even if somewhat damp in the middle will burn because of the resin. Once you have, a sizable flame established you could then begin drying out other wood.

Illumination and Heat

You can use pine resin to create a lamp. Find a stone with a depression or use a clamshell or any type of shell that can be filled with resin or use a cupped shaped piece of bark. You will also need material for a wick. Use some twisted cloth or even dried moss. Fill the depression with the pitch and lay the wick material on top. You ignite the wick first, which will, in turn, ignite the resin. The resin will burn like a candle and you can feed it more resin to maintain the flame once ignited.

To use as a heat source place a metal container that has plenty of air holes in it over the ignited pitch. The metal container will absorb the heat and conduct to the surrounding area. This method will not heat a large area but will warm hands and feet in an emergency.


In most cases, you will find damaged pine trees/broken limbs that have secreted resin. It is recommended that you first look for damaged and fallen limbs before you purposely cut into a pine tree to harvest the resin. If you have to damage the tree do it in a small area on one side of the tree only. Only take as much as you need, you must allow some resin to remain on the tree so it can protect the cut to prevent boring insects from destroying the tree.

References and Resources

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Plant Lore: Cattail

The most common cattail (Typha latifolia) that we all recognise is a tall plant often found growing in dense stands in wetland areas, such as marshes and bogs. Various other species of cattail are found worldwide.

General Characteristics:

The very recognisable and familiar cattail flowers begin as green spikes (female parts) with loose, dangling hairs containing pollen (male parts) above that. Once fertilised, the female parts turn dark brown and the male parts fall away, leaving a stiff, pointed spike. The leaves are very tall and narrow (grass-like). A tall marsh plant, that grows in dense groups. Early in the year, the top of the head has a slender tail of lighter coloured staminate flowers, the lower dark brown area being tightly packed pistillate flowers. In fact, the flowers are very prolific, one stalk will produce an estimated 220,000 seeds. Even with this number of seeds, cattails colonise by sending up clones from the creeping rhizomes. It has been recorded that a cattail marsh can travel up to 17 feet in a year with prime conditions through the cloning process. Colonisation can happen quickly, as one new seed produces a plant, that new shoot in its first year will send out rhizomes for ten feet in all directions and can produce 100 clones in that first growing season. Cattails can reach heights 3-9 feet.

There are some poisonous look-alikes that may be mistaken for cattail, but none of these look-alikes possesses the brown seed head.

Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus) and other members of the iris family all possess the cattail-like leaves, but none possesses the brown seed head. All members of the Iris family are poisonous. Another look-alike which is not poisonous, but whose leaves look more like cattail than iris is the Sweet Flag (Acorus calumus). Sweet Flag has a very pleasant spicy, sweet aroma when the leaves are bruised. It also does not possess the brown seed head. Neither the irises nor cattail has the sweet, spicy aroma. I have seen large stands of cattails and sweet flag growing side by side. As with all wild edibles, positive identification is essential. If you are not sure, do not eat it.

The list of uses for this plant is quite extensive and it has been said that if a lost person has found cattails, they have four of the five things they need to survive: Water, food, shelter and a source of fuel for heat—the dry old stalks. The one item missing is companionship. Some of the plant's major uses are:

Food source

The stems a few inches above the soil line in early summer are young and tender and can be peeled and eaten raw or boiled. The roots are great as well, simply pull the lower stalks until the roots break free, peel and eat raw or boil. The cattail will also develop flower heads that can be eaten by roasting as if you would an ear of corn. By mid to late summer, pollen will collect on the heads and it is easily shaken loose into any container to be used like flour to make bread, pancakes and can be used for thickeners in gravies and sauces. The roots in late fall and early winter can be mashed and soaked in water to release the starch. The starch will settle on the bottom and will resemble wet flour. Drain the water off and make bread, by adding a little pollen or add to clean water to make soup. Cattails are an ideal survival food because they are easily recognisable and grow practically anywhere there is water.

Shelter Material

The green leaves can be cut and woven together into shingle like squares for covering a shelter roof. The material will provide protection from the rain, snow and the wind even after it has dried. Weave a sleeping mat by making two long mats. Connect the mats on one side so it can be folded like a sleeping bag. Before folding over fill one side with pine boughs or other material suitable for sleeping on and then fold the empty half over and tie off so the “stuffing” is secured inside. You can fold the mat up and carry it with you if you have to break camp for another location.

Medicinal Uses

Cattails are truly a survival plant in the truest sense of the word. They not only provide, food, material for shelters and cordage cattails have medicinal uses as well. To treat burns, scrapes, insect bites and bruises split open a cattail root and “bruise” the exposed portion so it can be used as a poultice that can be secured over the injured area.

The ash of burnt cattails is said to have antiseptic properties and many people have used the ashes to treat wounds and abrasions. If you look closely at the lower stems you will notice an amber or honey like substance that seeps from the stem, use this secretion to treat small wounds and even toothaches, because it also has antiseptic properties.

Baskets or Packs

You can get creative and weave baskets or small packs for carrying food or other items. Cross a number of leaves together and once you have the base the size you want you would fold the pieces up and then weave around the sides to secure the shape. You can easily weave handles or straps into the basket/pack. The basket will become stronger as the cattail leaves dry and harden.


Peel strips from the leaves and allow them to dry somewhat. Once dried braid at least three strips together to create a line for fishing or use in shelter building.

As you can see there are many edible and useful parts of the cattail, but now we are going to take a look at the uses for the fluff from the seed head:


Once shredded from the seed head, the cattail fluff expands into a soft, string-like material – perfect for trapping sparks to create a campfire. Ensure you mix some other material with it as well. However, cattail fluff can burn very quickly, sometimes too quickly!


For starting a fire with old-fashioned flint and steel sets, or when using a magnifying glass to intensify the sun’s rays to start a fire, Charcloth is an ideal product to use.

The steps to create this handy material are quite simple; just pack a metal box with cattail fluff, pierce the box with a nail to make a small hole, then place the box into a campfire for 5 minutes. Use a stick or rod to remove the box from the campfire after some time, then let it cool. Now you have a premium Charcloth!

Lamp wicks

The first people to roam America were the Paleoindians, and they had many resourceful ways to survive in the harshest conditions of the New World.

A simple oil lamp was one way that they lit their caves and rock shelters. A pinch of cattail fluff rising up out of oil made for a fine wick. Try it yourself! If for any reason you don’t have any ‘mammoth’ fat, try a block of lard with a cattail wick.


You can use cattail fluff inside any item for warmth, such as your hat, some of your clothes, or your footwear. It’s like a plant-based variety of insulation.

Insect Repellent

In certain situations, the smoke from the seed head of a smouldering cattail can be a substitute for insect repellent. On a fire safe surface, put the smoking cattail head upwind from your location and the bug repelling smoke will waft over you for 20-30 minutes. You can even leave the seed head attached to the stalk and stick it in the ground as a stand.

Have you tried using cattail for any projects? If so, please tell me what you did by leaving a comment