6 Trees Every Survivalist Should Know

by A Manly Guest Contributor on December 13, 2013 · 41 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors, Survival

Editor’s Note: This guest post by Creek Stewart first appeared at willowhavenoutdoor.com.

“Living in the open in this way, and making friends of the trees, the streams, the mountains, and the stars, gives a scout a great deal of confidence and makes him love the natural life around him. To be able to tell the difference between the trees by their bark and leaves is a source of pleasure; to be able to make a bed out of rough timber, or weave a mattress or mat out of grass to sleep on is a joy. And all of these things a good scout should know.” –Boy Scouts Handbook, First Edition, 1911

Being able to identify trees can not only be a source of pleasure, as the first Boy Scouts Handbook opined, 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.

Feel free to list other uses for these trees that I may have overlooked in the comments below!

Remember, it’s not IF, but WHEN.

~Creek

__________________

Creek Stewart is a Senior Instructor at the Willow Haven Outdoor School for Survival, Preparedness & Bushcraft. Creek’s passion is teaching, sharing, and preserving outdoor living and survival skills. Creek is also the author of the book Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit. For more information, visit Willow Haven Outdoor.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave Drews December 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I’d like to just say that unless you’re in a survival situation, please to not pull the bark off of birches to start a fire. Often there will be some on the ground, and feel free to use that, but taking it off the tree itself could and often does kill the tree. Just something they impressed upon us in scouts.

2 MCM December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Good article. I’m pretty familiar with most of it but didn’t know about the headache remedy or that Bass leaves were edible. There’s always something new to learn.

Side note: I see a lot of these articles on Eastern flora. Anyone know of a similar article written about the Western or South Western flora?

3 Timothy December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm

This is great. I would love to see more naturalist articles like this.

4 jeff mcinrire December 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Green Willow is also very flexable and usefull to bend around to make a fish net out of & is often long enough to use as a fish pole.

5 David December 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Very interesting article! I

6 Bron December 13, 2013 at 4:49 pm

The “tongue” leaf on Basswood is known as a “brack”, The fruits are nutlets. Basswood is probably the most common wood used for picture frames, especially ones that are gessoed and gilded.

7 Rob December 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm

How can pine tar be taken from a birch tree?

8 Pam December 13, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Slippery Elm. You can live on the inner bark.

9 James Charlesworth December 13, 2013 at 6:30 pm

If you don’t know what you are doing you should not remove the bark from birch trees, although if you do know what you are doing it is easy to remove the outer layers of the bark while leaving the cambium intact and so not harming the tree in any way.

10 Ryan Howell December 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm

The inner green bark of the birch can also be crushed and used as a substitute for aspirin. It is a natural pain reliever and anti-fever preventative.

11 Guzman December 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Tannins in oak leaves (and grape leaves, and others) are good for keeping crispness in brine-fermented foods like pickles.

12 Dan December 13, 2013 at 10:58 pm

You forgot a few important survival trees:

1. Doubletree. A fine hotel and great pillows. Look for the distinctive two-tree logo. Nice breakfast buffet.

2. Orange, Apple, Peach, Pear, Fig trees. Duh. It’s food folks, in a plain wrapper.

3. Christmas Trees. Typically some survivalist fruitcake is wrapped up under them. Fruitcake lasts forever and is reported to be edible.

13 Mojave Joe December 13, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Nice.

I’d love to read a similar article on plants found in the American deserts.

14 Kihe Blackeagle December 14, 2013 at 2:49 am

Every environment has useful trees / shrubs / bushes. I too found this article to be biased toward the eastern USA.

Some quick examples of alternatives for OK and north TX: staghorn sumac (dried berry pods for a pleasant tea); red cedar (high-resin kindling, and another self-sheltering species where lower/inner branchs and bark are often sheltered from worst of the falling precipitation); black jack and other oaks , esp. post oak (blackjack hold the leaves on the twigs longer into winter and may provide shelter/shelter-building materials where evergreens are not found; post oak provides long, straight trunks for a variety of uses; liveoak is non-resinous yet semi-evergreen and the leafy branches make for sheltering options); ETC.

PLEASE NOTE: *never* cut living wood when dead will provide what you need, and even then a good Scout will only fell a tree in true emergency circumstances / conditions. (With very few exceptions, the most common of which is where the landowner makes a prior agreement with a Scouting unit to provide brush clearing or similar services in exchange for some part of the harvested trees…)

SYOTT,
Kihe

15 MMetsoja December 14, 2013 at 5:27 am

Very interesting article! Lots of fun to read plus useful and informative!

But in addition that Basswood has edible leaves it was not meantioned that its dried flowers (blossoms) can be used to make tea (which I am drinking right now). This tea is good agains cough ant etc.
(I live in Europe and probably have some other kind of Basswood here and not familiar with American Basswood.)

16 Sean December 14, 2013 at 8:27 am

Excellent article. The more common Pin Oak tree, also yields edible acorns (boil first and add sugar to taste).

17 Mike December 14, 2013 at 8:31 am

According to this list, a survivalist better hope she’s in New England or maybe Canada.

18 Don Edwards December 14, 2013 at 11:21 am

All but the White Birch are readily available all over Georgia. I have Basswood, White Pine, Sugar Maple, White Oak and Willow on our farm near in Augusta GA.

19 Alex December 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm

I’m in Southern Illinois and see all of these trees regularly with the possible exception of American Basswood (I might see it, I just doubt I’d recognize it if I did), so I think the list has more versatility than some readers are giving it credit for. Though, it is more focused on the Eastern half of the US.

20 George Michel December 14, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Great article! A very useful read. I’m gonna make myself some pine tea in the next few hours. Cheers!

21 Big Murth December 14, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Yup….like a few others have already noted—you’ll have no problem surviving east of the Mississippi, if you follow the author’s recommendations. Here in NM though, it’s high desert flora and on up through another five-six life zones to end up in the Canadian zone in our southern tier of the Rockies—very unique to this part of the world, so I’d welcome some sage (pardon the pun) advice from Native Americans, and others who have lived off this land—to guide us accordingly, while we’re afield.

22 Josh December 15, 2013 at 6:10 am

Another cracking article, really enjoyed reading it. As a boy I was always taught that the Druids of what is now Britain once used Willow bark for it’s pain-relieving qualities; nice to see that knowledge being echoed here!

23 Glenda December 15, 2013 at 8:52 am

Fabulous article, thank you! Everyone everywhere needs to know & be able to execute survival strategies, and you have provided SO much valuable information here.

One correction under Sugar Maple uses, “cooling” should be “cooking”: ‘I also use the leaves to wrap fish or other small game animals when cooling {cooKing} in an earth oven.’

Thanks again!

24 Jorge Vidales December 15, 2013 at 3:14 pm

These only work for northern wood, the only one of those that grows here (central part of mexico) is the willow tree, I’ll give my best tip here, there are over 50 vareities of pine here in a lot of woods, almost half of wich produce ocote, the core of the pine, just look of a fallen one that has not been there too long (over 5 years) and hack at it till you get to the core, it will be resinuos and the best fire starter ever, also, a big chunk will produce a lot of light when burned, ideal for a torch, a 10 inch by 3 pieze will last for about 30 minutes, or if lit in a fire, up to an hour.

25 Tim December 16, 2013 at 7:16 am

Just wondering how one would harvest sugar maple sap in a ‘survival situation’ aka few tools.

26 Dusty December 16, 2013 at 9:35 am

Sassafras is a great one to know. Make a good tasting Tea out of the root. Google it.

27 Mac December 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Very cool stuff. Unfortunately, only useful east of the Mississippi River. How about a rocky mountain west followup version?

28 Iris December 16, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Good article, although I have to admit that the willow description kind of made me worry for folks, since I could easily see someone confusing it with an oleander. However, hopefully people have enough sense to do some more reasearch now that they’ve been given a place to start!

29 Darren December 17, 2013 at 12:26 am

Great stuff! A few extras; someone above mentioned sassafras. Many people have made tea from it for centuries. It is a natural anticoagulant (some say better than warfarin). Also, the salicylin from the willow bark is the root of both aspirin and salicylic acid, which is used for wart removal. Not necessarily a survival need, but hey, warts can be pesky.

30 Zach December 17, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I’d like to make a correction.

Tea can be made from yellow birch, not paper birch. Paper birch has no flavor, which is why it is often used to make Popsicle sticks. Yellow birch, on the other hand has a winter-green taste, and I think it smells like root beer.

31 Homer December 20, 2013 at 9:30 am

Birch inner bark makes a beautiful paper for writing notes or very elegant letters. Both the light-brown side and the white side can be used for this. In North Russia a 800-year old birch-bark letter of a farmer to his wife was found in a forest, still readable. Using a pen is good, but you can write with the tip of a knife, too.
Also: Very few kinds of wood burn well when not dead dry, but living alder branches (emergencies only!) burn very wet, too. How to recognize? Grows in wetlands, has small dark “pine cones”.

32 Andrew December 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Just one minor correction, By looking at these species of trees it is assumed this is eastern U.S.. That means the white pine is probably eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) which does not produce pine nuts. The type of pine nuts that people would eat is pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) if in the western U.S.

33 Eliel December 27, 2013 at 11:09 am

We did a leaf project back in high school, which taught us the scientific names for most of these bad boys, but we learned nothing about all of things each one can be used for. Very useful material here guys, keep up the great work.

34 Sandra Taylor January 3, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Acorns can be crushed and used for a coffee substitute.

Locust trees have edible blooms and the blooms can be used in making a fine wine.

35 Donn January 18, 2014 at 6:08 pm

So…how about an article for us who live in the desert Southwest?

We have Ponderosa Pines, Pinyon Pines
3 types of Junipers, Siberian Elms, & Cottonwoods

36 Woodgnome January 20, 2014 at 4:01 am

Amusingly, American basswood is a pretty good wood for actually making basses (as in the instrument) out of.

37 kyle January 21, 2014 at 12:38 pm

I was under the impression that the birch tree contained the chemical which drug companies copied and later became aspirin, or was it aspen trees. Anyway I would love to see some articles that would be of good use to us on the west coast, our terrain and vegetation are completely different. It I’d VERY hard to find good information, some of the only stuff I’ve found was in really old books.

38 kyle January 21, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Hmm I guess I was thinking of something else willow bark it is.

39 alaskathia January 24, 2014 at 4:43 am

Very good information,we live in Kenai Alaska,can u tell us bout our eatable trees here?we 2 have white birch&cotton wood&pines(don’t know what kind,tiny pinecones tho)please&thank u 4 all the valuable info. :)

40 krys January 27, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Excellent informative article. I have to admit I didn’t know any of this. Living in the northwest, I don’t think most of these trees grow in this region. An article specific to each of the geographical regions of the US would be very helpful!

41 Cam March 24, 2014 at 12:29 pm

For those not living in the Northeast US, here are some common trees in Alberta (and most likely Northwest North Americas in general):
-Poplar/Aspen
-Various Spruces, Firs, and Pines
-Birches
-Willows

I’ll leave it up to you guys to find out their uses. Google is your friend.

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