The right axe, the sharpest knife, the most incredible recipe—none of these matter if the wrong wood is selected for your intended purpose. Knowing what wood works best for cooking, for heating a shelter, for making tools and for other outdoor tasks is the key to backwoods survival. From a basic understanding of what characteristics embody green and undesirable wood from seasoned wood, it is easy to apply this knowledge to specific tasks.
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Travel to just about any public campsite and evidence of ignorance is everywhere. Living trees are hacked away and semi-charred “firewood” litters firepits. Inexperienced campers don’t realize green wood contains upwards of 45-percent moisture. Living trees are not just those standing tall. Trees that are partially bent over, and even those completely on the ground, can still be alive and green. While this wood might be accessible, it isn’t optimal. A short walk in any direction usually yields wood better suited for burning. There are times to use green wood, such as grilling baskets for food and when carving ornamental designs and objects, but it should never be used as firewood.
The two most common attributes used to identify wood are grain orientation and the presence (or absence) of knots. Grain refers to the fibers that run the length of the wood, and knots are the branches that were taken over by the trunk and have caused an imperfection in the wood. Both grain and knots can cause wood to split unevenly, and both can make woodworking difficult. Depending on how a tree grows, grain structure can spiral or zigzag as growth rings develop. Knots can be compacted to the point where they can make a blade stick while batoning, causing the user to apply force against the edge at an angle that creates half-moon-shaped chips in the steel. In general, trees have predictable growth patterns with branches growing alternately, in a spiral or opposite from one another.
What makes wood ideal for the job? For firewood, the right wood is that which has a low moisture point. In the Northeast, this means wood has about 15- to 20-percent moisture. In the desert, moisture content is considerably less. For ease in splitting, the right wood is that which is straight-grained as well. Finding this wood usually means finding dead, standing trees that have had time to dry. Also, the ideal campfire wood is hardwood. This includes maple, oak, beech, hickory, plum, hornbeam and walnut, to name a few.
Firewood isn’t just good, dry hardwood. Depending on the purpose, split wood may be used to burn more efficiently or full rounds to burn longer. When laying out firewood into cords, remember to cut 16-inch pieces. This will make for easy stacking into an 8-foot-long, 4-foot-high and 4-foot-deep stack.
“Knowing what wood works best … is the key to backwoods survival.”
For campfires, log cabin fire layouts burn consistently with good split wood. For star fires, where the ends are pushed in and burned from one end to the next, I prefer logs, as they can be easily rotated to burn evenly. When using a full body fire lay, splitting wood isn’t as easy as laying out long logs that are left whole. For teepee-style fires, both split and round wood will work well, but I find split wood won’t roll off and topple as easily when stacked.
Fire by friction is significantly easier with the right wood. The time-honored method of selection has always involved the thumbnail test. This is accomplished by driving a thumbnail into the wood. If no nick is made, it is too hard. If a nail drives right in, it is too soft. But if a good nail nick is created with reasonable pressure, it is good wood.
This method is used predominantly when the friction fire practitioner does not have a good grasp on tree identification. Over time, he or she will learn how to discern willow, basswood, poplar and white cedar by the bark, leaves and growth patterns, rather than by the feel. Once the right wood is selected for the set, the real test of skill begins since friction fires require carving skills, endurance, coordination and patience. Just remember, the drill and the hearth board should be the same wood, as having one harder than the other will cause the harder wood drill to either pass through the fireboard, or the hearth board will “pencil sharpen” the softwood drill.
The more time you spend at a camp, the more time there is to construct tools and furnishings by carving and lashing. Digging tools can be made from hardwoods like beech and ironwood, and through fire-hardening can prove exceptionally useful. When making tools, the outdoorsman should select green hardwood. Bark is stripped off except where it is used as a grip. The digging “edge” or point is placed in the ashes of a fire, where there is heat but no air. This process rapidly removes moisture, creating a very hard wood.
If no fire is available, some woods like striped maple can have the bark removed and almost overnight will dry and lose a lot of water content.
If you’re looking to create a quick-burning and hot fire, softwoods like cedar, pine and spruce should be used. Often, these softwoods will be found with needles still attached, making the fire-starting process one step easier. These woods contain resins that are highly flammable. The grain structure is not as tight as hardwoods and therefore these woods do not create long-burning, dense coals. The fires made with these woods burn very quickly and create high levels of heat and light. Just like wild plant identification, wood selection is an important survival skill. Everyone uses the expression “do more with less,” but if the wrong wood is used, the survivor is actually going to do less with more. Selecting the right wood will help conserve calories by using the survivor’s energy more wisely. Learning the right woods takes time and careful study through observation, but once a good working knowledge of wood is acquired, you can go into the backwoods knowing you have what it takes to survive.
This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Spring 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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