A Comprehensive Guide to Fatwood: Finding, Harvesting and Using


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Last Updated: August 25, 2021

Fatwood is a great alternative to commercial firestarters and more effective than many other natural firelighters, like dry grass or kindling.

Let’s dive in and find out how this incredible substance can help us.

What Is Fatwood?

Sourced from pine or spruce trees, fatwood is an all-natural, water-resistant, chemical-free fire starter.

Fatwood goes by several other names, which confuses the situation further. Some refer to it as pitchwood, others as pine knot, and still others as heart pine or lighter wood.

Where Does Fatwood Come From?

Regardless of what you call it, fatwood still comes from the same place – pine trees. While this isn’t the only source, it is the most common one. It is, however, possible to harvest fatwood from a few other resinous spruce or conifer trees and even some types of cedar.

Fatwood has been used for generations to start fires and provide a source of light.

If you took a trip back in time to the 1500s to 1600s and visited a member of the Rappahannock Tribe in Virginia, you’d find their “huts were lighted by the means of ‘fatwood,’… stuck into a gourd bowl partly filled with clay.”

These days, we’re more likely to get light from one of the best survival headlamps, but when it comes to making a fire, it’s difficult to hold a torch to fatwood’s flammability.

Where’s The Best Place To Find It?

young pine tree

Fatwood comes from the heartwood of pine trees. When a pine tree is chopped down or dies a natural death, the sap and resin flow down into the remaining stump.

Both the sap and resin contain high concentrations of natural turpentine, which is highly flammable. So, if you’re trying to figure out how to start a fire without matches or a lighter, using fatwood is one of the most effective approaches.

Even when there’s snow on the ground, the pine tree stump will remain dry so, you can start a fire with fatwood even in the depths of winter.

That is, assuming you can find it in the first place.

A pine tree that’s died naturally provides a better source of fatwood than one that’s been chopped down. This is because a dead tree will remain standing for longer than a harvested one, impregnating the trunk with a higher concentration of sap or resin.

How Will I Know It When I See It?

fatwood

You’ll know you’ve found fatwood when the pungent aroma of turpentine overwhelms your senses.

While the rotten wood around the center has an earthy smell, the fatwood in the heart of the tree is imbued with resins, known as monoterpenes. One of these is pinene and is responsible for the pine’s piney smell, while the other, limonene, releases a citrusy odor.

Old, dry trees are the best source of fatwood because the resin has had more time to respond to gravity and accumulate in the base.

Weather conditions and elevation also have a significant impact on the amount of fatwood you’re likely to find in a pine tree stump.

In some instances, you may find the smaller branches of a fallen tree contain enough fatwood to get a fire started or as a solution to the problem of how to make a torch in the woods.

Your best bet, however, is to keep searching until you find an old, dry stump standing alone. If the rest of the tree has already rotted, chances are, the remaining stump contains a high concentration of fatwood which has preserved it against the elements.

Once you’ve identified a potential source of fatwood, it’s time to start harvesting.

How To Harvest Fatwood To Light Your Survival Fire

fatwood tree stump

As fatwood is situated within the heartwood or center of the tree, you’ll need to clear away any bark or rotten wood from the stump so you can access it.

The easiest way to do this is with a survival axe. Scrape away the rotten, crumbling wood until you reach the center of the stump.

If there’s fatwood in there, you’ll soon know about it from the smell. Fatwood is also hard and almost caramel-colored, whereas the rotten wood will be darker and more earthy in both appearance and fragrance.

As the resin has protected the fatwood against decomposition, it will be hard, making it difficult to remove. However, by digging down a little deeper, you should be able to uncover some of the taproot, which also contains flammable resin.

Remove as much of the fatwood as possible, using a portable survival shovel to dig out as much of the taproot as you can.

Once harvested, you need to clean the remaining rotten wood from your fatwood firestarter.

Using a bushcraft knife, scrape away any crumbly, earthy-smelling wood until all that remains is the clean, caramel-colored fatwood itself.

Fatwood with a very high concentration of resin will appear almost red rather than caramel, and this is ideal for starting a fire in damp conditions.

You can now use shavings of the fatwood to get your fire going and keep it burning. With a survival lighter and a few strips of fatwood, you can have a fire started in seconds.

Alternatively, you can follow these experts’ tips for using a Ferro rod fire starter and get your fire going that way instead.

You can also add strips or pieces of fatwood to your bug-out bag so that it’s always close to hand when you need it.

If the effort of locating and harvesting fatwood seems simply too arduous, you could spend a few dollars on commercial fatwood firelighters or firestarter kits and add those to your bug-out bag instead.

Commercially available fatwood.

What Are The Benefits Of Fatwood And Are There Any Negatives?

Fatwood is a natural, chemical-free firestarter that, unlike many commercial gels, waxes, and firelighter cubes, doesn’t release any toxins or unpleasant fumes when burning.

On the other hand, most commercial fire starters contain kerosene or other petroleum distillates that may taint your food or cause an allergic reaction when handled.

Fatwood also works when wet, which many other fire starters won’t, and is quicker to catch alight than most other products.

Fatwood is a healthier alternative to most fire-starting products and can be used safely indoors, as well as in a survival situation. It also keeps well and won’t disintegrate like commercial firelighter cubes.

The only negatives about fatwood are that it can be challenging to locate and even more tricky to harvest.

Conclusion

Fatwood may not be the easiest fuel to find but, if you’re lucky enough to strike gold, you’ll have a durable, rot-resistant, and waterproof firelighter that you can take camping with you or pop into your bug-out bag.

Also read our guide to seven other useful trees for survival.

JanDerChemiker, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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