Collecting pitch from pine trees is an easy way to keep fire starters outside in the event you need or want to have an outdoor fire in the winter.
Collect the pitch almost any time of year by scraping the whitish resinous sap that oozes out of the pine tree on to small sticks and save them in a covered bucket. Only use sap that has already formed on the outside of the tree so that the tree doesn’t get damaged. Keep the bucket outside or in your basement for easy access. Even if the pitch is in hard clumps you can usually break pieces off with a knife and store them in a coffee can. Light the pitch-sticks to add fuel to your kindling or wrap chunks in newspaper for a nice extra burn. I have been known to take the longest stick I can find to reach the big globules that form 10 or more feet up in a pine tree and knock it down to the ground to collect it. Even the sap that drips on to the ground below will stick to pine needles which can be gathered by the handful and used to kick off a nice fire. Because the pitch is only in a semi-liquid state during certain times of the year, making pitch-sticks is a time-sensitive activity that I take advantage of. The rest of the year is an opportunity to add to my stockpile.
One issue to be aware of is that pitch is very sticky so a pair of old gloves just for this job might be the best way to go. I don’t always have gloves with me when I’m in the woods so if I don’t want to smell like a pine tree for the rest of the day I just make sure to keep the pitch attached to something other than my hands.
On my own property at the base of all of the pitch-pine trees are my extra stashes which accumulate because I can’t walk past these trees without knocking off any new drips which have hardened and leaving them there on the ground. At any time I can go and find these piles for campfires and such, leaving my cans and buckets undisturbed until I might really need them.
The best thing about collecting pitch, aside from the benefit of augmenting your fire starting ability, is that it’s completely free. Being a scavenger at heart I feel a sense of adventure in finding a natural resource that I can harvest without needing any special equipment. It’s one of those things that stays on my back shelf as an option should I ever need it. One of these days – maybe soon as here in the Northeast it’s been relatively mild – I plan to formulate a recipe for a neat, compact brick composed of the natural materials in my own area that is well-suited for compact storage to take on hiking trips and other scenarios. Sometimes the best laid fire just won’t get going, so this is a way to make sure you’ll have an advantage over quirky weather when a good fire makes the difference between comfort and misery. And to add a surprise to collecting pitch – one day I was digging around the trees and found a big hunk of natural amber resting a couple of inches below the soil. Amber comes from very old undisturbed tree sap. At first I thought it was a walnut but on looking closer after I wiped the dirt off there it was.
So keep an eye out for this magic substance that’s ready to be put to use.
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That’s great! Don’t you just love a beautiful Northwest?! I would also add for anyone, anywhere that dryer lint is a great fire starter. Unless you don’t have a dryer, most of us do and that irritating dryer lint we have to clean out between each load can be saved in a bucket or can. I have a 2 gallon bucket that took me only 6 months to completely fill/packed from a family of 6. Also, while your at those pine trees, I’ve heard the pine cones are pretty good dry tinder – and their light weight too!
I would add that if you are out in the woods and come across a downed birch tree, if you can you should strip the bark and keep it for firestarters. It peels off easily with a knife (you can usually even get a significant amount with your bare hands) and it burns as well or better than pitch, even when wet. When I worked at a boy scout camp in northern Minnesota, I used the stuff daily and there were times when I used it to start even wet kindling going.
Do NOT peel bark off a standing tree, as it will kill it and birch are hardwood and slow-growing.