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Sap, Resin, and Pitch. Differences and Applications for Survival

Sap is where pancake syrup comes from, resin clogs your smoking pipes, and pitch is what you do with a ball, right? Well, not quite, close though. Sap is the lifeblood of trees or other plants, but usually when we refer to sap we are thinking in terms of a tree. Sap runs through the outer layer of a tree. If you were to cut through the bark and outer most layer of a tree, all the way around the tree, the tree will die.

Respect the Trees

This is why in survival situations if you are utilizing natural elements, you must consider the damage you are doing to the tree. A tree is a living, breathing organism. If you use it for materials needed for, say, making pitch to seal a vessel, or a canoe, or for affixing an arrowhead to an arrow, you must respect it and treat it as such so that it continues to live and breathe and provide materials for you.

birch use canoe

Look for Naturally Occurring Resin

If you must collect resin from trees, look at several trees and try to find an area that is already secreting sap and gather that, rather than injuring the tree yourself for the intention of gathering sap for pitch or other uses. It should be mentioned that the best time for collecting sap is in the early spring when the sap is running. It can be done at other times of the year, but with greatly reduced results.

The “V” Cut

If you find that you MUST wound a tree to collect sap for pitch, or whatever use you intend, one method for doing so is to use your hatchet or knife and cut a “V” into the tree. Then use another piece of stick that you have sharpened to a point and flattened, insert that stick into the bottom of the “V,” and the sap will run and drip off the stick into a collection vessel.

Tap Pine Resin

Collecting Naturally

If you find naturally occurring injury areas on the tree, you can collect the hardened resin from that area. If you were to collect that resin and mix it with charcoal dust, then it becomes a form of pitch. The terms pitch and resin are often used interchangeably.

 

Here is a video showing the “V” notch method but in an extreme way. I don’t think I would recommend doing this much damage to a tree.

Here is a video showing collection of naturally occurring sap from a damaged area of a pine tree, I prefer this method of collecting as it doesn’t injure or damage the tree.

Boring and Tapping

Another method for collecting sap in greater quantities is to bore a hole approximately one and a half to two inches deep, and then drive a spout into the hole. In the old days they simply hung a bucket off the spout to collect the sap for syrup making. The modern method is to run tubing from all of the tree taps into a larger tube, and run the larger tubes into the container or directly into a building. By going directly from the trees to the collection vessel or boiling pot, you will have no worries for insects with this method.

Here’s a video of tapping a sugar maple using tubing to collect the sap:

Here’s a video showing how to make maple syrup from the collected sap:

Sap

Sap is usually pretty watery, and it is, in fact, what pancake syrup is made of. Only the sap from a sugar maple tree is used for that. If you have ever cut green wood when pruning a tree or cutting fire wood, or maybe you carved your initials in a tree when you were a stupid kid, then you probably saw sap in the form of a clear liquid at the cut site. This is basically the tree bleeding, when the sap that comes from the “wound” hardens into the sticky resin, that is in essence “scabbing” of the wound.

Here is a video showing collection of sap that can be used for hydration that seems like a pretty good method for a survival situation if it really works like he shows although I have never tried it:

Pitch

Some people refer to the sticky stuff that gets on them when they are messing with green pine trees as sap, but in reality the sticky, thicker substance is pitch. For example, if you chopped into a pine tree and it “bled”, that thinner liquid would be the sap.

Resin

If you came back to that tree a few days later and saw a collection of the liquid sap had thickened in the cut you had made, that is resin. That is the trees way of sealing its “wound” and protecting it from outside bad nasties from getting in the cut.

Here’s a video showing how to make pine pitch from the collected resin:

Uses for Sap, Resin, and Pitch

Some uses for this resin are using it for an adhesive, as previously mentioned. If you needed to affix an arrowhead to an arrow shaft, after you wrap the shaft with binding material, you can then use the resin to make pitch to more firmly secure it. You could probably use the resin alone, but I would prefer to bind it, then use the pitch.

arrow glued with resin diagram

Utilitarian Usestorch

You can also use it to start fires. You can even make a pitch torch by covering the end of a stick with pitch. You can use the natural sticky resin directly off the tree as an adhesive. If you heat it to a thick liquid then use it to bind materials together when it tries it forms a tight bond, very similar to hot glue. You can even use the sticky resin from a pine tree to close a wound on yourself if you have no other way of closing it.

 

SHTF Emergency Sustenance

Of course as the video shows, you can drink the sap directly from the tree. It can have fairly high sucrose content, sugar maples that are used to make maple syrup have about 2% sucrose. If you are in a survival situation, that drink of maple sap can actually help give you badly needed energy and hydration. Sort of like natures Gatorade.

Here are 30 tree species that can be harvested for sap:

Maples

  • Apollo maples
  • Arrowhead maples
  • Inferno maples
  • Unity maples
  • Japanese maples
  • Sugar maple
  • Norway maple
  • Rocky Mountain maple
  • Big leaf maple
  • Black maple
  • Silver maple
  • Canyon maple/big tooth maple
  • Red maple

Walnut trees

  • English walnut
  • Black walnut
  • Butternut/white walnut

Birch trees

  • Virginia round leaf birch
  • Swamp birch
  • Cherry birch
  • Paper birch
  • Gray birch
  • Black birch
  • River birch
  • Yellow birch
  • European white birch

Other types of trees that produce sap

  • Hophornbeam
  • Gorosoe
  • Heartnut
  • Box elder
  • Sycamore Ironwood

Now many of these are actually new to me, I was aware of a few, birch trees, maples, walnuts; but I’ve never even heard of most of those listed. After all, I’m not a biologist, or botanist. If you are seriously vested in learning how to harvest sap, I would suggest you learn what trees from the list are indigenous to your area. The sugar maple has the highest sucrose content. Several of the others are very close to the same content. However, many of those do not produce as much sap.

Edible Sap

Although these trees are commonly harvested for their sap, this is not an all encompassing list. There are other trees as well, but these are the most commonly occurring and most commonly used trees for harvesting edible sap. For example, in Asia the rubber tree is harvested for its sap, but that’s not for eating. Pine trees weren’t on the list but they are harvested for sap for other uses.

Multi-use Materials

Besides what I have already mentioned above, here are several other uses for pine sap and pitch. Medicinal uses for pine sap include using it as a topical antiseptic and you can chew it to help soothe a sore throat. It probably doesn’t taste very good, but if you’re stranded in the woods and have a sore throat there ya go.

You can carry little clumps of pine resin with you to help start fires as the resin is very flammable. You can also use it to make pitch stick candles by coating a stick with pitch, like a mini torch. Once you have a fire going you can use some charcoal to crush and mix with the resin to make an even better pitch for fire, candle, and torch making as the charcoal adds fuel for the resin to burn with.

Here’s a video that shows you how easily pine pitch burns:

Last pitch

I’m sure I have listed many uses for this amazing natural substance, but I don’t claim to know everything. Just know that when you are in the wood, the trees are your friends.

They can provide wood for fire to keep you warm, nuts for you to eat, sticks for you to build bush craft items like weapons, traps, boats, fences, and shelter.

They can provide sap that you to drink on the spot or collect and make syrup from and they can provide pitch to use as adhesive and bandages, and a myriad of other uses that you can think of.

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About Eric W. Eichenberger

Eric W. Eichenberger

Eric Eichenberger is an avid outdoorsman, skilled marksman, and former certified range officer and instructor with nearly 40 years experience handling and repairing firearms.

A skilled craftsman with a strong love for working with his hands, Eric spent 20 years as a carpenter and custom woodworker in high end homes. As a gold and silversmith he has created hundreds of pieces of jewelry over the years using the lost wax casting method.

The grandson of humble country folk, he was raised with the “do it yourself” mentality and so is accustomed to coming up with unique solutions to problems utilizing materials at hand.

3 comments

  1. glad to see you emphasizing treating the tree with respect as a living organism and minimizing damage when collecting the tree’s “blood”.. too many humans treat all plants and animals simply as convenient resources. as a result, this beautiful planet is dying a painful death. they don’t seem to grok when the planet dies, we die.

  2. Government Mule

    Nice condescension, preaching about not hurting trees. What do you think we are, children? Let me preach something to you: if I want to chop a tree down for no reason, I’ll do it and think nothing about it.
    The trees were made for me, not me for them.

    • For having yearly resources in a survival situation that you can rely on, thank you for showing the less harmful way to cultivate. I want to keep my resources there myself, not kill them off or you end up moving once everything is gone or dead. I like the sweet stuff too much!

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