One of the most fundamental skills that anyone can learn is how to build and maintain a fire. Whether you are camping or in the middle of a true survival scenario, fire provides light, heat, the ability to signal, and a degree of protection.
It’s awfully important, and should not be underestimated! But getting a fire going in the middle of the wilderness is surprisingly hard when all of your fuel is damp or suboptimal.
Fatwood is something you’ll hear about regularly when it comes to starting a fire in less-than-ideal conditions.
What is fat wood exactly, and how can you find it?
Fatwood is the resin-impregnated heartwood taken from a dead or dying pine tree, or other evergreen. It’s highly flammable and water resistant, making it a great firestarter. You can typically harvest it from dead or fallen pine trees in the wild using a hatchet or axe.
Fatwood is so beloved by outdoorsmen and survivalists for a very good reason: is one of the very best all-natural fire starters, it is highly portable, water repellent, safe and has no harmful or unpredictable chemicals.
In short, it is awesome! But there’s a little bit more you’ll need to know when it comes to tracking down this sometimes elusive resource.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you what you need to know about fatwood…
Why is Fatwood So Good for Starting Fires?
Whether you’re camping, hiking, or prepping for the genuinely unexpected, being able to a build a fire- reliably and quickly- is paramount for success.
And the “reliably” and “quickly” part is where fatwood comes in.
Fatwood, also known as fat lighter, fat stick, fat lighter or pine knot, is a naturally occurring tinder that is rich in resin containing terpenes.
Terpenes are flammable compounds that give a pine tree’s sap and resin their unique qualities.
Accordingly, fatwood ignites easily and burns both hot and long, and will do so even when wet.
Imagine trying to start a fire in the rain otherwise; most of us have! It won’t go well no matter how fancy our lighter might be.
But with fatwood, this daunting, demoralizing task becomes achievable and even easy.
What Advantages Does Fatwood Have Over Man-Made Tinder?
Modern man-made tinders can be convenient and readily available, but when it comes to sheer reliability, safety and effectiveness, fatwood has them all beat in my estimation.
Unlike so many commercial fire starters, fatwood is completely natural and doesn’t depend on weird chemical additives to light up and burn.
It’s also incredibly versatile: you can use small pieces as tinder or in larger chunks as kindling in a tough spot to help start larger, stubborn or damp fuel.
And did I mention it’s free? Well, free minus the sweat equity you must invest to find it and carve it from the stump of the tree itself.
Where Does It Come From?
Fatwood is found in the cores and stumps of pine trees that are either dead or dying, and specifically in the most resinous species.
When a pine tree dies or is so injured or sick it starts to die, the resin and other fluids in it will stop flowing and will start to accumulate in the core low down on the trunk near the ground and in the roots.
Over time, this resin saturates and eventually hardens the heartwood into what we call fatwood.
It is possible to find smaller pieces of fatwood anywhere the pine tree has developed knots or anywhere it has scabbed over an old cut or other injury; as long as that resin accumulated in the wood, saturated it’s, and then hardened you can harvest fatwood.
But, as mentioned above, the best stuff comes from low on the trunk or in the stub from a completely dead or dying pine tree.
It takes a lot longer to scavenge the small chunks from a healthy specimen.
Can You Get Fatwood from Trees that are Chopped Down?
Yes, but you’ll only get high-quality fatwood from pine trees that died naturally while standing.
Fatwood can be made and harvested from chopped, live trees, but it’s less effective than the genuine article.
Fallen, dead pine trees are some of the very best sources of fatwood: The stumps left behind often contain a huge quantity of this resinous wonder.
The good news is that there are invariably plenty of dead and dying pine trees out in the world anywhere that they’re plentiful, so you won’t need to chop down a live one and then wait for it to harden up or season before you get down to harvesting your fatwood.
How To Identify Fatwood in a Dead Tree
Look for pine trees that have been dead for a while or are injured.
The key is to find the heartwood, which will have a darker golden or reddish color and a very strong, piney smell. Pieces will feel heavier than regular wood due to the concentrated resin.
When you cut into it, you should also feel significantly more resistance because the resin drastically hardens the fibers of the wood.
Now, to be totally clear, you aren’t looking for rotted wood here and you probably got to clear away rotted wood from a very old dead tree to reveal the fatwood, if it remains.
If the wood is soft, crumbly, and smells earthy or punky, that’s not what you are after.
Fatwood has a bright, golden caramel color or a reddish hue in the case of the best stuff, and still looks surprisingly healthy because it has been basically preserved, petrified you might say, by the sap and resin.
And don’t forget to use your nose! Fatwood has a distinct, intense pine smell. That and the color are clues that you’ve found it.
The more you hunt for fatwood on your travels, the better instinct you’ll develop for spotting and sourcing it.
How Can You Harvest Fatwood?
Harvesting fatwood requires care and a sharp tool like a hatchet or knife.
Start by locating the resin-rich heartwood in the stump or trunk of a dead pine tree as outlined above. Then cut into the wood at an angle to remove rotten or non-resinous chunks.
When you reveal the fatwood, you can start to harvest it based on your needs.
Just chop into it and collect pieces that are about the size of your thumb for easy storage, transportation and use or you can try to extract larger pieces to be turned into proper kindling or processed later.
Sometimes, depending on the complexity of the stump or trunk you’re dealing with, you might just have to take what you can get, but do your best to avoid waste because this stuff is rare.
Will Fatwood Will Light and Burn Even When Damp or Wet?
Yes. Like I said above, dampness or rain will not hurt fatwood.
Even better news, fatwood will light and burn even when it’s wet. Its high resin content makes it truly waterproof.
So, even if you find yourself in the middle of a downpour, you can still start a fire.
How Should You Light Fatwood?
Lighting fatwood is super straightforward. Simply shave off small slivers or curls from your piece to use as tinder. These thin pieces will catch a spark or flame easily.
Once they’re burning, you can add larger pieces of fatwood or other kindling to build your fire as usual.
Larger chunks will ignite readily from an open flame, so be careful!
How Should You Store Fatwood?
Fatwood is tough and almost impervious to the elements, but storing it properly ensures it’s ready for use when you need it. Luckily, it is as easy as it gets.
Keep it in a dry place away from direct sunlight and intense heat. You can store it in a cloth bag, a tin, or a plastic container.
I always carry a small amount in a waterproof bag in my pack.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.