It is a well-known fact among experienced Special Operators that when it comes to starting a fire, the use of pitch and pine resin is an easy way to get a fire lit. This pitch and resin are readily prevalent in the Southeast’s pine forests. But for the younger troops who’ve never spent much time in the field, it may be a good thing to learn.
If you find yourself in a situation where you must dry out your uniforms and equipment in a wet environment, this is a quick and easy method to get a fire going. If you’re in a tactical type situation, I’d go very lightly with this method as it does tend to smoke.
If you know where to look, it is usually easy to find enough of this flammable material to get a good fire started quickly, even in rainy weather, as we’ll soon demonstrate.
But before you begin to search for it, what is this pitch/resin? The pitch wood is commonly referred to under a myriad of names such as “Fatwood” or “fat lighter,” “lighter wood,” “rich lighter,” “pine knot,” “lighter knot,” “heart pine” etc. In North Carolina, going thru the SF survival courses and SERE School, they referred to it as lighter knot, so for our purposes, we’ll do the same. But it is all the same.
So where do you find this? Pine trees produce pitch/resin as a defense mechanism for wounds or insect attack. The easiest place to search is in the trunk of dead or dying pine trees.
When the pine’s bark is penetrated by insects or birds, the tree pumps out resin to protect the inner trunk from fungus, rot, or to deter insects. As the trees age, the pine pitch or resin will collect in the heartwood of the tree.
Up here in the northeast, there aren’t as many pines so it actually took a bit of looking. The best area to find it is in a stump of a dead tree, but as luck would have it, there wasn’t one in our search. But we found plenty of dead limbs on a tree and cutting it off close to the trunk, we used our survival Bowie knife to chop off a chunk about 3-5 inches from the limb-trunk connection. Then it is just a case of cutting or chopping small chips of the pitch soaked wood.
It can be chopped into chips or shaved down into tinder. You’ll know when you have the right stuff, it has a strong piney odor to it. I equate it with a turpentine smell. If you find enough of the chips and they’re soaked with the resin, it is easy to put some in a small plastic bag and include it with your survival gear.
Then it just a question of getting it lit which is really easy. The more soaked it is with resin, the easier it is to light. The lighter knot found in some stumps is so soaked with resin it can be lit with a lighter while soaking wet.
In our attached videos, we were supposed to have rain that day, which would have been perfect for our purposes. Of course, it stopped raining and the sun came out while searching for the resin and pines. We waited for a couple of hours in vain for the rain to come back which was forecasted but didn’t happen.
So, we ended up getting the resin and chips and some strips of pine bark, putting them in a bag and leaving. The next day alas we got the rain forecasted and started the fire in a backyard fire pit. But at least we can show the wet conditions that it will light in.
After attending the SF survival portion of the SFQC and SERE this useful bit of information was tucked away. But as we were about to find out, the inexperienced soldiers didn’t have the knowledge of it.
Attending the Warrant Officer Candidate Course at Ft. Rucker, our class consisted of five SF NCOs, a handful of CID NCOs and about 60 young soldiers who were trying to become chopper pilots. Part of our training consisted of busing up to Ft. Benning to do the Land Nav course. The land nav course, according to the TAC Officers who hated SF guys (Story for another time) told the class of the tremendous failure rate because so many of the candidates ran out of the five-hour window given to complete the course.
The Hoffman Triangle it was not. We finished in less than an hour in a downpour that was the aftermath of a hurricane off the coast. The students were soaking wet and cold. We asked the TACs if we could start a fire to dry out. Standing under cover, they said, “Go ahead MacGuyver, start a fire in this monsoon.” SF guys love a challenge.
Myself and two other guys went out in the woods and found a huge rotted stump literally dripping with resin. Putting that in the bottom of a hasty fire pit, we covered it with small tinder and twigs. It lit immediately and with 20 minutes despite a continuing downpour, we had a huge, very un-tactical bonfire.
It kept getting bigger as more students rolled in and we had them keep bringing wood to feed it. By ones and twos, the TACs rolled over as well. Even the smart-ass one. One of the TACs was a non-field MOS and asked us to show us how to do it. Brian B. and I walked him into the woods and went to the stump. It wasn’t magic. But you’d have thought so. It lasted for a few hours until the final navigationally challenged students rolled in. By then we were as dry as one could hope for.
Again, this isn’t rocket science here, just a nice to know little tip that can get you a fire going quickly, even in the rain. Drying out your clothes and equipment is always a plus and will do wonders for your frame of mind.