Friday, December 28, 2012

Wilderness Survival: An easy way to find Fatwood in the Rockies and Beyond....

Photo Credit: Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, ©2012

Fatwood (also known as pitchwood in the West), is Mother Nature's finest tinder. It is a resin-impregnated, orange to reddish colored wood found predominantly in Yellow Pine trees. When lit, fatwood burns ferociously as if it were soaked in gasoline. It will burn under the worst weather conditions, even while rain or snow is falling.

Fatwood is easily ignited with a firesteel, magnesium, or conventional fire-starting tools (lighters, matches, etc), so if you can find it, it's your best bet to get a good, hot fire going under damp conditions.

A piece of Lodgepole Pine fatwood burning with an intense flame

Many websites and forums offer tutorials on finding and identifying fatwood, but they tend to focus on looking for dead, "skeletonized" pine stumps in the forest. While dead stumps certainly offer good opportunities for finding fatwood, they can be difficult to find in some wilderness areas. Another challenge with finding fatwood in stumps is that not all stumps produce fatwood.

Stumps can also be hard to process into manageable pieces without heavier tools, and have been known to roll/chip/break the edges on survival knives and machetes. A more reliable, and often over-looked way to find fatwood is at the base of dead pine branches (pine knots).

Types of trees to look for

After spending the last few years wandering through forests of the Colorado Rockies and sampling hundreds of Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pines, I've discovered that these trees produce a lot more fatwood than you might think.

Ponderosa Pine and Lodgepole Pine trees cover vast areas of the Western States and Canada, so finding them is usually not very difficult if you're close to foothills or mountains. Ponderosa Pine produces the richest fatwood in its knots, but Lodgepoles also produce highly flammable, usable fatwood as well. Pinyon Pine in the Southern Rockies may also offer a good source. I am currently planning a bushcraft trip to Southern Colorado/Northern New Mexico to verify this and will report my findings in an update.

Harvesting the Fatwood

To find this type of fatwood, look for dead branches at the base of the previously mentioned types of pine trees and cut them off at the knot. It doesn't matter if the tree is dead or alive, as long as the branch itself is dead. Pruning the dead branches won't hurt the tree if you saw it clean, and it actually helps the tree resist becoming a "fuel ladder" during a ground-burning wildfire. Just make sure to use a saw when practicing this technique so that the trees still look nice once you're finished (I use a Coghlan's 7" folding Sierra Saw as shown in the photos).

Live Trees

Here's a typical candidate-- a Lodgepole Pine at an elevation of 9,000 feet in the Central Rockies:

Closeup of the lower section of the tree. The circled dead branch is the one I will try first, since it is low on the tree, and in my experience, the closer to the base, the more pitch laden it will be.

Using my Sierra Saw to saw off the dead branch reveals an excellent vein of rich, highly flammable fatwood:

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Here's a similar result after sawing off a dead branch from a Ponderosa Pine. Ponderosa's are so rich with pitch that cutting branches higher up on the tree can also produce good results.

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***One thing to note is that not all dead branches have fatwood at the base. You might have to saw off a few branches before you find one that has it, or you might hit a tree that has fatwood in every pine knot. The majority of trees will have at least some, so it is just a matter of searching.

So how do you process this fatwood into useable fire tinder? Check out the "Carving out a pitchwood stick" section below for the different ways to do this (all are very easy!). Before we get to that section though, I want to show you some more scenarios in which to find this type of fatwood.

Dead trees

Dead trees can be an excellent source of pine knot fatwood, or they can be rather "dry", depending on the tree. Dead Lodgepoles tend to be "dry" when compared to dead Ponderosa Pines, but even dead Lodgepoles can produce enough useable fatwood to make a fire. Below is a typical example. This is a dead Lodgepole that has been thoroughly dried out by the high altitude sun, but still has small veins of good fatwood in its knots:

Note the dark areas of fatwood in this sawed-off lower branch:

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I then used my Mora bushcraft knife to baton and carve out the piece to get to the richest area for use as tinder. See more about how to process these knots in the "Carving out a Pitchwood Stick to use as Tinder" section below.
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Small Branches on living or dead trees

Do not discount small branches as a source of quality fatwood! On this same dead, very dry Lodgepole, I found several branches that looked just like this one:

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Roots can be an excellent source of fatwood, but I tend to avoid them if possible. In Lodgepoles especially, most roots will be dried out into plain wood, plus, they are usually coated with tiny rocks or sand which will quickly dull or even destroy the edges on your cutting tools. However, if you're freezing to death and you've found a large source of fatwood in a tree root that will make for a big, hot, warming fire, then obviously your choice to proceed will be different.

Here's a dead Lodgepole with the roots exposed. A quick check of one of the roots with my axe reveals that it is solid fatwood. One way to check roots to see if they might have fatwood is to tap on the root with the poll of your axe or the back of your knife. If it seems as though you're tapping on something almost as hard as a rock, it is likely to contain fatwood.

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I then used my Sierra Saw to cut this piece off, which helped to preserve my axe bit by not having to chop through it.

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This piece turned out be excellent fatwood, and was large enough that I could re-use it many times by shaving off just what I needed to make a fire.

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A sliver of the root fatwood ignited. Note the black, oily smoke coming from it. All true fatwood emits this kind of smoke when ignited, and it is a sure fire way to know if you've found the real thing when you're first starting out.

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Ok, you're lost in the wilderness without a larger folding saw, axe or hatchet- how do you harvest fatwood?

So you're lost, and all you have is a multi-tool or a fixed blade - how do you harvest fatwood? If you have a fixed blade knife, just baton off the branch as close to the base as possible. Here, I baton off a fatwood branch with a Mora Fireknife, using a dead branch that I found on the ground as a baton. Just cut a notch the same way you would chop one with an axe or hatchet and it's fairly easy to remove. This could even be done with a sharp rock and a baton if you lost your knife.

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If you have a multi-tool with a saw on it (like a Leatherman), just use it to saw off the branch at the base. You can then carve out a fatwood tinder stick with it as shown below.

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Carving out a Pitchwood (Fatwood) Stick to use as tinder

The easiest way to harvest the fatwood from the knot is carving out what I call a "pitchwood stick."

In an average branch, the fatwood will only run a few inches up from the knot, though occasionally you'll get lucky and it will run up the branch 6 inches or more. Just take your cutting tool and remove enough outside material to get to the rich fatwood inside. Here's one I did with a Leatherman Charge AL:
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Here's the Ponderosa fatwood branch that was batoned off with my Mora FireKnife and shaved into a pitchwood stick:

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Of course, if you have a fixed blade knife, you can just baton away the excess and then use your knife to carve away the finer pieces until you hit paydirt. Sometimes, like in the photo above, it's just quicker and easier to carve down into the pitch knot to get to your tinder.

Using your fatwood to start a fire

Once you have a pitchwood stick carved out, you can easily shave pieces off to start a fire. As mentioned at the beginning, fatwood ignites and burns as if it were soaked in gasoline. If all you have is a firesteel, there are two easy ways to ignite it. 

If you're experienced at using a firesteel, you can just shave off pieces and ignite them. If you're less experienced, or the conditions are especially harsh or wet, then scrape your pitchwood stick with a sharp object (even a sharp rock can work well) and make as large a tinder pile as possible. Here in the Rockies, dead Aspen tree bark makes an excellent platform for holding your tinder while you scrape it into a pile as shown:

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Igniting the tinder pile with a firesteel. NOTE! Never use the back of the saw blade on your multi-tool to scrape tinder or strike firesteels unless it is a lock-blade!

(click to enlarge)

Making a pitchwood tinder necklace

If you find a fatwood knot where the pitch runs at least 3"-4" up from the knot, and is at least as large around as your thumb, you can drill a hole through it and make your own pitchwood tinder necklace.

All photos: Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, ©2012

NEXT ARTICLE: How to make a Pine Knot Torch for emergency light

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About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)


  1. There not many but I have my places to find a few pines that I know of.  I can't say where though, as there's probably only enough for me :) 

  2. Make sure to get some pics if you find some, would love to know how well this works in different parts of the country.

  3. Thanks Outdoor, let me know if you find anything down your way. 

  4. Awesome write up Jason.  I haven't checked lower dead branches either.  Thanks for puttin the time in for this one.  It lengthy but worth it.  

  5. The only pine tree native to Finland is the scots pine, and I've found fantastic fatwood in scots pine stumps. I'll have to collect some lower dead branches the next time I see some low enough to harvest.

  6. Excellent, I've heard that Scots Pine is one of the best fatwood producing trees outside of the States. Would love to see pics of the results of your harvest if you wouldn't mind posting a couple in this comment section. Happy New Years!

  7. You're quite welcome Weekend. From what I understand, this technique might work with any resinous pine tree, so I'd love to know if any of the trees in Finland produce these results.

  8. Great info! I've been using fatwood for a few years, but never thought to check lower dead branches. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Thank you, I really like your site, you consistent in having good quality info that I can use. Keep up the good work.

  10. Dont' discredit the dust from the saw.  If you have a way of collecting it when you saw through the branch, you may not have to make as many scrapings when you process the fatwood afterwards.

  11. Good point about the sawdust, but I've found it unsafe to saw an elevated branch with one hand while trying to collect the sawdust in the other. 



  12.  Hey Jason.  I tried this out and found some.  I did a post you can check out if you want on my last outing. 

    Thanks again for the tip.  This worked great!

  13. Awesome stuff.  I can't get enough of your "bushcraft" reviews.  I've read and re-read the tree identification blogs and I just recently found pitch would at the base of a dead branch...came home...and you had posted this very useful information.  I felt like your information confirmed my own experiences.  How's that Mora Black holding up?  

  14. Thanks Ken, glad to know those tree id posts helped. 

    Mora Black Carbon- love it. In fact, I've stated it carrying it on all my field excursions.


  15. I got another score doing this.  This time not even looking for it.  Just knowing what to look for I noticed some while walking a long.  And it was better than the last time.   

    This is seriously a great tip people.  Something for the mental gear bag for sure.