I don’t know about you guys, but growing up, I often found myself frustrated by Indiana Jones’ survival skills. I mean, the guy hates snakes, falls in a pit full of them, and comes out of it unharmed! He even manages to save the girl.
With a bit of help from one of humanity’s greatest discoveries — fire.
Now, don’t get me wrong. In all honesty, I have nothing against Harrison. He seems like a decent guy.
What I do have a problem with is the fact that Hollywood makes everything look unrealistically easy.
I mean, come on! You’ve tried building a fire by yourself at least once in your life, right? You know as well as I do that it’s not as simple as gathering a bunch of dry branches and throwing in the last match from the box.
But still. It’s doable. You know how to do it. And if you dont know, NOW you know.
But how on Earth do you make a torch?! A whole bunch of movie characters have held that flaming beacon of hope up high at crucial moments in the plot. And if someone else hasn’t handed it to them, they have made it themselves. In a couple of seconds. By wrapping an old rag around a stick.
I hate to repeat myself, but come on! It just doesn’t work that way in real life. Not even for Bear Grylls.
Making a torch in the wild, especially in an emergency, requires skill and some essential materials. Namely, you will obviously need a stick, flammable materials (cattail, old rags, toilet paper), and some slow-burning fuel (pine sap, paraffin, cooking oil).
Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll also need fire to light your DIY torch. But you already know how to build that, right?
So let’s imagine you’ve already built a strong fire or have a lighter, and let’s focus on our topic for today — teaching you how to make a torch in the wild.
Method #1: The Primitive Torch
Despite the improvised name, a primitive torch can last you for hours on end. That is if you manage to make it properly.
If you find yourself lost or in desperate need of some light in a wetland, then you might be in luck, my friends!
Wanna know why?
Because the wetlands are the home of corn dog grass! That’s right, fellas. Freshly picked cattail is the mother of all primitive torch materials. If you manage to find it, you won’t even need a stick! Nature has taken care of that too.
Can’t find cattail? Don’t panic. There are other things you can use. Think river cane and reeds. As long as it’s long, wet and green, you can use it to make a torch. Just remember to always have something to bind the branches together with.
Once you’ve bound everything together, you’ll just need to soak the top in a slow-burning fuel of your choice. We’ve already mentioned that you can use cooking oil and paraffin, but you could also make do with animal grease.
If you’re out of luck with all of the stuff we’ve mentioned so far, it’s still not the time to panic. You’ll just need to find a sturdy stick and some soft bark to use as a wick. It would be ideal if you could get some birch bark, as its very elastic and easy to manipulate. You’ll need a strip that is around 2′ long and about 6″ wide, so you’ll probably need to peel it off straight from a tree.
As far as the stick is concerned, I should note that it should be at least 2′ in length and about 2″ thick.
Once you’ve gotten your hands on your torch supplies, wrap the bark and secure it tightly around one end of the stick. Then, stuff it with dry leaves, wood chips, dry grass or moss. Seeing as all of these things burn really fast, you’ll obviously need to soak the torch in some sort of fuel. You can use the same stuff I suggested for cattail.
Method #2: The Minimalist Survival Torch
In case you’re not very familiar with the territory you’re hiking through, I suggest you curb your adventurism just a bit. I love being in the outdoors too, but there’s one thing you guys need to remember — nature is unpredictable. You need to know your survival basics.
One of the golden rules of survival is to always come prepared. Relying on luck is for rookies. And we’re not rookies.
That goes for torches too.
If you have some old rags that you can afford to let go, you can just use them instead of bark. I’d only like to note that the rags should be from natural materials, preferably cotton. Polyester or stretch fabrics are not a good idea, as they don’t really burn. They melt and create a lot of black smoke, which is not the effect you’re going for. So if you can, steer clear from artificial fabrics.
Furthermore, it would be great if you could tear the rags into thin strips. I know it seems like a lot of work, but it’ll pay off in the long run, I promise. Find an old T-shirt or a cloth you don’t need anymore, and tear it into strips before even leaving your home. Put them in a bag, and bring them along in your backpack.
Whether you decide to prepare the strips beforehand or tear them when the need arises, you’ll still need a stick to wrap them around. Again, make sure that the branch is approximately 2′ in length and about 2″ thick.
Once you’ve wrapped the strips around one end of the stick, you’re one step away from lighting your torch. You’ve guessed it — you need slow-burning fuel of some kind.
I’ve already mentioned several fire accelerators that you could use. However, I understand that mistakes happen, and sometimes bringing paraffin oil is the last thing on our mind. Luckily, you can also make do with simple cooking oil or even bacon grease.
When soaking the strips, make sure you saturate it thoroughly. If you fail to do so, the fabric will be too dry and will burn too fast. The goal is to keep the improvised wick burning for as long as possible, not to burn it like firewood.
Method #3: The Tree Resin Torch
Now, I’ve saved this method for the very end because it requires a bit more knowledge and skill. And before I teach you how to make a tree resin torch, I have some explaining to do.
Because I don’t want to assume you know what tree resin is and where you can find it. (If you’ve read my previous posts, then you know how I feel about assumptions)
So let’s cut to the chase.
What is tree resin?
Tree resin, or tree sap, is a sticky substance that you’ve probably seen oozing from evergreen trees. Its primary task is to speed up the process of healing the “wounds” in trees. In addition to that, it helps decrease the loss of water during droughts.
But have you ever wondered why evergreen forest fires spread like crazy and reach hellish levels within hours? Well, it’s because tree resin is a highly flammable substance.
As such, it’s a perfect natural torch fuel. With it, your torch will burn brightly for long periods of time.
Making the torch
If you find yourself in dire need of some light, and you’re hiking through an evergreen forest, finding sap is going to be a piece of cake. Just look for a pine or spruce that have “wounds”. It might take some time to spot the sap, but be patient and keep your eyes wide open.
In some cases, you’ll find fresh sap which will be clear and syrupy. Don’t take that. Technically, you wouldn’t be making a mistake, but you’d be exposing the tree’s “wound” to mold or bugs. Since you’re hiking, I’m going to go against my better judgment and assume that you actually like nature. So don’t do anything that would harm the environment, okay?
Instead of taking freshly oozed sap, look for the one that resembles beeswax. Those yellow clumps are what you need. However, when collecting them, make sure that the “seal” of the “wound” remains intact. Eco-friendly survival, remember?
Anyway, I think that I don’t need to tell you how much tree resin you should collect. That will depend on how long you’ll need your torch to burn, as well as on how big it’s going to be.
Much like getting the fuel, making the torch bearer will require a bit of extra work. Namely, you’ll need the following supplies:
- A branch
- A sharp cutting tool
- At least two twigs
- A pine or a spruce cone
With your axe or knife (click to learn some skills), you’ll need to make two bisecting cuts on one end of the branch. By doing that, you’ll split the tip into four prongs. Now, you’ll need to widen the gap between them, so find two small twigs and insert them criss-crossed into the gap.
Once you’ve ensured that the gap is wide enough, you can focus on making the wick for your torch. In case you have a cone, get as much tree resin as you can between the scales. If for whatever reason you’ve decided to opt for something else (cattail head, old cotton socks), just make sure you smear the resin all over it.
After you’ve prepared the wick, you’ll need to insert it into the torch bearer. You’ll probably notice that the prongs are too far apart, and you’ll be right. That’s why you’ll have to remove the criss-crossed twigs. The prongs will close in on the wick, making the whole torch a bit more stable.
To secure it entirely, you’ll need to use some sort of cordage. Just make sure that, when you do so, you tie it right under the wick. That way, it won’t catch fire, and it will hold everything in place.
Now, there’s one thing I need to point out here. The tree resin torch will not provide too much heat. Granted, it will give you a lot of light, but it won’t do much for you if you’re cold.
A Word or Two in the End
Now that you’ve learned three different ways to make a torch in the wild, you’re almost good to go.
There’s just one more thing I’d like to mention.
The fact that a torch can save your life does not make it any less dangerous for you or the environment. Please, treat it the same way you’d treat campfire — responsibly.