Silver birch are very common trees in the UK. They are also very useful trees. Birch makes great firewood, although it is fast burning. The dead twigs burn easily, and are perfect for kindling. In Spring, birch trees can be tapped to collect the sap, which can be used like maple syrup or fermented to make birch wine. The bark can be heated to produce resin that makes a strong waterproof glue.
But what we’re interested in is the bark’s papery and flammable qualities. The bark of silver birch trees has a thin, papery layer on the outside, which ignites easily even when wet, making a perfect fire starter.
Silver Birch Distribution And Habitat
Silver birch is very common across all of the UK, and is easy to find in most areas. It is also a native tree to large parts of Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan and has been introduced to many other countries, including the USA.
Silver birch is a pioneer species, which means that it’s one of the first trees to grow on bare land, or recolonise after a forest fire. The seeds are very light, so they travel easily on the wind. Silver birch trees are often found in dry woodlands, heathland, on open hillsides and even clinging to mountainsides.
How To Identify Silver Birch Trees
The bark of the silver birch tree is the most obvious clue to its identification. The outer layer of the bark is white or silvery colour, with a papery texture. The branches droop, with triangular leaves that have jagged edges growing from smooth leaf stalks. The similar downy birch, more common in Scotland, has hairy leaf stalks, and does not have the papery white bark.
Using Silver Birch Bark As A Fire Starter
Preparation For Lighting A Fire
Find an area of bark on a silver birch tree where the outer papery layer is peeling off, as shown in the photo above. Pull the loose end of the peeling bark to remove pieces of it from the tree. You don’t need to cut in to the tree, or damage the bark below the very thin top layer. You can store this bark in a dry place to use later; it’s always worth taking a little more than you need to add to your fire lighting kit. It it’s wet, put it in your pocket for a few minutes so that your body heat will dry it slightly to make it easier to light.
Lighting The Fire
When you are ready to light a fire, first collect enough kindling to get the fire going. It’s much easier to start a fire if you have everything you need to hand before you start. The silver birch tree also offers a great source of kindling in its twigs. The tree often has many very tiny dead and dry twigs still attached, or you may find some on the ground around the tree. The smallest twigs are often not much thicker than matchsticks. If you can only find thicker dead twigs, split them with your knife. Aim to have 3 or 4 handfuls of thin twigs, and a handful of larger, dry sticks (1-2cm thickness) ready.
Next clear an area of earth. Make sure that you have pushed any dead leaves or anything else flammable well away so that your fire won’t spread where you don’t want it. Place a few sticks on the ground as a base to lift the dry tinder off the cold damp earth.
Crunch up the silver birch bark in your hand to break some of it up into very small pieces. Place the bundle of bark onto the sticks you are using for the fire’s base. Use a firesteel to scrape some sparks onto the birch bark. Silver birch bark lights easily, even when damp, so it should soon catch fire from a spark.
Once the birch bark is burning well, place some of your smallest pieces of kindling on top. Make sure that air can still flow easily to the flames so that the fire doesn’t go out. Gradually add more kindling, and use the larger pieces once the fire is burning well.
Leave No Trace
It is important when you have finished to put out the fire and leave the area just as it was before. Once the fire has burned down to ash, pour some water over the ashes to cool them. Mix the ashes into the earth to make sure there is no chance of the fire re-igniting. Cover the area with leaves or whatever was covering it before.
As a bushcrafter, it is important to leave no trace in order to respect the environment as much as possible. As a prepper it is important also to learn to cover your tracks for your own security. Leaving no trace means that no one will know you were there.