Gathering birch bark

Traditional uses

The bark is extremely strong and durable, although it has a tendency to split horizontally. It can be cut, bent and sewn and has many practical uses. Traditionally (even up until recently in some cases) this versatile product has been used for water-proofing buildings, making containers of various sizes, birch-bark canoes and many other things. With a little care this tough membrane could be your best friend in a primitive situation and ranges up with the top utilitarian materials in abundant supply. The bark contains an oily resin which makes it ideal for fire-lighting purposes – there are things you should think of, however, before you go out and start gathering.

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The bark can be fairly easily removed from the trunk of the tree by using a sharp cutting tool, like a knife or billhook, making a long incision perpendicular to the horizontal pattern, and then peeling the bark away from the tree taking care not to create splits. This is easier said than done, however, for a couple of reasons. One – the tree is most probably quite a bit taller than you are. That means you will either need a ladder or other climbing implement, or you will need to take the entire tree down. This is a time-consuming process. Secondly, the degree to which the bark clings to the tree varies with the seasons and environment. A mountain birch in winter, for instance, is almost hopeless. The easiest time of year to gather this is in spring or early summer, because of temperature and the high amount of birch sap.

Hints and tips

For fire-lighting uses, however, this is a hopeless method. First of all it is time- and energy consuming. There is also great risk of cutting yourself making the incision, needless to say a very foolish thing to do. Thirdly, of course, it is not good for a living tree to have its outer layer torn off simply because we wanted a fire. Trees are living things and should be treated with respect. If we need to kill them we should make sure it is for a good reason, and that we do it in an orderly and correct manner, just like when we hunt our food.

A much better way is to do it like shown in this video – by taking the bark from dead trees still standing or even on the ground. Because of the oily content the bark keeps for many years even as the rest of the tree rots away. This can be collected and used on the go and you will not even need to dry it beforehand.

This short instructional video shows you how to gather birch-bark in an easy, low-risk, quick and gentle manner. A general discussion of birch bark is also covered, with regard to which parts to use, how to implement them and a few things you should avoid.

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