Survival Skills: How to Use Birch for Fire Starters, Containers, Tea, and More

If you are fortunate enough to live within the native range of birch trees, then you have a lot of interesting survival options at your disposal. Birch can provide you with firewood and containers, and the right species of birch can even be turned into a tea and sweetener.

For friction fire building with birch, you can use the dead and dry branches for your drill and fire board. These materials are effective, but not quite as easy to use as willow or cedar. By far, the best fire related use of birch comes when you burn the papery curls as your fire starter. This birch paper is like a stepping stone between tinder and kindling. Whether wet or dry, these birch bark curls will burn strong, creating a black oily smoke. Any birch species that produces papery bark will be useable, but the white birch (aka paper birch) is the most effective. You'll need an open flame like a match or lighter for best results in lighting the bark. Spark-based fire starting methods are not particularly effective for lighting the bark strips.

A great variety of containers can be made from birch. Little things like bowls and dishes are easily made. Bigger stuff like canoes are a lot more work to build; but are light weight and rot resistant. The bark can be peeled from rotten logs, or cut from live branches and trunks during the spring peeling season.

Another one of my favorite uses for birch is to make black birch tea. This birch is also called the sweet birch (betula lenta). The twigs and young bark have the rich, mouthwatering aroma of sweet wintergreen. Shave off a few strips of this bark from a young branch, or break up some twigs into small sticks. About a tablespoon of material will be plenty for an 8-ounce cup of tea (though you'll probably want to drink more than just one cup). If you make this tea in early spring when the sap is running, the tea will be naturally sweetened by the sugar in the sap. Let the bark shavings or twigs sit in the water for a few hours for the full sweetening effect. This was the original source for birch beer, too.

And speaking of sweet sap, any birch can be tapped for syrup just like maple. See our maple blog from February for all the details.