Even after all the experiences I’ve had using bark for tinder and medicine, and making cool containers from this woody growth, tree bark still amazes me. Once you get past the rough and unfriendly outer appearance of most barks, there are so many survival tasks that can be accomplished with the useful material underneath. There really is a wealth of useful materials in (and underneath) the protective structure of the trees. The following are just five of the many uses of tree barks.

1. Tinder
My favorite tree bark use is tinder. Once trunks and branches have died and become a little bit rotten, the species with a fibrous inner bark can be peeled to yield fire building tinder. Depending on the area you are collecting from, you may have cedar, juniper, cyprus, basswood, tuplip poplar, paw paw, and many other trees to collect. A quick “pre-test” of bark tinder is the length of fibers that peel free from the dead wood. Generally, the longer the fiber strips – the better the tinder. Dry the strips in the sun if they are damp, pound them with a rock to make them fluffy, and ignite the tinder with a spark or open flame when it’s time to build your fire.

2. Rope
Most of the long strips of dead bark that are good for tinder can also be used for rope, cord and string production. Basswood and mulberry are excellent prospects, yielding strong durable cordage. Tulip poplar and cedar barks make mid-grade cordage, which is durable if thickly woven. Try your local bark fibers to find the one that works best for you. And if you’re not sure how to weave string, check out our post on string and cloth.

3. Medicine
Numerous tree barks can provide medicinal compounds. Red oak inner bark can be chopped from live branches and boiled in water until brown to release tannic acid. This solution is great at soothing inflamed skin, rashes, ingrown toenails and many other maladies of the skin. Slippery elm twig bark can be steeped in hot water as a tea and slowly sipped to relieve coughs and sore throat. Black willow twig bark can be scraped and made into tea for use as a pain relieving beverage. Just make sure you have positive identification of any tree species that will be used for an ingested medicine.

4. Bedding
The corky, airy nature of most outer tree bark materials can make a natural barrier between you and the cold wet ground. Collect large, flat, dead slabs of corky bark like locust and oak. Lay them on the ground in your shelter, and then use a thin layer of vegetation on top to soften the bed.

5. Containers
Bark buckets, baskets and containers can be made from the thin-skinned barks of birch, tulip poplar, cedar, and other thin flexible barks. From the canoes and maple syrup buckets made from birch in New England, to the bark cooking pots of Australia and Africa, flexible barks can take the shape of many items that make survival much easier. My favorite is the berry bucket, which should be useful soon as berry season is right around the corner. Cut a long rectangle of thin, live bark. On the inside, at the center, use a dull edge to scribe a football shape on the inner bark. Bend the bark and fold the scribed lines to close the bark up into a cylinder. Attach a rope to keep it closed, and hang it around your neck for two-handed berry picking.

What can you make from your local tree barks? Let us know you use them by leaving a comment.