If you know a little bit about wilderness survival lore, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of tree sap before, and pine sap in particular.
As an adhesive, bug-repellent, and natural antiseptic it has many beneficial qualities, but have you heard that the stuff is also quite flammable?
It makes sense, because pinewood tends to burn well, but is that because of the sap? Is it possible that we can use sap as a natural fire starter?
Here’s what we really need to know: is tree sap flammable?
Yes, tree sap is flammable, and pine sap is particularly flammable. It lights easily and burns steadily for quite a while, making it a valuable fire starter or accelerant if you can collect it.
It turns out that pine sap and other tree saps tend to be quite flammable.
Whether they are fresh or hardened, they tend to light easily and will burn for quite a while, but they don’t go up with a “fwoosh” like other accelerants that you might have with you, meaning they are safer to use in many cases.
This is just another advantage that pine sap has as a survival resource. Keep reading and I will tell you all about it.
What is Sap?
Tree sap is a thick, sticky liquid that is found in all trees. It is composed of water and sugar, and contains plant hormones, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and other organic substances.
Tree sap plays a critical role in the health and growth of trees. It transports nutrients, water, and hormones throughout the tree, providing it with the resources necessary to survive and thrive in varying environmental conditions.
Sap also helps protect trees from disease and pests by producing compounds that naturally repel some, though not all, harmful organisms.
Sap has an especially important role when the tree is damaged.
It does so by covering and repairing wounds through the formation of a protective barrier that prevents further damage by closing off an otherwise easy place of ingress for insects and other harmful parasites.
If you’ve ever seen a damaged tree that looked like it was “bleeding,” that’s really just sap!
Are All Tree Saps Flammable?
Yes, most kinds of tree sap are flammable. Though sap is vital for trees, it can hurt them in other ways: it has the potential to be a major fire hazard, especially when built up and dry!
The sap can easily ignite when exposed to intense heat or open flame, so it is important to be mindful of this when burning wood or starting campfires.
Natural causes of fire (like lightning strikes) can be made much worse if lots of sap has built up on the tree.
Why is Pine Sap So Flammable?
As I mentioned above, you have probably heard survival and wilderness experts go on and on about the usefulness of pine sap, especially as a fire starter. Turns out they are right! But why is pine sap so flammable compared to other kinds?
Pine sap is particularly flammable because of its high resin content. Resin, which is made up of hydrocarbons and other organic compounds, acts as an accelerant when exposed to flame or heat, causing the sap to ignite quickly and burn at relatively high temperatures.
The more resin a tree produces, the easier it is to light and keep lit, and sap is a concentrated source.
Pine sap is also highly flammable because of its low water content; the less water in something, the easier it will ignite and stay burning.
Pine sap has roughly half the water of other kinds of sap which means that when you try to start a fire with it, you don’t have to worry about fighting the inherent moisture as much.
Can You Start a Fire in the Wilderness Using Pine Sap?
Absolutely! Pine sap is the perfect fire starter in a pinch. It lights easily and burns steadily, is nearly waterproof, portable, and found everywhere making it an invaluable survival tool.
Pine sap can be used on its own to start fires, or you can use it to light other, more substantial tinder-like dry leaves and grasses to help get your fire going and keep it burning hot.
Is Pine Sap Different than Pine Pitch?
Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there is indeed a big difference between pine sap and pine pitch. Sap is an ingredient in pitch, for starters!
But what is pitch? Pitch is actually a sort of polymerized glue, made of sap, charcoal powder, and other substances that serve as fillers or binders.
The resulting sticky substance is much more viscous than raw sap and can be used for waterproofing and sealing or as an adhesive.
Pitch has many uses outside of fire starting so it can come in handy in a variety of situations.
Does the Freshness of the Sap Affect Flammability?
To a degree: hardened sap is usually easier to light than fresh sap owing to a difference in moisture content.
Once sap has hardened and dried out, it contains less moisture than fresh, un-hardened sap which can make a difference in how easily it ignites.
At the end of the day, however, fresh and aged sap will work for fire starting.
How Can You Collect Sap?
For commercial purposes, tree sap is harvested by tapping the tree where it is then used to make syrup, wine, beer, jelly, and other products.
You can do that yourself if you want to collect high volumes during kinder times, but in a survival situation you likely won’t have that luxury.
Instead, you’ll probably collect sap formations from trees that have been damaged by things like high winds, lightning strikes, or animal interaction like rubbing, scraping, and so forth.
Sap will form a kind of scab-like coating around damage, which you can then snap off or scrape off with something like a knife or an arrowhead.
You can also look for hardened sap on branches and trunks of trees that are more than 50 years old; these trees have had plenty of time to produce substantial sap and the hardened deposits will be easy to identify.
Sap Can Also Be Collected from Dry Distilling
Sap can also be collected in larger quantities, in the form of tar, by dry distilling. This process involves burning wood in a closed container, usually an old pot or can, and then collecting the dark, resinous drippings that are released.
This is a great way to get large quantities of sap but it needs to be done with caution as there is a risk of out-of-control fire if you’re not careful.
Whether or not this is a viable technique worth pursuing is totally dependent on the situation at hand and your goals.
If you are surviving in an area with plentiful pine trees it probably isn’t: there will be plenty of sap to collect from many trees!