If you’ve ever needed to start a fire in less-than-ideal conditions, you may have found the task easier if you’d had some fatwood for kindling. No, fatwood isn’t just wood that could stand to go on a diet. Also known as pitchwood, lighter pine, and dozens of other nicknames, fatwood is an easy igniting substance that comes from the heartwood of pine trees.
When a pine tree is cut down, struck by lightning, broken by force, or even just loses a limb, the tree’s roots continue to send pitch — or resin, the sticky substance that hardens into amber — to the wounded area. The wood becomes heavily saturated with the pitch, which is rich in terpenes, the highly flammable natural chemicals used to make turpentine. The pitch also makes the fatwood extra hard and resistant to rot. A small amount of fatwood can be carried as part of a tinder kit and, if preserved from burning up, used to start dozens, or even hundreds, of fires.
Because pitch is waterproof — in addition to using it to create fiery weapons for warfare, pre-modern people most often used pitch to make wooden boats watertight — fatwood can be used to start a fire even in wet conditions. It also burns very hot, so it’s ideal for igniting even very large pieces of wood, and can be lit with only the smallest sparks.
Fatwood can be easily found in most pine forests. The heart can be removed from the stumps of felled trees or severed limbs with a knife or axe, or even found preserved at the center of a rotten pine log.
When cooking over a fire started with fatwood, be sure to wait until the fatwood is removed from the fire, or has burnt up. Burning pitch can leave an oily, sooty residue on pots and pans, or even uncovered food.
Don’t have fatwood handy? Check out these other handy kindling materials.