Finding your way at night in the wilderness without a light source is a dangerous trial. Having a flashlight will make things easier, even tough traveling through uneven terrain at night is a challenging experience. If no modern light source is available, learning how to make or improvise a torch will help you enormously when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory.
A little bit of history
Early man had a problem. With no light bulbs, lanterns, kerosene lamps, or candles to light the way, he was limited to staring into his campfire on those dark moonless nights. Wandering in the blackness of a primeval forest was not only difficult without light, but it was also dangerous. There were wild beasts both real and imaginary lurking in the shadows, and the light from his campfire didn’t extend very far from the hearth.
Throwing a burning ember at a prowling animal would frighten it away, but it wasn’t until man took a lighted branch and carried it out into the dark did man invent the first device for artificial lighting — the torch.
After years of experience with his environment, man began to learn about the qualities of many kinds of woods and materials around him. The temporary torch of a burning stick was soon replaced with well-made torches of pine splints, loaded with pine fat or resin. Other kinds of resinous wood were used in areas where pine did not grow, but it is pine that has been the favorite torchwood of man.
Constantly improving the torch with various materials
The ancient Greeks, in their festival to Rhea, the nature goddess, sang: “For thee, 0 Mother, resound the wide circles of the cymbals and the ringing crotola (rattle), for thee burn the torches of yellow pine.” In ancient Mexico, torch bearers staggered and sometimes fell under the burden of huge bundles of sacred pine that illuminated their ceremonies.
In the search for better illumination, torch makers bound together bundles of reeds, weed stalks, palm leaf, etc., and devised torches that were much better than simple pieces of wood. In the East Indies, men wrapped resin in a palm leaf and made torches resembling candles which gave off perfumed smoke and burned a long time.
The Polynesians of the Pacific Islands strung the oily meats of a nut on slender rods. When the nut at the top was lighted, they burned one after the other, giving good illumination. The Indians of Panama used the same sort of torch.
The many uses of a torch
Torches were especially useful for hunting and fishing. Because some animals are attracted or become blinded by torchlight, they are more easily captured. With a torch of pine splints or a roll of birch bark in the prow of a graceful canoe, an intent Indian with a harpoon standing behind the light and a paddler in the stern from one of the more dramatic survival scenes in early American history.
Throughout the early ages of man and before the more modern inventions of the candle and oil lamp, the torch was highly revered. It became a symbol of human innovation and power. It attended the march of armies and blazed its light on both barbarian and ancient Roman festivals.
Making a torch
Making a torch today in a wilderness survival situation might prove difficult if you have never done it. Most of the survival books today don’t tell how. If you try to make one like those used by early man, remember to take extreme precaution. Find a place (preferably outdoors) that is free of combustible materials and has good ventilation. Don’t use gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid, or any other modern petroleum product. That’s cheating.
Take a trip to the mountains or find a local park that has pine trees. With a knife or a small icepick scrape off any pine gum you can find on the trunk of the tree. There is usually a lot where branches have been cut off or where the bark has been removed. Be sure not to damage the tree. Pine pitch can be found in various textures and appearances. Anywhere from a hard white lard to a clear sticky sap. Sometimes you can find it solid, clear, and yellow like amber. Collect all the scrapings in a plastic bag until you have at least four to eight ounces of the stuff.
Suggested article: The Basics Of Starting And Maintaining A Campfire
The next step is to obtain a tin can and place the pine resin in the can. Slowly heat up the resin in the can over a small fire or camp stove. Do it slowly — pitch boils at low temperatures, and the smoke is highly flammable. If you try to melt the pitch too fast, it will probably burst into flames. I experimented with different wicking materials. Rope, palm leaves, and cattails were used. One of the best materials was cotton.
Cut lengths of cotton rope from a heavy duty cleaning mop and wrap and tie these to a wooden stick. When the pine resin is sufficiently melted, dips the cotton wrapped stick into the can and twirl it until the cotton is saturated with pitch. When the pine pitch cools, you have a real torch ready for cave exploration or survival fishing.
Pine resin torches are smoky, and the hot burning pitch will drip at times. Don’t use a torch indoors or in a tent. And watch your hands, so you don’t get burned. The torches I made were bright and fairly wind resistant.
Seeing in the dark
Another alternative to making a torch, or a complementary option if you will, is to learn how to train your eyes to better see in the dark. Night vision was available long before modern technology stepped forward and helped us create night vision goggles.
The ability to see in the dark has many advantages. There are numerous situations when this skill can come in handy. You might need to travel undetected during the night, or maybe you have to hunt when there is no light. Developing night vision is an ancient skill, and there are a few methods that have been used even by our ancestors.
I wrote an extensive article on how to acquire night vision for survival. It teaches you various methods to train your eyes and adapt them to an environment where there is little to no light. You will learn how to acquire angle vision, how to use silhouette vision, how to acquire owl eye, and much more. You can check the link below for the article:
There is something inspiring about the torch. The dramatic flickering flames of the torch have been used many times in the movies. The torch has been seen in all forms of art (Lady Liberty, the Olympic Flame, etc.) and has been regarded as a symbol of conquest, and much finer, as a symbol of the spread of knowledge.