Cedar: Quick and Easy Survival Cordage (And a Tree Bark Education)

In our modern society we’ve pretty much eliminated the need for rope.  I rarely use rope or string for normal every day applications.  When I was a kid I remember using rope to tie down items in the pick-up truck – now we use bungee cords and ratcheting straps – neither of which require knot tying skills.  It’s no wonder why people don’t know how to tie more than their shoelaces anymore.  You hand someone a piece of rope and they look at you like you just gave them a puzzle to figure out.  I also remember when we’d go to a local corner grocery store to buy meat and the butcher would tie the paper with twine.  Now they just tack it down with the price sticker.

While the need for rope in modern society slowly diminishes with the advent of fancy substitutes, it’s importance will never change in a primitive survival situation with limited resources.  All of a sudden, rope (often referred to as ‘cordage’ among survivalists) becomes one of the most important survival assets.  In a survival scenario, cordage is GOLDEN.  It’s uses are endless:

  • fishing line
  • snare lines
  • shelter building
  • bow drill sets
  • carrying gear and supplies
  • safety lines/harness/climbing
  • and the list goes on and on…

Many people are faced with a survival scenario when they least expect it.  This is why I am a big proponent of Every Day Carry (EDC) items such as 550 paracord.  Unless you are carrying a supply of cordage with you, the only option is to scavenge it from found resources – either man-made or natural.  This can be clothing, trash, gear, vehicle parts, etc..  Nature also provides many plants, vines, trees and roots that make excellent survival cordage.  I cover several of these in great detail during our SurviVacation Clinics here at WHO.  This post, however, is about one of my all time favorites – the CEDAR TREE.

First, though, a TREE BARK EDUCATION.

I hate when I read survival writings and the author will say something like ” Cedar bark makes great cordage – just peel some off and make a snare.”  Statements like this does no one any good.  What part of the bark?  What does it looks like?  How do I get to it?

It is important to know that tree bark is actually a pretty complex system of layers.  The dead protective ‘Outer Bark’ layer is not the stuff you are looking for.  It is the ‘Inner Bark’ layer just below the outer bark.  This is also often referred to as the Phloem or the Bast.  In many trees it is a very strong and stringy-like layer of fibers that can be peeled away and used as cordage.  Below is a diagram I made that will help you visualize where the BAST LAYER is on a tree.  It is depicted in RED.  It’s easy to miss if you aren’t careful and getting it is often oversimplified and vague.

 

Ok – back to the CEDAR TREE…

In some areas of the country like the Pacific Northwest cedars rule the forest and tower like mega-giants across the landscape.  In Indiana, though, I don’t see them that often and when I do, they are typically pretty small – 6-10 inches in diameter.  I’m not well versed on the different cedar varieties but I do know that all cedar bark I’ve ever encountered has similar properties.  This is better described in the photo series below.

To get to the bast layer that can be used as cordage I normally cut a line through the outer bark about 1/8-1/4″ deep.  In this case, I used my Bahco Laplander Saw (which I LOVE and use OFTEN).  Then, I pry my knife in at the cut and pry the outer bark layer out enough so that I can grab it with my finger.  Then, I just pull up.

The brown layer is the OUTER BARK.  The PEACHY-TAN LAYER is the Cambium Layer.  The lightest whitish later is the INNER BARK BAST LAYER.  This is what you are looking for.  With the cedar tree you can easily get your knife in between the Cambium and the Inner Bark and just peel.  It will come off in long strips.

Some of the larger strips can be split to make smaller strips.  These small strips are very strong and very flexible.  If you find a dying or dead cedar tree or downed branch and the bark pulls away easily, these fibers will pull away with the outer bark and can be separated easier.  They can be used AS IS for ‘field expedient’ cordage or they can be reverse wrapped or braided together to make cordage that will blow your mind.  On several occasions I’ve used cedar bast fibers to lash a quick tripod to hang a cook pot at camp.

It’s important to note that you should not cut all the way around any tree – this will most certainly kill it.  I normally max my take at about 1/5 of the way around.  The wound made will eventually heal and the tree will be just fine.  I’ve gathered a nice batch in the photo below.  I still have to clean up some of the strips but it’s not difficult to peel away the inner bast layer.  Soaking the cedar in water for a few days really helps too but is not necessary.

Ideally, the fibers should be dry before you make rope.  If you make the rope with wet fibers, the fibers will shrink as they dry and the rope will loosen.  However, I’ve made cordage many times with wet fibers because I didn’t have the time or patience to dry them.  Below is a length of line I made by reverse wrapping cedar bast fiber strips.  I teach how to Reverse Wrap a variety of natural fibers into usable cordage in our SurviVacation Clinics here at WHO.

And here is that same cedar cordage holding up a 7 pound ammo can with ease.

 

 

The reverse wrap is an incredibly useful and simple survival skill.  There are tons of great videos on YouTube if you aren’t already familiar with the process.  Maybe I’ll do a post on it sometime here too.  You can use this process to make cordage from pretty much any group of long thin flexible strips of material.  As an extreme illustration, check out the length of cordage I made from strips of toilet paper in the photos below.  The cord has been double reverse wrapped to make it stronger.

 

Conclusion

As with pretty much every survival skill, it’s hard to describe all the details in writing or even by talking.  It’s really about hands-on experimentation.  None of it is rocket science but all of it requires tips and tricks that only come from experience and practice.  And, there is no black and white way of doing any of it.

So since we are on the topic of cordage, I will leave you today with this question.  Do you need to brush up on your knot tying skills?  If so, start with the Bowline Knot.  This knot is 1st in my TOP 10 list of SURVIVAL KNOTS YOU MUST KNOW.  And, that post is coming soon…

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Remember, it’s not IF but WHEN,

Creek

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