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Survival Camping Woodsman Course: Identifying Useful Trees

Whether we are talking about healing, feeding or sheltering us, or even just pleasing our eyes, trees are a huge part of the camping experience. When setting up camp we also must consider the threats that large trees pose to us. Whether it’s a dead tree or a large limb, either can injure or kill a camper.

Of all the time you spend surrounded by them, what do you really know about the trees that make up your favorite forest? Do you recognize that you are standing in a deciduous forest or not? Do you recognize the strange leaves of the poplar trees?

In this third installment of our Woodsman’s Course, we are going to get to know 5 common trees and how they can affect your next camping trip. You will learn about the various resources these trees can provide the camper and how best to locate them. You will even learn about a tree that comes packed with pain medicine!

To understand tree identification you must first recognize what types of trees dominate the forest you are in. There are two types of trees based on what they do with their leaves and needles.

Deciduous – These trees lose all of their leaves in the fall. These leaves return the following spring and the cycle starts over. We will highlight many deciduous trees in this article.

Coniferous – These types of trees will not lose their leaves in the winter. Conifers like pine and spruce are very easy to identify in the late fall and winter because of this.

Get to know the following five trees that span both deciduous and coniferous forests.


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Latin: Quercus Spp.

Varieties: The oak is found all over North America and comes in a few different varieties mostly defined by round lobed leaves or pointed leaves. Though they will hold the same basic shape of an oak leaf some will be rounded and others will be pointed.

Key Identifiers: The lobed leaves are a great tell when it comes to this tree. Also, the acorn itself is a dead giveaway. If you are unsure about the tree simply look around on the forest floor. If you see remnants of acorns or oak leaves scattered about there is a good chance you are dealing with an oak tree.

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Uses: The oak tree is very common and can grow to towering heights. It features a highly nutritious nut that can be boiled in several changes of water to reduce the tannic acid. The water from leeching that tannic acid can be used to clean wounds as the acids act as an antibacterial.

Oak is also a very dense hardwood that is great for building and burning. It can shelter you and warm you. The foraging camper will find chicken of the woods and hen of the woods mushrooms growing on fallen oaks as well.


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Latin: Pinus Spp.

Key Identifiers: These coniferous trees feature needles instead of leaves and do not lose them in the winter. Many also feature cones for spreading seeds. They also have distinctive bark that is large and layered.

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Uses: The resin can be used to waterproof things like boats or tools. If you are feeling a little off or under the weather the needles can be boiled to create a tea that is high in Vitamin C and A. The seeds are also edible in some but very small in most species.


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Latin: Asimina Triloba

Key Identifiers: The Paw Paw is a tropical fruit that grows in the Southeastern parts of the U.S. It prefers rich soil by water sources in low-lying areas. It is identified by its tall slender trunk and large oval shaped leaves can sometimes resemble hickory on young trees.

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They paw paw grows a large mango-like fruit that hits its peak in the later parts of summer. These fruits are the best sign of a paw paw.

Uses: This tree is all about the fruit. The wood isn’t particularly strong but the fruit is delicious. It tastes like a mango and a banana combined. There are large seeds in the fruit that should not be eaten. These also grow in bunches so when you find one you are often treated to a feast.


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Latin: Salix Spp.

Key Identifiers: These trees are often identified by the elongated leaves which are sometimes serrated on the edges. They prefer moist areas and the weeping varieties droop their branches in a very distinct manner.

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Uses: The willow is nature’s painkiller. The bark sap contains heavy concentrations of salicylic acid. This is the main ingredient in aspirin and you can use this bark to create your own medicine. Hopefully, you have your own first aid kit but if not the willow sap could help with pain or fever.


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Latin: Betula Papyrifera

Key Identifiers: The white birch stands out in the landscape like a sore thumb. Its namesake white bark is responsible for that. You will also be able to tell birch by its papery bark.

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Uses: The white birch is the tree of many uses. The most useful of these is the tinder. The bark from the white birch is full of flammable resin. That’s just the beginning.

  • Leaves and root bark make great teas
  • The thin outer bark has been used to make everything from shingles to canoes
  • In the spring the inner bark can be eaten
  • The sap can even be used to make a sweet drink or fermented to make alcohol

The very definition of a forest and the home to much of the wildlife we revile on our camping trips, the trees give us everything. In the woods, they offer us shade and food. In fact, you could argue they offer us too much which is why we have a massive deforestation industry. It’s amazing how we can often be surrounded by these giants and rarely give them the time of day.

I hope this article has shed some light on the trees that so often surround you. Even better than their impressive size or beautiful foliage these trees offer some serious resources to the camper. Get to know the trees and all they provide.

In our final installment of the Woodsman’s Course we are going to look at venomous animals and insects that can cross your path on your next camping or hiking adventure.