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As a serious outdoorsman, one of the most practical survival skills I’ve explored is crafting a torch from natural resources. In this guide, I’ll focus on one of nature’s readily available materials—cattails. Found commonly throughout North America in wetlands, marshes, and along pond edges, cattails provide sustenance and insulation and can be transformed into a useful, if temporary, light source. Here’s a detailed step-by-step guide on how to make a torch from cattails, an invaluable skill for outdoor adventures or emergencies.

The best time to gather cattails that are suitable for torches is in the summer. Jennifer Caudill

Step-by-Step Instructions on How to Make a Survival Torch

Step 1: Collect the Necessary Materials

The most easily recognizable portion of cattails is the brown seed head that resembles a corn dog. Each seed head contains thousands upon thousands of tiny parachute-like seeds that float away when completely dry. In early spring, the seed heads are green and can be eaten like corn on the cob. Avoid the green seed heads and go for the completely dry brown ones. The best time of year for this is late summer. However, you can find loosely formed seed heads deep into winter. 

The stalks of cattails make great hand-drill materials but are terrible at holding the seed head after it is lit.  You will want something more substantial to hold it and last without burning. An obvious choice is a stick, preferably a hardwood like oak, ash, or hickory. There is no need to cut them green for this. The stick will last longer than the dried seed head. Another fantastic choice is rivercane when it is available. Rivercane is much smaller than bamboo in diameter. Several pieces fastened together make their torch on their own, coupled with a cattail seed head, and you have a torch that can last for several hours. 

I prefer a solid wire to fasten the head to the handle, but string will work as it will burn as the seed head burns away.

Animal fat or plant oils work best. You can use rendered fat from a game, or purchase tallow or lard. If you use commercial, grocery-store oils, get one with a high percentage of plant oils as they burn cleaner with less smoke than others. 

The author holds a bunch of brown cattail heads. Brown ones burn best. Jennifer Caudill

Step 2: Preparing the Cattail Heads

Select a few cattail heads. The fluff inside is what will catch fire, so you want it to be dense and dry. Carefully pull them from their stalks without dispersing too much of the fluff. If they are slightly damp, let them dry in the sun for a few hours before using them. The tighter and more intact they are, the longer they will last. You will want to pull a bit up the tails (fluff) from the top to get the torch started, but otherwise, use the tightest and driest heads you can find. 

Step 3: Attach the Cattail Head to the Stick

Take your stick and sharpen one end slightly, making it easier to insert into the cattail base. Push the sharpened end into the base of the cattail head. Ensure it’s secure, but avoid pushing it so far that it exits the top of the head.

Next, use your string or wire to tie the cattail head securely to the stick. Wrap the material several times around the base of the cattail head where it meets the stick, tying it off firmly to prevent the head from falling off when the torch is in use. The seed heads will provide some insulation around the stick so it does burn through. If you make this with river cane, be careful as you place the seed head on the cane. Indigenous people have used sharpened river cane for thousands of years as a discardable knife. Sharpen it, use it till dull, then cut another. It will easily slice your hand or pierce through it if you don’t use caution. 

Step 4: Applying the Fuel

It’s time to make your torch last longer by adding a fuel source. Coat the cattail head generously with your chosen fat or oil. Ensure the fluff is thoroughly saturated; this increases the burn time and produces a steadier flame. I often let them soak in the oil overnight and then drip dry the excess. 

Be careful with lighting your cattail torch; it’ll ignite quickly. Jennifer Caudill

Step 5: Lighting Your Torch

Before you light your torch, ensure you’re in a safe outdoor area clear of overhanging branches and other fire hazards. Light the tip of the cattail head using a match or lighter. The torch should ignite quickly and start to produce a steady flame. Hold the torch away from your body and anything flammable. Depending on how well the cattail head was prepared and the type of fuel used, your torch can last from 15 minutes to potentially over an hour. Remember that thousands of seed heads are on fire at this point. They will often fall away from the torch, so ensure the area underneath is clear of flammable debris. In windy conditions, use extreme caution when using them as sometimes the seed heads will catch and “fly” away from the source. 

Step 6: Safely Extinguishing Your Torch

Once you have finished using the torch, extinguish it safely. If you’re near a water source, you can dunk it into water. Otherwise, smother the flames with dirt or sand until you are sure it has been completely extinguished. Never leave the torch burning unattended or dispose of it while it’s still lit.

Bonus Tips on Making a Survival Torch

  • Multiple Heads: For a brighter and longer-lasting torch, you can attach multiple cattail heads around the stick or cane, creating a larger flame.
  • Handling: Always keep the torch upright to prevent the molten fuel from dripping onto your hands or the ground.
  • Storage: Prepare several torch heads in advance and store them in a dry place for quick use. The oil will leak off when it warms up, which can happen in a vehicle or truck bed. Wrap the head in a resealable bag to keep it from leaking into your vehicle, pack, or tote box. 

Final Thoughts

Making a torch from cattails is a simple, effective way to illuminate the dark when you’re out in the wilderness. This method connects us to ancient practices and underscores the importance of understanding and utilizing natural resources responsibly. Whether camping, exploring new trails, or needing emergency light, a cattail torch can be a lifesaver. Fire safety is paramount, so always use your torch responsibly and ensure it’s fully extinguished after use.