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10 Uses for Animal Fat in the Wild
Black bear fat can be an invaluable resource, if you know how to use it. (John Whipple/)
In a world of “fat-free” foods, trans-fats, and fad diets designed to cut out fats, we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that all fat is bad, particularly animal fat. This couldn’t be further from the truth of it. Fat is a very valuable resource, and few settings highlight this value and versatility like the wilderness. Here’s why you should use every morsel of animal fat you can acquire in a survival setting, and ten great ways to put this greasy goop to work (during an emergency or a weekend in the woods).
Use Animal Fat For Bait
Since it’s such a valuable food resource in cold weather, animal fat can be the perfect bait for meat-eating game animals. In frigid environments, most scavengers and carnivores will give in to their hunger for calorie-dense fat, even when all their instincts are screaming “No, don’t stick your head into that contraption”. Applied warm to trap trigger mechanisms, the fat can quickly harden in frosty or subfreezing conditions. As the fat naturally hardens, this can make it harder for the animal to lick away the bait, and make it more likely to trigger the trap.
Long before frozen PowerBars were breaking the teeth of outdoor enthusiasts, Native people were making a much more chewable (and calorie dense) food for cold weather travel and emergencies. Fats are the densest source of calories, and every calorie can count in emergencies. If your animal fat is still “food grade” (read here: not rancid yet), use it for cooking or simply add a little bit to other foods to enhance their calorie content. Pemmican is a fine example of the importance for fat. This ancient forebear of the modern survival ration, pemmican was originally prepared by North American Indians as a traveling food and cold-weather snack. Traditional pemmican is a blend of dried meat pounded into a powder, then blended with warm animal fat and often supplemented with dried fruits, berries, or foods that provide carbohydrates.
Condition Your Skin, Hair, and Leather
As the dry air pulls the moisture from our skin and leather products, the need for conditioning oils becomes even greater. The dry cracked skin on your hands and feet can get a great healing boost from a light rub of animal fat. Your parched leather boots and gloves could benefit from a wipe of animal fat, too. And why is a woodsman’s hair so shiny and soft? It’s not Pantene. It’s a light smear of bear fat. In all seriousness, fat is something that our skin and hair can crave. And bear fat (if you can get it) is one of the best deep conditioners for leather.
Use Animal Fat as a Medicinal Salve
Animal fat can be the basis of a healing salve for dry skin and even for common injuries you’ll face in the outdoors. Healing plants can be combined with melted animal fat to create a wide range of salves and balms for skin care, first aid and other applications. Dried yarrow leaves (Achillea millefolium) are one of my favorites when prepared with animal fat. This salve can help to stop minor bleeding and reduce the risk of infection on cuts, scrapes and scratches. Simply warm up the fat to a liquid and soak crushed dried yarrow leaves in the melted oil (ideally, for several days in a crock pot on low heat). Strain out the leaves and reserve the hot oil. If it’s salve for cold weather use, you’re done. If you’ll be using it in hot weather, add a half ounce of bees wax per 8 ounces of hot oil and blend it well. This will keep it stiffer in warm conditions.
Lubricate Your Tools
From black powder rifles to friction fire sockets, animal fat can provide an excellent lubricant. It also inhibits rust on iron and steel objects. It shouldn’t be a surprise that various animal fats have different qualities from each other. Fish oils tend to be very light and easily burned off, while mammal fat tends to be heavier and longer lasting. Using fat as a mechanical lubricant has a longstanding tradition, as the use of “mineral oil” is a more recent discovery. While you shouldn’t pour it in your vehicle engine, it does serve many roles (even in the modern world).
Turn Animal Fat into Soap
Granny’s lard and lye soap could wash your clothes, hands, hair and anything else, and the recipe hasn’t changed much in a thousand years. Chunks of animal fat have a deceptive value. When we’re first learning to butcher wild game, those gross whitish blobs seem like trash – something we are trying to remove and discard from the lean meat of the animal. But a more seasoned survivor knows that those white lumps are pure gold, and in some situations – more valuable than the meat itself. One crafty use of rendered fat can be the production of soap. When the right amount of fat is blended with lye and water, then simmered and stirred until slushy, and this slurry can be set aside for hardening and aging to create an effective homemade soap.
Waterproof Your Gear
Fat and water just don’t get along. The fat tries to repel the water every chance it gets. This rivalry can work in our favor, however, when leather boots and other outerwear become less permeable to water with a healthy coating of animal fat. Mountain men, hunters and trappers once wiped animal fat on their thin leather moccasins to keep them soft and somewhat waterproof when trudging through the rain, slush and snow of the American Frontier. Just smear a thick coat of animal fat over the stitching and exposed seams of leather goods, and you too can buy some time before the water comes through.
Use Animal Fat as a Wet Weather Fire Starter
If you’ve ever seen a kitchen grease fire (or caused one), then you know how flammable fat can really be. We know that fat is high in calories, but what are calories, really? It’s one of the most commonly used food energy units in the world. To describe it very simply, it’s something that can “burn” to produce heat. This is true, when we consume digestible fats. It’s also true when we light animal fat on fire. Wipe a little lard onto some tinder and light it for a wet weather fire starter that burns with a strong heat for several minutes. You could also apply fat to wood, charcoal, or any other flammables to help them burn better and longer than those dry materials would burn without the greasy glow of the burning fat.
Forge Quench Tools
Not everyone needs to make sharp knives and act out their blacksmith fantasies to survive. But if you do, animal fat can help. The ability to make knives and other tools could be an indispensable skill during the coming zombie apocalypse, or as a lucrative side hustle in normal times. Liquefied animal fat, or even cold solid lard, is a great quench “fluid” for knives and other forged objects that need hardening. The fat quench is gentler than a water quench, and pig fat was a widely used quench on the early American frontier. An animal fat quench also creates food grade protective coating, better than many petroleum based oils.
Make a Fat Lamp
Animal fat can be used to make grease lamps for improvised survival lighting (and it can also be used to make candles). Whether the fat is right off the animal and still warm, or you’ve rendered it into lard, this important resource can serve a wide range of survival uses. One of the weirdest comes when you use fat as a lighting source. Surprising but true – you can literally make a “snowball” candle out of raw animal fat. Just squeeze the raw fat into a whitish ball, insert some plant fiber twine to act as a wick, and light it up. You’ll have an almost instant fat lamp! Or for the more sophisticated survivalist, fill a fireproof vessel (like a clay or stone bowl) with rendered lard and add a wick to make a primitive grease lamp.