Ask any veteran US Navy Seal or Army Ranger who trained in jungle survival up until the year 1992. Chances are, they trained under the Aeta tribesmen of the Philippine jungles in Subic, Zambales, where the former 7th fleet of the US Navy used to hold base. The Aeta natives taught them everything from fire starting, shelter building, food and water sourcing, animal trap-setting and all kinds of bushcraft – all with the use of the bamboo.
I know this because I live in the Philippines and worked in the former Subic Naval Base myself. When the dormant volcano Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, ash rained over most of our northern island of Luzon. It forced the Navy to evacuate, and the Philippine government took over the base. I worked as a volunteer marketing staff for the base-turned-freeport, and observed as the Aetas continued to teach survival training – this time, to tourists, survival enthusiasts and the regular citizenry, including myself.
The Many Uses of Bamboo in Survival
Here’s why this common, unassuming grass could save a person’s life in an emergency situation. Bamboo fulfills the 3 most fundamental necessities in the preservation or extension of human life: food, water and shelter. Though low in caloric content, the tiny shoots of bamboo are edible, high in potassium and Vitamin B6. It can be eaten raw or cooked. (Some species contain a level of toxic cyanogen, though, and have a slightly bitter taste — both of which can be eliminated by boiling.)
Potable water can be found in the air-filled nodes or chambers of many species. Tap the sections and listen for a low, solid sound. (A hollow sound means no water.) Using a knife or pointed machete, you can bore a hole on the upper part of that node, tilt the stalk gently and pour into a container – or if you have a companion ask him to hold it directly over your mouth. Poles that have been split open can also make for good rain gutters or water collection systems.
A bamboo is an incredibly strong building material. It can be used to make all kinds of shelters, from the primitive and very temporary lean-to frames to the most complex and permanent structures, complete with roofing, flooring and sidings. Over a billion people live safely and satisfactorily in bamboo houses worldwide, across all the different climate zones right now.
After these 3 basic survival needs, fire-making comes in a close 4th. Shavings from dry bamboo are used for tinder, the sides of the split parts as fire saws to create friction and a spark, and the rest of the poles as firewood. Additionally, a section of a pole can be used as a cooking pot, rice steamer, water purifier, and all kinds of receptacles like a cup, a canteen, a bowl and a variety of eating utensils.
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Bamboo has a myriad of other important uses in the wilderness. You can use it as a walking stick and a defense weapon (club, spear, bow and arrow, throwing stick, blowgun or dart), or fashion traps, a fishing rod and a raft with it. Dried bamboo slivers make ideal knife blades and sharp cutting tools.
In a survival situation, all you need is a machete and a bamboo grove and you’re already equipped with the basic necessities to survive.
Bamboo, the “Tree of Life”
I used to think the coconut was the tree of life – for its many wonderful, life-giving uses; but now I know it’s the bamboo. Although technically, bamboos belong to the grass family so they can’t be classified as trees. They are often referred to as “tree” grasses, though, because they have large, leafy stems that spread high (as much as 16 yards) and wide-like branches. They are known as the “plant of a thousand uses.” All around the world, bamboo is grown for a wide variety of applications, from housing construction to landscape gardening, furniture-making to musical instruments. Like wood, it is amazingly strong and rigid; but unlike hardwood, it is bendable, easy to cut and process, and lightweight—making it is easily transportable. Not surprising that some of the most modern bicycle frames are now made with it. (One top manufacturer says it’s their most crash-resistant frame!)
Bamboo groves can reduce soil erosion, catch runoffs from fields, prevent flooding in swales, and help contain overflowing rivers. They protect fields from winds and hurricanes. They are a safe, natural habitat for panda bears, birds and a host of other organisms.
In Asia, bamboo is used to treat various ailments like fever, bacterial infection and respiratory problems. Since ancient times, it has been used as natural food preservative. (I always wonder why Chinese restaurants serve dimsum in hot, steaming bamboo containers that never seem to look polished or brand-new, and yet never appear to go bad, either. Hmmm…) A mix of shoots, leaves, twigs and culm can be brewed into beer, ale and tea, which have a mild taste but are supposedly high in anti-oxidants and bio-flavonoids. Bamboo fiber, when pounded, treated and dried, is also made into specialty fabric and paper.
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The best part of it all is that bamboo is totally sustainable. It is perennial, doesn’t die with the change of seasons, so you don’t need to replant it every year. It just keeps on growing so it is 100 percent renewable. There are varieties that grow as fast as 3-4 feet per day, making it to Guinness’ Book of World Records as the fastest growing woody plant in the world!
There are two types of bamboo – those that grow in clusters and those that tend to “run” and spread wide and fast. Because of the latter’s potential for invasiveness, the American Bamboo Society (ABS) has issued guidelines on how to deal with hard-to-control overgrowth. Aside from yearly pruning, they recommend using concrete or high density polyethylene (HDPE) as underground barriers, or else digging a dry moat around the grove to contain it.
Of the 10,000 known species worldwide, about 200 are cultivated in the United States. The woody genus Arundinaria, for example, is native in southeastern USA. But there are over 30 cold-hardy varieties that can withstand temperatures as low as -20 degrees. One of them is the Phyllostachys, the most widely cultivated of the temperate bamboos. It is suitable for the climate of the North Central, Midwestern and New England states (Zone 4). Check with the ABS about which species would best thrive in your area.
The Usefulness of Bamboo in the Homestead
While it is said to be one of the greatest finds in a survival situation, bamboo also has many practical purposes in the homestead. It can be used for fencing, and fashioned as garden stakes, poles and trellis for vines and vegetables. It shields private property from public roads, dust and, when allowed to grow dense and thick, becomes a barrier impenetrable to deer, the neighbour’s dog, and the neighbours themselves.
You can use it to make cages for your small animals and feeding troughs for the big ones. The leaves make a good adjunct for hay, best at wintertime when the grass is dormant or droughts when most greenery dries up.
Many people don’t realize they can generate income from farming bamboo. Bamboos only take months to grow, so you should have new shoots to cut and sell by the next spring or early summer. Poles can be gathered every three or four years. It is said that you can safely harvest 20 percent of the crop and it will regenerate completely in just over a year. The website bamboofarmingusa.com can give you more ideas on how to grow and sell this multi-purpose, economical weed.
If you have enough space in your acreage, by all means grow bamboo now. Check local or state regulations if and how much you’re allowed to grow. It will be a wonderful asset to your survival stockpile.