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How to make waxed dirt; and by the way, what is urea?
By Mel Liston*

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What in the world is waxed dirt and urea?
Waxed dirt is just what it's name implies, dirt which has been coated with wax. When adequately produced, the wax seal coats the dirt so as to make it more or less impervious to moisture and therefore more or less freeze proof. You can purchase waxed dirt but it is prohibitively expensive due to shipping cost and therefore trappers who choose to use it in volume will make their own. Urea is an agricultural product that can be purchased in fifty or eighty pound bags at the local farm supply store. There are two types of urea, one product is a fine powder used in stock food for cattle, and the other is a coarse material used as high nitrogen fertilizer. The beneficial characteristics of urea for trapping purposes are that it thaws ice in much lower temperatures than salt, plus it is non-corrosive to metal. Purchase the cheaper fertilizer-grade urea and get it during the growing season. Because urea is also easy on concrete, pavement, wooden decks, and indoor flooring or carpet, many homeowners in the know purchase the remaining inventory in early winter. The suppliers repackage urea for winter sale with fancy ice melting names at significantly higher prices and the agricultural outlets may not restock it as fertilizer until well into the spring.

What do trappers use the waxed dirt for?
Trappers who pursue furbearers with foothold traps on land during the winter months have a problem keeping traps operational when rain or thawed snow soaks into the trap covering and freezes. To the extent that waxed dirt can keep water from being absorbed, it can remain unfrozen. A trap bedded and covered in waxed dirt can remain operational in more hostile weather conditions. Prior to the onset of freezing weather, dirt from the trap location would often be utilized when sifted onto an arranged trap to complete the set. With heavy rain the covering might turn to mud which will slow down the operation of the trap when it fires and will sometimes seep under the trap pan so that the pan can not drop when stepped on by a target species, thus making the set inoperable in some instances but unreliable in most. Trappers do many things to lessen or eliminate the possibility of dirt seeping under the pan but the problems are multiplied if freezing temperatures are added to the equation. Should wet dirt become frozen, the trap will not be free to fire when needed.

Throughout fur harvesting history, trappers have experimented with many methods and materials to keep traps dry, unfrozen, and operational. Most trappers who set steel footholds in winter will have a supply of pre-sifted bone-dry dirt to cover traps. Some will utilize their dry soil with salt or other melting chemicals such as urea or glycerin, all of which do not prevent absorption of moisture but somewhat lowers the temperature required to freeze wet dirt. Other trappers are very careful where they set traps so as to utilize natural conditions such as drainage, locations which are windswept of snow, locations which provide significant daytime sun to thaw and dry, etc. Many trappers have a favorite medium other than dirt, which offers some benefit to shed water or be less absorbent than dirt. Some materials other than dirt, which are often utilized, are buckwheat hulls, peat moss, sawdust, and the local agricultural byproducts from winnowing such crops as blueberries or cranberries. Trappers even cover traps with waxed paper or set them inside plastic bags all in an effort to keep the moisture out and the trap functional. All the methods and materials mentioned have merit and serve to contribute some improvement in trap functional reliability should your supply of waxed dirt run out. For quite some time trappers have known that ants secrete a waxy substance in their ant hill material and have collected, dried, and stored ant hill dirt for winter trap covering. This works to a small degree but the amount of wax present in different ant hills is variable and in all cases less than what can be achieved with man made waxed dirt.

How do I utilize waxed dirt on my trap line?
If I have managed to produce a sufficient supply, I will start the season on November 1st, bedding and covering all sets with waxed dirt. Besides not absorbing moisture to freeze, it does not flow as easily as other dry dirt and therefore does not drift or seep under the trap pan as much. In a heavy rain waxed dirt does not turn to mud, and mud can sometimes cause a trap to fire slowly due to increased resistance on the movement of the jaws. We never know just when the first big snow storm or deep-freeze will occur. A couple of seasons ago we got cold weather and 12 inches of snow on November 15. If I had not covered my traps with waxed dirt the 115 mile long line would have been a total disaster. Instead it was just one long arduous trudge. I set a few of my traps off just to assure myself that they were still functional beneath all that wet heavy white stuff. Once my confidence was regained I left the balance of my sets alone and continued to catch critters in the deep snow during the period of days it took for that early snow to melt off. With a good strong smelling lure the fox or coyote will dig into a foot of snow for the prize.

How do I utilize the urea?
As time allows, remove deep snow with a shovel or broom down to one or two inches above the set. Sprinkle a small amount of urea over each set and in a short period of time you have bare ground with snow all around. These dark melted dirt hole sets, exposed in the sea of white snow, continue to attract target animals, which may in some part be attributable to eye appeal. In no way do canines appear to shy away from sets treated with urea. Should you get sleet or heavy rain that freezes two or three inches thick, don't try to chip it out. Put urea on the set fairly heavily and in one or two days you will once again have bare ground. This much urea will leave a sheet of spent chemical on the set which should be removed with a common plastic kitchen spatula to once again expose the bone dry waxed dirt.

What materials are needed to make waxed dirt?
You will need a basic dirt supply, and the less organic material in it the better. The organic material will absorb considerable wax and therefore take longer to make and cost more. No organic / true dirt or rock silt will take on a coat of wax and become wax granules. I have a dump truck load of screened loam delivered for landscaping purposes on the farm. Dirt from this pile is OK to use as delivered but gets better with age. The stuff that has been around three or more years has had significant organic decay leaving a higher percentage of silt. The only other ingredient is flaked wax, which I purchase in fifty-pound quantity from trapping supply dealers. Flaked wax needs to be kept away from heat or it will become a solid block, which is not useful for this purpose. For this reason I suggest not having it shipped to you during the hot summer months, and storing your supply in a cool or refrigerated location. I use seven pounds of flaked wax to fifteen gallons of dirt, so I repackage the wax in seven-pound plastic bags and keep it in a refrigerator or freezer during the summer months.

Is there anything else required or helpful in making waxed dirt?
You can utilize various heat sources to melt the wax into dry dirt but my method utilizes solar heat. I cover a thick piece of 4 x 8 foot plywood with 6mil thick black plastic, this will become a table top supported on saw horse legs. Tent this over with clear plastic to make a hot house. The plastic needs to be longer than the table so that you can fold it over at the ends to lock in the heat. Of course we need the hot sun and here in New Hampshire the best months for this are July and August.

So what is the step-by-step procedure to make waxed dirt?

Step #1
Sift fifteen gallons of your dirt supply into five gallon buckets and pour it onto the drying table.

 

 

 

Step #2
Using a three foot long piece of 1 x 6 inch lumber, trowel the dirt to an even three quarter inch thickness over the 4 x 8 foot table.

Step #3
Tent over the table to heat up the dirt and remove the moisture. During the day keep the flaps open to allow the moisture to escape and during the evening close the flaps to lock in heat and keep night humidity out. I use six bricks to keep the plastic tent from blowing off in the wind. One good hot sunny day is usually all that is required to get bone-dry dirt, but always check the dirt for signs of moisture before proceeding to the next step.

Step #4
Temporarily remove the tent covering and sift seven pounds of flaked wax evenly over the surface of the dry dirt.

 

 

 

Step #5
Recover the table with tent and close the flaps day and night to lock in heat. It will take two or three days of decent sunlight and heat to have the wax melt and absorb evenly throughout all the dirt. When it is ready there will be no sign of the white wax on the surface and the product will look like oil soaked dirt.

Step #6
The product should be removed from the table during the day while it is hot and put into a clean wheelbarrow and moved into a shaded building to cool. At this time the next batch of sifted dirt should be put on the table to start the moisture removal process, as previously described in step one.

Step #7
Once or twice in the late afternoon or early evening take a hand held garden cultivator and work the cooling waxed dirt in the wheelbarrow. If you ignore this step you may have a solid block by morning. The solid block can be salvaged with hard work and elbow grease, using chipping or chopping tools.

Step #8
The cooled wax dirt should be sifted once more into five gallon buckets to be stored with the lids on in a shady spot indoors. As with everything else utilized for canine trapping, storage has to be done to insure that stray odors are not picked up in the wax dirt supply. Once the wax is on the dirt and is in storage it would take quite a bit of heat to cause it to solidify.

*Mel Liston, from Strafford, New Hampshire is a freelance writer, Trapper Education Instructor, Director for the New Hampshire Trappers Association and a member of the National Trappers Association and the Fur Takers of America.


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