You’ve been trekking all day in the freezing rain, carrying a 35 lb. pack. You finally give up the hunt (that elk is still hours ahead) because the sky is getting darker and starting to spit sleet. The wind picks up and bites through your jacket. Your hands ache and you think of the warm cup of tea you’re going to brew. Only, you’ve forgotten to review your wet weather fire making skills. So you freeze to death.
You’ll probably never be in such a dramatic scenario as the one above; however, being able to start a fire in cold, wet conditions is a very useful skill. We have therefore assembled this guide to wet weather fire making (we like to think of it as comprehensive). Something to keep in mind while you read this article: reading isn’t enough–go out and make fires in wet/cold conditions! It will keep you alive and warm up that tea!
Editor’s Note: This article assumes you are familiar with basic fire starting/building.
1. Resin is your friend.
Pines, firs, and other needle-bearing trees should be your first stop for fuel when it’s wet outside because they all have resinous sap. This sap is alternatively known as pitch, and is extremely flammable.
2. Debark everything.
And we mean everything (pretty much). Contrary to popular thought, most barks are a tree’s natural flame retardant. Peal, carve, or tear off the bark from your kindling and smaller pieces of fuel.
3. Use standing wood.
If you can, find kindling and fuel that has been standing vertically. This wood will be much less wet than a piece of wood that has been lying on the ground and will therefore be easier to burn.
4. Split your wood.
You are operating on two fire starting principles when you split your wood. Firstly, you are increasing the burnable surface area of the wood. Secondly, the inner wood of a branch or log is almost always drier than the outside and therefore easier to burn. If you don’t have a hatchet you can still split your wood by batoning it with a sturdy knife.
5. Shape your fire.
Shape is all important with fires. In wet weather, you want to build your fire to maximize airflow. You also might consider a structure that dries out your larger fuel while the smaller fuel is burning (called the “cone fire”).
6. Light it low.
Fire grows upward. If you light your fire down low, the flames will build up to consume the fuel above. If you don’t believe us, try lighting a fire from its top.
7. Light from windward.
This isn’t always helpful, but if you light a fire from the windward side, you can sometimes use Mother Nature as your personal bellows. If it works right it’s beautiful.
8. Use lots of tinder.
It’s an oft quoted proverb: you can never have enough tinder. Always make two or three times as much tinder as you think you’ll need, and use lots of it when starting a fire in wet conditions.
9. Keep backup tinder.
Keep some plan B tinder. Wet weather fire making is a treacherous art and often goes wrong. Having a good backup can mean the difference between life and death.
10. Make a platform.
Build a platform for your fire. This is so important! It increases airflow, gets your fire off the cold and wet ground, and makes a nice bed of coals later that night.
11. Have a fire helper.
Don’t be dumb. Bring some fire starters with you (petroleum soaked cotton balls, starter cubes). It makes a difference.
12. Get enough fuel.
Nothing stinks more than realizing at 11pm that you have to go out and get more fuel. Do the work beforehand. For a good, flaming all-nighter you need a stack of fuel as long as you are and waist high. If you build your fire cleverly so that it forms a solid bed of coals, you can get away with using less fuel.