Fire is a critical part of survival. Being able to start a fire, even in the worst of conditions, is an emerging skill which was all but lost for many years. In modern civilization, the need to start a fire is overshadowed by the other means we have for heating and cooking. But when you’re caught in a survival situation, none of those means work, leaving you with the need to build a fire the old-fashioned way.
Fire does several important things for us. First of all, we use it to heat our shelter, regardless of how primitive that shelter may be. While modern homes have central heating systems, you can’t expect that convenience when trying to survive in the wild. We also use it to cook our food, a necessity to prevent food poisoning. But fire does more than that as we use it to provide us with comfort as well as protection from wild animals.
The times we need a fire the most are also the times when it is hardest to start one. That is, when it’s cold and windy, it’s raining or snowing, and we’re freezing wet. At such a time, a fire can mean the difference between life and death. The big problem is starting a fire with wet wood is nearly impossible.
- Find Dry Wood. The first step in starting any fire is to find dry wood or at least wood that isn’t very wet. If it’s been raining, that can be hard to do. However, there are some places where the wood tends to always be dry, if you know where to look.
o In caves or under overhangs – If there is a cave nearby, you can almost always count on finding dry wood in it.
o Under deadfalls – This is one of the most reliable sources of dry wood. Even if the top side of the deadfall tree is soaking wet, the underside will be dry. It may even be shielding other wood that is dry as well.
o Under trees – Thick trees will often protect wood that is under them. Large pine trees often have dead branches right at ground level. Those can be cut off and used as they are well protected from the rain.
Even if you have to cut the wood from under the deadfalls, at least you’ll have something to start with. Once the fire is blazing away, you can always put damp wood beside it so that the heat from the fire will dry it out before you add it to the fire.
- Dry Tinder. Dry tinder is as hard to find as dry fuel. The easy solution for this is to keep some dry tinder with you. In olden times, this was common; travelers would carry a “tinder box” which had their tinder and fire starters in it.
- Lay Your Fire Right. You don’t want to have to do it over so make sure that your fire is properly laid from the beginning. A bottom-up approach is best, where your tinder is at the bottom, with the kindling above it, followed by the fuel covering all that. In this manner, the fire can spread quickly and easily so that you don’t have to try a second time.
- Shield Your Fire. You don’t want it raining directly into your fire, especially if it’s coming down hard. Find a spot to build it, where the fire can be at least somewhat shielded from the rain. Under a tree works great as long as the branches are high enough so that they won’t catch fire.
- A Good Fire Starter. This is not the time that you want to be using a ferro rod or a bow drill to start a fire. While both of these methods are great, they are harder to use, especially when fighting with moisture. Instead, use a match or lighter, along with a prepared fire starter that will catch fire quickly and easily. You can either buy these commercially, or make your own. Some of the best are:
o Cotton Balls Soaked in Petroleum Jelly – This is a very easy fire starter to make and one that will keep for a long time. With the back side of a spoon, scoop up a teaspoon of petroleum jelly and work it into a cotton ball. The average cotton ball treated in this way will burn for over three minutes, giving plenty of time for the tinder and even the kindling to catch.
o Dryer Lint and Wax – Common dryer lint is fairly flammable. By adding candle wax to it, you can make it burn longer. The easiest way to do this is putting balls of lint into cardboard egg cartons and pouring the wax over top to soak the lint. You don’t have to cover it fully, just wet it down.
o Black Powder – For the ultimate fire starter, take a tablespoon of #FFFg black powder and wet it thoroughly with oily nail polish remover (the kind that has acetone in it). Make a putty out of it and knead it, folding it over about 50 times. This will make a ball that will burn for over three minutes at about 3,000 degrees, hot enough to dry out the wood.
The Bottom Line
Proper preparation makes all the difference in the world. If you take the time to make the right fire starters and keep them with you, you greatly increase your chances of starting a fire, even in wet weather.
There is always dry wood and tinder available, if you keep your eyes open. Learn to look for places in the wild that are sheltered from the rain. These are great for finding firewood, as well as make excellent campsites. Of course, if it looks like it’s going to rain, you probably want to stop and set up camp, starting your fire before any precipitation comes down. That way, you can be comfortable even in the rain.