How to Start a Fire with Wet Wood

How to Start a Fire with Wet Wood

The first thing you need to know about making a fire with wet wood is that you can’t start a fire with wet wood. What you can do, however, is find the least wet wood and use that to start a fire even in conditions you wouldn’t believe allow you to do that.

We’ll start with discussing what to bring with you to make your job as easy as possible. Of course, if you’re a seasoned camper, but new to camping in wet conditions, feel free to skip this section (although, being a seasoned camper, you probably won’t) and head straight for the subsequent – how to find the driest wood, prepare it and stack to maximize every bit of slack Mother Nature cut you.

Come Prepared

The very first axiom of camping is “come prepared” (even if it’s a day hike!). With regard to the topic at hand, this means you should always have at least two ways of starting a fire. On that same note, here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice – always make sure every item can serve dual purpose, and make sure you always have a backup plan for the essentials – fire, water and insulation).

Ingredients

Now, for absolute novices, there are three things you need to start a fire (four, actually, if you mean to keep it going) – fire starter, tinder, kindling and logs, and it goes way beyond simply throwing it onto a pile and lighting up. So, for sake of being thorough, we’ll go through each of these, explain it and give some pointers on where to look for it when everything around you is soaking wet.

Before moving on to what constitutes good tinder, let’s just preface it by saying you’ll need lots and lots of extra tinder and kindling if you’re camping in wet conditions.

Tinder

Tinder (no, not the app, but you see where the makers were going when naming it) is the first step to building a fire, and it’s by definition dry and highly flammable – think wood shavings, paper, things like that.

These all can get wet, and when so, they’re useless. That said, it’s not entirely impossible to use it, depending on how wet it is, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to spend more time trying to light it than taking the time to find or prepare dry stuff.

If you want something that can get wet and still take a spark, definitely go for magnesium shavings – just pack a handful of it into a watertight box or a Ziploc bag before leaving. Here are some other suggestions for tinder:

  • Cotton balls and petroleum jelly – now, it’s rather difficult finding these in nature, so you might want to prepare them beforehand. Just mix a dozen or so cotton balls (gauze will also do) with a bit of petroleum jelly (pretty much any household should have some Vaseline lying around – just raid your home pharmacy if you don’t feel like buying it especially for this). As you may be well aware, Vaseline is highly flammable and it will keep the cotton balls burning for a whole lot longer.
  • Paper – keep it in a Ziploc bag or whatever airtight container you prefer. Make sure you don’t use the thin gloss stuff from magazines, since it doesn’t burn well.
  • Fine steel wool – the operating word here is “fine” – the finer, the better. For those of you not in the know, it’s the same stuff you use to scrub your pots and pans.
  • Char cloth – you’ll need to make this beforehand, just like with cotton balls. What you need to do is cut small pieces of cotton cloth (preferably into squares) and seal them in an airtight metal container (for example, a water bottle). Make sure the container is metal, since you’ll be placing it on fire for about five (until the cloth is charred). This will take a spark like crazy, so make sure to keep it away from flame until needed.
  • Tree bark – this one you can find on site, just check out any fallen trees in the area, making sure you avoid those with rotten bark. Even in soaking wet conditions, most tree bark tends to be dry(ish) on the inside. Ideally, you’ll go for birch or pine, since these contain highly flammable resin, peel it, shave it, and lots of it.
  • Wood shavings – again, very easy to find on site. Have a look at fallen or dead trees, since they’re bound to be dry on the inside. Make sure you have something to split them in half or chip the soggy parts away, until you find the dry part (anything will do – axe, hatchet, knife, even an old-scholl handheld pencil sharpener).
  • Shredded grapevine bark – highly flammable, though you’re not likely to find it out in the boonies. It’s the all-natural alternative to char cloth or cotton ball/petroleum jelly mix.
  • Drier lint – yes, the stuff you have to clean from the dryer (or your navel) – it’s perfect for tinder. Just roll it up in some toilet paper to keep it together.
  • Leaves – finding dry leaves even after a couple of rainy days isn’t as hard as you might think at first. Be sure to check out inside the trees, under fallen brush, or even under leaf beds.
  • Metal dust/shavings – ideally, you’ll want magnesium for this, but any metal will do
  • Dirty hair

Kindling

When you get the tinder going, you need something to take the fire and ignite the logs in turn. This is kindling

  • Sticks, twigs and small branches – go for dead trees and branches, and find those that are lying lowest to the ground and closest to the trunk, they’ll be the driest. If you hear a pleasant “snap” when you break it, you know you’re good.
  • Tree bark – larger pieces of bark are great for kindling. Ideally, you’ll go for birch, since it tends to burn even when wet (those curled up pieces that look like scrolls are perfect for the job).
  • Pine needles – spruce and pine needles and limbs have a highly flammable sap that makes them burn even when wet, and acts like accelerant
  • Birch bark (bigger pieces, burn even if wet)
  • Split logs – find dead or seasoned wood (make sure it’s dead but not fallen yet, as the fallen ones are likely soggy) and chip off the soggy bits (just like for tinder). Alternatively, you can split it and then split again to reveal the dry wood within. The thickness is arbitrary, but aim for about an inch. Obviously, you’ll need an axe or a hatchet for this one (if you didn’t bring one, a knife and a log-for-a-hammer will do; if you haven’t got at least a knife with you, then you have no business camping in the woods)

Fire Starter

  • Lighters – BIC are good, but not ideal, since they tend to freeze even at 40 degrees. Zippos, on the other hand, are perfect.
  • Matches – ideally, you’ll want them to be waterproof. You can use non-waterproof matches, just make sure you keep them in an airtight container.
  • Flint and steel – the old-fashioned way.
  • 9V battery – this one works perfect in conjunction with steel wool. Rub the wool across the points on the battery until the strands are hot red, and then take it to tinder.
  • DIY bow drill – making and using this takes lots of work and energy, but it’ll keep you warm until you get a fire going).
  • Highway flare – still won’t work with wet tinder, though.

Instructions, Tips & Tricks

First thing’s first, you’ll need to find the driest possible area. Raise the fire bed or dig a trench to keep the air flowing (constant air supply is crucial for building a fire) and make sure to build your fire before igniting the tinder. There are two ways to do this – tepee or log cabin.

The former is much better if you’re using wet logs, as the hot air and smoke will dry the wood off as the tinder and kindling take flame. Also, the design will allow you to more easily add kindling and keep things going until logs are dry enough to take flame.

Put any surplus firewood you have collected around the fire, but not close enough to catch flame. This will have dual purpose – it will dry any wet wood, and will also act as a screen to protect the fire from wind. Moreover, if you arrange it in a semi-circle, it will direct the heat towards you.

Once you have a nice fire going, keep in mind that you mustn’t add too many big pieces at once, or you’ll choke it. This is a problem even with dry wood, as it restricts airflow, so you can imagine what wet wood will do.

Finally, always remember to put out the fire when breaking down the camp (the second axiom of camping).

So, do you think we covered everything here, or do you know of a better way to start a fire with wet wood? If so, leave us a comment and spread the word. Happy camping!

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