Starting a Fire in Wet Weather

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It’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming a bit idealistic in our survival expectations. We develop a scenario and the plans to survive it and then expect it to happen just like we had imagined it. But the reality is that things rarely work out as we expect, especially when we really need them to. So chances are that when survival time comes, it will be much different than we expect.

One very obvious way that this can happen is the weather. Foul weather has played a part in every survival situation I’ve been through. So why would any of us expect to have good weather, if we are forced to bug out? Most likely, it’ll be raining, snowing or sleeting the whole time.

This makes for a much more dangerous survival scenario, as bad weather, especially wet weather, can lead to hypothermia, the biggest killer in the wild. We will need warm clothes, a snug shelter and a good fire to keep ourselves warm, but the very weather will work against us in having all that, especially in starting a good fire.

That makes sense, considering that we use water to put out fires. But that little bit of realization doesn’t help us get a fire going, and we’re going to have to be able to do that, or we’re going to have a hard time keeping ourselves warm.

Start with the Foundation

Building a fire when everything is wet requires, even more, care than otherwise. Water running across the ground can make the fuel wet, extinguishing coals and putting out the fire. So we need to either get the fire up off the ground or build a watercourse around it, to divert any water from our fire.

It’s generally easier to build up an area and get the fire up off the ground than it is to divert water around it. All you need is to find a flat rock or gather some rocks and make a bed for the fire. You don’t even have to make the bed level, just as long as the fuel for your fire can sit on it.

A location is an important issue as well. You want to be under some overhead cover, so that water can’t fall directly into the fire. Find a tree with thick branches to build your fire under, ensuring that the branches are far enough above the fire so that they will not be scorched by it. Five or six feet above the fire should be enough.

You may also need to build a wind break, on the upwind side of the fire, if it is windy. This can be made out of stone as well, or you can use deadfall branches. If you use deadfalls, this is a great way to dry them out to use in the fire later. Just make sure that you have enough, that whatever you put in the fire can be replaced by more branches.

Finding Dry Fuel

The tricky part of starting a fire in wet weather is finding something that will burn. Most deadfalls will get soaked, just like everything else. But there are a few choice places you can look for dry firewood.

Start by looking to see if there are any overhanging rocks. If there are, some previous camper might have left a wood pile there, which would be dry. If there is and you use that wood, be polite to the next person who comes along and replenishes the supply.

Your next choice is broken branches and deadfalls that are protected by the rain by the overhead canopy. Look for the densest part of the woods and see what might be lying on the ground there. chances are better that it will be drier than the rest of the forest. Branches that have fallen, but are not on the ground are more likely to be dry than those sitting on the ground.

Deadfall trees are one of the best sources of dry wood, even when it is raining. Even though the branches on the top side will be wet, those on the bottom side will be dry. The bark on that side will be dry, and possibly brittle from decomposition, making it about the only good tinder that you will be able to find.

Finally, look underneath large pine trees. Due to the way that they grow, pines are excellent at shedding water. The lowest branches of large trees will be sweeping the ground, unlike other trees. This actually creates a space underneath those branches, where you can find dry pine needles and dead branches that were lower on the trunk than that lowest course. While pine tends to burn fast, at least it’s dry wood.

Getting the Fire Started

Once you have created a fire pit and gathered your fuel, it’s time to get your fire going. This is the one place where I recommend using some sort of accelerant to start a fire. While it is possible to start a fire in wet weather without one, we’re talking a survival situation; you don’t want to waste time.

I save accelerants for this sort of situation, not allowing myself to use them for normal fire starting. That way, I am assured of having them with me when I really need them. Besides, the practice in starting a fire without them will make it easier to start a fire in wet weather.

So what do I mean by an accelerant? I’m referring to anything highly flammable, usually a chemical, which makes a fire catch and starts easier. The term is usually used in regards to arson, but it applies perfectly to what we are doing here. Just to get the idea set in your mind, when you use charcoal starter fluid to light a barbecue grill, you’re using an accelerant.

My favorite accelerants for starting a fire in wet weather are:

  • Wetfire Cubes – These commercially made accelerants are probably the best commercial product out there. The cubes are made of flammable chemicals, individually wrapped. They are easy to ignite, burn fairly hot and will burn for several minutes. They can be cut to use only a part of a cube if you so desire.
  • Petroleum Jelly Soaked Cotton Balls – This is my personal “go to” fire starter. Take a cotton ball and work petroleum jelly into it with your fingers or the back of a spoon. Sealed in an airtight container, they last for months. However, they can dry out in the heat, so check your stock from time to time. These can be ignited easily with a sparkler or flame and burn for about three minutes. I keep about 50 in my bug out bag and a dozen in my EDC.
  • Black Powder and Nailpolish Remover – This is the fire starter of last resort. It will burn at over 3,000 degrees, for over three minutes, which is enough to dry out the wood and get it burning. To make them, you need the finest ground black powder, 5FG and the type of nail polish remover that contains acetone. Place about two tablespoons of black powder in a bowl and cover it with nail polish remover, leaving it to soak for a few minutes. Then pour off the nail polish remover and start working the black powder into a ball, folding it over and kneading it to build up a large number of layers. These layers are important for controlling the burn rate. Once finished, store it in an airtight container. They will keep for about six months. Once fully dry, dispose of it and replace.

While you can use any sparker or flame source with any of these accelerants, I recommend a windproof butane lighter. That’s the most secure fire starter there is, as it will reignite constantly, preventing even strong winds or rain from putting it out. You can buy survival versions, but the type for lighting cigars sell for as little as $10.

As a secondary fire starter, I recommend the BlastMatch. This is a sparker, but unlike a Ferro Rod or Metal Match, it provides a lot of sparks, and does so effortlessly. Simply push down on the spring-loaded body and it creates a shower of sparks.

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