Sometimes you find yourself in less than ideal circumstances and need to make a fire with wet wood. Before you throw up your hands in disgust, let’s see if there’s something we can do to increase our chances of success.
It is often possible to start a fire with wet wood by choosing the correct area to build the fire, using the proper type and amount of kindling, and having a good fire starter. Building a primitive structure, usually in a teepee shape, around your kindling can help maximize your chances of success.
Whether you’re trying to get a fire going in the wilderness or just your back yard, here’s a quick guide to help maximize your chances of successfully getting fire in wet conditions.
Step 1: Choose the Right Area to Build the Fire
One thing you’ll want to consider when building your fire is WHERE you’re building it.
If the area that you’re starting your fire is already cold and wet you’re going to have an even harder time. Make sure to clear the surroundings of damp earth, snow, and debris to create the optimal conditions for your fire given your circumstances. Then, using what dry materials you have, create a bed for your fire to sit on.
If you are experiencing a significant amount of wind you may want to dig a pit and building your fire in that. The worse the wind the deeper your pit will have to be. On the plus side, providing shelter for your fire can be as simple as propping logs at an angle over the pit and you may need to dig into the ground anyways to create a dry foundation for your fire.
Step 2: Use Proper Kindling
It can be difficult to start a fire without tinder or kindling so if you can prepare some in advance it can save you some time.
Normally you’d be able to use dried grass or fungus in your surroundings but we’re assuming everything is wet and unusable.
Items that make good kindling in wet conditions:
- Paper – Most any type of dry paper will do. Avoid anything glossy, such as magazine paper.
- Cotton balls – This is actually a great addition to your fire-making kit. You can pre-soak them in Vaseline or any petroleum jelly and keep them in a plastic bag.
- Other cloth-like materials – Ideally, the cloth will be made 100% from natural plant fibers. Think cotton, jute, or linens. In a survival situation, sacrificing part of one of the dry shirts in your pack (or on your body) is a viable solution. On a cold night, I’d rather be naked with fire than clothed without.
If you happen to be unprepared with the above options, here are a few things you can try.
- Wood shavings under tree bark – You can peel back the outer layer of a tree and you will often find the fibers to be bone dry. Using dead birch bark is also an option. It should look papery and curl naturally around the trunk allowing for easy removal.
- Bird nests – Don’t forget to look around for a birds nest. They are sometimes surprisingly dry in the inner layers.
- Dead branches on living trees – In more desperate situations you can find dead branches even on living trees. Check the lower branches which should also be drier and give them a test snap. If it doesn’t immediately break off or it bends, move on. The branch is alive and not only will it be harder to remove, but it also won’t burn as well.
- Pine needles – These can also work well as tinder as they naturally absorb little water and thus dry very easily. They also burn for a long time despite their size and it can be easy to accumulate a large quantity in a short period of time.
- Potato Chips– There are campers and survivalists who advocate using powdery foods such as Doritos as kindling. This is the last resort for me, food is too precious to waste in what might be a futile effort anyway.
If you have wet kindling or tinder keep it in a bag or in your clothes and close to your body. As you work your body heat will help to dry the materials and make it easier for use later on.
Step 3: Utilize Superior Fire Starters
If you are fortunate enough to know you’ll be forced to use wet wood due to rain or winter conditions you can consider bringing along superior fire starters.
Paraffin wax, like this type made by Weber (click to see Amazon listing), is excellent because compared to other forms of kindling it naturally repels water and does not need other tools to work. Burning slowly and intensely, it will greatly increase your ability to dry out the damp wood.
You may also find certain disposable paper cups or even cardboard to have wax coatings and these will also make excellent fire starters.
Another option is a block of magnesium which will burn fast and intensely. However, it will require a knife or other sharp tool to shave slivers off. While the heat produced is much higher than what can be created by paraffin wax, the duration is also substantially lower and arguably less helpful in drying out wet wood. If you don’t have or can’t bring a sharp tool with you, steel wool is an excellent alternative.
Here is a cool video that demonstrates how to use steel wool for this purpose:
Avoid Liquid Accelerants
I don’t advise bringing along liquid fuels to start a fire due to their weight and the difficulty in controlling the liquids and resulting flames, especially for beginners. Stick to paraffin wax or magnesium and you’ll maximize your chances of getting fire in wet conditions.
Step 4: Make a structure to surround your kindling
You’ll want to anticipate the growth of your fire much further in advance versus building a fire under normal conditions. There is nothing worse than burning through all your tinder and creating a small flame only for it to have insufficiently dry kindling and/or wood and then flicker out.
The best way to do this is by preemptively constructing a structure such as a teepee or other pyramid-shaped structure out of damp wood with your tinder and kindling in the center. This allows the initial flame time to dry out larger pieces of wood before consuming it as fuel and increase the chances of your fire surviving beyond the initial phases.
Also, ensure that your structure has plenty of airflow, otherwise, your fire will also suffer from a lack of oxygen. Airflow will also help with drying out your wet fuel.
Step 5: Find the Dryest Wood Possible
Don’t look for firewood until you have made other preparations. Once you locate the dryest wood possible, you want to start the lighting process as soon as possible. Moisture from the air or sky can begin to saturate your newly found wood supply surprisingly fast.
Even after a heavy rainfall, dry wood can often still be found. Our goal is to find dead wood that has not yet been soaked through. Avoid looking at the ground as wood that has been sitting in the earth or rain is likely rotten. If you’re desperate, you can check parts that are exposed to the air and see if anything is usable.
Ideally, you want to find dead trees that haven’t fallen yet. These can be identified by dead leaves, bark falling off, or large chunks of fungi growing on the trunk. The tree should fall over with a bit of effort allowing you to harvest the drier wood within.
This excellent video gives a few tips on finding dry wood in wet conditions:
Once you find the “least wet” wood in the area, get to step 6 ASAP.
Step 6: Light your fire
Now that you have taken the necessary “overkill” steps to maximize your chance of success, it’s time to try lighting the fire.
One of the biggest issues with using wet wood to start a fire is generating enough heat to overcome the wood’s dampness and causing it to ignite. Expect to use triple if not quadruple the amount of kindling you would normally use when starting a fire with dry wood.
Make sure that you use at least twice as much tinder as you normally would and have a bunch waiting in the wings as a backup while you start the fire. If you prepared correctly, actually starting the fire should be the easiest step.
Here is a video that shows both how to dig a sheltering pit and bed in the ground as well as a teepee to hold kindling.
Ideally, break out the paraffin wax or magnesium and get to it. Otherwise, use whatever igniting method you have at your disposal.
So, that’s it!
You now know all you need in order to have a warm night even in wet conditions. Now, let’s answer a few other common things that people ask me on the subject.
How to Start a Fire When It’s Raining?
Most of the tips above still apply to starting a fire while it’s raining but with one exception, you will need to find shelter for your fire. This will generally involve hiding underneath a large tree, a cliff overhang, or using a tarp or similar materials stretched above you.
Do NOT build a fire in your tent.
You risk either burning your tent down or suffering carbon monoxide poisoning.
Keeping the Fire Going
Once your fire has started the easy part is done, now you need to ensure your fire stays lit. With the additional moisture, you can expect more smoke and weaker flames. You’ll need to check on your fire more frequently.
To trap more heat you may want to consider constructing a fire reflector. By strategically building a wall out of materials (wood is fine) opposite of your campsite you can cause the heat from your fire to bounce back towards you further assisting the drying of your wood and helping you keep warm.
If you’re lucky and the rain has just started, finding dry wood and tinder should be easier. But if the rain has been going on for an extended period of time you’ll need to resort to the more intensive tricks discussed above.
This video shows how a fire can be made in the rain. Notice how he uses the “overkill” method for kindling:
Properly Using Your Tools
Using tools like sharp knives and axes can improve wet wood’s chances of becoming a viable fire. Oftentimes only the outer bark and layer of wood has significant moisture, meaning that the inner portions of the wood are completely dry.
Strip away the bark and as much of the outer wet wood as you can. Utilizing the dry center with kindle should be able to yield a flame with much more ease and less smoke.
You’ll also want to break the damp wood pieces into smaller splinters and allow them to dry out by your fire before using them as additional fuel. The goal of this exercise is to increase surface area and the speed in which the wood can dry out.
In the circumstance where the entire log of wood is completely soaked however, I would recommend drying out the wood before using it or finding a different log.
If you have the right tools, you can create feathers and shavings from twigs, branches, and even bark if you’re short on tinder. Above I mentioned how twigs and branches that don’t immediately snap off are not good. This is true unless you use tools to feather it out or cut it into tiny slivers for tinder.
With the proper know-how, making a fire under any conditions is possible. All it takes is a little perseverance and patience. Thanks for stopping by!
How to start a fire with wet wood in a fireplace – If you are trying to start a fire with wet wood inside your house or cabin, you may want to reconsider. While it is possible to start a fire with wet wood it is generally not recommended inside an enclosed space due to the fact that it can be hazardous to your health. Wet wood not only produces less heat when burned but also releases more smoke and other small particles into the air which can be harmful when inhaled.
How do you dry firewood quickly? The keys to drying firewood quickly are to split it into small 4″ to 6″ across pieces and stack it above the ground in a sunny area where air can circulate between the pieces. If rain or snow is coming, cover the stack with a tarp but otherwise leave it uncovered.
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