I think we all tend to think a little bit idealistically when we’re making our plans to survive a disaster. What I mean by that is that we envision good weather, things working as they should and everything going according to our plan. But that’s rarely how it is. If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that there’s usually bad weather, clogged roads, broken equipment and stressed out family members to deal with. It’s never as easy as we want it to be. Maybe that’s why it’s called a disaster.
I’ve never had any trouble starting a fire when I was on a camping trip… at least, not since I learned how to build a fire. But the few times I’ve needed to start a fire in a survival situation were a problem. The basic reason was that in each of those cases, I was trying to start a fire in wet weather. Generally speaking, that’s not a good combination.
Nevertheless, this leads me to believe that if any of us find ourselves in a survival situation, we’re most likely to need to start a fire in wet weather. Considering how necessary a fire is to our survival, especially in those cold, wet conditions, we need to know how.
Prepare the Fire Pit
The first thing you need for any fire is a good fire pit to start it in. While this is necessary for safety, to control the fire, in the case of wet weather, the fire pit is going to have to protect the fire as well. Specifically, you need to protect the fire from wind and water.
Locating the fire pit is an important part of providing this protection. If you can, you want to build the fire under the branches of a tree, so that the tree will protect the fire from rain falling on it. Just make sure that the branches are high enough so that the fire will not reach the tree. If you can put the fire pit on slightly sloping ground, this will help prevent water from accumulating in your fire pit. Adding a drainage trough around the uphill side will help keep flowing water out of your fire.
Since the ground will most likely be wet, it’s best to raise the fire up off the ground a couple of inches. This can be done by building the fire on a large rock or by making a bed out of rocks. Additional rocks placed around the fire pit will help to contain the fire. If you don’t have rocks to use, you can make a bed out of logs laid side by side. Just make sure that they are contained within the limits of your fire pit, surrounded by material that won’t burn, like rocks.
You may also need some sort of wind break for your fire. There are many ways of doing this, but the most common is to build a low wall of stones or logs on the upwind side of the fire. Another simple way is to string a tarp or rescue blanket between two trees. This can also act as a heat reflector, helping you get the most out of your fire.
Finding Dry Fuel
One of your biggest problems is going to be finding wood that is dry enough to burn, especially if it has been raining for some time. However, there are always places the rain doesn’t reach. The secret is to look for those places.
One such place is the underside of deadfall trees. Even though rain is falling on the topside of the tree, the branches and bark underneath the trunk will be protected. Likewise, branches that are hidden from the rain by the root mass will usually be dry.
If there are any caves, undercut banks or rock formations around, look for pieces of wood that might have fallen there or even been placed by others camping in the same spot.
Another good location is under large pine trees, which can also provide a dry shelter from the storm. Pines are unique in the world of trees, in that their branches grow straight out from the trunk. This means that as the branches grown, they actually dip towards the ground. So, the branches touching the ground at the base of a large pine will actually be attached to the trunk several feet above the ground. Any branches that are lower down than that will have died, even though they might still be attached to the tree.
Starting the Fire
The hardest thing to find for building a fire in wet weather is any sort of dry tinder. This is why our ancestors carried a tinder box with them, allowing them to collect tinder where they found it, and always have some with them as they traveled.
You too should carry some tinder, but I’d recommend going a little more high tech than our ancestors did. Rather than carrying around old bird’s nests and dry grass, I’d go for a chemical tinder, such as the WetFire cubes. These will ignite easily, even when totally wet. I carry a number of these in all my survival kits, my EDC bag and my bug out bag.
My favorite tinder to use is cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, a chemical tinder that you can make yourself. Simply take a spoonful of petroleum jelly (Vasoline) and work it into a standard cotton ball, using the back side of the spoon. You want to get it as thoroughly into the cotton as possible, preferably so that the core of the ball is soaked with it too.
These ignite easily enough that you can ignite one with a sparker, like a Metal Match or the BlastMatch. A typical cotton ball will burn for about three to three and a half minutes, which is enough time to get small pieces of damp wood burning well.
By the way, I have about 50 of these in an air-tight container in my bug out bag, not just a half dozen or so, like many people. While I am confident in my ability to start a fire without them, I am also confident in Mother Nature’s ability to make me need them. Since they are small and lightweight, I would rather carry more than what I’ll need, rather than risk running out of them.
Have a Good Fire Starter
Finally, you need a really good fire starter. This is not the time to try a bow drill or Ferro Rod. I carry a stormproof butane lighter by UST for this. What makes it stormproof is that it uses a piezoelectric igniter, which continues to ignite as long as the gas valve is depressed. So, even if it does blow out, it will reignite immediately. While considerably more expensive than a disposable butane lighter, it’s worth it, as I know it will always light my fire, even in the worst of weather.
My backup fire starter is the BlastMatch I mentioned above. This is far superior to either a Metal Match or a Ferro Rod, because the magnesium rod, coupled with a spring-loaded plunger, ensures that you get a shower of sparks on your chemical tinder, not just a few. So, I can be assured that if I can’t use my stormproof lighter for some reason, I have something that will work.