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Surviving in the Cold: Starting a Fire in Wet Conditions

Starting a Fire in Wet Conditions
Getting a fire started in the rain or up in the mountains after a recent snowfall can be next to impossible. Better have a plan if you want to survive in the cold next to a warm fire.
by Patrick Whalen, Copyright ©
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There is nothing like sitting next to a warm fire on a cold evening and it isn't simply because it is a source of heat. Many people who have endured survival situations will tell you that there is a certain psychological factor in getting a fire started.
Fire provides light when the sun goes down and you find yourself in a strange, dark place. The flames also provide a sense of protection as they tend to ward off wild animals hunting in the darkness. Finally though, fire also provides the opportunity for cooking meat and boiling water, which are absolutely essential in the outdoors.

Building a fire is often considered by many to be simple child's play, but what if you find yourself in need of building a fire during or immediately following a torrential downpour? The steps to building a fire under such wet conditions are not as simple as grabbing sticks from the ground and setting them ablaze. Doing so is not impossible, but there are some very important factors to consider when faced with just such a situation.

Starting a Fire: The Fire Triangle

Perhaps you have heard of the "fire triangle," in which three things are necessary to create and sustain fire. These essential components are: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Chances are you will not be operating in an environment void of oxygen, but fuel and heat can be the prohibitive factors under wet conditions. That is, unless you know how to overcome these challenges.

The following tips have the potential to save your life should you ever need to get a fire started in the rain, or simply wet conditions.


When building a fire, whether it is under wet or dry conditions, there are three basic building blocks. All of these items can be prepared in advance and carried in a survival kit, but even when you find yourself unprepared, these items can be found even in wet conditions.
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The best place to find material dry enough to be effective is likely to be from trees that are still standing.

Logic might dictate that fallen limbs may be a better choice, but it is much less likely that the lower limbs of trees that are still standing have been protected from moisture by the limbs and foliage above them. If you have a knife or other sharp tool, you can expose the dry wood hiding just beneath the wet surface.

Perhaps one of the greatest finds, if at all possible, would be what many people call "fat wood" or "fat lighter." This is wood that has become soaked with tree sap or resin and is usually found as part of a pine or cedar stump. You can tell you have found "fat wood" by breaking it apart and smelling the inside layers of wood. If it has a strong tar odor or oozes with sap, you have found a wonderful fire starter. Other natural fire starters include:

- Dry grass
- Leaves
- Shaved bark
- Cattail fluff
- Dry pine needles
- Poplar Cotton

Of course being prepared before the need arises is one of the best methods of ensuring that you have what you will need to start a fire. Homemade fire starters are quite easy to make and store. Perhaps one of the best methods is to smear petroleum jelly on cotton balls, then store them in dry packaging. If you are preparing a survival kit that includes fire starters, the best thing to do is practice with the materials beforehand. The saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention," but in survival mode, it is better to have already prepared for such necessities. Examples of fire starters you can load into your survival gear include:

- Birthday candles can be easily stored, but they will melt if they are exposed to too much heat
- Cotton balls
- Compressed wood encased in wax (While you can make your own, most barbecue supply stores sell this item with a strike-ready material already on them)
- Dryer lint
- Esbit
- Fuzz sticks (Made by taking a knife and gently carving "wings" that extend out from the stick)
- Paper
- Steel wool #0000 (Yes it burns! You can even place this across the terminals of a lantern battery to get a fire started!)


Packing waterproof matches in your survival gear is a smart idea, but they have their limitations. Matches will store for only so long and need to be replaced. A better tool to pack would be some type of sparking device. These come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, so again, it would be wise to pick one or two different types and practice with them before placing them in your survival gear. The following are some of the more popular fire starting spark tools:

- Blast Match
- Ferrocerium rod
- Magnesium Block
- Misch metal rod
- Strike Force
- Swedish Firesteel

Building Your Fire

When building a fire in wet conditions, the first thing you will need to do is separate your materials from wet ground. Even if the ground appears to be just barely damp, the tinder and kindling materials you use will soak up whatever moister is there. Find a dry piece of bark or build a base of dry sticks to place your first layer of tinder on.

Besides the tinder, you will also want to gather up and prepare slightly larger wooden material. This kindling will be placed on the tinder as soon as it is ignited, so make sure it is at hand before starting your fire.

Once the kindling has begun to burn, you will then begin placing larger pieces of wood in the flames. Start with pieces about as big around as a pencil and gradually increase the size as it burns. Just remember to be patient when building your fire. Trying to put too much wood on a small fire will remove the much needed supply of oxygen and it will go out.

Never try to build a fire that is too large for your immediate needs. Many people think that a large fire will warm them up quicker, but the truth is, the larger the fire, the further away you have to sit from it. Sitting close to a small fire produces much better results. Also, once the fire is burning, don't quit. Locate an additional supply of tinder, kindling and wood and place it near the fire so that it will be dry and ready for you the next time it is needed.

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