Almost anyone can start a fire on a dry, warm day with only a light breeze. But when the time comes that you really need that fire—it’s cold, rainy, windy, snowy—you may need every trick in the book to kindle a lifesaving blaze.
But the best trick in the book isn’t really a trick at all: It’s frequent fire building practice in crappy conditions before an emergency strikes. Without practice under adverse conditions, you simply won’t be ready for fire making in foul weather. The second trick in the book is to bring loads of fire-starting gear. You may be great at improvisation—rubbing two sticks together, and all the rest—but without proper fire starting gear, your results will be awful (at best!) during dangerously cold and wet weather.
So get your practice in, build a fire starting kit full of easy-to-use supplies, and take the following advice. One day, you’ll be glad you did.
There are plenty of fire starters on the market, but the one I keep going back to is the WetFire cube from Ultimate Survival Technologies. And although it is not a new product, I am often surprised by the number of folks who have never heard of it, or at least never tried it. WetFire cubes are lightweight and easy to ignite, and they have a long burn time. Each cube weighs just 0.16 ounces, and is capable of burning up to ten minutes at temperatures around 1,300°F. They work in wet and windy conditions with ease. They even float and keep burning while floating in water. Ration your cubes by chipping off some to assist with fire starting, and then save the remaining cube for later. A few shavings or chips of this tinder can greatly assist in the lighting of camp stoves and stubborn grills, too. Just make sure you use the product within a few months of opening the package, as they seem to lose some flammability after being exposed to the air.
Make Fire Starters
For a diehard do-it-your-selfer, buying fire starters at the camping store is out of the question. You won’t be happy unless you’ve made your own incendiary helpers for wet weather and tough situations. Lucky for you, some simple household materials can turn into a fierce fire—if you know how to combine them. Here are three recipes for easy combustion, even in rainy weather.
Vaseline and Cotton Balls
The crown jewel of homemade fire starters, this mixture of cotton balls and petroleum jelly is amazing. You can mush the pasty, cold Vaseline into dry cotton balls, or dip the cotton into warm, liquefied petroleum jelly for faster absorption. Store these in a watertight container, so that the jelly doesn’t melt and leak all over your gear if your kit gets above 100°F.
Wax and Paper Towels
Use up your old candle chunks and nubs to make a great fire starter. Roll up some paper towels into a tight roll and cut them into short sections (resembling miniature toilet paper rolls). Tie each one with a bit of cotton string, to keep them from unraveling, and dip them in a container of melted wax. Once cooled, these can be stored with your fire kit, and the waxy cotton strings can be used like wicks for easy lighting.
Crisco and Sawdust
Messy but effective, solid shortening and wood sawdust can be used in globs or wiped on reluctant fire wood for wet weather burning. This is the easiest homemade fire starter of the three. Just stir some sawdust into solid vegetable shortening until more than half of the volume of your paste is sawdust. Store it in bags, bottles, tubes, or canisters, and light with an open flame when you’re ready.
Carry Multiple Lighters
The simplicity of the butane lighter is hard to beat. Nothing lights a fire like fire itself, and you only need one working thumb to use it. I would rather have $15 of butane lighters than one $15 fire-making device. When making your selection, stick with the more expensive, brand-name butane lighters so that quality and longevity are not an issue. And make sure you carry more than one. This gives you one to break, one to lose, and one to use. Some manufacturers of butane lighters have claimed that you’ll get ten thousand lights per lighter. That’s pretty impressive, and even if you run out of fuel, you still have a chance to make fire by flicking the wheel to throw sparks into very fine tinder. There are just a few drawbacks on the lighter. Extreme cold (below 10°F) can cause the butane to “gel,” which in turn causes the lighter to fail until it warms enough for the butane to become a gas again. Keep your lighters in your shirt or pants pocket if you’re somewhere that cold. Finally, make sure the button doesn’t get pressed in storage—the gas will leak out and your lighter will become much less useful.
Fight Damp Conditions
Even though you probably won’t want to sit beside a roaring fire in hot and steamy weather, fire is still a necessary part of most survival strategies. Boiling water, cooking meat, and signaling for help are not so easily done without fire’s friendly assistance. If you find it challenging to light a fire when the materials are damp and the air is humid, then try these six tips to beat the high humidity and dampness.
1. Split your sticks. Either by careful knife work or splitting by hand, split your kindling lengthwise for wood pieces that burn better than whole sticks. By splitting hardwood kindling, you will expose the drier inner wood. The lower mass of these “half” sticks will also cause them to light faster than their whole counterparts.
2. Stick with the sticky stuff. Pines, firs, spruce, and most other needle-bearing trees are my first stop in humid weather because of their flammable pitch. For the best materials, select dead twigs from sunny areas to get your fire going quickly.
3. Peel it all off. Bark is typically a protective structure to save the wood from a fire, among other hazards. Most barks aren’t that flammable on their own, so tear, carve, or peel the wet bark off your sticks and kindling. There’s often dry wood just below the surface—especially if you got your wood from standing dead vegetation.
4. Shape it up. Many fire making attempts are doomed from the beginning because the fire lay shape is wrong. Build a one foot tall cone of small twigs that is one foot wide at the base, and stay away from low-lying kindling configurations. That tall tipi shape allows heat to rise efficiently through the sticks, drying them out, and catching them on fire. Don’t believe me? Then listen to an engineer. A 2015 study by a Duke University engineer shows that the best fire shape is a cone that’s as tall as it is wide.
5. Skip the thirsty stuff. Water-absorbing materials like paper and dead grass can drink a lot of water from the atmosphere and prove stubborn to light in humid conditions. Use more water-resistant materials like wax paper or dead pine needles for your tinder.
6. Add a fire starter product. Purchased or homemade fire starters are often needed in wet or damp weather, so it’s best to have them in your fire kit. (See above.)
For years, UCO’s Stormproof Match Kit has provided outdoor enthusiasts with tough, waterproof matches that were a steal. Still available, these bright=colored cases include 25 stormproof matches and 3 striker strips—and they burn even when soaked! Now UCO has outdone themselves with the upgraded and updated Titan Stormproof Match kit. This kit contains a larger version of their beloved waterproof matches with a longer burn time. The windproof and waterproof match canister has a built-in lanyard and a soft rubber “O” ring that keeps water out of the match safe. It still comes with two replacement striker strips (in addition to the one on the outside of the canister). These extra-long match sticks give you plenty of time to get your fire burning, with up to 25 seconds of burn time for each match. If you can’t light a fire with one of these puppies, you need to go back to fire school.
More correctly called ferrocerium rods, spark rods have become a very common fire starter in recent years. This man-made metal will produce a shower of hot sparks (at temps above 5,000°F) when you scrape it against a sharp or rough surface like your knife or a rock. Many different versions are sold beside camping and survival goods, with designs ranging from simple to complex devices. Pros include being impervious to water and a long shelf life if used carefully. They also make an impressive spray of hot sparks (the more expensive rods often making the biggest shower of sparks). Their only real drawback is that they only make sparks, not a flame. Good tinder is a must to produce a flame, because sparks won’t light every type of tinder. Even so, they’re handy in certain situations. My favorite is the Swedish Fire Steel from Light My Fire.
Build a Proper Fire Lay
A fire lay is a small structure made from sticks and tinder to facilitate the ignition of a fire, and there’s no shortage of architectural variety when building these little houses for your fire to live in. The same little pile of twigs and the same match stick can be combined in a number of different ways to start a fire. But which fire lay is right for different occasions? Sometimes, you can’t make the wheel any rounder. Although the tipi shape is the “best” lay (see above), the classic lean-to fire lay is quick to assemble and effective under a wide range of conditions. Grab a larger hunk of firewood or better yet, a large, dry, curled-up bark slab. Lay your kindling perpendicular to the log or edge of the bark. Throw some tinder underneath and light it up. It’s quick to assemble, and it can be made with a frugal amount of material. Just make sure you orient the structure into the wind for good air flow.
There’s nothing mysterious or strange about fatwood. But many people seem to know about fatwood only by reputation, and not from any actual experience finding it and using it. Fatwood is known by many names: fat lighter, lighter knot, rich lighter, and heart pine are just a few of the common titles. Whatever you choose to call it, fatwood comes from the heartwood of pine trees and a few other resinous conifers. As a tree stump dies, the pine resin can become concentrated in the heartwood, which then becomes hard and rot resistant. Once this happens, the center of the stump and its tap root can be great sources of fatwood. You may also get lucky and find fatwood in the joints where pine limbs intersect with the trunk. Fatwood is prized because it lights readily with an open flame, burns well, and it burns even in wet weather. The resin in the wood makes fatwood almost waterproof and very flammable, which are both great qualities in fire starting. The fatwood can be cut and split into small sticks for kindling, or carved into shavings for tinder. To find yourself a ready supply of this fire starting wonder, look through a pine forest until you come across a stump with only the center remaining. This center (heart wood) should seem solid. Cut off some pieces of this and give them a look and a sniff. If they look like perfectly good wood (not rotten at all), then smell the pieces. If it really is fatwood, it will smell strongly of pine cleaner and resin, with the sharp odor of turpentine. Fatwood is commercially available, but it’s more useful to know how to find it than where to buy it.
Light Some Chips
Can’t get that damp tinder to light? Then dip into your food supply and pull out some high-calorie comfort food—namely chips. Delicious, greasy snacking chips make an outstanding fire starter when you apply an open flame to them. Just a few corn chips, Fritos, or potato chips can be quickly lit with a match or lighter. Two or three chips won’t put much of a dent in your food supply, but it will have a massive impact of your fire building.
Learn the One-Match Fire
It’s hard to believe that matches weren’t a common fire starting method prior to the mid 1800s, because they seems like a much older technology. While early Chinese experiments in sulfur impregnated pine stick “matches” may date back to the 5th century, matches (as we know them) have only been safe to use, affordable, and available to the average person for the last 150 years. And even the earliest customers must have felt some sense of dread when they got down to the last few matches in the box, kinda like we would feel today. But fear not. There are some tricks that will help you get your fire going—even when you’re nervously striking your very last match.
Above all, protect the match from the wind. Many one match fires fail before the match even gets close to the fire lay. Use your body and hands to shield the infant flame of your match stick from the oncoming breeze.
Start burning from the upwind side. This tactic allows the air movement to push the heat and flames through your fire lay.
Light it close and low. Strike your match very near to the bottom of the fire lay, so that it doesn’t have to travel very far. You should be kneeling or sitting right next to your fire lay when the match is struck.