You may know how to start a fire in your wood stove at home. It’s pretty easy to get one going in the dry desert or on a hot summer evening. When dry wood and tinder are plentiful, it’s easy to forget that it took early humans thousands of years to figure it out.
But when the weather comes in and you’re stuck out in the rain or snow, a fire is all the more important. Unfortunately, it also gets harder and harder to start.
You may have been firemaster in the desert back home, but you’re gonna need some moves to get one going in the rainforest or the high mountains. Fortunately, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve that will help you start a fire in a tough spot. In this guide, I’ll share five of my favorites that will take your fire making to the next level.
I live in the Pacific Northwest where we are as famous for our rain as we are for our coffee and flannels. I spend a ton of time out in the Cascades which are a steep, wild mountain range. The trees are ageless giants and the moss extends like a single blanket as far as the eyes can see.
It is an incredible place for extended backpacking trips through mountain passes and old growth forests. I’ve spent countless nights falling asleep beneath the towering evergreens.
All the rain that comes in off the Pacific ocean is what makes these forests so green and the mountains so wild. However, it poses real challenges to the intrepid adventurer.
Carry a tinder box
This is number one on every outdoorsman’s list. If you spend time backpacking in wet environments, you probably already have your own tinder box. If you don’t, now’s a great time to make it.
Fill a water tight container with dryer lint, wood shavings or cotton balls covered in vaseline. Throw in a handful of strike anywhere matches and your lucky BIC lighter and you’re good to go. This way, even in the wettest of conditions you can still start a fire reliably.
Collect as you go
One of the most important parts of wilderness survival is forethought. Thinking ahead will get you out of a tight spot before you’re in it. This is true when you start a fire and it’s true when you are in a dangerous situation.
By the time you get to camp and want to start a fire, you may be in a basin or valley. That means wet wood and damp kindling. While you hike, you will pass through all sorts of microclimates and places to forage dry kindling.
Keep your eyes open as you go and collect thin twigs and other dry burnables. If you have a lighter, you can test each material you come to. I’ll talk more about what makes great kindling in a moment.
Be on the lookout for covered spaces, caves, fallen logs or anywhere that the ground is still dry. Sometimes an evergreen tree provides enough canopy to keep the ground dry below it. Fill up a bag or pocket of your backpack with goodies from each spot. You’ll thank yourself later.
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Find the best kindling
Finding the best kindling is often based on trial and error in your region. Things I rely on in the forests of the Pacific Northwest likely don’t grow in the jungles of Cambodia or the mountains of Peru. I often carry a lighter in my pocket as I hike and test materials as I come to them. What feels dry might not catch and what feels wet might light up like a candle.
Some of the best things in the mountains here in the US are lichens like old man’s beard, pinecones if they’ve been in a dry place, pine needles, dry decomposing wood (keyword dry– which is rare), and bark scraps from some trees like birch or madrona.
I usually build with my own tinder, collected lichen, then small, medium and large twigs.
The best wood will snap easily, not bend. If it bends, it is wet or green and will not burn well. Look for dead trees that are still standing and try snapping off peripheral branches. You want to hear a dry crack as it breaks away easily. The more brittle the wood, the better it will burn.
I am usually most attentive to collecting a bundle of twigs that are less than 1cm in diameter as they will turn the tinder into a flame. I also always gather at least a handful of dry sticks that are 1cm to 3cm in diameter. These big guys will stabilize your fire and create your first coals.
Prepare before you start a fire
Once you light your tinder, the clock is on. I mean, you probably didn’t bring pounds of the stuff with you. You don’t have unlimited chances. So be prepared and organized. Have a plan before you start.
You may be a ‘teepee fire type of guy’ or a ‘swear by the log cabin sort of girl’. My most recent favorite is the triangular log cabin because it can combine the best of both styles. But however you build your fires, be sure to have a solid plan and know where and how you are going to do it.
Have your kindling close at hand and prepared. You don’t want to be snapping twigs off of a log as you watch your tinder burn out. I keep my fire in three organized piles before I start.
The first pile is for teeny tiny twigs that are just the right length closest at hand. I usually build a teepee or lean-to before I start and I leave an opening just the right size to slide my lit cotton ball or tinder nest into. Then, I add the rest of this pile as the fire takes.
My second pile is bigger twigs, usually organized smallest to largest. I gradually add bigger and bigger wood until I can start using my third pile. I am always careful not to add wood too fast and smother the fire. I’ll talk about that more in section five.
Third is my firewood. Sometimes it can be hard to find perfectly dry firewood in the wilderness, so this pile depends on circumstances. I use what I can find. But I like them to be as big and dry as possible. Often, I circle this wood around my fire to dry it out before adding it. When it’s time to use this wood, I am always careful to add the driest wood first.
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Create the right environment
This is critical and is different in every situation. However, it always breaks down to the same essential components. It’s all about what a fire needs. A fire needs to be dry, it needs to have fuel and it needs to breath.
Dry is obvious. If it’s raining heavily I often sling up a tarp over where I want my camp. I put it nice and high so my fire won’t melt it. Always be conscious of where water will run off. After all, it really sucks if you start your fire and then your tarp dumps water uphill of you and your fire goes swimming.
One thing many people don’t think about though is the moisture in the ground. Because fires pull air upwards, they also pull moisture upwards as they heat up. This means that if you build your fire on wet ground, you are fighting an uphill battle. You can either dig down through wet topsoil until you get to dryer dirt or clay, or you can find an old piece of bark or some rocks to use as a makeshift base.
Dry is obvious, fuel and air are more complicated. They directly compete with one another. Not enough fuel, and your fire goes out. Too much fuel and your fire can’t breathe. I’m sure you’ve started a few fires in your day. You know this.
When you’re dealing with wet wood and subpar kindling, this is even more important. Remember that any moisture in your fuel will need to be steamed off before the fuel will burn. Adding too much damp kindling can smother a fire, even if it seemed like it had enough air.
One of my favorite techniques is to build a fortress around my fire. I surround it with bigger damp wood from pile #3. Then, I use those layers and levels to stack my twigs from piles #1 and 2 in ways that allow for good airflow. This way, I contain the heat of my fire and use the extra to dry out my damp wood at the same time.
In the end, every fire is different. You will need to improvise. Don’t expect the same trick to work every time and don’t get frustrated if a fire is stubborn. It didn’t take humans thousands of years to cultivate this skill because it was easy.
Use these tricks and develop some of your own and I’m sure you’ll be able to start a fire in even the most remote of environments.
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