Fire is universally recognized as one of our more important needs for survival. While it isn’t one of the “top three” (maintaining core body temperature, clean water, and food), it is an important ingredient for accomplishing all three.
We use fire to provide ourselves with heat, we can purify water with it, and we use it for cooking our food (as well as other less important uses). It is fair to say that without fire or some advanced technology to replace it, we can’t survive.
This is why survival instructors put so much emphasis on teaching different ways to start a fire. While some of those methods may seem a bit esoteric, the need is not. In fact, it’s so important that most survival instructors recommend carrying two primary and two secondary fire-starting methods in a survival kit.
Just to be clear, there are really only two primary fire-starting methods: matches and lighters. I guess we could add a self-igniting torch to that list but few of us bother with the weight and bulk of a self-igniting torch in a survival kit.
Everything else is considered a secondary method. This is because only matches, lighters, and those self-igniting torches produce a flame; everything else produces glowing coals, heat, or sparks. Obviously, it’s harder to start a fire with those than it is with an actual flame.
But what really makes it hard to start a fire is wet weather. While we can all tend towards being a little bit idealistic in our thinking when imagining survival scenarios, my personal experience has been that we are much more likely to be faced with bad weather in a survival situation. This makes starting a fire even more important but also makes it harder to do.
The main problem is finding dry fuel to use, but you also need a relatively dry area. That dry area needs to stay dry too because a sudden downpour could put the fire out just as fast as the time it took to get it going.
It All Starts With Location
Before anything, you have to find someplace to start your fire. This means somewhere that is going to be protected from wind and rain. While a few raindrops falling into your fire aren’t going to quench it, too much rain will.
This means finding somewhere with some sort of overhead cover to divert rain from your fire. While caves are the ideal location for this, they are few and far between; so, you’re most likely going to be looking for somewhere where you can find trees providing overhead cover to keep the rain off your fire.
Another option is to rig a rain fly over your fire using a tarp. If you choose this option, make sure that your rain fly is high enough to keep the heat of the fire from melting it. You also want to mount it at an angle rather than have it horizontal to the ground. This is so that the smoke from the fire can travel upwards instead of being caught under the tarp.
You also want to look at the ground to find a dry spot for your fire. This may not be possible, especially if it has been raining for a while, but you can accomplish the same thing by raising the fire up off the ground on a flat rock or on a bed of rocks.
It’s important that the fire is located in a place where there won’t be any water runoff going through the fire pit.
Of course, if you raise it off the ground by placing it on a bed of rocks, this won’t be an issue; but if you can’t do that and you are unsure of whether you’re going to have a runoff problem, you can dig a runoff trench around your fire pit to divert the water downhill.
Finding Dry Fuel
Depending on how long it has been raining, it may be hard to find dry fuel for a fire. Wood absorbs water – as does just about anything else you’re going to find out there in the wilderness. The key to finding any sort of dry fuel is to know where to look. Some key places are:
- Undercut embankments
- Stacked wood left by others – even if the wood on top is wet, the underneath might be dry
- Deadfalls – the branches and bark on the underside will probably be dry
- Leaning deadfalls – trees that have fallen but are leaning on others are more likely to be dry than ones which are on the ground
- Bottom branches of pine trees – these often die off due to lack of light but are still attached to the trunk, hidden beneath the tree’s skirt
- Broken branches hidden in thickets
The bigger problem isn’t usually finding fuel but finding something you can use for tinder. By definition, tinder must be dry, but you’re probably not going to find any dry grass or moss. This is why pioneers of old kept a tinder box, where they would store tinder that they found along the way as well as flint and steel to start fires with.
Today, you can accomplish the same thing by carrying commercially-manufactured fire starters, char-cloth, or something similar that you can use for tinder. I personally prefer carrying two different forms of chemical tinder that I make myself.
My usual go-to fire starters for wet weather are cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. These are fairly easy and cheap to make. All you need is some run-of-the-mill cotton balls and some Vaseline (or a generic equivalent). A disposable bowl and spoon make it an easy project.
It’s best to make these one at a time, although they can be stored together. Simply scoop up some petroleum jelly with the back side of the spoon and work it into the cotton ball. Try to get it all the way through the cotton. Working in a bowl helps keep the cotton ball from escaping while you work.
The finished tinder should be stored in an airtight container as the moisture in the petroleum jelly will eventually evaporate. One cotton ball will burn for about three-and-a-half minutes and can be ignited with sparks. While not hot enough to dry out wet wood, it will get a fire going with wood that is less dry than ideal.
Black Powder Balls
If you need to go for something a bit more heavy duty, I like a tinder that I make out of 5FG black powder and “Oily Nail Polish Remover.” The fine-grain black powder is easier to work with, and you need the kind of nail polish remover that contains acetone – others won’t work.
Place a couple of tablespoons of the black powder in a bowl and pour in enough nail polish remover to cover it. Allow a few minutes for the nail polish remover to soak into the black powder, then pour off the excess.
Working with your fingers, mold the now moist black powder like putty – kneading it and folding it over a minimum of 50 times. This is important as you are forming layers in the mixture.
You should end up with a ball of putty that’s a little over an inch in diameter. Store this in an airtight container as the acetone will evaporate quickly. When needed, use the whole ball; it will burn at over 3,000 degrees for about three and a half minutes. That’s enough time to dry the wood and get the fire started.