Most firemaking lessons stop with the initial ignition. But that first flame won’t last long if you don’t have dry sticks to feed the fire. Here’s how to find them.
by Leon Pantenburg
It was dawn, the temps had plunged to 19 degrees during the night and we were on a Boy Scout Wilderness Survival merit badge outing. The graduation exercise was to spent the night in a shelter they had constructed, without a sleeping bag. Everybody was ready for a warm-up fire, which the scouts would have to build.
I felt sorry for the guys, so I gave them a large piece of newspaper to help get the initial fire going. Three boys
wadded up the paper, lit it with a match and put a green pine bough, covered with frost, on top. Then they huddled around and waited to warm up. Results were predictable.
This showed we needed to do a better job of teaching firemaking. The adults quickly built a warming fire and we did more instruction.
Most people don’t have a clue on how to build a campfire under ideal conditions, let alone in a survival situation. While the initial ignition may be no problem, the next critical part will be finding dry twigs, sticks and wood to feed that blaze. But Murphy’s Law states that the more desperately you need a fire, the harder it will be to build one. Finding dry wood could be really, really hard, especially if it is raining.
Here are some tips for finding dry wood in the rain.
Locate the dry side of the tree: This seems elementary, but don’t try to find dry sticks on the side of the tree that is wet. If there have been prevailing winds, the dry side will be the area that is out of the wind. This becomes important, because outwardly, the wet side may look dry. The internal wood or bark, though may be dampish. This will be harder to light.
Look for dry wood and tinder: Don’t wait until the last minute to gather your firemaking materials. As you hike or pass through the forest, always be on the lookout for pitchwood, tinder, dried pine sap, birch bark or other natural firestarters. This may save you critical time later on.
Search for wood that isn’t on the ground: In the rain, the ground will get wet, and wood will absorb the moisture.
Even when it dries out somewhat, wood on the ground can still be damp. Don’t be fooled by the dry outer appearance. A dry twig will snap cleanly when broken. Keep looking until you find twigs that break crisply.
Stack wood correctly: The survival books are full of suggestions for stacking firewood so the pile will burn. Tipi, log cabin or other styles will work just fine if you remember to use dry wood and leave spaces between the wood so the fire can breathe.
Whittle: Always carry a knife (duh). You can whittle a dead, damp stick until you get to the dry inner wood. Then make a bunch of shaving and smaller pieces that will burn easily.
Don’t use anything green: Something that is green may also be dry. That doesn’t mean it will burn. Dry dead wood is what you’re looking for.
Starting a fire in rainy circumstances is hard, not impossible. Like anything, a little pre-planning can make all the difference.