I have spent a lot of time in the woods of Southeast Alaska.
If you don’t know, Southeast Alaska is part of the Tongass National Forest, which is actually a temperate rain forest.
If you wanted to start a campfire there you couldn’t just wait for a sunny day. That might be a month away!
So I picked up a few tricks on getting a fire going even when everything around me was wet from the constant rain.
Wet wood is a problem when starting a fire, but like all problems, there are solutions.
Nearly everyone knows that water is bad for fire, but not everyone knows why. We’ll touch on that here.
There are three factors required to have fire: heat, oxygen, and fuel.
Water, however, robs us of that heat. It takes over twice as much energy to raise the temperature of a gram of water by one degree Celsius as it does to raise the temperature of a gram of wood.
Then the water in the wood evaporates because its evaporation point is much lower than the wood’s kindling point. Evaporation cools the wood slightly, setting you back even further.
So you can burn wet wood, but you have to put a LOT of energy into drying the wood before it ignites!
There are other things you can do as well, so you don’t have to fight the water in the wood. We’ll start at the bottom.
Keep the Foundation Dry
If your supply of wood is wet, the ground is very likely to be wet as well.
Trying to start a fire on wet ground is an exercise in futility. One of the easiest things you can do to start a fire when everything is wet is to work towards making a dry fire base.
Clear out any snow, wet leaves, and mud. You might be able to find dryer soil underneath the top layer, so dig a little bit.
If you can find dry pieces of wood–we’ll explain how in a little bit–then lay several logs out and build your fire on top of that. By the time the fire burns down onto the ground, it should have dried out its immediate path.
Low-hanging branches and chunks of bark spread over the ground can also keep your fire from touching the moist earth.
You can also use something flat and dry as a base. Build your fire on a piece of cardboard or even some dry cloth.
If the initial surface is wet then your fire won’t take hold. Don’t be afraid, in a survival situation, to sacrifice dry resources so you can produce the fire necessary to keep you warm and dry.
Torn pieces of clothing can be used for the dry base and can also be used as dry tinder if you can’t find enough dry wood.
Speaking of tinder, unless you’re burning magnesium, you need to keep the tinder dry as well.
If the weather is still spitting rain at you then it can be worthwhile to create a teepee of kindling above the tinder to help deflect raindrops.
Other cover above that will also help keep water away, but be smart about it. Do not start a fire under low hanging branches or close to a flammable tarp. We don’t want to set the trees or equipment on fire.
This technique may not help you in a deluge, but in that case, I’d probably be trying to find high land instead of starting a fire anyway.
Find Dry Wood
Even when the sky is pouring water onto you there is still dry wood to be found in the forest. If the rain has stopped then all the better.
Your best bet to find dry wood is to keep an eye out for dead wood that has not yet fallen on the ground.
The ground retains moisture, which seeps into wood laying on it. A log that is half buried in the soil is most likely a wet, rotten mess.
A fallen tree that is only touching the ground in a few places may have dry wood in the parts not touching the ground. Better yet, look for dead trees that have not yet fallen.
If you channel your inner hockey player and knock over the dead tree with a shoulder check then you know that’s some nice and dry wood.
Though, it might be safer to push the dead tree down instead of slamming into it with your shoulder…
You can also find good fire starting branches on live trees. As they grow the lower branches lose access to sunlight and often die.
If the branch snaps easily then it is dry and a good piece of kindling. If it bends or has a hard time snapping then it’s either still alive or is wet, and you should move on to another branch.
These dead branches are low enough to the ground to be easy to harvest, are protected from rainfall by the rest of the canopy, and are a good source of fire starting materials.
But branches don’t make for long-lasting fires; we’ll need some logs. Knock over those standing dead trees, and chop up the fallen trees which are barely touching the ground.
Don’t always ignore logs which are wet on the outside, because there might be dryness on the inside! I would have had to sleep through many cold nights if I had ignored every piece of wood that looked wet on the outside but turned out to be dry within.
Dry Wet Wood
You can burn wood that is wet on the outside. When the wood is fully-soaked and rotten, it’s a lost cause.
When you cut up logs from the dead trees into manageable sizes, make sure to look and see if there’s dry wood in the middle of the log.
If it’s wet all the way through then move on to another tree. If the inside is dry then use the wood, splitting or batoning the logs.
The more pieces you split the log into, the more dry surface area there will be. The pieces will burn more easily but will also burn more quickly.
There are three methods you can use to deal with the still-wet outside of the wood pieces.
If you need dry and burnable logs right now then use a hatchet or similar tool to hack away the wet outside. Be careful of your hands, we don’t want to lose any fingers!
You’ll trim down the wood but will get enough dry wood for a fire soon enough.
You can also stick the pieces of wood directly in the fire. If you’ve split the logs a bunch, so there’s lots of dry surface area, this will likely work. The moisture will be too little to seriously slow down the flames before the wood dries out completely.
Just be sure not to add too much wet wood at once to a fire else you will smother the flames.
A word of caution: pockets of water in the wood will expand as they heat up. This will cause sparks to burst out of the fire. I’ve even seen a miniature splinter explosion, it was quite exciting.
If you have a little more patience and need to dry wood for a fire that is already burning away then simply place the wet outside close to the flames.
The heat of the fire will warm up the moisture in the wood and cause it to evaporate. Provided the wood isn’t soaked through you should be able to keep a fire going by constantly drying out the next batch of logs.
Manage your firewood and stay on top of things so that you are constantly drying new pieces of wood. Unless you want to suddenly run out of burnable wood. Ask me how I know…
Even if you are exploring a rain forest you can still start a campfire.
Dry wood is more common than you think, hiding between the canopy and the ground. Wet wood is often less wet than you think, and with some splitting and hacking, the dry core can be exposed for use.
Keep these in mind next time you are disappointed by some unexpected rainfall in the woods and you will be able to go to sleep with a warm fire crackling away. Let us know about any fires you’ve started when everything around you is wet!