SURVIVAL SKILLS

How To Start A Fire With Wet Wood

Do you want to know how to start a campfire with wet wood? Wet firewood does not make it easy. But there are ways to adapt & overcome!

Depending on the weather and season, you might not always have nice dry wood lying around to start a fire. There are a few tricks to get that fire going, even with damp wood or wet wood.

Here are some tips and instructions how to start a fire in an environment with wet wood. This will be sorted into five topics, each of which are important to starting that fire:

  • Fire starter
  • Tinder
  • Kindling
  • Logs
  • How to build it
how-to-start-a-fire-with-wet-firewood

FIRE STARTER

You do need to build it first (tinder, kindling, and larger wood). However lets first talk about HOW you’re going to light it up. Unless you’re into rubbing sticks together (it’s possible with a ‘bow drill’), just pack several fire starters (don’t rely on just one!).

Matches

Sulfur on the end of a stick. Good old fashioned matches. I like the ‘strike anywhere’ matches. Keep them in a water tight container. Check out this nice waterproof container for stick matches:

>> Stormproof Match Kit
(view on amzn)

BIC | Zippo Lighter

Why make it difficult if you can simply fire it up with a BIC or Zippo lighter. I have both. I like the Zippo because the flame is bigger and you can set it down while the flame continues to burn. A BIC needs to be held/pressed to stay lit. A BIC will get wet easily while a Zippo snaps closed.

>> Classic Zippo Lighter w/fluid

FireSteel

You’ve got to check these out. A Fire Steel Rod will produce copious amounts of sparks. Just scrape it with your knife. A sponsor on our site, they are a preferred supplier to the US Military. I keep one of their fire steel rods in each kit.

>> FireSteel.com

Magnesium Fire Starter

The Genuine ‘Doan’ magnesium fire starter (Made in the USA) enables you to scrape off a small pile of magnesium shavings (e.g. with your knife) and then ignite it with its built-in sparking insert.

>> Genuine Magnesium Survival Fire Starter
(view on amzn)

Road Flare

Don’t laugh! I’m serious! A road flare may be the easiest way to start a fire with wet wood! It’s easy to light with the friction cap. It will burn very hot! And it will burn for a fairly long time.

[ Read: A Road Flare For Your Fire Starter Kit ]

TINDER

To start a fire with damp or wet wood, you will need to procure (or have with you) some DRY TINDER.

The tinder should be the lightest, driest, and most combustible materials in your fire bundle, and its purpose is to catch the flame and burn long enough to ignite larger pieces of kindling.

The simplest way to get dry tinder is to already have some with you in your fire kit. That said, there are many sources of tinder which will help you start a fire. I wrote an article specifically about tinder which you may want to check out:

[Read: Tinder — A List Of Source Materials ]

Here’s a list of a few choices for tinder:

Tree Bark

First look for fallen trees in the area but avoid rotten bark. The inside of most bark will remain fairly dry even in wet weather. Shave it. Peel bark from a limb. Cedar is particularly good. Birch bark is uniquely thin and easy to peel off and burn. I wrote about it in the following article:

[ Read: Birch Bark Tinder ]

Wood Shavings

From a dead tree branch, use your knife to slice / chip small shavings into a pile. The inside of a dead branch may be surprisingly dry. You might also use the ‘feather stick’ method to expose dry wood inside the stick.

[ Read: How To Baton Wood For A Firestarter Tinder ]

Cotton Balls & Petroleum Jelly

Mix some cotton balls with Vaseline and store them in a small container or Ziploc bag. Vaseline (petroleum jelly) is flammable and will enable the cotton ball to burn much longer. I keep some of this in my fire kit, which I wrote about in the following article:

[ Read: A Fire Starter Kit List ]

Candle

I keep tea light candles and votive candles available for my fire starter kits. As long as it’s not real windy, you just light it and start building your fire stack above if you need to. Once the fire catches well, pull out the candle and save it.

[ Read: Candles For Preparedness ]

Fine Steel Wool

Yes, super fine steel wool works as a tinder for starting a fire. The finer it is (e.g. ‘0000’), the better.

>> Steel Wool, 0000 Super Fine
(view on amzn)

Char Cloth

Make this ahead of time. Cut small squares / strips of 100% cotton cloth. Place them into in a metal container which can seal air-tight. Put the container on a fire or hot coals for about 5 minutes. Remove and let cool off. Unseal the lid and check that the cloth has turned black. These pieces will accept a spark nicely and flame up. Store in a weatherproof container.

KINDLING

Kindling is the next size up from tinder. Small twigs and small branches. In wet or damp weather it may be a challenge to find some that’s dry enough to burn. But it can be done.

Look for a dead tree that hasn’t fallen over yet. Break off twigs that aren’t in contact with the ground. Pick branches that are close to the trunk and lowest to the ground because they’re typically the driest. When you break the wood into small pieces – if you hear that nice dry ‘snap’, then you know you’ve got some dry wood.

Slightly larger logs or branches (especially dead / seasoned) may have dry wood inside that you can get out by chipping off the wet surface with a hatchet.

Use the Baton wood method to split a small log or branch to expose the dry core. Then split it again (exposing even more dry wood). Read this article about batoning wood:

[ Read: Best Knife for Batoning Wood | How to do it ]

BRANCHES & LOGS

The tinder and kindling will enable you to get your fire going, but won’t sustain much heat and will burn quickly. You will also need larger (dry) wood.

Similar to finding dry kindling, you may also find dry log wood by looking for dead trees which haven’t fallen yet. You may be able to simply knock it over with your hands or force your weight upon it with your shoulder – and drag the wood over to the fire area.

In the woods, you will also likely find fallen dead trees, but they may be wetter.

You could either burn the larger log-size wood ‘as is’ (burn it in half and then push the logs back into the fire), or you might be able to break them into pieces by wedging one end into a tree ‘V’ and pushing on the other end to snap it, etc…

Note: If you have procured enough kindling and dry twigs and small branches, a bigger hotter fire will enable a better chance to get larger (perhaps damp) logs to burn.

BUILD THE FIRE

A Well Made Fire Bed

Because the ground is wet (also in snow), it’s best to make a bed to build the fire upon. Arrange branches or chunks of bark from a dead tree to build a raised bed to keep the new fire off the wet ground. Important!

Have Tinder & Kindling Piles Ready

Fire making is fairly simple in that you’ll start by lighting your tinder bundle and then adding pieces of kindling – while working your way up to larger pieces.

Set your pile of kindling next to where you’re building the fire, because once you get it lit, you don’t want to be wandering around looking for more wood to throw on.

Don’t Rush it

There are a number of ways to build a fire. Keep it simple. Assemble it with a ‘chimney’ air flow structure in mind. First layer with the smallest, most combustible materials. Then tent over that with the next layer of kindling (slightly larger) in the shape of a tepee. Do not pack layers too tightly. Leave space for air flow.

Light your tinder bundle which is at the bottom/center. Get down to the fire’s level. Blow on it. Keep on blowing on it until layers get burning.

After you have started the fire with tinder, don’t rush to put more on the fire. Let it get going without smothering it.

Note: One of the most important aspects of starting a fire with wet wood is not to add too many big pieces of damp wood right away. Damp wood will burn – it just takes longer. Be patient and ‘one with the fire’.

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10 Comments

  1. In my Get Home Bag in my car, I have a waterproof bag of kindling. I bought wood clothespins and removed the wires. Clothespins are real space savers. They line up parallel in the small bag and waste no space. Some brands are marked as hardwood.
    If tree branches are wet, cut off the bark. The inside might be dry.

  2. slightly off topic, but if you have a huge burn pile try using a leaf blower to speed things along. Quite the time saver.

  3. Potassium permanganate. Yes, the stuff the florist uses and available at Ken’s favorite store.
    It’s in a dry crystal form and easy to carry in a small ziplock bag. Place a small pile where you want the fire, put your tinder and kindling above it and leave a small opening.
    Next take a little bit of antifreeze and pour it on the powder. Give it a little bit and it self ignites.
    Even the premixed antifreeze works.
    Stinks a bit, but it works every time with no fussing.
    It don’t get much easier.

  4. Around here we use lighterd. Some call it fat wood. It is the heart wood from old pine trees. Once split into small, medium, then large pieces it will light a fire when wet since it really never gets wet due to the pine pitch it contains. In fact old homes built from heart pine wood are all but impossible to extinguish once burning. The wood used for fuel should be the driest possible of course but with enough lighterd it will dry and burn!

    The “knots” from old growth limbs where they were broken out of trees due to storms or logging are especially useful in starting fires. Once lit they can burn an hour or more with a very hot flame.

  5. The available junk I have in my car to light or burn includes chapsticks, carmex, several road flairs, extra engine oil, a couple candles, matches, sometimes a zippo lighter, the one pound lp tanks and lp burner, matches, possibly gas, 24 pack of TP, full can of starting fluid.

    If I’m away from my car I’m left with a pocket knife and lighter and little else.

    It’s about what you have with you, so: leaf blower, funky chemicals, N/A

  6. In my opinion, making fire is one of the most important skill sets to know. So much of survival depends on fire. My failsafe means of making fire is a ferro rod and waxed jute twine. Reverse wrap the jute twine into cordage (thickness of your choice – I like 4 strands) and dip into melted candle wax for a few seconds. Make as much as you like for future use, lasts forever and very cheap to make.The waxed jute is your tinder that you should always have with you. Fluff the end with the 90 degree spine on your knife or ferro rod striker. Put a spark from ferro rod into the fluff and it lights like gasoline in the wind, rain, snow, it don’t matter. Cut a piece off and place under your fire lay or use it like an match to light a candle, wood burning stove, stubborn damp camp fire lay, etc.. My EDC consists of a strand of waxed jute in a small pill cylinder and a 3″ ferro rod on my keyring and my Leatherman Wave multi-tool in my pocket. I carry larger versions in my pack and vehicle. This method has never failed me in the harshest conditions.

    On YouTube check out ‘Survival Russia’ for the Siberian Log Fire. He has several instructional videos on how to make it and its benefits.

  7. since I make my own fire starters from egg cartons sawdust and wax I always have a few in my GHB, They will burn for about 10-15 min so getting a fire started with them is fairly easy. The down side is you need a flame to start them as sparks don’t work. I also keep a few Bic lighters in the bag

    1. Poor man,
      Been down that road. I now put a wick in the sawdust/wax mixture. I make the wick an inch or so long. To use, it works best to “fuz” the end of the wick. That way the surface area is increased to a point that a fero rod can get it burning. Not every time but it can work.

  8. One of the newbie shooters I have been working with recently mentioned wanting to learn how to start fires. I’m going to start them off with using this article. Thanks, Ken.

  9. When trying to start a fire in really wet country, I make liberal use of a saw, small axe and my knife prior to creating a spark or flicking a lighter. I find dead, standing wood and cut the short-length pieces with the saw, split the pieces with the axe and access the dry wood within. From the dry split pieces, I carve out fuzz sticks with the knife. Once the fire is going, wet, damp and green wood can be set close to the fire to dry, preheat and be used as fuel.
    This skill set is quite common in the PNW where large stands of wood exist and it rains a lot. This is a good skill to teach others that are new to living off grid and older children that can responsibly use the knife, saw and axe.

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