by Todd Walker
Mother Nature is neutral. She does not care if you’re able to survive what she throws at you. That’s her nature… uncaring, unpredictable, wild and beautiful.
I love a rainy night. But, come on! When I started this article, it had rained 16 out of the last 17 days in Georgia. Figuratively and literally, we were soaked to the bone. Nothing outside was dry… tinder, kindling, and fuel were saturated… perfect weather for some survival training.
You can’t control Mother Nature, but you can learn skills to survive her storms. I recently wrote about three skills that forgive your shortcomings in Core Temperature Control. All three are important. But if you could only work on one of these skills, I would recommend fire craft.
Fire covers a multitude of ‘sin’ in your survival skills. ~ Me
Here’s my short list of what a sustainable fire can do for you…
- Heat your body (Core Temperature Control)
- Cook your food
- Disinfect water
- Signal for rescue
- Make medicinals
- Keep predators at bay
- Illuminate camp
- Make hot cocoa – a real survival tool
- Harden wooden tools
- Sleep aid – rid shelter of biting insects
- Make wilderness glue
- Morale booster
Becoming a proficient fire crafter requires practice. Even in optimal (dry) conditions, a Bic lighter won’t start a sustainable fire if you don’t do proper fire prep. Add rain to the equation and your attention to detail becomes crucial.
You need an edge. Every person who successfully burns stuff in the rain has that edge. That edge is the difference in… staying warm vs freezing, signaling rescuers vs staying lost, living vs dying.
I don’t have any magic tricks up my sleeve for burning stuff in foul weather. The few secrets I do employ are outlined below.
Burning Secret #1
If you’ve read or watched any of our emergency fire craft stuff, you know I promote cheating. Fire is life and you’d better be ready and able to cheat death. That’s the kind of cheating you’ll be proud of.
Here are a few of my fire cheats…
Carry a minimum of three different ways to generate the initial heat needed for ignition. I wear my dedicated fire kit on my belt. This pouch contains three sources of ignition…
- Bic lighter – open flame
- Ferrocerium rod – spark based ignition
- Magnifying lens – solar ignition (no good in the rain)
But wait, there’s more!
Dig around in my haversack and you’ll find a head lamp and steel wool for electrical fire. Unbuckle my hygiene kit and a small bottle of hand sanitizer offers a rapid chemical reaction (exothermic) for fire. There’s also a redundant Bic lighter wrapped in duct tape hanging from a zipper in my pack. This last item is a self-contained ignition and tinder source for foul weather fires.
Burning Secret #2
Find dry stuff.
No brainer, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds after a few days of Georgia gully washer.
I’ve had my share of foul-weather fire fails from not carrying some form of dry tinder material in my kit. Wiser now, I carry stuff that gives me that edge we talked about earlier.
In my foul-weather fire starting experiences, Gorilla Tape gives me that edge. Using duct tape is like pulling fire from a magician’s hat! Once lit, a ball of tape will provide the heat needed to drive off moisture and bring wet kindling to ignition temperature. The wetter the wood, the more tape you’ll need. Keep in mind that small stuff ignites faster than large stuff.
Other not-so-secret sure-fire starters in my pack include…
Burning Secret #3
It’s all about that snap!
Cheating on fire prep is a loser’s game. Spend as much time as necessary to collect 2 or 3 times more small stuff than you think you’ll need. Cutting corners collecting smalls in a dry forest is forgivable. Do it in the rain and you might end up fire-less.
Where do you find smalls in a rain-soaked wilderness? Dead twigs hanging off the ground is the best place to start. When collecting smalls, if they don’t give an audible “snap”, put it back. You and the trees are soaked to the bone. The last thing you need on your fire lay is green sticks.
When it’s raining, I’m not particular about what tree the smalls come from. A few of my favorite trees that give me small fuel, even when the tree is alive, include (remember, they gotta pass the “snap” test)…
- Cedar – Low hanging branches often have dead twigs and the bark, even when wet, can be brought to ignition temperature quickly when processed into fine fibers.
- Beech – I find lots of pencil-led size kindling on these live trees. If you’re lucky, you might find a clump of black sooty mold to help extend your fire.
- Pine – Resinous conifers burn well. Pencil-size twigs are the general find on these trees. A glob of their pine sap is a jewel for fire. And resinous-rich fat lighter’d… that’s a fire in itself!
- Tulip Poplar (Magnolia) – This tree’s survival mechanism drops limbs off the lower trunk to help it reach the sun above the forest canopy. Both the dead branch and the bark is a valued fire resource.
If you’ve acquired basic knife skills, you can quickly create your own smalls from inside larger fuel logs. Baton an arm-size log into halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths, etc. until you have a pile of dry fuel.
Burning Secret #4
Burning stuff in the rain blows.
Literally. It’s very likely that you’ll have to pump air to the base of your wet-weather fire. When is the right time to blow?
Blowing on a gas-based fire like a birthday candle removes the fuel (gas from melted wax) and extinguishes the flame. However, wood becomes charcoal after burning off gases. Blowing on coals will only raise the temperature of the fire. You may need to blow on a small bed of coals to nurse the fire along with wet wood.
There’s a bit of technique involved in blowing on fires. Remember that heat rises. A chimney uses this principle to draft air up from the bottom of the fireplace and out the top. Blow air horizontally at ground level not from the top of the fire lay.
Be careful not to inhale smoke. Turn your head away from the fire and breathe in fresh air. Positioning your kneeling body up wind helps. If you have a long piece of tubing, which I don’t carry, it will safely add distance between your face and the flames. You’re not going to have time to craft a fire tube from river cane when you need a fire in the rain. Just kneel down and blow.
Burning Secret #5
Cover your fire.
A tipi fire lay is one of the best fire lays to cover your fledgling fire. Properly constructed, a tipi fire takes advantage of the chimney effect to dry wet wood and provide some needed shelter to the fire beneath. Slabs of tree bark can also be added to the outside of the tipi like roof shingles.
I’ve also used a larger log to shelter a fire in the rain. Lay the log perpendicular on top of two rocks or larger logs with the fire beneath. A large flat rock on top will work too.
Stuff tinder and kindling under your rain gear, a piece of tree bark, or in your haversack/backpack until you’re ready to light the fire. Stow your best smalls between your knees and under your crotch as your prep your fire lay… especially if you’re making a one stick fire. The dry smalls you’ve created should be shielded from rain.
Burning Secret #6
Build a base.
Wet ground saps the heat from fire. Lay a foundation of sticks or tree bark on the ground to keep your tinder material off the wet earth. The base is the spot you’ll place a your metal water container on to boil water once the fire is established.
Burning Secret #7
That’s right. You’ve gotta get wet to practice burning stuff in the rain! Don’t miss out on your next rain storm. Throw on your muck boots, a poncho, and go start a fire. You’ll learn some valuable foul weather lessons in fire craft.
Got any tricks up your sleeve for burning sticks in the rain? Do share!
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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