With all the rain and snow we are getting this winter, it is time again to brush-up on building survival fire in bad weather. One of the foundational skills of survival is starting a fire in rainy, windy, or snowy conditions. If you ever have to do this for real it means your margin for survival is slim and you need to move quickly and mindfully to increase your odds of success.
Preparation is Everything
Forget the hand-drill, rock spark, or other primitive methods. These techniques take significant experience to perfect, require resources you don’t have time to make, and don’t work well in bad weather. Okay survival experts, I know these methods can be used during a rain storm, but why use them if you don’t have to. Instead, take the time to build a fire-starting kit. Keep a kit in your car, keep one in your backpack, and keep a smaller one on your person. Redundancy and reliability are key features of a fire-starting kit. Lighters are great, but they can break. Matches are super, but they can get wet. Magnesium sticks are terrific, but just provide a spark and sometimes you need more. Each of these items has drawbacks, but taken together they increase your odds of starting a lifesaving fire.
While a spark or a flame is needed to ignite a fire, the ignition is often not enough to keep you alive. You need to create a flame that is persistent enough given the weather conditions to allow for your kindling to begin to burn. Small chemical fuel tabs do this well and are light weight. You can also make fireballs using cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly. In addition, carry a small amount of starter material to augment what you find around you.
Next, plan your fire site and collect fuel. If you are building a survival fire chances are you may need to be found by someone. A fire is not only warm, but is a great signaling device. Think about placing your fire to increase your odds of being seen. Consider the prevailing winds and determine if there is a natural windbreak you can use; if not you will have to build one. If you are building a fire in snow or soggy ground you will need to construct a fire stand or find a natural one. Also think about the placement of the fire in relation to any shelter you might have to build.
Finding fuel in the rain and snow can be difficult. Lower branches on trees are often still dry and can be broken off easily for kindling. The heartwood in downed or burned trees is also often dry, but will take an ax or large knife to get at. Rusted dry pine needles can also work and there are many types of sap that can be collected. The only limit here is your imagination and awareness. In the moment you will be scared and stressed; this is the time to take a breath and become truly aware of your environment and its resources.
Collect enough wood to last all night. This means collecting smaller finger to wrist sized wood to use while starting the fire and larger pieces of wood that will burn longer. If you can, collect a pile approximately waist high and try to place it where it will stay as dry as possible. Many survival experts recommend collecting some green logs to add to the fire once it is burning. The green logs will not produce as much heat, but will burn longer and help sustain the fire.
Start Small and Build Out
Make a softball sized nest of cotton balls, bark shavings, feathered wood, rusted pine needles, chemical heat tab, lint, and/or tree sap – whatever you have at hand. Next, place the tinder loosely over the nest and cover it with more needles or shavings then build a kindling tepee over the nest starting with tiny twigs, then pencil sized sticks, and using larger pieces of wood as you build out. Don’t make the tepee too big to start. Now that the nest is prepared to ignite, look around and conduct a final assessment of the fire site. Is the windbreak working? Has the wind or rain changed direction? Is everything you need to start and sustain the fire within arm’s reach?
Practice Like Your Life Depends on It
The first time to build a survival fire is not when you are trying to survive. Make this critical skill part of your regular outdoor experience. Going hiking on a dry spring day? Take 15 minutes and practice fire building skills; make it a game with fellow hikers. Practice using diminishing resources – try using only one match or one strike of your lighter. Make a tinder nest using only materials found on the ground. Practice coaxing a flame to life with your breath and adding fuel until the fire is going strong.
Take your ego out of the equation. Many people don’t practice these skills because they are afraid to fail. Making fire always has an element of luck; practice and do the best you can. At one of the survival courses I attended, I had to start a fire using material on the ground using only one match with the goal of boiling a cup of water in five minutes. I gathered my fuel sources, made a beautiful nest, and built a windbreak to block the gusting wind. I crouched down next to the nest behind the windbreak and struck the match. As the match ignited the wind shifted 180 degrees and blew out the flame. I failed the fire-starting portion of the course. The evaluator of the test patted me on the back and said, “This doesn’t mean you are a bad person, you are just unlucky.” Remember, in a real survival situation you have the rest of your life to get the fire going. Stay calm, focus, and give it the attention it requires. Your life may depend on that next breath or gust of wind.