Gasping for air, you break the surface and glimpse your capsized canoe disappearing around the river bend. Dragging yourself out of the icy water and onto the shore with numb hands, you fumble the small watertight capsule out of your pocket and rattle around for your only hope of making fire: matches. All of the wood, however, appears soaked from hours of rain and the temperature is dropping swiftly.
Knowing what to do next could save your life.
Fire requires three ingredients to burn: fuel, oxygen and heat. Once you understand these essentials, fire will only ever be a matter of “when” and “where,” not “if.”
Finding fuel that isn’t soaked through can be tricky. Begin by searching around the base of trees and bushes; rain will take much longer to penetrate these areas and allow you a respite from the downpour. If you come up empty-handed, continue your search under and around fallen timbers, boulders and other naturally protected areas. As rivers cut away tall outside banks they can create small recesses under the apparent shoreline where driftwood can get washed up and dry out. You’ll want your kindling to be as small as possible with LOTS of it on hand; as you go along, stuff if it into your jacket to keep it dry and free up your hands. If tinder (dry kindling) is unavailable, look for any spongy lichens growing on trees (often called “old man’s beard”), paper birch bark, dry grasses or anything that is papery-feeling and dry. These fire starters catch easily and burn fast. Avoid breaking branches or peeling bark from live trees unless you find yourself in a survival situation. Don’t bother gathering any wood much larger than your thumb unless it’s bone dry.
Oxygen is just as important as fuel: Without it, your fire won’t even start. Pick a spot to build your fire that allows for plenty of air flow around its base, i.e. not in a hole. This will allow oxygen to draft in for combustion to occur. Don’t smother the flames by throwing all of your collected fuel on at once: This blocks oxygen flow and may even extinguish the fire (along with your mood). Instead, add sticks one at a time by propping them up on other already burning wood and allowing them to catch fire before adding another.
Fire puts off large amounts of heat; this can dry out clothes, fend off hypothermia and keep you alive. If a fire is allowed to lose too much heat it won’t stay lit. Elements that pull heat from your growing fire are rain and wind. To avoid heat loss, pick a spot that is dry, sheltered from above and out of the wind. If you can’t find any protection, build a wind barrier with stones and use your torso as a shield from the rain while you build and start your fire. Once the flames get big enough, the fire will continue to burn even with moderate to heavy rainfall and gusting winds.
Preparation is crucial to achieving success when building a fire in wet conditions. After finding a dry and windless spot, start by creating a small nest of twigs with dry papery bark or old man’s beard at the center. Always leave a space that allows you to easily light the papery material at the center with a match. Organize your fuel into multiple piles by size and ensure they are within reach. Strike your match and slowly move it into the center of your nest of twigs allowing the flames to spread. At this point your fire is very delicate and easily extinguished. If the twigs are having trouble catching, gently breathe on the fire to feed it more oxygen; do not blow on the flames, this will almost certainly put it out. As the fire grows, continue to feed it more twigs and gradually progress to larger sticks. Logs require lots of heat to burn and if added too soon can smoother even a moderately sized fire. Once you have a sustained bed of coals ablaze you can add larger pieces of wood that will burn more slowly. Once the fire is steadily burning you will have time to gather more fuel, heat up food or just enjoy the warmth.