How to build a fire when everything has gone wrong

How to build a fire when everything has gone wrong


High winds; wet, stormy weather; or frozen fingers can make even the simple act of starting a fire a life-or-death struggle. Here are a few things you can do to ensure you’ll have a cozy campfire burning—no matter the challenges.

I had gone to sleep that night wearing all my clothes inside my sleeping bag, and I awoke at two in the morning suffering from the early stages of hypothermia. I’d been waterfowl hunting in northern Minnesota over opening weekend, and I’d packed gear suited to the cool, crisp fall. I hadn’t anticipated the sudden, unseasonable cold front that descended overnight. Snow fell and a cutting wind tore through camp.

Delirious with cold, I stumbled out of my tent toward the smoldering embers of the previous night’s fire, hoping I’d be able to build it back up quickly. At that point, I didn’t know what other recourse I had to get warm. The truck was several miles and an extended boat ride away.

Gusting wind worked to extinguish my lighter, and all the nearby kindling and firewood had become soggy. I could have been in big trouble. Fortunately, I knew a few tricks to help me get a roaring flame going in no time.

Carry the right gear

This tip doesn’t help much if you’re reading this article while on the verge of freezing to death, but packing the right equipment is the simplest means of building a fire under adverse conditions. A windproof lighter and a manufactured fire starter (you can make your own with little more than sawdust and candle wax or petroleum jelly and cotton balls, or do as I now do and carry military surplus Trioxane fire starters) serve as comforting insurance that you’ll be able to create at least a modest fire regardless of the weather or available kindling.

I also subscribe to the “one is none, two is one” mentality when it comes to fire starters. Plastic BIC lighters are inexpensive, lightweight, and don’t take up much space in your pack, so throw a few of them in your kit as backup and forget about them until they’re needed. Waterproof matches in a sealed container provide good backup, too.

Quick tip: The flint and magnesium fire starters that have proliferated every Boy Scout’s survival kit for years are a valid option for starting a fire if you have no other option, but I’ve never had call to use one, even in extreme cases. Granted, they only cost a few bucks and weigh next to nothing, so having one in your pack won’t hurt, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who considers this a mainstay of their fire-starting kit.

Kindling is key

Finding dry kindling during or after rain or snowfall can be a challenge, but it’s achievable if you know where to look. Check beneath dense evergreens for fallen needles and twigs that have been protected from the elements. Coniferous trees are a boon for starting a fire, as the wood is often full of flammable resin, and the bottom few feet of branches are often dead and kept dry by overhanging branches. Keep in mind, though, that softwoods tend to burn more quickly than hardwoods, and if you want a lasting fire, having a mixture of the two on hand is preferable. Peel off birch bark if you can find it and tear it into smaller strips for some surefire kindling, or split thicker sticks with your knife to create smaller kindling and expose the dry interior.

Block the wind

Wind can extinguish your fire before you even get it started. So when locating your fire, select a spot behind a windbreak or in low terrain. During winter, avoid building your fire beneath snow-laden trees, even if they offer some wind protection. It’d be pretty discouraging to have your nice crackling fire instantly extinguished by a pile of snow falling from the branches overhead.

Use your body and hands as a windbreak when igniting your fire, positioning yourself on the upwind side of the kindling.

Find dry fuel

Look for standing deadfalls, peel away the bark, and use the dry wood underneath. If you’ve found logs for burning but they’re wet, place those around the fire once you have it going so that the heat can dry them out. Don’t bother trying to burn green wood until your fire has a pile of hot embers built up.

Keep design in mind

There are a million and one ways to assemble your sticks when building a fire, and in perfect conditions, most will work respectably. But an emergency is no time to get creative: A cone-shaped fire—about as tall as it is wide—has been proven to be the most effective design. The rising heat dries wet wood out while providing adequate airflow.

Embers can endure

Even if a fire has long since gone out, you can often dig down into the ashes to recover still-hot embers. With a little careful nurturing and adequate kindling, you can reignite that fire with a little effort.

Gather everything beforehand

When you’re freezing cold, the desire to start your fire as soon as possible is understandable. But if you light your fire and immediately have to run off to find more fuel, more often than not it will have gone out by the time you return. So make sure you have everything you need before you light your tinder. Have a healthy pile of dry fuel built up and some smaller kindling within easy reach to help your tinder light the larger fuel logs.

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