The best ways to start a fire with wet wood

Being wet and trying to start a fire can be miserable. Every prepper and survivalist should be prepared for such a situation and comfortably know how to start a fire with wet wood. With a little advanced preparation and some ingenuity, starting a fire in extreme situations can be easier than you think!

When it comes to an emergency situation, one of the most critical survival skills you can learn is how to start a proper fire. With this ability, you can cook your own food, dry wet clothes, warm yourself up, and even signal for help. Any prepper who’s gotten a campfire going probably thinks they have it all figured out. Under dry conditions, it’s pretty straightforward: place some tinder under a few small twigs, light it with a match or lighter, and watch the blaze.

But starting a fire becomes much more complicated when you’re in a wet environment. Even if you can get your tinder burning, the logs can stubbornly remain unburnt. Additionally, a box of matches can quickly become waterlogged in high humidity (always carry stormproof matches to avoid this), and butane lighters work poorly in colder temperatures.

If you’re worried about starting a fire in an emergency, take some time to practice your fire starting with wet wood. Failing to get a fire burning on a camping trip is a minor annoyance, but it can become a deadly error if you’re facing hypothermia in the backcountry.

What Makes a Fire?

Three things are necessary to start a fire: heat, air, and fuel. The heat is provided by matches, a butane lighter, or a Ferro rod. Matches and lighters are relatively easy to use, however the Ferro rod is a failure-proof method, even in wet conditions. Just scrape the rod against the back of your knife, and you’ll have a shower of sparks to start the fire.

The second component, air, is all around you; the trick is getting enough it. The more oxygen you can supply to a fire, the faster and hotter it will burn. To get wet wood burning, you’ll want as much oxygen flowing into your fire as possible.

The last thing necessary for fire is fuel. That fuel usually takes the form of wood scavenged from around your campsite, and the quality of that wood will determine the success of your fire. It starts with having three successively larger forms of wood – tinder, kindling, and logs – each of which has to create enough heat to get the next larger piece burning.

Fire Triangle - Source: Wikipedia

Types of Fuel


Bring Your Own

To alleviate any stress you might have about finding fuel to start your fire, it’s a good idea to keep some tinder on hand. Prepping is all about being prepared, right? Newspaper and cardboard work great for a backyard campfire, but they take up a lot of space and neither burn very hot nor for very long, making them a poor choice in wet conditions. Instead, here are some of the smallest and lightest materials you can use to get a foolproof fire going in no time.

Petroleum Jelly

Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly (Vasoline) burn at a very high heat and are a great low-cost alternative to commercial fire starters. Each ball will burn for about three minutes – long enough to dry out the wet tinder. They can be messy though, so be sure to pack them in a sealed plastic bag.

Char Cloth

A favorite among preppers and bushcraft enthusiasts, char cloth is to cotton as charcoal is to wood; all of the moisture has been removed, so once it’s ignited (and a few sparks is enough), it burns slow and very hot. You can make your own char cloth before you leave for your trip.

Place a strip of an old cotton t-shirt inside a metal breath mint container, and poke a hole in the lid. Then place the container on a bed of hot BBQ coals or over an outdoor gas stove burner. Heat it for 15 minutes or until it stops smoking. Once it’s cooled, remove the blackened cloth and you have a first-rate fire starter.

Steel Wool

Unless you’ve seen it in action, you’ll probably be very surprised to find that steel wool is highly flammable. A few sparks from a Ferro rod will get a clump of it burning at over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of seconds. Steel wool also has the advantage that it can be lit electrically. If you rub the terminals of a 9-volt battery (the kind used in many radios) against the wool, it will heat to its ignition point in a couple of seconds.

Producing It in the Field

Finding good tinder in a dry environment is a cinch – a handful of dead grass or moss can be sparked with a Ferro rod and will get small twigs burning in a few minutes. But in a wet forest, scavenging suitable tinder can feel impossible. Fortunately, all you need is a little ingenuity.

Wood Shavings

A “feather” or “fuzz stick” is one of the simplest ways to get wet wood burning. Start by finding a small branch less than half an inch in diameter. Now, use your knife to peel off the bark and the first layer or so of wood underneath. Once you’ve removed these wet layers, make a cut a few inches long, starting at the tip, keeping the shavings attached to the twig. Repeat until you have several layers of connected shavings on each side of the branch. The thinness and high surface area of the shavings make them ideal for lighting with a Ferro rod or match.

Tree Bark

In a wet forest, you’re probably going to be disinclined to use tree bark for kindling – obviously, it’s very wet. But peel a section of it from the tree, and you’ll see that the underside is bone dry. Using your survival knife, scrape the inside of the bark until you have a handful of thin wood fibers. These will be perfect for getting your campfire burning.

Kindling and Logs

Once you’ve got the tinder lit, you need a way to sustain the heat it has produced. You do this by adding kindling (small pieces of wood) to the pile of tinder. Once those are burning, you can add logs that will sustain the fire for hours. The type of kindling and logs used are critical for turning that small spark in the tinder into a roaring fire.

Choosing the Right Wood

The first thing you want to avoid when looking for kindling and logs is green wood. This includes anything that’s still alive or has been dead for only a short period of time. Green wood has a high moisture content and is difficult to burn, even with a roaring bonfire (though it does provide excellent smoke for signaling if you do get it burning).

You’ll also want to avoid any wood that has been submerged in water, including twigs lying on muddy ground. Instead, look for dead branches that are still connected to their tree, as they’ll be the driest. If it’s rained recently, this wood might look wet on the outside, but the inside will still be quite dry. You just need to split it to access the highly-combustible interior.

Getting to the Dry Wood Inside

The best method for splitting the wood will depend on its diameter. With small twigs, you can use a knife to peel back the wet outer layers. Larger branches, between one and six inches in diameter, can be split with a sturdy fixed-blade knife using the baton method. To do this, center the knife’s blade on top of the log, then use another small log to hammer the spine of the blade. Once the blade is fully set in the log, hammer the end a few more times until the blade can split it in two.

If the log is wider than six or so inches, you’ll need to use a maul or hammer and wedge setup, which is only practical if you’re car camping. In a survival situation, it’s better to use more small logs instead of a few big ones.

Building the Perfect Fire

Every fire needs sufficient oxygen flow and a tight enough structure to hold the maximum amount of heat in. This is doubly important in wet conditions, though, as logs containing more moisture require more heat to burn. To keep that burn going, use one of three common stacking methods:

The Teepee 

Start by placing your tinder in a pile at the center of a fire ring. Then build a teepee out of kindling by leaning pieces of it against the tinder pile, but don’t put them too close together. Now ignite the tinder, and add increasingly larger pieces of wood to the teepee as the fire grows. Just be careful to leave enough space between each piece for air to come in through the bottom.

The Lean-To

For people who don’t want to keep adding wood to the fire as it grows, this is a good variation on the teepee. Start by placing a prepared log (one you’ve removed the wet sections from) in the center of the fire ring. Lay a pile of tinder at one end of the log, and then add pieces of kindling to the pile by leaning them against the larger log. Leave the sides of the pile open to allow adequate airflow. Ignite the tinder, and the fire should continue on its own

The Log Cabin

As with the other methods, start by laying a pile of tinder in the center of the fire ring. Now lay strips of kindling around the tinder to create a square. Do this again, but with the strips facing in perpendicular to the previous layer until you have a square that’s as tall as the pile of tinder. Lay a few more strips of kindling over the top of the tinder to create a box. Ignite the tinder through a gap in the kindling, and the log cabin should go up in flames within a couple of minutes. This design holds heat really well, but you’ll want to keep the stack as loose as possible to provide airflow.