How to start a fire with wet wood

As often as possible, I like to address questions that come to me by email from customers. This happens to be one of those days and I’m going to talk about how to start a fire with wet wood. I’m also going to touch on whether or not you should use a fire starter.

Now that we’re getting into winter, you might not have nice dry wood lying around your campsite or sitting outside your hunting cabin. Some people will use a bunch of lighter fluid or – even more unwisely – gasoline (don’t do this!), but there are huge hazards to doing so. Not to mention, if you’re hunting, that petroleum smell will probably permeate your clothing, which may lead to deer picking up your scent and staying far away. (Kind of negates the deer urine your rubbed all over yourself, doesn’t it?)

start a fire with wet wood

So, without further ado, here’s how to start a fire with wet wood:

  • Build a nice pile of tinder that is no bigger around than your pinky finger. If you’re getting it off a live tree or bush, pick branches that are close to the trunk and lowest to the ground, as they’re the driest. If there’s a dead tree nearby, break off twigs that aren’t in contact with the ground.
  • Slightly larger logs may have dry wood inside that you can get out by chipping off the wet surface with a hatchet, but don’t even bother with soggy, rotten wood. Chipping up birch bark will work too, but I personally avoid hacking at live trees. If you’re going to do this, pick one branch to cut and use all of it. Don’t chop at the trunk.
  • Make a bed for the fire to get started on, such as a piece of cardboard or even an arrangement of branches. It’ll keep the moisture in the ground from ruining everything and provide more stability to build the fire on.
  • Crumple some nice dry paper and build a teepee over the top of it with the twigs and small tinder. I even peel off pieces of the twigs to expose more surface area.
  • Set a pile kindling next to where you’re building the fire, because once you get it lit, you don’t want to be wandering around looking for more wood to throw on. The kindling should be the size of your thumb and you can use branches off pine trees with sapwood or fatwood, as the oil will burn even with wet wood. Just split them down the centerline to expose the inside.
  • Light your paper and twig teepee, making sure to keep it well shielded from the wind. Don’t rush to put more tinder on, but keep it close enough to get heated by the flame. Gently add more tinder as the fire gets some legs.
  • As you get more and more tinder added, keep the kindling close enough that it gets heated by the flames to further assist drying. Slowly add in some of your kindling as the fire builds. Now you’re off and running.

One of the most important aspects of starting a fire with wet wood is not to add too many big pieces right away. With dry wood, it’s not a big deal, but you need to be very patient and methodical.

So, if you now know how to start a fire with wet wood, does that mean that carrying a fire starter is unnecessary? Not exactly. A fire starter can be a huge asset in minimizing your frustration and making sure that you get the fire going as quickly as possible. Fire starters are small, relatively inexpensive and really shorten the time it takes to get a fire going, so it makes sense to pack one. You can ask anyone who knows me: I never go wilderness camping without bringing along my fire starter, and that includes on day hikes. You just never know when you might need one.

So which type of fire start is best? That depends. I’ll cover more on the different types of fire starters in another blog and even include a video demonstration.


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