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How to Build a Survival Fire in Bad Weather

How to make a survival fire when you need it most.

It's often when you need a fire most—during rain, wind, or snow—that it's the hardest to start. Here's how to do it.

It's an axiom of survival that when you need a fire—really need it with the snow blowing and the evening drawing down like a burial shroud—you need it now. And you need it big.

No futzing around with a bow drill. No trying to spark fire with a rock and a hunting knife. No miniature sparking wheel that will fumble out of your numb fingers. What you need are no-b.s. methods to ignite fire, utilize tinder, render kindling, and gather enough fuel to keep hypothermia at bay. And you need them in the opposite order, because the secret of generating a warming fire is to build it from the outside in.

Start Big
First order of business is gathering fuel. Doing so will warm you up so you have steady hands to actually start the fire later on. Plus, it will be harder to find once it's dark. How much? For an all-night fire, a stack of logs as long as you are tall and waist-high. With an ax, you can lay in a supply by toppling one standing dead tree. No ax and you'll have to haul in deadfall and break it into reasonable lengths by wedging the ends between two trees and pulling. Don't neglect burned stumps, which are full of pitch, and for every three dry logs haul in one green one. It will burn once the fire is established.

Tip: Pack pigskin work gloves. Wool or fleece hunting gloves will shred under the demands of gathering fuel, leaving you with mangled fingers to try to start a fire.

Get to the Heart
Gathering kindling can be as simple as breaking off the dead twigs and branches that quill the lower trunks of spruce and pine trees; these stay dry because they are protected by canopy. But in country where you hunt in your rain gear, the only dry source of kindling will be the heartwood of standing dead and propped logs. Saw or chop the trunk into sections and then split the dry inner wood into sticks ranging from pencil- to wrist-thickness. You'll need a bundle of splits about as big as you can hug to your chest to establish a fire hot enough to burn larger fuel.

Tip: No ax? Pound on the spine of your knife to split off a wedge of wood. By placing a series of wedges in a crack that runs lengthwise along a log and pounding on them with a stout stick, you can split the trunk to expose the dry interior.

Sweat the Small Stuff
A snowstorm is no time to look for fungus or dry grass. Bring tinder with you. Cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly are as good as anything you can buy. Make a softball-size nest of bark shavings, rusted pine needles, and feathered wood from your kindling splits, place the tinder on it, then loosely cover the tinder with more needles and shavings. Build a tepee from your kindling around the tinder, starting with the tiny twigs and working your way up to kindling as thick as your thumb.

Tip: For insurance, I pack a finger-size stick of resin-soaked fatwood (pine). It provides long-lasting tinder for igniting kindling in wet weather.

Light It Up
Forget those windproof matches that require a chemical reaction to ignite. Gum up the striking strip and they might as well be toothpicks. The best sources of ignition in really bad weather are a butane lighter that provides a tall, strong flame and a sparking steel that will throw a shower of white-hot sparks and the wind be damned. Carry both.

Tip: The sparking steel I use includes a magnesium rod and is set into a wooden handle, both of which can be shaved off and used as tinder.

Once you have the tepee fire blazing, cross it with your wrist-thick kindling and start to add larger fuel. A warming fire should be as long as your body and backed by a wall of logs or rocks to reflect the heat back at you. Once it's established, add a few green logs, which burn with fewer BTUs than dry logs but last longer, ensuring that you will outlive the moon for at least one more night.

 

Comments (12)

Top Rated
All Comments
from jayclimbs wrote 3 years 12 weeks ago

Solid info; nice to see some common sense on this subject.
One point not mentioned: in deep snow conditions, it is important to dig out an area for the fire or give it a solid, night-lasting platform. Nothing worse than watching your life-sustaining flame sink and snuff in a slush-hole.
Ideally, clear to ground an area large enough for the fire AND you to sit comfortably close to it. The circle of snow will shelter you a bit more from cold wind, retain head, and keep you drier.

+10 Good Comment? | | Report
from DonInMN wrote 3 years 12 weeks ago

Common sense is right-on, Jayclimbs.
+100 on your advise re: snow under the fire.
Been there, and sadly watched it happen.
This is to seldom mentioned IMHO in MANY cold-weather
survival books and articles.

DonIn MN

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 12 weeks ago

Any more tips for a fire platform in the snow, especially deep snow? I understand digging to bare earth to set up your fire, but is there anything else that works?

I read a good tip in F&S once regarding carrying one compression strap (the kind for compressing a sleeping bag) in your kit. It allows you to efficiently gather a lot more firewood in one haul and rolls up into a very small space.

Great post!

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from StoneRiverTackle wrote 3 years 10 weeks ago

Here is a tip I use. I take the magnesium and a drill holes into it and collect the shavings put them in a waterproof container. it takes a long time to shave magnesium off. It works well in hurry situations.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from The Antique wrote 3 years 9 weeks ago

Germ-X is 63% Ethyl Alcohol. It catches fire easy and can be bought in small bottles making it easy to store in your fire kit. Squirt a small amount onto your kindling and strike a spark for a fast fire. Also, always carry more than one method of starting a fire. I haven't smoked in 20 years, but carry a butane lighter in my pocket as well as a fire steel on my keychain. These are on me 24/7 and in addition to my fire kit in my pack. When you desperately need a fire fast, you don't get extra points for rubbing two sticks together. I've found that the solid fuel, Esbit, works great for starting damp wood. A small block will burn for 8 to 10 minutes and you get 12 individually wrapped blocks in a box. I also carry several pieces of fatwood in my kits. I don't carry an ax or hatchet, but I do carry a large knife. This allows me to 'baton' larger pieces of wood into kindling or managable size pieces easier than using a small fixed blade or pocket knife.

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from shotgunlou wrote 3 years 3 weeks ago

Dryer lint works amazingly well and stays dry in your pack when you put it inside a ziploc baggy with your matches and/or lighter.

+4 Good Comment? | | Report
from thegreatsantini wrote 2 years 41 weeks ago

Im aweful at makeing fires so its always the first thing I do

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike Riley wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

i have found that when i needed a fire when i was fishing i stabbed sticks half the size my wrist into the ground with the points touching in a tepee form then i could place other sticks on the side where the wind is blowing from that way i could have a makeshift shelter for my kindling then i used some dry grass. then i placed drift wood that was dry on top it burned for a very long time. an extremely hot.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from UPST_MZZlder wrote 2 years 15 weeks ago

Indeed Lou.Dryer lint partially dipped in paraffin wax will light with 1 or 2 shots from a flint striker.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark Polchlopek wrote 2 years 14 weeks ago

In the northern climates, don't forget Birch Bark. It burns like gasoline wet or dry. Also, the outside of dead corn stalks, actually the skin of the corn you peel and throw away will burn like paper . If wet it dries fast. Fell into a creek once, and both of those starters got a fire going like crazy in seconds in a blinding snowstorm.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from timo5150 wrote 2 years 14 weeks ago

I always carry several methods of fire starters and an assortment of kindling but my favorite has got to be jute twine.
pull it apart fluff it up and its one of the easiest thinks to lite so I find little things to tie up with it so that I always have some on hand.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from the_green_angler wrote 2 years 12 weeks ago

You guys forgot about navel lint! ;)

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from jayclimbs wrote 3 years 12 weeks ago

Solid info; nice to see some common sense on this subject.
One point not mentioned: in deep snow conditions, it is important to dig out an area for the fire or give it a solid, night-lasting platform. Nothing worse than watching your life-sustaining flame sink and snuff in a slush-hole.
Ideally, clear to ground an area large enough for the fire AND you to sit comfortably close to it. The circle of snow will shelter you a bit more from cold wind, retain head, and keep you drier.

+10 Good Comment? | | Report
from The Antique wrote 3 years 9 weeks ago

Germ-X is 63% Ethyl Alcohol. It catches fire easy and can be bought in small bottles making it easy to store in your fire kit. Squirt a small amount onto your kindling and strike a spark for a fast fire. Also, always carry more than one method of starting a fire. I haven't smoked in 20 years, but carry a butane lighter in my pocket as well as a fire steel on my keychain. These are on me 24/7 and in addition to my fire kit in my pack. When you desperately need a fire fast, you don't get extra points for rubbing two sticks together. I've found that the solid fuel, Esbit, works great for starting damp wood. A small block will burn for 8 to 10 minutes and you get 12 individually wrapped blocks in a box. I also carry several pieces of fatwood in my kits. I don't carry an ax or hatchet, but I do carry a large knife. This allows me to 'baton' larger pieces of wood into kindling or managable size pieces easier than using a small fixed blade or pocket knife.

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from shotgunlou wrote 3 years 3 weeks ago

Dryer lint works amazingly well and stays dry in your pack when you put it inside a ziploc baggy with your matches and/or lighter.

+4 Good Comment? | | Report
from DonInMN wrote 3 years 12 weeks ago

Common sense is right-on, Jayclimbs.
+100 on your advise re: snow under the fire.
Been there, and sadly watched it happen.
This is to seldom mentioned IMHO in MANY cold-weather
survival books and articles.

DonIn MN

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 12 weeks ago

Any more tips for a fire platform in the snow, especially deep snow? I understand digging to bare earth to set up your fire, but is there anything else that works?

I read a good tip in F&S once regarding carrying one compression strap (the kind for compressing a sleeping bag) in your kit. It allows you to efficiently gather a lot more firewood in one haul and rolls up into a very small space.

Great post!

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from StoneRiverTackle wrote 3 years 10 weeks ago

Here is a tip I use. I take the magnesium and a drill holes into it and collect the shavings put them in a waterproof container. it takes a long time to shave magnesium off. It works well in hurry situations.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark Polchlopek wrote 2 years 14 weeks ago

In the northern climates, don't forget Birch Bark. It burns like gasoline wet or dry. Also, the outside of dead corn stalks, actually the skin of the corn you peel and throw away will burn like paper . If wet it dries fast. Fell into a creek once, and both of those starters got a fire going like crazy in seconds in a blinding snowstorm.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from thegreatsantini wrote 2 years 41 weeks ago

Im aweful at makeing fires so its always the first thing I do

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mike Riley wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

i have found that when i needed a fire when i was fishing i stabbed sticks half the size my wrist into the ground with the points touching in a tepee form then i could place other sticks on the side where the wind is blowing from that way i could have a makeshift shelter for my kindling then i used some dry grass. then i placed drift wood that was dry on top it burned for a very long time. an extremely hot.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from UPST_MZZlder wrote 2 years 15 weeks ago

Indeed Lou.Dryer lint partially dipped in paraffin wax will light with 1 or 2 shots from a flint striker.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from timo5150 wrote 2 years 14 weeks ago

I always carry several methods of fire starters and an assortment of kindling but my favorite has got to be jute twine.
pull it apart fluff it up and its one of the easiest thinks to lite so I find little things to tie up with it so that I always have some on hand.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from the_green_angler wrote 2 years 12 weeks ago

You guys forgot about navel lint! ;)

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

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