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Finding burnable wood in wet, cold conditions can save your life.


Shortly after I moved to Montana, two local elk hunters froze to death in a snowstorm. The drainage was a place I’d hunted only days before, and the tragedy registered so deeply in my psyche that for years I avoided the area. Today, the ill-fated trip floods back to me in a series of images: two hunters, stumbling lost through a forest; friends, overcome by panic, splitting up in the dark; two human figures, curled dead on a cold breast of snow.

It’s a story that is repeated with minor variations every year, and searchers commonly discover spent matches and charred sticks where the hunters, hikers, or fishermen failed to build a fire big enough to keep body with soul. The failing is seldom one of neglect; most of us pack fire–sparking tools and tinder. Rather, it is being unable to find dry wood to feed a flame in wet weather. The irony is that it is within sight, and that those two Montana elk hunters would be alive today if they had only known to look up.

Find the Fuel
In any forest, the driest wood is the dead underlimbs of green trees, the insides of standing dead trees, and fallen trunks propped on logs, safe from earth rot. If you happen to be stranded where there are lots of the first, you are lucky indeed. Otherwise, your job is to render finger- to wrist-thick kindling “splits” from a trunk’s core, the darkly colored heartwood that is most resistant to rot.

How quickly you accomplish the task depends upon the tools at hand. By far the best for felling a tree, blocking the trunk into 20-inch sections, and then splitting those blocks, is an ax. One whose handle fits under your armpit when you hold the head in your hand is a good compromise length to strap to your pack, and in my opinion the most versatile of all survival tools. Know your ax and you ought to be able to drop a pine snag, block it, and get a fire roaring within 40 minutes.

Use Your Knife
But what if, like many hunters, all you carry is a knife? You can still save your butt if you know how to make wood wedges. To shape a wedge, place the edge of the knife at an angle against a log or broken limb and pound on the spine with a heavy stick. Your goal is to slice off a piece of wood that is roughly the shape of a small ax head, 1⁄2 inch or more wide at the top, tapering to a sharp edge.

Because you cannot make blocks with a knife, you’ll have to crack off sections of dead tree trunks or limbs and split them lengthwise. Most downfall has natural crack lines. Insert the wedge in a crack and pound on it with a stout stick. Things will go a lot faster if you insert several wedges a few inches apart along the crack line and pound alternately on them. Once you’ve split off a piece of wood, you can pound on the wedges or the back of your knife to crack that piece into splits. Don’t try to split the block in half each time, but work from the outside in, cleaving off smaller splits from the edges.

Save Your Life
Once you have a good bundle of splits, clear an area of snow, lay down your tinder, and start a tepee fire from the splits. Keep adding wood until the fire has dried the ground beneath and is hot enough to start burning wet and green logs. Only after that can you rest assured that, by looking toward Heaven for the source of your salvation, you’ve managed to stay out of Hell at least one more day.