One of my least favorite camping activities is starting a fire with wet wood. Starting a fire with damp wood isn’t great either.
Starting a fire with wet wood can be a challenging task, but it’s not impossible. Knowing how to do so may come in handy in emergency situations when dry wood is scarce, such as after a rainfall or a hike near a river.
Starting a Fire With Wet Wood
- Collect the driest wood you can find. skip_next
- Gather four times as much small tinder and kindling than normal. skip_next
- Create a platform to keep the tinder off the wet ground. skip_next
- Use a good fire starter. skip_next
- Light the fire starter and add tinder. skip_next
- Add wood slowly so you don’t smother your flames. skip_next
Find the driest wood that you can, if you’re allowed to harvest wood, check under pine trees or find dead branches that you can snap off of a tree.
(Do not cut branches off of a living tree, unless you’re in a survival situation and that’s all you have)
Selecting the Right Kind of Wood
When starting a fire with wet wood, you first need to find the best type of wood to use. Not all wood is created equal, and some types are better suited for burning in wet conditions.
In my experience, hardwoods like ash, oak, and maple are the best choices because they burn hotter. A hotter fire will help dry out the other wet wood.
Avoid using green wood (branches that are alive) as it contains a high amount of moisture, which makes it difficult to burn. Instead, look for wood that has been seasoned for at least six months to ensure it’s as dry as possible.
In very wet conditions, look for small dead trees that haven’t fallen yet. They will be drier on the inside than logs on the ground.
Pine or other coniferous trees are also great for gathering fatwood, which is the center of the tree where the most pine sap is. This wood will burn even in the wettest of conditions.
Gathering The Wood
When starting a fire with wet wood, the first thing you need to do is gather an assortment of tinder, kindling and fuel.
Tinder is small sticks, small twigs, grasses and thin bark.
Look for leaves at the bottom of a pile for dry tinder if it’s just started raining. If it’s been wet for days, the leaves on the top of the pile may be the driest.
Birch bark will light when wet, and dried leaves usually will as well, as long as they’re not dripping wet. Pine needles or dry grass are also usually good even if damp.
Once you have a pile of tinder, create a tinder bundle by loosely bundling the material together.
You will want plenty of tinder on hand so you can keep your tiny flame going without having to rebuild the fire all over again if it goes out.
Kindling is larger sticks. When collecting sticks, get as much kindling as you would for a normal fire, and then add about 4 times more.
It will take a while to get hot coals, and you’ll need small branches to slowly increase your small flame into a roaring fire.
Fuel is bigger logs and branches. Look for dead trees and look under pine trees for areas that might have stayed dry in the rainy weather.
Preparing the Fire
In wet conditions you cannot just take gathered wood and attempt to light it. Your materials need to be prepared for the best chance at success.
Preparing the Wood
Once you have collected enough materials, use a hatchet or knife to split some of the larger branches into smaller pieces.
This process exposes the dry inner surfaces of the wood, making it easier for the fire to catch. Smaller branches and twigs can be broken up into small pieces by hand.
Splitting larger logs increases their surface area, exposing the dry core and making it easier to catch fire.
Next, create thin wood shavings or feather sticks with a knife. These shavings will serve as kindling, helping the fire ignite quickly despite damp conditions.
To make feather sticks, take a small, dry branch and carefully shave down one side until thin curls of wood emerge. Make several feather sticks to increase your chances of a successful campfire.
In addition to wood shavings, I gather more tinder in the form of small twigs and dead leaves.
As a final step in preparing the wood, I arrange my materials according to size and flammability. I separate the tinder (wood shavings, small twigs) from the smaller, split branches and the large logs.
This organization will make it much easier to build and maintain the fire once it has been ignited.
Building The Fire
When starting a fire with wet wood, preparing the fire bed is crucial. Using a firepit with a grate is a good idea if your site has one.
If not, find a dry spot to start your fire.
First clear the area of any debris and create a platform using bark or dry leaves to keep the tinder off the wet ground. This platform will serve as a stable base for building the fire.
I prefer using the lean-to method for starting a fire with wet wood. I start by placing the tinder bundle in the center of the platform. Then, I put a large log on one side.
Arrange small, thin twigs in a log cabin or teepee shape around the tinder bundle, making sure to leave room for air circulation.
Lean your kindling over the tinder bundle and against the large log. This protects the tinder bundle slightly if it’s actively raining and also dries out your kindling.
Lighting the Fire
Actually lighting the campfire is the step that will take the most patience and concentration.
You’ll want a good fire starter that will light quickly and burn for a long time.
Yes, magnesium burns amazingly hot, but it’s a very quick flame and you’d need an entire pile of magnesium shavings to start a fire in wet weather.
Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly make excellent fire starters as well. I simply coat a few cotton balls in petroleum jelly, place them next to the wet wood, and then ignite them using matches or a lighter.
Black Beard Fire Starters are versatile and waterproof. Each rope can start over 50 fires!
And you don't have to worry about not being able to light a fire in wet weather since Black Beard Fire Starters are waterproof!
With an infinite shelf life these are a perfect addition to your bail out bag!
The petroleum jelly helps the cotton balls burn for a longer period, giving the wet wood enough time to dry out and catch fire.
Igniting the Tinder
Once the lean-to is set up, I carefully ignite the fire starter and tinder bundle and watch the fire spread to the surrounding twigs.
As the structure catches fire, it creates a strong heat and reflecting wall which allows the wet wood to dry and eventually burn.
Add smaller sticks to continue having enough heat to dry out your wet kindling so it can catch fire.
Thicker branches can be added in layers, progressively moving to larger sticks and larger logs as the fire burns through the kindling.
Throughout the fire-building process, it’s important to maintain a balance between feeding the fire with enough wood for it to burn hot and giving it enough air circulation to keep the flames alive.
Nurturing The Fire
When starting a fire with wet firewood, nurturing the fire is crucial for its success. In the beginning, it’s essential to provide adequate air flow and enough fuel to keep a steady flame.
Add Wood Slowly
As you build your fire up, be patient and ensure that the flames have enough time to dry out the wet wood before adding more.
Adding a ton of wood all at once will likely smother your fragile fire and leave you sad and cold.
As the fire progresses, you will notice small coals forming at the base. These coals are hotter than the flames themselves and are essential for maintaining and growing the fire.
To avoid smothering the coals, make sure to place larger pieces of wood against the large log, ensuring there’s still enough space for air to circulate.
One technique I found helpful is once you have sticks that have burned a little, you can blow on the fire gently. This provides additional oxygen, which helps to strengthen the fire’s core.
However, it’s important not to blow too hard, as this could extinguish the flame.
Dry More Wood
Lay your wet wood along the base of the fire to help dry it out. Add wood as it dries and then place more wood along the edge to dry it.
If you’re at a campsite that has a grill or grate over the fire pit, this is an excellent way to dry out damp or wet logs. Literally roast the excess water out of your wood! Thin pieces of wood have a better chance of igniting than huge logs.
Frequently Asked Questions
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.