Assuming firewood can be found, but it's likely to be damp, how can I best be prepared for getting a fire going? This is for a light hiking situation, so I'm not going to carry a sack full of kindling, but am prepared to carry a fairly generous supply of tinder/firelighters/equipment. We can assume that there's deadwood (standing and fallen) and green wood but there's been some recent rain.

Related:

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    I'm surprised there's no closer question already - maybe there is but using different terms so my searchign didn't find it. – Chris H Dec 3 at 11:28
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    To get a fire going quickly, you can use a fluffed out tampon, and it comes in a nice waterproof casing and are small and light. Not enough for an answer really but a handy solution – Aravona Dec 3 at 11:36
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    my answer to "How to light a fire with wet firewood?" was specifically NOT car camping. We were backcountry by canoe. In terms of room in your pack, a few tbsp. of liquid stove fuel is going to be the most compact and lightweight solution. – Kate Gregory Dec 3 at 15:35
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    As shown in one answer, lint from the clothes dryer filter is crazily flammable and ultralight. There is no reason to throw it in the trash instead of safekeeping it in your emergency kit. – Gabriel C. Dec 3 at 20:46
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    @ChrisH I also have no drier, but last weekend was helping out with cub scouts doing firelighting and another leader brought some lint. I found it no better than, and possibly slightly worse than, cotton wool. Only advantage really is that it is free, but cotton wool is trivially cheap really. It does show cubs that they can use scavenged things such as pocket lint rather than stuff they bring with them though. – AdamV Dec 4 at 11:28

11 Answers 11

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Bring skills.

Skills are by far the lightest and most useful thing to carry. They are, however, also rather difficult and time-consuming to acquire (as compared to, say, some tools that you can simply go and buy in a shop). Here are some quick suggestions (thank you commenters):

  • Collect the lowest deadwood branches still attached on evergreen trees, they will be drier than most.
  • Split small branches/logs with a knife (called batoning) to get to the dry inner wood.
  • Make sure to build the best possible fire you can with the right mix of fuel/air.
  • Dry each piece of wood before feeding it into the fire.

That being said, for the situation you describe I'd carry a pack of fire starters - the kind you use to start your coal BBQ in the summer. There is a wide variety, but most all of them are cheap, take fire in any weather and once burning are hard to extinguish. And if they can set fire to coal they can dry+light some damp sticks/kindling without problems.

Personally I like the eco-friendly fire starters made of wood wool and paraffin (or similar).

Of course you still need a fire making kit. The following is a place to start (thank you for the good suggestions in the comments): lighter (kept dry in sealed container, or a 'storm proof lighter' designed to light in any condition), stormproof matches, magnesium/flint stick, a knife to baton wood and create sparks, and perhaps duplicates of some of these for good measure (e.g. two lighters).

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    Is there a specific skill for "lighting wet wood with nothing other than a lighter"? Seems like even if you have skill, it's not going to be a fast process without some additional materials. – JPhi Dec 3 at 16:11
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    @JPhi yes, such as knowing to look under dense evergreen canopies for drier wood, batoning to get to drier inner wood in otherwise damp debris, and excellent fire-building skills since making a fire with wet material leaves much less wiggle room for error (e.g. knowing when to add more wood, give the fire more air, drying each larger tier of wood before you feed it in, etc.) – cr0 Dec 3 at 16:51
  • I'd answer much like this one, but @fgysin to make it complete I'd add some redundant reliable ignition sources too: lighter (kept dry in sealed container, or a 'storm proof lighter' designed to light in any condition), stormproof matches, magnesium/flint stick, a knife to baton wood and create sparks, and perhaps duplicates of some of these for good measure (e.g. two lighters). That stuff (minus knife), plus the fire starters you linked to, form my lightweight fire kit. That kit + skills & calm, I've been able to get fires going in all kinds of wet, cold, and windy conditions. – cr0 Dec 3 at 16:54
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    to add to what @cr0 says about dry wood - my favourite was finding dead wood that had not yet fallen from trees - while dead, it tends to be dry, and can be removed from the tree without harming it. Good for kindling and intermediate stages of the fire - what you use to dry the first decent chunks of wood out. – Baldrickk Dec 3 at 17:13
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    @Baldrickk some of the best wood I find in stormy conditions is the low, dead branches on evergreen trees that hadn't fallen off yet. They're under their parent-tree's canopy/umbrella, off the wet ground, and tend to break off relatively easily as I walk by. – cr0 Dec 3 at 17:17

A healthy set of firelighters and some woodworking tools. An axe and saw are a must along with your pocket knife. Failing that, a knife and hand axe.

With fire lighters, you will struggle to light sodden twigs. You might get something small going but this will burn out as your chemical fuel disappears - revealing that your twigs were not really part of the fire's main body. You've probably experienced this before. There's a few answers here that suggest you can light wet tinder with chemical firelighters - yes you can, but it is rarely successful in my experience. When a fire is needed for survival and you have a limited supply of firelighters, I absolutely would not recommend wasting them like this.

What you will find is that larger logs that were felled a while ago that are not rotten are dry in the middle. With a saw or a serrated blade, you should be able to cut off foot long sections of a log. If you are able to split a 4" diameter log parallel to the grain, you can retrieve the dry wood within. With a knife you can scrape this away into a nice pile of perfect tinder. A small one handed axe will split this with no bother.

Once you have plenty of tinder, a few logs split into quarters/eighths (to maximise dry wood surface area) can be placed around it along with some firelighters. A tepee shaped fire works well for maximising dry surface area - your split logs will only burn from the inside if wet. Once this starts to burn nicely, you just need to keep adding split logs onto the fire, dry side down. Eventually your fire will reach critical mass and you can start burning the damper wood around without fear of it putting your fire out.

This approach is slightly non intuative as it skips the normal dry wood approach to firebuilding : start with small stuff and work your way up. Instead, if the wood is sodden, start with the largest pieces of wood you can reasonably cut and start processing them.

The key is to get a good knife (presumably you have one already), an axe and a saw. One handed axes are cheap and cheerful, easy to transport, rarely of poor quality. I would do a bit more research for a saw and suggest something like this with a folding blade for ease of transport over a bow saw or something equally awkward.


Experience: 12 years of camping in Scotland where everything is wet all year round. Even in the drier summer months (a relative term), evening dew soaks into everything.

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    I've successfully split thinner stuff with a sturdy sheath knife to get at the dry inner wood, but if you're looking at 4" logs then an axe is definitely the way to go – Chris H Dec 4 at 10:38
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    @ChrisH I agree with both of you, it's certainly possible with smaller material so an axe and saw might be overkill. But imo, if you're going to do it right, an axe and saw is a small bit of weight and bulk to add for huge gains in efficiency and convenience - and even less of a problem if you're not on your own! – Smeato Dec 4 at 16:08
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    The guy from Alone in the Wilderness built an entire house (including a hinged door) having arrived with almost nothing but a knife and an axe head. Being able to make anything with those two tools are the 'skills you should bring'. – Mazura Dec 5 at 1:07
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    Suggesting a sturdy knife, axe and saw for a hiking situation is ridiculous. – Michael Dec 5 at 18:48
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    @Smeato As for similar weight: If you buy a ultralight hatchet+saw you might in the best case be about the same weight as carrying stove+fuel for a week, but you'll certainly not be following leave-no-trace. – fgysin Dec 6 at 11:49

I have always found it easy to just carry a few tea lights. PUt them under a wet teepee of small kindling, and it will light, eventually. Size up slowly, remembering that the wood needs to dry and then to light. If it's actively raining you may need to "cover" the fire a bit with a tarp or large leaves, but the idea is the same. The slow-burning tea light will eventually dry out the smaller kindling enough to light it. The smaller stuff drying then igniting the next size up. Just make sure to go very slowly and it should work just fine.

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    For non-Brits out there, a "tea light" is just small, cheap candle. Just don't forget to take the metal container out of the fire pit before you leave (leave no trace) – Shawn Dec 4 at 19:51
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    @Shawn In New England we call them tea lights as well, at least in my family. – Adonalsium yesterday

What I have always carried is cotton balls mixed with petroleum jelly stored in a film canister. It's small and light, the cotton makes it easy to light and the petroleum jelly gives it quite a bit of heat. Just be careful not to get the jelly on your fingers when doing this, as otherwise, you can burn them pretty easily.

There are plenty of other things like cotton balls that could be used instead, dryer lint is the obvious example.

Also, try and get the driest wood you can and once the fire is going, use it to dry the wood out before you put it on the fire.

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    Similar, but I use cotton plus magnesium shavings stuffed in paper egg carton wells, each well individually separated and dipped in paraffin. It's heavier, but paraffin is solid and stable at ambient temperatures. – bishop Dec 3 at 16:04
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    Go 2-for-1 - use some Vicks vapo-rub instead of vaseline. Vaseline (generic use) is the base after all, but Vicks is a pretty good mosquito repellent as well as its on-label uses. – ivanivan Dec 7 at 21:19

In addition to the other fine answers here, I'd like to add another skill I recently learned about to help with wet weather fire building. It's called the upside down fire.

You can view how-to videos on youtube.com here and here.

The basic gist of the fire is that you start by laying out larger more damp pieces in the bottom of your fire lay, as you build up you build with smaller wood until you are working with your dry kindling just under your tinder pile. Most of the examples I've seen end up looking like a teepee fire on top of a raised platform.

What happens is the heat and flame from above will cause the wood underneath to dry and by the time the flame burns down through the current layer the layer underneath is ready to catch.

I haven't been able to try it yet myself in wet conditions but I will say using this fire lay in dry conditions created a great smokeless fire until it ran out and I had to start throwing wood on top.

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    I like the format of your answer in that you have example videos and summeries. I disagree with your hypothesis though, I used to live in Western Washington (USA) and it was always wet, The problems is that heat rises, so very little heat transfers to the wet wood underneath. You need to have the wet wood next to or above the fire for the fire to dry it out. – James Jenkins Dec 3 at 18:42
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    @JamesJenkins: Heat does indeed rise, but embers fall down. Having some larger pieces of wood at the bottom of the fire helps retain the heat from those embers where it's useful, since even damp wood is still a better insulator than wet ground. The embers in contact with the wood at the bottom will also char it and release flammable pyrolysis gases. Even if those gases aren't initially hot enough to sustain a flame by themselves, the airflow will pull them up into the main fire above them, where they help sustain it. – Ilmari Karonen Dec 4 at 13:33
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    I would like to add that "heat" doesn't rise; hot AIR rises. Radiative heat will go down from the top to the wet wood just fine. Put your hand on the ground near but not above a red hot glowing fire core to see how much heat that can be :) – Whelkaholism Dec 4 at 13:51
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    Anecdotal evidence: I have used this technique on garden bonfires with wet and green material and it was extremely effective. – Whelkaholism Dec 4 at 13:53
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    This lifts the base of the fire off wet ground as well. Once the top of a log is smouldering, heat will conduct further into the log and dry it out. I've used this aproach years ago to dry out more wood when starting with a small amount of dry stuff. You can also use wet logs to form the walls of a fire pit, pushing them in when necessary (assuming suitable ground) – Chris H Dec 4 at 15:58

Locally one of the forms of firestarter our hardware store sells amounts to coarse sawdust mixed with candle wax. Break a piece in half to get a rough edge to start. You can make your own from old candle stubs and shredded paper. Do the wax in a double boiler. Vaseline and cotton balls work too, but they are messy if they escape in your pack.

On trips I have a few 'fire starter packets' in my rain jacket pocket. Each one consists of a stick of the above, broken in half, and 4 strike-anywhere matches. That is wrapped in a square foot of aluminum foil.

In use, once I have some twigs collected, open the foil and set on the ground. Strike one match against another. (the other 2 are spares)

The foil reduces heat loss to the ground while the fire is small. It will get burned when the fire is larger, although check for unburned bits before you leave.

I started making these when coming in to shore after a day of canoeing in wet weather. With the legs being largely motionless, a rush of chilled blood hits the core as soon as you get moving. I found I had about 3 minutes of shore time before I started shivering hard enough not not be able to strike a match. While the shivering passes in about 15 minutes, I'd rather not lose that time before having a fire and a hot beverage.

So the process:

  • Pull canoe up enough to not go anywhere.

  • Grab partner.

  • go to nearest spruce tree, break off a handful of under twigs.

  • Tell partner to get more.

  • Unroll packet.

  • Light matches,

  • light firestarter,

  • put crushed twigs on top of bundle.

  • Stack twigs and bigger wood as fast as we could find it.

Once the fire is started, you can add wood while shivering. You can collect wood while shivering. Once the shivering starts to slow, and the fire is getting big, get the coffee pot out.

A lot has been covered already, I'll add the thing I find most of use.

Knowledge about fauna and geography where you hike.

Someone answered "Skills" which is fundament, of course - but they won't help you if you do not know the vegetation types around where you hike. Where I hike (Norway) I know which bushes burn well. I know which roots burn well. I have seen people draw long and stringy roots up directly from a bog, and then just go and light them on fire with a single match. Stuffed full of etheric oils they were, caught fire like a basin of gasoline. I know birch bark is an excellent firestarter, I know that the lowest branches on a spruce is likely going to be dry to use as tinder - I know pines are a good source of fuel as well.

Ask someone who has been hiking in your area for advice, and the rest you have to solve with experience. Bring warm clothes and some patience, it might get trying.

A couple of additional thoughts:

A metal pencil sharpener with a large hole (often only available as a two-hole sharpener). Great for turning twigs into shavings. More surface area should mean they dry faster (once you have an initial bit of tinder going) and catch more easily. Shavings will blow around in even a light breeze though, so think about using pack, bidy or whatever comes to hand to provide a wind break while getting fire established.

Personally I swear by Baddest Bee Fire Fuses. Basically short pieces of cotton cord soaked in wax. They are small, light, easy to add to a firelighting or first aid kit, inherently waterproof (probably not up to being buried or submerged for ages, but certainly can be dunked). You pull the end apart to make it fluffy so it will take a spark, then the wax takes over and provides a good amount of heat to get kindling going.

There's a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hucYQijUCqo but in that he shows using a whole long fuse. I tend to use them in about 1 to 1.5 inch lengths and then leave them in the fire, I don't expect to hold it while it's burning. Pretty sure I bought some which were shorter to start with, as I don't remember cutting them down.

I have a couple in various places eg every first aid kit, even have two coiled up in the end of my Bear Grylls flint/steel firelighting tool (not my favourite flint and steel, but bought to review and to have a spare).

Another good alternative to fire fuses would be something like Live Fire which is essentially a tiny tin of waxy fuel. I keep a "sport" sized one of these (the smallest) as an absolute backup in case I really must light a fire for actual survival eg for signalling or to stay warm while waiting for rescue with an injured member of party. I think they are a bit pricey to light fires which are purely recreational. I might even balk at using them to light a fire every night of a multi-day hike just for cooking on. But personally I would probably carry a stove rather than rely on fire as my only option for cooking, although I will often do a bit of both (stove for water boiling, fire for everything else if I can). You can use the lid to put them out so you only use up what you need until fire is established. You could probably re-use the tin by filling with suitable non-liquid "fuel" such as beeswax, petroleum jelly (could melt in warmer summer weather), possibly even alcohol gel (but I would use a ziplock as backup to catch leaks).

A "pocket bellows" is a telescopic metal blowpipe which goes from a few inches (short enough for typical tobacco tin firelighting kit) to about 45cm. Great for blowing on a reluctant fire without getting too much smoke in eyes and lungs - and a fire made with wet wood will tend to be very smoky at first. Also really useful if you are trying for the teepee approach as you can reach in and blow where you need to in the middle of the fire. I prefer the kind with a rubber part to hold so it does not get too hot, but you can go minimalist if you need to really save every gram.

  • A chunk of surgical tubing can be used this way too, and also used for drinking out of shallow pools. equip with a short metal tip in the fire. – Sherwood Botsford Dec 4 at 14:51
  • Pencil sharpener +1, great way to make shavings. Stove -1 - the OP said light hking, carrying around a stove doesn't really fit that. – FKEinternet yesterday

I'm suprised nobody has mentioned "Feather Sticks". As described above, split some smaller branches by "batoning" but then on the exposed (dryer) internal corner, carefully shave down at varying angles to create a "feather stick". The finer the feathers the more likely they are to catch. Bundle a few together and you'll soon have a fire going! Another good tip is to practice this stuff at home before you actually need it of course! :D

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What I have always used over the years is plastic. One grocery plastic bag melts down to about a teaspoon of highly flammable and water resistant fire starter.

Some tips:

Look for tiny dead twigs, still on the tree / bush for the driest tinder available. My favorite is dead twigs on still standing brush under a tree with a thick canopy. Another favorite is the tiny dead twigs at the bottom of a pine tree.

Once you have a tinder (the tiniest sticks) and a supply of gradually thicker twigs you can get a fire started with the plastic. Be very careful as burning plastic will drip and stick to skin causing an awful burn.

In over 3 years making outdoor fires in a relatively wet climate of northeast US this has always been my fallback 'cheater' way to get a fire started without bringing dry fuel with me. Only the very heavy, day long rainfalls have stopped me from getting a fire burning. In that case, if I was planning to be on a hiking trip or something I would consider kerosene or a propane solution.

  • Hmm. Burning plastic - lots of carcinogenic smoke. Yeah, I want to try this one... – FKEinternet yesterday
  • We are talking a very small amount here. Also this is a last resort method when nothing else besides petroleum products will work. In terms of portability and cost it is a great solution when nothing else will work. One plastic bag can fit in a one inch square space and costs nothing. – Joe 23 hours ago

If you don't want to hand-make some of the tinder suggestions made here (which are all great suggestions, the cotton-and-jelly and paraffin lint balls are all time tested), you can buy cedar shavings firestarters commercially online, they're just cedar shavings and paraffin, cheap in bulk. People use them often to start home heating fires.

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