It might be my imagination, but it seems that emergencies always bring bad weather along with them. Just when you need some sunshine and cool breezes, you end up with cold, rain and high wind. When that happens, survival becomes all that much more complicated — especially the critical need of starting a fire.
Any survival instructor will tell you that you should carry at least two primary and two secondary means of starting a fire. That’s good advice, especially considering that those fire starters may not always work. If you’re dealing with inclement weather, you probably won’t be able to start your fire with one match. Oh, and if it’s cold out, your butane lighter isn’t going to work, anyway.
Other than starting a fire in the middle of an ocean, the worst situation I can think of to start a fire is when it is cold and windy. That’s not the ideal circumstances that most of us had when we went through survival training. So let’s see what we need, in order to make a fire in those circumstances.
The Right Location for the Fire
The first thing necessary is a good location. In bad weather it’s important to provide the fire with as much shelter as possible. That means three things: shelter from wind, shelter from rain, and shelter from ground water.
Depending upon where you are, wind might be a real serious problem for your fire. Sheltering it just on the upwind side may not be enough. In many cases, you need someplace that will shelter it on as many sides as possible. If all you do is shelter it on the upwind side, then the windbreak stops the wind from hitting the fire directly, but then the air comes in from the sides. To avoid this, make the windbreak C shaped, with the open side of the C being downwind.
Shelter from the rain is the hardest of all, because you still have to leave someplace for the smoke to escape. The old Indian teepees had a smoke hole at the peak, which was opened and adjusted by moving two poles.
One way to get shelter from the rain is to build your fire under a tree. Evergreen trees form a fairly good natural tent, if you pick a big one and crawl under the lowest branches. Some of these can be cut off, without diminishing the quality of the shelter that the tree provides. Make sure that you leave enough branches in place so that the outer edges of the branches still touch the ground.
There is an inherent risk in making a fire under a tree, but if you keep your fire under control, that risk can be minimized. It can also be minimized by creating a good fire pit, where there is nothing combustible around the fire, except the fuel that is being burned.
This brings us to the third requirement for the location, that it be protected from groundwater. The easiest way to do this is to build a fire pit where the floor is raised off the ground by a layer of rocks. That will keep the coals from being directly on the wet ground, help keep the fire from spreading and make sure that any running or pooling water from the rain doesn’t put out the fire.
Finding Dry Kindling and Fuel
Trying to start a fire with wet wood is almost impossible. There are ways, which we will get into in a minute, but you’re much better off if you can find something dry to burn, especially for getting your fire started.
Typically, a fire is started in three stages; tinder, kindling and fuel. The tinder has to be something which will catch fire quickly and easily. The kindling is pieces of wood that are about the diameter of a finger, which can be easily lit from the tinder. Once that it going, it can be used to start the actual fuel for the fire burning.
If you are traveling with your bug-out bag, you should have some tinder in it. There are articles all over the Internet of ways of making your own fire-starters. These are basically all forms of tinder. Two of the best ones for starting a fire with wet wood are dryer lint mixed with paraffin and cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. Both of these burn for a couple of minutes, allowing them plenty of time to get a fire started. In a minute, I’ll tell you about an even better one.
Even in the rainstorm there is usually dry kindling around, although it might not be very obvious. Remember the pine tree that I was talking about a minute ago? You can almost always find a number of dry, dead branches under the bottom of those pine trees, even in the midst of a rainstorm. Another great place to look is the underside of dead or uprooted trees. While the top side may be wet from the storm, the bottom may still be dry. Cut or break off bark, branches and wood from the bottom side of these trees to get your dry kindling.
Finding dry fuel may be even harder, but you can look in the same places that you looked for the kindling. Your fuel doesn’t necessarily have to be as dry as your kindling, as you will have some heat from the kindling to start drying out the fuel.
The Best Fire Starter for Wet Wood
In addition to the cotton balls and dryer lint, there’s another type of fire starter you can make, which will burn hot enough to actually dry out the wood and get a fire going. This is made of black powder gunpowder and nail polish remover.
You need to use black powder and not modern smokeless powder because it burns slower. The idea isn’t to make something that burns fast, but rather to make something that burns hot. The nail polish remover you use needs to be the oily type and must contain acetone. The acetone acts as a solvent for the black powder.
I would recommend wearing rubber gloves while doing this, even though I have done it without gloves on. It is hard to clean the dissolved black powder off your fingers when it hardens. Test the gloves with a little bit of the nail polish remover, to ensure that they won’t melt.
To make the fire starter, start with a small mound of black powder in a bowl; about an equivalent quantity as the size of a golf ball or ping-pong ball. Pour the nail polish remover over it, so that the black powder is totally covered. Immediately begin mixing the two together with your gloved fingers, forming putty out of it. Once in a putty-like state, the excess nail polish remover can be poured off.
Knead the putty, just like kneading bread; folding it over time after time. The idea is to make the putting into hundreds of layers, so that the burn rate can be controlled. The more layers you can have, the better.
The finished putty should be formed into a ball and stored in an airtight container. These will dry out with time, so check them periodically. You want to use them when they are wet, not dry. Dry ones burn too fast.
A golf ball of ping-pong sized ball of this putty will burn at over 3,000 degrees for about 3-1/2 minutes. You can break that ball down into smaller chunks if you want, but they won’t burn as long. Nevertheless, it burns hot enough and long enough that it will dry out damp wood and get it started burning. With this sort of fire starter, you are prepared to start fires in even the worst of conditions.
One final consideration that I’d like to leave you with is the use of accelerants. These are common chemicals that burn readily. Gasoline is a common accelerant, as well as paint thinner, turpentine and alcohol.
If you have your car with you, there’s nothing saying you can’t siphon out a little bit of gasoline from the tank, and throw it on your damp wood to get it started. While that may not get you any style points, it will get you a burning fire to keep you warm.