How to start a fire in the rain

How to start a fire in the woods, even when it’s wet.


On a bone-dry day or when there’s plenty of dry paper or fire-starter, anyone can make a fire. If the weather deteriorates to a persistent rain, they might get smoke. But that’s no guarantee they’ll get fire. Here’s how you can make a fire when the woods are wet with rain.

This method isn’t fast, but it works with any kind of wood — even damp wood. You’ll need a:

  • Sharp knife. To split fine kindling, set the sharpened edge of the knife on the end of an upright piece of wood then pound the spine through with a thick stick. Use a folding knife with a secure lock so the blade won’t close on your hand when you pound on the spine.
  • Folding saw.
  • Small hatchet to use as a splitting wedge, never as a chopper.

First, collect your wood. Locate a dead, downed tree, out-of-sight of tents, trails and waterways. Saw off an arm-thick limb. Touch the sawed end of the limb to your cheek (the center should feel dry). Don’t worry if there’s a ring of wet wood near the bark; you’ll discard it when you split the piece. Reject the wood if it smells damp or punky. The wood is good if it passes both cheek and smell tests.

Saw the limb into footlong sections and split each section into kindling. The hatchet should be used as a splitting wedge so there’s no chance of an accident.

Splitting wood is easier (and safer) with two people. Hold the hatchet with both hands and have a friend knock it through.

Hold the hatchet firmly with both hands and allow a friend with a log chunk to pound the hatchet head through.

Use that same procedure (with a lighter log) to split fine kindling with your knife. Then, use your knife to prepare your tinder. Cut a handful of wafer-thin shavings from your dry splittings.

Now that you’ve reached the dry part of the wood splittings, slice off several wafer-thin shavings to use as tinder.

Assemble the tinder (a handful of dry wood shavings no thicker than a match), kindling (one-eighth to one-quarter-inch thick dry wood splittings) and fuel (quarter-split logs). Trim all bark and damp wood from your tinder and kindling, and separate your wood into piles — tinder, kindling and fuel.

If it’s raining, work under a tarp so that all the materials stay dry.

Starter Accessories

  • Carry a candle and chemical fire-starters.
  • Cotton balls dipped in Vaseline, a flattened wax milk carton and cigar-size newspaper logs that have been dipped into melted paraffin make good fire-starters. Don’t use loose newspaper pages; they absorb moisture on damp days.
  • Make a “fire blower” as a bellows to nurse a developing flame by attaching a 6-inch piece of aluminum or copper tubing to a piece of rubber hose.
Once you have gathered the materials, build your fire from the ground up by following the four steps below.

Build It Right

  1. Set two 1-inch-thick sticks about 6 inches apart on the ground (see the figure at right). Place four pencil-thin support sticks across the base. Space the support sticks about half an inch apart.
  2. Stack an inch-thick layer of wafer-thin shavings on top of the support sticks. Leave some space between each shaving to allow for airflow. Set two half-inch thick “bridge” sticks across each end of the base structure to support the heavier kindling you’ll add next.
  3. Place fine, split kindling across the support sticks. Splittings should be parallel to one another with plenty of space in between. They should not compress the tinder below.
  4. Apply your match directly underneath the tinder (shavings). When the first flame appears, hand feed shavings (not kindling) into the developing flame. Don’t add kindling until you have a reliable blaze. The raised firebase will produce a powerful draft that creates a bright, smoke-free flame.

Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle Scout and the author of more than a dozen popular outdoors books.

48 thoughts on “How to start a fire in the rain

  1. This is good info that all scouts should learn and practice. Thanks for publishing!

    I would point out that this is one of the significant reasons to carry and use a sheath knife (depending on restrictions, of course). Folding knives just don’t hold up to the pounding, and a hatchet is sometimes too big or thick for the job.

    • My main work knives for camping are non-folding/sheath knives. They are MUCH safer than any folding knives for actual work.
      I always carry a folder in my pocket, but for anything more than cutting line I will always reach for my sheath knife.

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  3. Technique works great if you have two people. What happends if you are by yourself? Our what if the other person is injured? Maybe the Scout should learn how to use an ax/hatchet safely. When I was a Scout several decades ago (60’s) one of the first things we learned at our troop was how to safely use an ax/hatchet. That seems to be missing today from the program. This knowledge will be invaluable for all types of situations.

    • This method can be done with one person. I use a belt knife with this method but a hatchet works too. Give it a try. I find it’s easier, faster and quite a bit safer then swinging the axe.

      To the article: I like that fire lay. I’ll have to try it next time. Thanks.

    • works fine with one person. Done it myself many times. I think its incorrect to say that hatchet and ax safety isn’t part of the program. For scouts as a whole thats the purpose of why they have to have to have the totin chit before using any type of blade. For our troop we always make sure that is enforced.

  4. Thank you for the detailed instructions and pictures. Splitting firewood like this is one reason scouts in our troop are allowed to have larger knives. They learn to use them along with hatchets and axes as required in the early rank requirements.

    I’m surprised that the current rank requirements don’t require the scout to actually light the fire. It’s a skill we should all know and practice safely.

  5. Pingback: » How to start a fire in the rain – Scouting magazine

  6. Yep, we use sheath knives and teach them to baton safely (much safer than hatchets). It’s patently ridiculous that the scout camps around here do not allow sheath knives, but they can have axes and hatchets? Just odd and sends the wrong message.

  7. ??????

    “Use a folding knife with a secure lock so the blade won’t close on your hand when you pound on the spine.”

    “In Expedition Canoeing (copyright 2001) he [Cliff Jacobson] states that he converted from the folder to a series of fixed-blade sheath knives after reading the works of Canadian canoe legend Bill Mason. Bill long felt that a sheath knife was safer than a folder because it didn’t require opening during a boating emergency. Cliff’s first sheath knife seems to have been the classic Gerber Armorhide Shorty.”

    Batoning a folding knife is generally a very bad idea. As BSA said in Boy’s Life in June, 2008, the ideal camping knife is a short sheath knife.

  8. The lay of the fire is wrong, a tepee type fire lay works better.when using wet or damp wood. Pounding on a folder is never a good idea for splitting wood.

    • I’ve used both fire-lays in wet weather, and which one works best depends on a number of factors. With really wet ground, the version of the log cabin lay used in this article seems to work better than a tepee lay, since it keeps the tinder & kindling off the wet, and provides good draw underneath, although the wider base does create challenges if you don’t have something to tarp over it. A tepee lay is generally preferred I think, because you get a very fast flame-up in a minimal amount of space, and the straight upward draw keeps the flame concentrated directly on the fuel. But, it can be a more difficult to get started on wet ground, and so may be a little frustrating for beginners.

      • And I totally agree with you on folding knives – never a good idea to use them for batoning. Fixed blade, full-tang, with a relatively thick spine is the only way to go.

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  12. Here in the UK, the knife has become demonized
    But there are a few like me that promotes the use of a knife, it’s a tool that every good scout needs to know how to use. I sometimes think BP would be spinning in his grave

  13. Pingback: Staring a Fire in the Rain | Survival Thrive

  14. I have broke a larger knife than most carry. I also have broke hatchet. Point being to carry extra. I say a 4 or so inch blade and a hatchet. I do like to keep on belt a 7″ or sometime 6″ knife but find it a bit to large to use for most things. I am finding out how nice a tom-a-hawk can be. I have camped all my life I am 58 now and am still learning.

  15. Adding oxygen is key when coping with wet fuels. I noticed that the instructions described a mouth bellows, but didn’t describe how or when to use it. My father and I developed and market a collapsible fire bellows that is small enough to fit in your pocket (hence, the Pocket Bellows). We pretty much give these away to scout leaders to teach their scouts the importance of oxygen in the fire starting process. If you are a troop leader and are interested, email Austin at and I will explain our Scout Leader program.

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  20. i would pour a little cooking oil on there before the lighting the kindling if i had some. maybe on some toilet paper underneath. but then this might be a knives and wood deal only. thanks for the fire insight.

  21. no need for oil to be fair. If the material is dry enough from the heart of the fallen log it will take a flame. We tried a fire bow and that is good for an hour session on a troop night. None of our Scouts may use lock knives.. I can see the benefit on camp but the risk is too high transporting them in public places. We are fine on specific camps with personal pen knives and tooling from the patrol boxes.

  22. Lets consider survival. I never go in the woods without my rambo-3 knife. Look for pine , cedar , or related trees. They stay green year round. They also carry flamable sap. Go to bottom limbs. If it bends its green. Find a dead or seasoned limb. It will snap off. Also trim off bark if nessary. These type trees also filter most rain. The greenry is highly flamable.

  23. SURVIVAL TIP: Carry a small squirt bottle filled with vegetable oil, wrapped in a couple paper towels, and a disposable lighter, (not matches – they are for your grandfather)

    Wad up the paper towels and squirt the vegetable oil on the towels. Put the driest wood you have on top of the paper towels. Light paper towels with lighter. Leave alone. In 5 minutes your have a roaring fire (with dry wood, longer with wet wood)

    Forget matches, forget kindling, forget the “log cabin” or “teepee” style of stacking the wood. Regular vegetable oil, one or two paper towels, and somewhat dry, dead wood. Try it!

    All the other methods of starting fires are a little too creative, and waste time and energy in an emergency situation.

    • Yeah right, low tech matches for lighting fires are just for grandpa. Disposable lighter, squeeze bottle of vegetable oil, paper towels? Did you bring along dry kindling, too? You must be camping in a parking lot.

  24. I would add a few comments to this:
    a. Yes, batonning really only ought to be done on a fixed blade.
    b. You don’t need to get rid of all the damp wood – just let it sit near the fire to dry out.
    c. Teach youth how to make fuzz sticks.
    d. Protecting the fire from the damp *cold* ground is as important as protecting it from the rain coming down. A square of tinfoil laid on the ground under the whole thing is very helpful.
    e. The fire lay here can be easily combined with a teepee lay – just set up your teepee within the cabin frame to give it some support. (And make your teepee out of fuzz sticks!)
    f. damp wood doesn’t make smoke – it makes steam. Big difference. *Rotten* wood makes smoke.
    g. Generally, once the fire is going, you don’t need to protect it much from the rain. Use those tarps to protect the wet humans, who even huddled near the fire can be prone to hypothermia.
    We got lots and lots of practice making wet fires living in Belgium :) I wake up *homesick* for Camp de Kluis!

  25. If you have Sassafras trees in your area, small green twigs and branches will help get the larger dead wood started.

  26. I can’t believe that Scouting magazine is promoting the wrong way to use knives and hatchets. This article should never have been published with this incorrect information. Also, sheath knives are safer for young teenagers to use with their undeveloped muscle control which invites cut fingers trying to open and close a folding knife. Other points: heat goes up, so a tepee fire lay will be more effective than the “flat” one shown. Instead of making a platform of thin sticks, simply split a dry thick stick or small log with your hatchet (correctly), continue splitting one half for your tinder, lay the other un-split half on the ground with the flat side up to support your fire lay off of damp or wet ground, build your tepee fire on top of that. All you need on top of the half-log is the tinder and part of the kindling. The rest of the kindling can be off the half-log if necessary. You can build a fire in a mud puddle using this method, which I have done on occasion when teaching fire building.

  27. I agree that a sheath knife is safer for batoning, but a lock back will do in a pinch if you are splitting very small pieces. Fuzz sticks are simple to make and help tremendously for fire starting under any circumstance. My preference is to have the boys use nature’s resources for fire building, but we do use lighters to start them. I also encourage the scouts to always carry some form of emergency fire starter. My favorite is the paraffin dipped newspaper. This is a small and very light item which should be reserved for emergency situations. While in camp, it is also fun to experiment with other, non-traditional fire starters such as potato chips, hand sanitizer, or used cooking grease. I like for them to get creative and improvise with whatever materials are on hand.

  28. I always carry at least a dozen vaseline soaked cotton balls and a fire steel. Wrap the cotton in a square of aluminum foil. a piece of the foil works for a good base when lighting on wet ground and the cotton stuck to the end of a small stick makes a nice “giant match” to reach into the fire. Fire steel never fails with the cotton. I prefer a teepee as this climbs faster and gives you a warming fire a lot faster.

    In the Northwest, the majority of our fires (when allowed) are started in damp conditions!

  29. Very nice article.

    The best fire starter to carry is a pleated paper condiment cup (the thing you fill with ketchup at a fast food place) that you had previously filled with melted paraffin or old candle wax.

    When you light one to start a fire, each of the pleats acts as a wick, producing a one inch diameter flame, one foot tall, that lasts for ten minutes. They last forever, never leak, and four of them can be carried in the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper.

  30. our troop just returned from a week in the BWCA. I’m pretty sure it rained every day we were there, at least once per day. what we found was toughest in starting fires was teaching the boys patience and over coming the camporee mentality that all you had to do was start the fire, not actually cook over it. Once 2 sticks were gathered, a match was struck. Once they burned through their matched, we asked if they were ready to learn yet (boy led, remember). They were instructed to locate a pile of each wood type needed (tinder, kindling, fuel) birtch bark is a premium starter, but can only be pealed by hand, a knife can not be used on a live birtch. Knives were used to remove the wet bark from the tinder, kindling and some of the fuel. The bark keeps the inner wood pretty dry. then a lean-to fire was constructed and lit. a form of ar pocket bellows was used to raise the fire temp to help dry and start the fuel. Then, the boys learned how much wood was needed to actually cook over a fire.

  31. This was/is a great article haven’t had to use it in an emergency, but have been practicing it and teaching it for twenty years. The reason you take limbs from the tree is they have less moisture content then those on the ground. Fix blade knives are only restricted from BSA camps, regular troop camp outs they may be taken and and used with permission. In order for this article to be effective one must practice it in the proper weather setting to become proficient, whether in the woods or in your backyard practice is needed.
    As we say in scouting Be Prepared.

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  34. I would like to see this in a video clip. There are some things I am not familiar with and would be guessing.

    Good information to have. Thank you for sharing this.

  35. Good Article! However, I prefer a machete in lieu of a hatchet or ax – it is much lighter and easier to sharpen and handle, and has more uses. Also with the thinner blade, it makes kindling in a snap. I also prefer to carry a flint starter and WetFire cubes. You only need a few shavings of the WetFire to light tinder and it lights with only a spark. If you use the whole cube, you can pull it out and smother it with your hand to extinguish it and use again later. Super small and feather weight.

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