How to start a fire in the rain

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

One 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. Note that the hatchet is used as a splitting wedge so there’s no chance of an accident (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1, at left: 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 (Figure 2) from your dry splittings.

FIGURE 2, at right: 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 (Figure 3, 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.

27 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.

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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 info@pocketbellows.com and I will explain our Scout Leader program.

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