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.


  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.

    • I agree that folding knifes would not work to pounding thru wood as explained. No matter how robust a folding knife is it has a single pin that holds the blade to the handle. There is no pin out there that would withstand beating on the blade and handle, even hammering on the blade only would put force on the pin since you are holding the handle.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • In our Troop, Wilderness Survival Merit Badge is required for one of our Troop campcrtaft awards. Nearly allof our Scouts earn it before making Star Scout. They are encouraged to learn to use both folding lock-back and sheath knives, as well as a one hand axe and a felling axe. We have our own 50 acre woods/grassland/beaver pond training area, so we can responsibly use green timber for the training. Our favorite knives are the Mora Scandia blade and one of the military combat knives like a Marine Kabar. Scouts also carry either a Swiss Army folder or a multi-tool. Our favorite small axe is a Hudson Bay head and a hardwood handle with a large pummel. Each of these tools is kept razor sharp, so the Scouts learn how to maintain each tool and its edge. By knowing how to properly use and maintain all of these tools, our Scouts can easily accomplish the firemanship skills that were so well covered in this article. We’re VERY proud of our young woodsmen!!!

  4. 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.

  5. ??????

    “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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

    • In the UK I’ve heard axes, along with knives, described as weapons. My logic is that if they are, so are electric drills, screwdrivers, table knives and forks… In fact, anything can become a weapon if you have evil intent. Scouts need to learn that things with sharp edges are tools for survival etc., not for harming themselves or others…

      Sorry – I’ll climb off my soapbox.

    • But knives, cleavers, etc., are used in restaurant and home kitchens in the UK, right? Not challenging you personally, but I am challenging the apparent anti-knife sentiment in the UK. Discouraging knife use as dangerous is pretty unrealistic. Safety should be a matter of training, not banning.

      • I quite agree. The trouble is that some big cities have a knife crime problem. UK’s reaction is to ban knives in public if the blade is over 3″ long (I think). Some so-called Scout campsites have taken on that ban for no seemingly thought-through reasons, maybe because others apart from Scouts can use the site.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    • Got these when I was the Training Chair several years back for our district and gave all of them away except one I kept for me. 🙂 Have used it a lot recently including on my vigil night this past weekend as it poured all night while I sat my vigil. I was wet, but the fire burned…:-) I love my pocket bellows and keep it in my ever growing fire starting bag.

  10. Thank you for the great advice on starting a fire in the rain. I look forward to hearing more good ideas on camp craft.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. Cut a branch from a tree?

    What happened with leave no trace? There is enough good fuel lying around.

    • Mother Nature is a B****. She will kill you if she’s able to. In an emergency situation, anything is fair game.

      As for good fuel lying around, it’s raining out, the ground and by contact anything on the ground is wet. Cutting a dead branch or two isn’t going to destroy the environment.

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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. Read that decades ago on an old Scout book. Been doing it like that for nearly 40 years. Great method then and now.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. I took a hobo stove apart ( tin can rolled up card board and wax ) Melted the wax and cut up the card board into 4 in. X
    1 in. strips. just playing around I bent the strips into a Z laid it on edge lit one end. it burned for 3 min.
    It rained all day and all night. gathered some twigs off the ground ( 1/16 1/8 3/16 diameter ) made a small hay stack shape. put one of the strips under the pile, lit it and it started the twigs on fire. I put 10 strips 2 books of matches in a zip-lok bag. very light, will last 100 yrs. bullet prof.

  28. Ok folks, here’s the real deal! I teach Sharp’s to my troop. If they are not paying attention in class, I remove the scout and later work one on one. This is to ensure that all scouts know the blood ring! ! ! ! Even if they don’t have the totin chip! One reason I totally excepted this challenge is I cut a lot of fire wood here in Nebraska! Our troop has done well when it comes time to merit badge. We are on a camp out that has given more than three inches of rain as of yet! I also like charcoal, burns hot enough to get wood going. Keep looking for ideas to train our scouts! I will be back to see what other cool stuff you folks have come up with!

  29. Great article. Informative and also helpful not only to seasoned campers but to newbies as well. I think machetes should also be included as an important tool most especially for splitting wood.

  30. Since this is a continuing discussion for a few years(and a good one), a couple of additional thoughts: The homemade fire starters mentioned by some of you are good for patrol activities, but I carry short 1 inch or so length of candles to help start a fire with damp tinder or kindling. The manufactured votive candles are perfect for this, about $5.00 for a pack of six at retail stores. One will burn for 20 – 30 minutes, more than enough time to dry out and start burning damp kindling. I also use the waxed cardboard soft drink cups from fast food places. I teach in IOLS and to my scouts that there are 9 ingredients needed to build a campfire: safety, patience, tinder, patience, kindling, patience, fuel, patience, safety.

  31. Hmm… great fires tarter is dryer lint. It takes sparks from a striker well, no need for any other fuel or matches or a lighter. Strike the flint and steel into the lint and assemble the logs as instructed.

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