“Tipi’s pitched on a sandbar of an Alaskan river, it’s been raining for four days, EVERYTHING is soaked, how do I light a fire in my stove?”
We get asked this and similar questions frequently, so we decided to tackle the issue.
How to start a fire in bad conditions:
- Use a knife to prep dry tinder.
- Find fatwood or use a commercial extender.
- Use a saw / axe or saw / knife / baton to split rounds and get to the dry center to process plenty of kindling.
- Build a strong flame base and good coal bed before attempting to burn damp or wet wood.
I carry a Bic lighter (not off-brand) and a good fire steel. This combo works well wet or dry, and is redundant.
There are three main tools that are handy for wood prep with our stoves - a good knife, a sharp saw, and a small hatchet or axe. You can take one, two, or all three depending on your usage and tolerance for gear weight.
This knife should be stout, sharp, and have a 3.75 to 5 inch blade. Most styles and shapes will work. Scandi grinds are often favored for wood prep. Full tangs are preferred for strength, but not required.
Mora knives are inexpensive and offer a ton of value. Stouter custom knives do the same chores with better durability and a bit of style.
The tasks we will ask of the knife are scraping, curling, feather sticking, and light batoning.
If the spine of your knife has a 90° edge on it, then it is useful for scraping fluff from dry wood, and for striking a fire steel.
Carving small curls of wood from a dry stick requires a sharp blade and some technique. These curls make excellent tinder.
A feather stick is a more advanced form of curling where the curls are left on the stick. A large group of these curls begins to look like a hank of feathers, thus the name. Feather sticks are great for extending a fire and getting larger pieces dried out and lit.
The roughest task we ask of a knife, batoning is simply splitting a round into smaller pieces by beating the knife through it end ways using a baton (another chunk of wood). Even in very wet conditions the inside of rounds will be dry, so this technique is important.
A small saw allows you to cut longer limbs into lengths sized for your stove box, and the 90° end cuts allow for splitting or batoning the rounds into smaller pieces.
The saw should be light enough to carry, reasonably durable, and cut well. Silky saws have an extremely good reputation among our staff and our customers.
I often use a Sawvivor - a folding aluminum 14” bow saw that has been out of production for nearly a decade now.
There are many different types of axes and hatchets, the main difference between the two being axes are intended for two handed use, while hatchets are one handed.
The key functions of an axe are felling and splitting. Of the two, splitting is more beneficial in the conditions our hot tents find themselves in. Many wilderness areas don’t allow standing live trees to be cut, and deadfall is often plentiful enough that felling isn’t needed.
An axe or hatchet can make short work of splitting rounds into kindling, but this works best if you have a saw along to square off the cut ends. Turning kindling into fluff, curls, and feathers still requires a knife, so the axe or hatchet is an accessory or “nice to have”, but not an essential.
A good knife and a good saw will keep you in dry wood for quite a while.
Tinder turns spark into flame. It is the finest fluffiest and driest material you can find, or it’s a man made substitute.
Natural tinder can be bark scrapings, fatwood fluff or curls, tinder fungus, or the like.
Natural sources vary by region. In the East to Southeast the inner bark of red cedar works well. In the North birch bark is a go to. Anywhere that conifers are found, fatwood is king.
Fatwood (pitch pine, lighter pine, many other names) is dead conifer where the pitch - or sap - has soaked into the wood and preserved it. Fatwood can be found nearly anywhere conifer trees exist.
Limb butts, the center of dead trees, and stumps all often contain fatwood. It can be identified by its’ rich waxy color and strong resinous smell when scraped or shaved.
Due to its’ high resin content, fatwood doesn't rot. So if you find a solid section inside a rotten conifer log, it's probably fatwood.
Fatwood ignites easily and burns vigorously, acting as both tinder and extender.
Commercial tinder combines tinder and extender, and is discussed below.
An extender is anything that once lit, propagates flame for an extended time. An extender allows you to take the flame from your tinder and keep it burning for several minutes until your kindling is lit.
Curls, shavings, and small splits of fatwood make an excellent source of natural extenders. Pine pitch can often be found at the site of an old wound on a conifer and also makes a great extender, burning like a candle for several minutes.
Commercial or man made extenders commonly used are paraffin wax mixed with cardboard or sawdust, petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls, trioxane, wetfire, instafire, and the like.
Instafire especially works well as it burns for a long time and with a very hot flame, allowing you to dry out damp kindling.
I like to make my own fire pills from sections of jumbo pixie stix straws, stuffing them with some petroleum jelly soaked cotton ball, then melting the ends shut with cross cut pliers and a lighter. The result is waterproof, mess free, and one pill burns for around four minutes.
Kindling is pinkie to thumb sized sticks, twigs, or smaller splits from rounds. Kindling’s job is to take the fire started by the tinder and kept by the extender and use it to build a strong flame base and coal bed.
You may be burning kindling for a while, so prep a lot of it. Smaller stoves such as ours tend to do well with pinkie to three finger sized pieces, and burn hot and quick until a good coal bed is established.
Once the coal bed is built you have the option of loading damp or wet wood and letting it dry and burn, or feeding larger rounds in order to extend the burn time.
Larger wood can range from a couple fingers to rounds that barely fit through the door. You need a good coal bed established to burn these, but they throw a lot of heat and burn for a long time.
In cold weather you can prep several large rounds and provide heat all night by stoking the firebox 2-4 times during the night with a larger stove.
How to start a fire in bad conditions?
Find or bring good tinder and an extender such as fatwood, dry fluffy scrapings, PJ soaked cotton balls, Trioxane, WetFire, Instafire, feather sticks, or the like.
Use a saw to buck rounds to length, then use a knife to baton or an axe or hatchet to split the rounds into kindling.
Once lit, don't over feed it - leave plenty of air space.
Start small and work larger as the flame base grows.
Once you have a coal bed built you can dry damp or wet wood, or burn larger rounds to extend burn times.