Building a campfire when the weather is rainy and damp can be particularly challenging for campers. Whether you are solo camping on the top of a mountain or trying to start a fire for roasting marshmallows and staying warm on a family camping trip, getting a good fire going with damp wood can be challenging. Here are my best tips for starting a campfire with wet wood.
Wet firewood is always a bit challenging to turn into a good campfire
Wet Wood vs Green Wood
One first thing is to differentiate between wet wood and green wood. Green wood is from recently fallen trees and will never make a good campfire. If you put green wood on a campfire, it will struggle and be very smoky.
Wet wood on the other hand is wood that has been dead for a while and is otherwise dry but has gotten wet from rain and ambient moisture. This wood is generally just wet on the surface.
Your Campfire Materials
To build any campfire you need three main materials. Having dry tinder is absolutely essential
Tinder is any quick-burning, super dry, easy-to-light material that will get your kindling burning. This can be dry grass, paper, wood shavings, powered wood from rotten logs, and the like. This serves as something to catch a flame and get your kindling burning.
- Char Cloth
- Dry grass
- Shaved bark
- Dandelion head (clock)
- Birch bark
- Cattail fluff
- Cattail leaves dry
- Dry pine needles
- Tinder fungus
- Punk wood
- Poplar Cotton
In my experience, kindling comes in two sizes, small and large. The smallest is under a pencil in thickness and the larger is over a pencil in size, up to the thickness of your thumb. Ideally, your kindling should be as dry as possible. Cedar bark, small dry twigs, or even larger pieces of fatwood make good initial kindling.
The larger kindling could be slightly larger twigs/branches or split from the dry inner portions of your firewood. These will serve as the fuel that will get your main firewood going and help build a bed of coals that will help keep your fire going.
Your main fuel, at least to get your campfire started should not be bigger around than your wrist. Once you have a hot fire burning you can add larger pieces, but until then, stick with smaller wood that is as dry as possible.
An optional item, but one I highly endorse is some sort of fire starter. This can be anything that will hold a flame for long enough for your kindling to really catch fire. These can be commercially prepared or improvised, but will greatly aid your fire-starting efforts. Here are just a few of the fire-starting aids that you might want to bring with you camping.
- Cotton balls soaked in vaseline
- Wood shavings soaked in paraffin
- Dryer lint soaked in paraffin
- Pinecones dipped in paraffin
- Fire Starting Cubes
- Corn chips
Most of these will have a burn time of 6-10 minutes, which gives you a lot more time to get your kindling going.
You can also use a liquid fire starter, though it is more dangerous to use. Dear old dad always used a mixture of gasoline and diesel. While I can’t suggest it for general use, it definitely will get a fire roaring on the wettest of days. Of course use too much and you will have more than your campfire on burning.
Choosing a Campfire Location
A spot that is as dry as possible, and out of the wind is ideal. If you are in a campground, you likely have to use the established fire rings which are never great. If the ground under where you are wanting to build a fire is wet, it will absorb heat from your fire and make getting a good fire going difficult.
If there was already a campfire where I’m trying to build mine, I like to build a base with any old charred wood or charcoal. Pretty much anything to get my fire up off the wet dirt.
Building Your Campfire
There are three basic structures to pick from when building a campfire. Largely, which you use is a matter of personal preference, as properly used, they will all work for getting a fire going.
- Log Cabin Fire Lay – Essentially this is setting two pieces of wood down, then adding two or more over the top at a 90-degree angle to the first, and then repeating that as you go. Your fire starter and tinder go in between the two, as well as your smallest kindling. As your fire takes off, you can add your kindling on top.
Sometimes I’ll go with this structure when everything is damp, I’ll start with a couple of bigger pieces of wood that is as dry as I can find, as I feel like it helps hold the heat in between them and help get things started.
- Tepee Fire Lay – This is pretty much what it sounds like. You lay down your tinder, and after lighting it, start building up a teepee of progressively larger wood as your fire starts to go.
- Lean-To Fire Lay – This is essentially building a fire against something. If a fire ring has a burned piece of wood, I’ll generally build my fire against a dry charred side. Place your tinder and initial kindling up against something, and then after lighting it, slowly add material. One thing to note is to avoid building fire on fresh rocks and especially river rocks. When they get hot, they can explode.
Once You Get Your Fire Started
After you get your initial fire going, and are adding kindling, stay with the little stuff until you get a good crackling fire going. I don’t consider fire really burning until I hear that sound. If your wood is really wet, you may want to cut away any outside bark or wood that is wet.
Once you get a fire established, you should stack the rest of your firewood around your fire just far enough back to start drying out, but not actually catch fire.
Fire Building Tools You May Want
There are some tools you may want to have to help with building a fire.
The first is a pocket bellows. This is an expandable tube that makes blowing on the base of your fire a whole lot easier and keeps you from burning your eyebrows (or worse) off.
The other thing is a good, small camping axe. This will come in handy for breaking up small wood, cutting kindling, finding some tinder, and so on. There are lots of options, but I’m a big fan of pretty much everything Estwing makes, so my suggestion is the Estwing Camping Hatchet.
The ultimate fire-starting cheat is a propane flame thrower. These were originally designed for burning weeds but work amazingly well for getting fires started in the worst of conditions. These can either work off a one-pound or your larger propane tanks and will get even the wettest wood to burn. This isn’t a campfire building hack, it is a flat-out fire building cheat, but it works!