Many people dismiss fire building as a no-brainer—just get some wood and light it with a match.
Nothing could be farther from the truth and real backwoods experts know that fire building is an art and a craft. In freezing cold conditions the ability to build a fire can save you from certain hypothermia if you are caught out in the wilds without adequate clothing or shelter to stay warm.
All fires depend on fuel in the form of combustible material and, in the woods, this usually means dry leaves, twigs, branches and other chunks of wood. If it’s raining out, how do you find dry wood? It’s easier than you think if you know where to look.
Not every piece of wood in the forest gets soaked in a rainstorm. The most accessible dead branches you find lying around on the ground that work well in fair weather will be wet however, so you must look elsewhere.
Standing trees are much less likely to absorb water than those lying on the forest floor. Often you can find dry dead branches still attached to the lower trunks of pine and spruce trees, shielded from falling rain by the dense needles of the living branches. The outer layers of these limbs may be wet, however, so you will need a knife, machete or axe to cut it away and reach the dry wood inside.
A sharp cutting tool will give you the ability to split large pieces of wet wood to get at the dry interior, or even to cut down small standing dead trees that can then be split into useable fuel.
Even better than wood that is merely dry on the inside is the wood you can sometimes find in old stumps that are full of concentrated pine resin. Called “lighter knots” or “fat lighter” by country folk, this resin-rich wood will burn with a hot and bright flame even when wet, if you first cut it into little pieces of kindling to light it.
You can identify such fat lighter by the smell and color of the wood when you cut into it. It will smell like pine pitch or tar and is bright yellow or orange inside, often oozing sap. It can be found in any forest where there are conifers such as pine, spruce or cedar.
Once you find a source of ignitable fuel, try to locate your fire so that it is at least partially sheltered from more falling rain. Don’t give up on a fire just because it’s raining. Remember there is always dry wood somewhere in a forest, but it takes a little effort and a sharp blade to get it.
–Scott B. Williams