This is a photo I took in the Alaskan wilderness not far from Sitka.
Southeast Alaska is good example of a place where the ability to build a fire in the rain is essential. These forested islands are perpetually wet with either rain or fog.
Fires have fallen out of favor with recreational campers these days, mainly due to the advent of a wide variety of compact camp stoves. Modern campers often forget, however that a fire can mean the difference in life or death in a survival situation. 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. This is especially true if you have fallen into a stream or otherwise gotten wet and have no way to dry your clothes without the heat of a fire.
Building a fire in truly adverse conditions, such as falling snow or rain, might seem impossible to today’s urbanized outdoors enthusiasts. But native peoples and frontier travelers always depended on fire for everyday cooking and warmth, so they had to become proficient in building them, despite whatever bad weather Mother Nature threw their way. You can build a fire in such conditions too, as long as you have an understanding of how to do it and practice often in better conditions. 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. Real backwoods experts know that fire building is an art and a craft and their ability to rapidly build fires that burn hotter and brighter and more reliably bears this truth out.
Rainy weather is perhaps the greatest challenge to the fire builder. 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 really quite easy if you know where to look. Not every piece of wood in the forest gets soaked in a rainstorm. The easily-gathered 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 near the bottoms of pine and spruce trees, as these are shielded from falling rain by the dense needles on the living branches. The outer bark of even these limbs may be wet, however, so you will need a knife to cut it away and reach the dry wood inside. Building a fire in the rain will be much easier if you have a large knife, or preferably, a machete or an axe. The frontiersmen of days gone by never ventured into the wilds without an axe, and this was one of the reasons. 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 usable sized pieces of 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 in the rain, 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. This wood is also much heavier than regular dry wood. It can be found in any forest where there are conifers such as pine, spruce, fir or cedar.
Once you find a source of ignitable fuel, try to locate your fire somewhere so that it is at least partially sheltered from more falling rain. Although fat lighter will burn in direct rain, you will have to build a really large fire and keep the fuel coming to keep it alive in a downpour. If you can get under some dense trees or a rock overhang, you can keep your fire going much easier once you locate a source of dry wood. Don’t give up on a fire just because it’s raining. Remember there is always dry wood somewhere in a forest, but it may take a little effort and a sharp blade to get to it.