Why Is It Difficult to Build a Fire With Damp Wood

Campfire with damp wood

Building a fire can be rather challenging given the weather conditions and terrain you’re camping in. Of course, there are universal rules on how to light a campfire, wherever you are. Campfires can be very useful if you find yourself in the wilderness.

Even though it may seem redundant, knowledge of how to light a campfire can be very useful and should be kept up your sleeve. Especially if you find yourself in the wilderness and this skill may be a critical survival point.

In winter when there is snow or in other seasons after rain, all the wood on the ground is wet. Thus, it may be very difficult to burn these wet branches. Even if you have a cardboard or newspaper to start a fire, the paper burns quickly and the damp wood still won’t catch fire.

Dump/wet wood contains a lot of water which is why it does not burn easily. Because the moisture content of wet wood is very high, it is difficult to reach the ignition temperature. The water absorbs all the heat energy supplied to it and uses it as latent heat of vaporization. There is no rise in temperature until the water evaporates.

So, what to do when all you have is damp food? Read through this article to learn the basic rules on how to light a campfire in wet conditions.

Table of Contents

Bare Necessities

Suppose you are in fairly normal conditions, without heavy rain, snow, and other natural disasters. Such scenarios can also happen, but let’s start with the basic guide for lighting a campfire. The list of “bare necessities” you’ll need to start a campfire includes:

  • Dry wood (small twigs, medium and large sticks, larger pieces of wood for slow-burning)
  • Fire igniter (lighter, matches, or at least one match or flint)
  • Stones to limit campfire
  • Ax or knife (useful but not necessary)

If you find yourself in the wild, it is always useful to have an ax with you, but if you don’t, simply picking, breaking, and picking twigs will do the job. Of course, if you find yourself in a controlled natural environment, an ax and a sharp hunting knife will shorten the preparation time for lighting a campfire. Also, if you already have pre-cut wooden logs for ignition, you can always chop them into thinner pieces or finely shredded leaves, which are good fuel for quick ignition.

You can forget about these tips if you are not allowed to light a campfire on the camping site. Always check if you need a campfire permit at the location where you plan to light it!

Find or Build a Fire Ring

If camping on campgrounds, you should only build fires in designated fire rings, grills, or fireplaces. You can find these in the most developed campgrounds. Using a fire ring you will be able to contain your fire and lessen the impact.

Before building a fire, you need to check if fires are permitted on a campground. Certain campgrounds prohibit campfires during dry periods. On the other hand, you may need to get a campfire permit if you’re camping on an undeveloped site.

Before you start building a fire, you need to evaluate the site. If there are low-hanging branches or the site is brushy, you need to keep your fire small or avoid building it. In dry periods, fly-away embers could easily ignite a wildfire.

If you’re camping in backcountry areas where fires are permitted, you should use an existing fire ring. But if you need to build a new one, do it only in emergencies and, if possible, dismantle it before you leave. If you’re using the existing ring, clean it out when you’re done.

The next step is to remove all flammable material from your fire pit. If possible, you should opt for gravel, sand, or mineral soil.

You need to make sure that your campfire area is clean, free of dust, dirt, or wet leaves, and that it is at a safe distance from other wood or highly flammable material. The recommended distance between a campfire and flammable materials is 3 m.

Build a Fire Pit

Use a shovel or sharper tree branches to dig a smaller hole in the ground. It should not be a deep hole, because the campfire needs oxygen and airflow. Place stones around the fire pit. This will prevent the potential spread of flames, but also prevent the dust, mud, and water from getting into the campfire.

Depending on the size of the campfire you are planning, the circle of stones should have a larger or smaller diameter. The stones should be the size of two joined fists. Of course, if you don’t have such stones, feel free to stack smaller ones.

It is hard to light a campfire with damp wood

Mound fire

If there is no fire ring available and you cannot build one, you can go for a mound fire. Build a 6-8 inches high, circular, flat platform of mineral soil using your sanitation trowel, ideally on a flat rock. This will be the base for your fire. And you can easily disperse it when you’re done.

Gather Fire Food

If you do not have pre-chopped firewood, you need to collect dry wood. You need different sizes of firewood to be able to make a real campfire. Three or four sizes of wooden sticks and twigs are ideal. You will use the smallest twigs to light a campfire, and even the bark of the tree if you do not have any paper. Larger branches will be useful for catching the first fire and thicker logs will keep your fire alive.

To build a solid campfire, you’ll need:

  • Tinder 
  • Kindling 
  • Firewood 

When collecting wood, make sure it is dry wood. Dump wood is your biggest enemy in an endeavor called a campfire. Also, collect enough stones to secure the campfire.

Building the Campfire

When building a campfire, you should have your fire inside a fire ring to lessen the impact and prevent the spreading of fire. Start small and gradually build it bigger to keep it contained within the designated area. There are several options you can use to build a campfire:

  • Cone (tepee): For the base layer, build a small cone of kindling. Pile a couple of handfuls of dry tinder loosely piled in the center of the campfire pit. Once the fire starts and the temperature increases, you can add larger pieces of wood over the kindling at a time.
  • Log cabin fire: Place two larger pieces of firewood parallelly leaving some room in between to form the base. Turn 90 degrees and put two slightly smaller pieces on top to form a square. Place plenty of dry tinder inside the square. Add a few more layers of firewood around the perimeter and another layer of kindling and tinder on the top. You should leave some space between logs to allow oxygen to further ignite the fire.
  • Pyramid (upside down): Place three or four large logs side-by-side on the base layer. Turn 90 degrees and add another layer of slightly smaller logs on top. Continue in this manner with few more layers, getting smaller as you go. Place tinder and kindling on top.

Light the Campfire

Use a lighter to light the tinder. If your lighter dies on your camping trip, you can also use matches or a fire starter that ignites easily to help the tinder catch the flame. You’ll need waterproof matches and a fire starter, as these are considered the essentials of camping.

Once you light the tinder, you’ll need to blow lightly at the base of the fire to provide oxygen. This will help increase the intensity of the flame and further ignite the wood for a successful campfire. While the fire burns, you should move the firewood to the center to burn them completely.

Can You Build a Fire with Damp Wood?

In dry conditions or when you have plenty of dry paper or fire-starter, you can build a fire in a snap. Building a fire in the rain or using dump wood is a bit of a challenge. And there’s no guarantee you’ll get fire.

To be sure the wood you’re is good for starting a fire, split a piece of wood open to see if it feels dry to the touch. Or burn test pieces of wood outside. If you’re using green wood, you should know that it’ll be difficult to light.

Using Wet Woods to Start a Fire

Here’s what you can do to build a fire using wet woods.

  • Once you’ve collected your food, find a dead, downed tree and saw off/cut off an arm-thick limb. Touch the sawed end of the limb to your cheek or the tip of your nose to see if it feels dry. If there’s a ring of wet wood near the bark, you can easily get rid of it when you split the piece.
  • Discard the wood if it smells damp. You can use the wood if it passes both tests. The wood should be cut into smaller (footlong) sections, each of which you should cut into kindling. Ideally, you’ll use a hatchet to do this. Once you finish with this, use your knife to split fine kindling and prepare the tinder.
  • After you’ve reached the dry part of the wood splitting, slice off several thinner shavings to use as tinder. Remove all bark and damp wood from your tinder and kindling, and separate your wood into a pile – tinder, kindling, and firewood.
  • Finally, if you’re trying to start a fire in the rain, do it under a tarp to keep your materials dry. Basically, building a fire with damp wood is similar to making a fire in dry conditions. But you need to strip away the wet bark for kindling and chop away at the wet wood to reveal the dry inner core.

Though it may be challenging, it’ll also be quite exciting to get out after the rain stops and test your fire-building skills.

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