The freezing rain pelted camp director Stephanie Keimig and her Boy Scout troop as they approached the Treasure Valley Reservation in Rutland, Mass. Unlike most of the boys, Keimig welcomed the wet weather; it was ideal for demonstrating a necessary survival skill. When she mentioned she was going to create fire amid the rainstorm, a scout called her bluff.
“In about 10 minutes, I had a fire going” in an approved location, says Keimig, a four-season trip leader for AMC’s Worcester Chapter.
As a general rule, campfires should exist only at designated areas in the backcountry. But if your survival is on the line, Keimig offers some suggestions that will keep the fire burning—even during inclement weather. “If you’re stuck [in the wilderness in cool weather], you can last a few days without food, but there’s only so much you can do without a heat source,” Keimig says. “It’s like learning CPR; if you know it well and are prepared, when that crisis moment comes, you’ll be fine.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION Before gathering wood, find a spot for the fire, preferably somewhere guarded from the rain. If you’re on a ridge with minimal scrub, use your body as a rain shield. If available, a tarp perched above the campfire also works wonders; just make sure it’s high enough to prevent scorching. The ground should be moist, not sopping wet—otherwise you’ll have a hard time getting anything to light.
USE WHAT YOU HAVE Next, collect ample amounts of tinder to fuel the forthcoming flames. “Use everything at your disposal,” Keimig says. “It’s incorrect to think that everything has to be dry [in order for it to burn].”
The bark from birch trees—wet or dry—is ideal since it includes oil that repels moisture. With wood from other types of trees, strip the outer layers to reveal—and use—a drier layer. Pine needles, grass, twigs, or branches underneath shrubbery or at the base of trees typically aren’t as waterlogged as their exposed counterparts. Keimig also suggests always packing healthy amounts of dryer lint and steel wool, since they blaze in no time. And use the sap from pine trees if you can, since it is an incredible accelerant for your fire.
Similar rules apply when foraging for kindling. “The key to maintaining a fire in the rain is stockpiling as much fuel as possible,” Keimig says. “If you have to leave the fire unattended too long to search for more fuel, it’s going to go out.”
|For additional tips on effective campfire building, visit the Center for Outdoor Ethics’ website.|
Softwoods (e.g., pine) burn faster while hardwoods (e.g., birch) provide longevity. Of course, you should shield your stockpile from the rain by keeping it covered.
Creating a bed of sticks for your kindling to rest on offers protection from the moist ground and adds fuel to the intended fire. But the more important issue is making the pile of tinder “loose” and giving it numerous entryways for oxygen so it can rapidly burn. “The trick here is speed,” Keimig says. “In a survival situation, you’ve really got to get moving.”
When you are ready to light your fire, waterproof matches work well in a pinch. Keimig also packs a lighter as well as a flint and steel, in the event of technical difficulties. If dry wood is scarce, foods—especially those with lots of carbohydrates, such as chocolate—make good fuel. “Remember the rule of three,” she says. “You could survive generally three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. …I wouldn’t burn the food immediately; I would try other things first.”