There are a million ways to produce a spark. There’s the amazing ease of a quick thumb swipe on a lighter. Or, you can sweat for your spark using one of the age-old friction fire methods. Alternatively, you can use one of my favorite techniques and accidentally let the chain from your trailer hitch unfurl on the highway. Sparks are as easy to create as you want them to be.
But if you want to turn that spark into a fire, which is most often the point, you won’t get very far if you don’t have dry wood. Trying to start a fire with wet wood is as useless as trying to start a fire with the fire emoji on your phone. (Something I’m almost certain my nephew has tried.)
If you’re just starting a campfire to fulfill your promise to your kids of s’mores, finding dry wood will save you hours of complaining while you try in vain to light something that’s too wet to catch a spark. If you’re in a survival situation, finding dry wood could very well save your life.
Here are some helpful ideas for finding dry wood in the forest if you find yourself in wet conditions and in need of a fire.
This is kind of a dry subject (pun intended, unfortunately,) so just for the hell of it, let’s see if we can frame all of the advice around sayings that use wood, forest or trees. Maybe you can use some of these sayings to help jog your memory should you one day find yourself fireless in the wet wilderness.
Pick up sticks
Unless you are thrown into a survival situation with no warning, you can plan ahead and begin finding dry firewood as you hike through the forest to a campsite or other destination. If you’re lost and unsure if you’ll be spending the night out of doors or not, begin to collect dry materials just in case.
Don’t overly burden yourself, but keep your eyes open for tinder – very small, very flammable materials that will turn your initial spark into a full flame. Dry tinder is essential to the fire-starting process.
Look for dry grass, if you can find a patch that’s under some cover, dry pine needles, dry bark, old bird nests or anything stringy and flammable. Even if some of it is a little wet, if you collect it early enough in the day, you could dry it by the time you’re ready to start your fire.
If you do come across some promising tinder, make sure to pack it with you in a dry spot. If you’re not carrying a backpack and want to keep the dry tinder on your person, don’t let it come into direct contact with your skin. Sweating through your dry tender would be an irony that you probably won’t appreciate in the wilderness, especially if you are in a survival situation and desperately need a fire.
It is important to remember that your objectives are a little different when gathering wood for a fire in wet conditions. You’ll have to collect and use smaller kindling, rather than going for the larger fuel logs, which will almost certainly be waterlogged. Think small.
H-E- double hockey sticks
That means that when gathering your kindling and smaller sticks, you’ll need to get at least twice as much as you’d typically need for a fire under drier conditions.
Nothing kills a young fire faster than dropping a huge, soggy log on top of it, so if all the larger wood around you is truly saturated, you might not get much beyond a stick fire. If you’re in a short-term survival situation and just trying to get through the night, that’s ok — if you have enough sticks.
But if you burn through your sticks and have to run around trying to find dry wood in the middle of the night, you are in for a truly hellish evening.
Stick it up your —
You need to find someplace dry to store your sticks and kindling while you gather more and prepare to start your fire. That seems pretty obvious, but simple things are easy to overlook when you’re scrambling.
There’s no use finding dry wood only to leave it out in the rain. Find or create some sort of overhang or shelter in which to store it. Make sure this shelter is off the ground so that the wood doesn’t absorb any moisture from below.
Up a tree
When looking for dry firewood, the most obvious place to look is the forest floor, but in really wet conditions, you might be better served by looking up.
It happens quite often, especially in denser forests, that dead branches will fall but won’t make it all the way to the ground. If you’re lucky, you can spot some of this deadwood caught up in the branches of other trees.
This dead wood won’t be saturated like the wood on wet ground and it may even be protected from rain by the branches of the other trees above it.
In addition to the possibility of finding broken branches hung up in denser forests, you are also a lot more likely to find relatively drier wood on the ground.
A really thick, forest canopy, which would provide a lot of shade on sunnier days, also protects fallen branches from the elements, even if they fell all the way to the ground. So always start your search in the densest part of the forest.
Incidentally, I love the term ‘shadetree mechanic’. Reminds me of my late friend Paul. He was a drunk and while I was giving him a ride home one night, my little pickup died. I pulled over to the side of the road and Paul, suddenly noticing our predicament, yelled, “I’m a bit of a shadetree mechanic!”
Before I was out of the truck, he was on the ground underneath, looking for what he thought could be the cause of my poor truck’s troubles. He wasn’t the least bit helpful under there, but I’ll never forget that term and how happy he was to use it.
Sticks and Stones
If you’re in a mountainous environment, another great place to look for dry, dead wood is under rocky outcroppings or, if you’re really lucky, any sort of crevice or cave.
This wood has been protected from the elements and should be extremely dry. Also, if you’re in a survival situation, did you just find a shelter? I think maybe you did.
Can’t see the forest for the trees
When big trees fall, they often take out an unfortunate number of innocent bystander trees that just happened to be growing in the doomed tree’s path. So it goes.
Take a look under the downed tree and you just might find some dry firewood that has been trapped underneath it and protected from the rain.
Three on the tree
On some trees, particularly pine trees, lower branches often die but remain attached to the tree. They will definitely be drier than branches found on wet ground and they may be protected from the rain above by their healthier branch cousins.
Dead tree edition
You can often find trees that are dead but have not yet fallen. You should be able to harvest serviceably, dry kindling from these zombie trees. Typically, the wood isn’t saturated and if you have a knife or an ax, you can carve off the wet, outer layers.
Depending on the season, zombie trees should be very easy to spot. If you’ve become stranded in wet weather in late autumn or winter when all the deciduous trees are leafless, it will be more difficult, but trees that are still alive will have small, but visible buds.
Also, if you’re stranded in wet weather in late autumn or winter, you should make amends to your gods because you’ve clearly angered them in some way.
That’s another great phrase, by the way. I feel like “Dead Tree Edition” should be the name of a TV show that everyone says is great but no one actually watches.
Stick in the mud
You can also find dry kindling by searching for fallen tree limbs that may be partially on the ground but are somehow propped up on another tree, branch, rock or anything else.
The part of the branch that’s in the mud will obviously be unusable, but the top should make for comparatively dry firewood.
Barking up the wrong tree
Any dry wood will be better than any wet wood, but when everything is equally wet, there are some trees that provide more water-resistant, flammable wood which will significantly reduce how much time and effort you put into getting your fire going.
Pine and spruce trees are great options. Their wood is less absorbent, which means the wood is far less likely to be saturated. As a bonus, both trees have a lot of resin which is highly flammable.
Pine trees produce what is known as ‘fatwood’, which is full of resin and is extremely flammable. Fatwood is most “fatty” in the stumps but is also very resin-rich at the bases of branches, right where the branch meets the trunk of the tree.
Avoid a lot of the typical firewood trees like oak. Typically when you buy wood like that in the supermarket or wherever, it is actually seasoned wood, which means it has been drying for a long time before it is ready for your fireplace.
Unless you are planning to be out in the wilderness for more than a few months, forget about oak, maple, birch, and similar trees.
Stick to the point
Let this article serve as a good reminder to always carry a knife in the woods and to always maintain a sharp blade. With a sharp knife or, better yet, an ax, you can remove the wet outer layers of the wood and cut fine sticks out of the drier interior.
This probably won’t work with wood that has been on wet ground too long and has become waterlogged, but any firewood that you find by any of the methods described above should provide dry kindling if you remove the wet outer layer.
Birds of a feather stick together
You need every advantage when you’re trying to start a fire with wet kindling. Carving a feather stick is a great way to expose the inner part of the stick that should be drier and also to increase the surface area of the stick which makes it much more flammable.
If you have a sharp blade, a feather stick is very simple to make. First remove the wet, outer bark from the stick. Then carve a long strip from the center of the stick towards the end, but leave the strip attached to the stick. Repeat as many times as you can without breaking the stick.
Money doesn’t grow on trees
In survival situations, it is extremely important to use every possible resource to your advantage. Take a personal inventory. What do you have on you? You might be carrying dry, flammable items without even thinking about it.
Indeed, money doesn’t grow on trees, but when all the trees around you are wet, for once that is actually a good thing. Your cash is flammable and could be an important part of your tinder bundle that will help you get a fire going.
Don’t stop with your cash though, you may have papers in your wallet or lint on your clothes, or a hunting license (if you live in a state that doesn’t give you plastic these days). If you have some greasy potato or chips, those can catch a flame as well.
Any of these items, if you’ve managed to keep them dry, will be infinitely more flammable than a soggy stick. Your best bet for starting a fire may be something that you carried into the forest rather than something you may find.
Stick with it
One of the most important things you need to keep in mind is that to get a fire going your patience will be severely tried in truly wet environments. Mentally prepare yourself that this will be a long process. Don’t be discouraged. Your ‘sticktoitiveness’ could save your life.
Does a bear s*** in the woods?
I don’t have any advice for this saying. Honestly, I tried to work it in somehow, but couldn’t figure out how to tie it back to firewood. So I’ll just throw it in here, strictly for nostalgic purposes. It was something my grandpa would say when we were safely out of earshot of my grandma. Of course, it stopped being funny pretty quickly, but I never stopped laughing.
Other wood-based sayings I didn’t use
Man, there are a ton of these. I had no idea until I really sat down and started thinking about them. For better or worse, I thought of these and didn’t use them: knock on wood, morning wood, out of the woods, stick in the craw, stick it out, stick to your guns, and stick ‘em up, carrot or the stick. Stick around, I can come up with some more…