Lighting a fire in damp conditions is a vital bushcraft skill. Fire is key for keeping warm, cooking food and a whole host of other bushcraft activities; as with all elements of bushcraft the real skill comes in being able to do it in less than ideal conditions. This week, we’re going to look at how to light a fire in damp conditions. This will include a recap of the basics of fire lighting, a look at some basic axe techniques and a video of how to make feather sticks – a very useful tool when it comes to lighting a fire in the rain.

Feel free to read the whole blog or skip to the sections that interest you by clicking on the links below.  

 

Fire lighting basics 

Light a fire in damp conditions


No matter what the conditions are, successfully lighting a fire relies on following some basic principles. In this section, we’re going to quickly recap some elemental fire lighting principals. Never rush these as getting the basics wrong will make it much harder for you to succeed in lighting a fire and therefore cause you to waste more energy than is needed. 

 

  • Start with tinder

    Successful fire lighting begins with finding appropriate tinder. Whether this is natural tinders such as birch bark, or tinder that you have brought with you, such as balls of cotton wool. In damp conditions, you will need more tinder than you would in dry conditions.  If it is going to be damp it is better, if at all possible, to plan in advance and bring your tinder with you. After all, you don’t want to have to spend time looking for tinder when you are already cold and wet.

  • Kindling

    Now that you have more tinder than you think you might need, it is time for kindling. Kindling is small twigs or sticks no more than pencil thickness. It very important that kindling is dry, we will look at how to find dry kindling in damp conditions later in this blog. After gathering kindling of pencil thickness,  collect sticks that are around as thing as a thumb. If wood this size is not readily available it can be made by splitting thicker pieces of wood into smaller individual pieces.

     

  • Larger pieces of wood

    After the thumb-thick pieces of wood, it is time for larger pieces of firewood. You need to several pieces of firewood of steadily increasing size and thickness. Split wood will burn faster than wood that has not been split. We will look at axe techniques for splitting wood later in this blog.

  • Preparing the ground

    Before lighting your fire it is important to prepare the ground. In damp conditions, it is a good idea to raise your tinder off the ground. This is best done by clearing away any fallen foliage, down to the bare earth and then laying a platform of small, pencil-thick sticks. You can then use this platform to build your fire on.

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Sourcing wood in wet conditions

Fire lighting in damp conditions


Keeping in mind the basic steps for fire lighting, the first step (after having checked that you’ve brought your tinder) is sourcing dry wood for kindling – or for making into tinder if necessary.
Remember, when you’re looking for wood, dead, standing wood is the best for fire lighting. With that in mind here are some tips and techniques for finding wood in damp conditions. 

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  • Gather as you go


    One of the most common mistakes is in waiting until you are at your campsite before starting to gather fuel for your fire. Rather than waiting until you’ve arrived at your destination gather materials as you walk into camp.

  • Look for dry patches and don’t pick wood from the ground


    Look for patches of dry ground around trees, such as patches that have been sheltered by the tree’s canopy. If dry, dead, standing wood is not available then look for twigs on the ground under the shelter of the tree. Dry, dead twigs will snap cleanly if pressure is applied to them if the twig does not break cleanly or simply bends then discard it and continue your search.

     

  • Look for the wood inside


    While the outside of the wood, be it a branch or twig, might be wet the chances are that the inside of the wood is dry. Provided that the wood is not soaked through then whittling away the outside of the wood can give you access to the dry wood inside. For larger pieces of wood, you will need to split it either by batoning or by using an axe.  We will look at the finer points of both techniques further on in this blog. 

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Techniques for batoning

Batoning is a technique for splitting smaller pieces of wood with a knife. It involves placing the knife on one end of the piece of wood and the other end of the wood on the ground. The back of the blade should then be struck with another piece of wood to force it into the piece of wood that you are trying to split. With the blade of the knife now embedded horizontally into the piece of wood you should now strike the front part of the protruding blade. Strike this part of the knife regularly with equal force each time until the wood is split.

Considerations when batoning

When batoning it is important that you use a fixed blade, e.g. not a folding blade, knife. The knife should ideally be full tang, or narrowing tang otherwise you risk breaking the blade on the knife and causing yourself injury. Batoning should only be attempted on pieces of wood that have a diameter that is smaller than the length of the blade of the knife. For larger pieces of wood an axe should be used.

Axe techniques for splitting wood

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Larger pieces of wood will need to be split with an axe. Remember to ensure that you are stood or knelt in such a way that, should the axe slip, it will not strike your legs (or any other part of your body).

Splitting smaller rounds

Smaller rounds of wood can be most easily split by holding the axe and the round of wood horizontally together so that the head of the axe is in contact with the top of the round. The axe and round of wood should then be brought down together hard on a raised surface – such as a tree stump.

Splitting larger pieces of wood

Choose a stump about knee height and place the larger piece of wood on this stump at the furthest stable distance away from your body. Position your legs away from the stump so that should your swing miss the axe will not hit your body. Raise the axe to around chest height, ensuring that you have a good two-handed grip on it, then bring the axe down, in a smooth and slow motion, into the wood that you want to split. Remember to let the weight of the axe do the majority of the work.

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LEARN FIRE LIGHTING, SHELTER BUILDING, AXE SKILLS AND MORE ON OUR WEEKEND BUSHCRAFT COURSE. 

 

Carving feather sticks

Feather sticks are a great way of lighting a fire when it is damp. The can be made from small rounds of wood that have been split either by axe or by batoning. Watch the video below to learn how to make feather sticks.

Watch: Carving Feather Sticks

 

Kit

Here are some pieces of kit that you might find useful when lighting a fire in damp conditions. Please note that aside from Bear Blades Wildway Bushcraft is not associated with any of the brands or pieces of equipment listed below – we don’t get anything extra if you choose to purchase one of these items!

 

Further Reading

Here are some other blog posts that might interest you. Use the arrows to navigate.

 

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In certain situations, the ability to source clean, drinkable, water from seawater is an essential survival skill. This blog looks at this vital coastal survival skill in more detail, as always feel free to read the whole blog or skip to the section that interests you the most. While we don’t yet cover desalination on our current courses we do look at water sourcing and water purification on our weekend bushcraft course and our intermediate bushcraft course.

 

What is the problem with seawater?

Seawater into drinking water

‘Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink’ as the Ancient Mariner said, but what exactly is the problem with sea water? Basically, seawater contains salt and humans can only ingest so much salt. The salt content of seawater is much higher than what we can safely consume. Our kidneys have to produce urine that has a lower quantity of salt than salt water, therefore in order to get rid of the amount of salt consumed by drinking salt water we would need to urinate more than we drink. This would mean that we slowly dehydrate ourselves while becoming thirstier.

Removing salt from salt water

Seawater into drinking water
Removing salt, from salt or rather saline water, involves separating the salt particles from the water particles. The easiest way to do this in the field is through evaporation. This process involves heating the water in one container until steam forms and can be collected in another container. The easiest way to do this is to run a piece of tubing from the first container through which the steam condenses when entering, into the second container.

This may not always be practical though so be prepared to improvise the tubing with plastic sheeting angled so that it catches the steam from the first container and allows the water to run into the second.

 

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Other considerations

Drinking water in the bush
Desalination is a complex and energy-intensive process. It can be difficult to get right and consumes fuel supplies. When looking for sources of water in coastal area desalination should be a last resort. Some other methods of gaining fresh water are outlined below.

  • Transpiration
    Water moves through plants, including coastal plants, from its roots through to its leaves, stems, and flowers where it evaporates. If the coastal area in which you are looking for water has a lot of vegetation or there is nearby vegetation inland then these plants are an excellent source of water. Simply throw a bag, such as a survival bag over the leaves of a nearby plant. Tie the bag off at the opening over the branch, then wait. In a few hours, the water from the plants should have evaporated and gathered in the bottom of the bag.
  • Search for other water sources
    Coastal areas have water running to them, through the form of rivers or streams. Finding where one of these water sources comes out and then tracing it back upstream will provide you with a source of freshwater. Be warned though that if you select water from a stream close to the beach then it is likely to be saline.

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What to expect on our bushcraft course 

Discover our weekend bushcraft course
On our weekend bushcraft course, we will introduce you to the principles of water filtration. Although we won’t introduce you to desalination we will show you how to source water and create a basic filter using natural materials.

We will also introduce you to the principles of shelter building, friction fire lighting, food preparation (fin, feather, and fur), knife skills, axe skills and many other bushcraft essentials. If you would like to develop your bushcraft skills further then our intermediate bushcraft course is for you. 

 

Click here to find out more about our intermediate bushcraft course. 

Kit mentions 

Here is a run through of some of our favourite kit, while we don’t use this for water purification we do take it out in the woods with us. 

 

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Intermediate bushcraft course

Further reading 

Use the arrows below to navigate these related blogs.

 

LEARN HOW TO USE AN AXE, BUILD SHELTERS, LIGHT FIRES AND MORE ON OUR IOL ACCREDITED WEEKEND BUSHCRAFT COURSE.

 Maximising the effectiveness of your sleeping kit means getting the most warmth out of the lightest set-up. This enables you to sleep out in nature in all seasons and carry less weight, in terms of backpacking this means that you can cover more miles. Maximising your sleeping kit does not, though, mean that you need to spend a fortune on a lightweight sleeping kit. While lightweight backpacking kit is, typically, more expensive by understanding how your current setup works you can get the most warmth out of it without spending any extra money.

As always, please feel free to read the whole blog or skip to the section that interests you the most. We will cover the kit that we mention towards the end of our blog but it is not a definitive list, if you’re looking to buy new pieces of kit then it is always best to try it yourself rather than relying on recommendations.

 

Understanding your sleeping kit

Understanding your sleeping kit

Understanding how your sleeping kit works helps you to maximise its warmth. Essentially, your sleeping kit is made up of your sleeping bag and a sleeping mat of some kind, we’re not going to cover tents, tarps or bivvy bags in this blog. We will look at sleeping bags in more detail later in this blog but this section shall focus on the general details.

  • Sleeping mat

    Sleeping mats provide two essential elements of a good night’s sleep – comfort and insulation. Insulation is provided by keeping your sleeping bag, and therefore your body, away from the ground as no matter what the temperature the ground is going to be colder than the air around it and, obviously, colder than your body temperature.

     

  • Closed cell foam mats

    These are the typical ‘Karrimat’ style sleeping mat. They are pretty inexpensive and by and large indestructible. They are also very well suited to cold conditions as they do not compress easily. In very cold weather they are best used in combination with a self-inflating or blow up mat.

     

  • Self-inflating mats

    These mats work with a combination of foam inside an air-tight pocket. The valve, when opened, lets air in and inflates the mat. Mats that you blow up work in the same principle but without the valve.

  • Insulation

    When a warm surface, in this case, your body, comes into contact with a colder surface heat is conducted away from the warm surface. So in the case of camping, particularly in colder weather, the ground will slowly take heat away from your body. Mats of all types, closed cell foam mats, self-inflating, blow-up, provide insulation from the ground reducing the speed at which heat is conducted away from your body.

     

  • Sleeping bag

    Your sleeping bag works by trapping air between your body and the outside world. We will look at how to maximise the warmth of this air later. This trapped air is what keeps you warm, it is for this reason that it is important to look for a sleeping bag that has a good baffle, this is the piece of the sleeping bag inside the hood which can be tightened around your neck to trap the air in.

     

  • Pressure points

    When your sleeping the parts of the sleeping bag under your back and shoulders are compressed. This flattens the fill of the sleeping bag and reduces its effectiveness. This is why the mat underneath you needs to be good enough to keep all parts of your body away from the colder ground.

     

  • Understanding temperature ratings

    Sleeping bags typically have temperature ratings that are as follows;  comfort rating, limit temperature and extreme temperature. The comfort rating is the temperature at which the bag can comfortably be used, the limit temperature is the temperature at which a person can use the bag, in a curled up position without feeling cold.  The extreme temperature rating should not be used as a guide when choosing a sleeping bag, as it is the maximum temperature at which the bag can be used without occurring extreme cold injuries, hypothermia or, death. The majority of popular commercial sleeping bags use the EN ISO 23537 system.

     

  • Choose the sleeping bag that you need

    When it comes to maximising the effectiveness of your sleeping kit it is important to choose the sleeping bag that you need. Sleeping bags that have a lower comfort rating are typically heavier. Therefore you need to balance warmth against weight. If you’re mostly camping out in the UK summers then there is no need to have a bag that goes down to – 22.

     

  • Clothing

    Wearing a thermal insulating layer in your sleeping bag can help you to keep warm. Understanding this enables you to take a lighter and lower rated sleeping bag particularly in the early Spring and Autumn months where the temperature can fluctuate wildly. Don’t wear the clothes that you have been walking in the sleeping bag, they are likely to be damp through sweat and dirt. A dirty sleeping bag is less effective than a clean one.  Remember also to protect your extremities, wear socks and gloves to protect your hands and feet.

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Bushcraft course from Wildway Bushcraft

Warming your sleeping bag

Understanding how your sleeping bag works enables you to use a lighter weight, less warm bag, while still being comfortable. One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to sleeping bags is that they warm you. The reality though is that you warm the air trapped in the sleeping bag, this air in turn is what keeps you warm.

 

Ensure that the air is trapped in

Use the baffle of the sleeping bag, the padded part of the bag close to your neck, and the hood of the bag in order to trap the air in. It is important to do this in order not to create a bellows type effect, where the hot air is pushed out and the cold air sucked in. 

Use a hot water bottle 

There’s no need to take an actual hot water bottle with you, a metal water bottle can be filled with heated water, placed in a sock and put in your bag before sleeping. If you have the water and the fuel to spare this is an excellent way of keeping the bag warm. If you’re camping somewhere where you can have a campfire then simply fill the bottle with water and place it close to the fire.

Down vs Synthetic 

Ah down vs synthetic, it’s an age old debate. The correct answer, when it comes to which should you choose a down bag or a synthetic bag, is whichever one suits you. There are some key differences and considerations when it comes to down and synthetic bags which we will explain in the following section (if you’re going for down though make sure that it is ethically sourced). 

Down bags 

Typically down bags are lighter weight for warmth than synthetic bags. They compress down further than synthetic bags and are typically better at wicking than synthetic bags, therefore making them better in the summer months.

Synthetic bags

The key difference between down and synthetic bags is that synthetic bags are better in damp or wet conditions. When wet or damp down bags will typically lose the majority of their thermal properties, synthetic bags, however, will retain more of their thermal properties. They also tend to be cheaper than down bags. 

 

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advanced fire lighting

Kit 

We’ve mentioned some kit above and aren’t going to touch upon it here. When it comes to sleeping kit though it is a matter of personal choice and finding out what works for you.  What’s outlined below is a brief run through of our choices of knives, axes and tarps.

Further reading 

Use the arrows to navigate between posts.

 

LEARN HOW TO USE AN AXE, BUILD SHELTERS, LIGHT FIRES AND MORE ON OUR IOL ACCREDITED WEEKEND BUSHCRAFT COURSE.