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Kat Dierickx | 03.12.2015

This is the tenth video in CleverHiker's Essential Trail Skills video series. This series is designed to teach backpackers of all levels the most important skills for the backcountry.

We cover everything from planning your first trip and packing a lightweight bag, to fording swift rivers and performing an ice axe self-arrest. It's all here, so follow along and take a step towards becoming a wilderness expert.

For those of you that prefer to learn by reading, we've included episode notes as well as room for future updates and comments below. We hope you enjoy our content and we look forward to hearing your feedback!

Fire Building in Harsh Conditions

Having a campfire while backpacking can be a lot of fun, but it can also be the type of skill that can safe your life in an emergency, especially in harsh conditions.

There are a lot of great ways to start a fire. You can use matches, a fire steel tool, or even just the friction from rubbing two sticks together. But there’s hardly a more convenient or reliable tool than a small lighter. Sure, you could start a fire without one, but if you’re well prepared, you’ll probably never have to.


The key to any good fire is preparation. The first thing you’ll need to do is collect fuel for your fire. When collecting fuel, you’ll be looking for three different types, (1) tinder, (2) kindling, and (3) fuel wood. In general, the dryer the fuel is, the better. Look for wood that snaps easily. That means it’s dry. If it bends or looks green, it won’t burn as well.

Tinder – tinder is what you start your fire with. It burns hot and fast. Examples of natural tinder are dry leaves, pine needles, dry grasses, bark, and wood shavings.

Kindling - is what you use to keep your fire going and build the flame. Kindling generally consists of small twigs and branches.

Fuel wood – is the larger fuel that will keep your fire burning hot. When you get your fuel wood lit, your fire should be good to go. Look for fuel wood that is ranges from small sizes up to about as large as your wrist but not much bigger.

You should generally collect more tinder, kindling, and fuel wood than you think you’ll need. Your fire supplies will often burn faster than you think and then you’ll be scrambling to find fuel to keep the fire going. 

Build A Teepee Fire

There are lots of different methods for building a good fire, so it’s really just a matter of your personal preference. Building a teepee fire is one of the easiest and most effective ways to build a fire, so it’s very common. Whatever fire structure you choose, the key is making sure that you have the right sized fuel for your fire and that it gets enough air without getting smothered. 

To build a teepee fire:

  • Place a good-sized tinder bundle in the middle of your campfire spot.
  • Above your tinder bundle, form a teepee with small kindling. Leave an opening in your teepee so you can easily light the tinder when the time comes.
  • Continue adding kindling to the teepee, working your way up to pencil sized twigs.
  • Then create a larger teepee structure around your kindling teepee with fuel wood.
  • To start your fire, all you need to do is light your tinder. The smaller fuel will burn upwards and light the larger fuel above it until your fuel wood is lit.
  • The teepee structure will eventually fall, and at that point you can simply add more fuel wood to the fire.

Pay close attention to the wind. Your fire will need oxygen to stay lit, so having a steady breeze can be very helpful, but if the wind is blowing hard, you might need to block it to get your fire going.

You should always have water next to your fire for safety. When it’s time to put your fire out, pour water on the fire and stir it to mix the hot coals in water. When there isn’t any heat coming off of the fire, you’ll know that it’s completely out. When you’re sure it’s completely out, spread the ashes away from your campsite. 

Wet Weather Fire Tips

When it’s dry out, you probably won’t have too much trouble getting your fire started. However, in the rain it’s much tougher to get a fire going. Starting a fire in wet conditions is about having the right tools, taking time prepare before lighting, and being practiced in wet conditions.

If you have to, you can build a fire in the rain using only natural materials and a fire steel tool. But doing that will take a lot of skill and practice. Don’t get caught up by your pride. Using a small fire starter and lighter in wet conditions isn’t cheating, it’s just smart and reliable. In an emergency situation, your pride won’t matter, staying alive is all that counts.

Always bring two small lighters and use one as a backup. Keep them dry because they won’t strike if they’re soaking wet. If your lighter gets wet, put it close to your body and allow it to dry out with your body heat, it won’t be long before it will work again.

You should also consider bringing a few storm proof matches or a fire steel tool as a backup. Both will work even when they’re soaking wet.

A small fire starter will make your task a lot easier as well. Cotton balls or dryer lint covered in petroleum jelly is a cheap and easy fire starter that is effective and will still work even when wet. There are also many cheap options in outdoor stores that will burn for a long time, even when wet and they will make starting a fire in the rain much easier.  


When you realize that you need to start a fire in wet conditions, good prep work is key. Preparing for a fire in the rain will take a lot longer, so make sure to give yourself an adequate amount of time. You still want to follow the same steps that you would take to start a fire when it’s dry out, only now it will be tougher to find material that will burn easily. 

If you know that you’ll be making a fire later in the day, search for dry tinder and kindling while you walk. Collect dry materials before it starts to rain and keeping them dry in your bag. If it’s been raining for a few days, it will be harder to find dry tinder to start your fire, but it’s still out there. You just need to know where to look.

Birch bark shavings are a common fire starter when it’s wet because birch bark will burn in extremely wet conditions. If there aren’t any birch trees around, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to find good materials for your fire.

When searching for dry materials, look for objects like fallen trees or overhanging rocks that may have shielded spots away from the rain. Pine trees can also provide good rain cover and dry pine needles make can make good tinder for your fire.

Take the materials that you’re gathering and put them in a dry spot, either in your bag or under your rain gear. If your clothing is dry, the heat from your body can help to dry out the fuel. Dead fuel that is still standing is generally better than fuel that has been laying on the ground and soaking in water. It’s usually bad practice to take fire fuel from standing trees, even if it’s dead, but in an emergency situation, you might have to.

Small sticks that are wet on the outside will often be dry on the inside. So use your knife to skin off the wet bark and make dry fuel. Larger sticks will also be dry on the inside, so crack them in half and then split them down the center. You’ll make smaller fuel for your fire that will be dryer and light up much quicker.

You can also create feather sticks to help your fire as well. Skin off the wet bark of a stick, and then peal small pieces of the wood without fully cutting them off. The small splinters will light easier and the wood will be dryer closer to the inside.

Starting Your Fire

When it’s time to start your fire, you can use natural cover, like an overhanging rock, to help block the rain. You can also use a tarp, your rain gear, or pieces of bark to shields your fire starting material from the rain.

Place your fire starter or a small bundle of tinder on a dry piece of bark and have all of your dry fuel sources close by. You can lean over your fire to protect it from rainfall while you light it. In the rain, it’s often better to light your tinder and kindling quickly, then build the rest of your fire from there so the rain doesn’t soak your dry fuel.

As your fire builds, it will start to dry out larger pieces of fuel easier. Placing larger pieces of fuel on your fire will help to shield your it from rain and will also dry out your fuel, but be careful not to smother your fire.

Now that you know the basics of starting a fire in wet conditions, it’s time for you to practice on your own. Choose a location close to your house and try to start a fire in the rain.

The best way to learn is through practice, so get out there and give it a try. If you need to start a fire in an emergency situation, you’ll be very happy that you’ve had some practice.


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