2. KNOW YOUR FIRE TRIANGLE (inside and out!)
We all know that you need heat to start a fire (the first of our three “Fire Triangle” ingredients). This heat typically comes in the form of an ignition source. Whether it’s a lighter, a match, a ferro rod, a spark from an empty lighter, or an ember from a bow drill, you can’t start a fire without heat.
Larger, hotter and sustained ignition sources (like a lighter) are going to be more forgiving in harsh conditions while smaller, less hot and less sustained ignition sources (like a tiny spark from flint and steel) are going to be less forgiving. Keep this in mind as you proceed with your fire starting.
So how do moisture and wind ultimately become barriers to success when it comes to fire starting?
Moisture (whether it’s rain, snow or humidity) kills heat in two separate ways:
- Moisture directly offsets (neutralizes) your heat source via conduction (thermal transfer via direct contact) Your heat source coming in contact with water diminishes (if not completely extinguishes) its thermal energy almost instantly.
- Moisture also becomes a barrier to oxygen (the second part of our our “Fire Triangle”) by displacing it, either via A) direct surface coverage on our fire making materials/fuel (water prevents oxygen from reaching your fuel), and/or B) by displacing oxygen in the air around you via humidity.
As I indicated before, wind is the other significant obstacle when it comes to fire making. For a better understanding of how wind negatively impacts your fire making, let’s dive right into the next component of our “Fire Triangle”:
Wind can be an either/both an impediment or an asset when it comes to fire, depending on the specific circumstances. Too much wind (in proportion to heat and fuel) means a disproportionate amount of oxygen has entered your fire equation… which will result in your fire blowing out.
This is particularly true in the very early stages of fire-making. Fires in their early/small stages are the most susceptible to too much oxygen (wind) and can easily be blown out like a birthday candle. A tiny or recently ignited fire is going to have a much smaller amount of heat and very little ignited fuel, therefore it is extremely susceptible to too much oxygen.
As indicated previously, moisture (water/snow/humidity) is not only an inhibitor to heat, but it is also a deterrent to fire in terms of oxygen as well. Water on the surface of your fuel forms an oxygen barrier, depriving your fire of this much needed element. This is an aspect of moisture as a fire inhibitor that is often overlooked. It is this dynamic that makes water such an effective tool for extinguishing fires in many cases. So water is a dual threat to fire in that it can both A) instantly reduce temperature AND B) it can smother fuel, depriving it of needed oxygen.
Another form of moisture that is frequently overlooked in terms of fire is humidity (moisture in the air). Even if your tinder material is optimal and your heat source is sufficient, humidity can still inhibit the desired outcome. It’s not uncommon in extremely humid conditions for one to achieve coaxing an ember or a spark into a small flame in their tinder only to have it go out almost immediately. This is often the result of high levels of humidity (60% or higher) in the air displacing oxygen and why it’s so extremely challenging to start a fire in an environment like a rain forest. It’s SO EXTREMELY DISCOURAGING in a survival situation to be so close to having fire only to have it go out after only a few seconds, but don’t worry… I have a few “cheats” to share with you to overcome this type of setback. More on this a little later.
The reason fire making in humid conditions often persists in being a challenge because humidity displaces oxygen in the surrounding air, lowering the availability of oxygen. Not to mention, if the air around you is full of moisture, chances are your tinder and fire making materials are surrounded by that fine moisture and even have a light coating on their surface as well.
Once a fire has been moderately established, “wind” can actually become an asset fueling your fire! That’s precisely why blowing on a fire can coax it into flames in many cases. This is particularly useful in a situation where you have plenty of heat (like a nice bed of hot coals) and plenty of fuel (your fire has died down and you just added a few logs to it). Forcing additional oxygen into your heat/fuel combination will typically make your coals really hot and coax those smoking/smoldering logs on top of your coals into flames.
Remember… fire is all about the right proportion of all three of these critical “ingredients”!
As most of you already know, wet fuel (tinder, kindling or fuel logs) is not optimal for fire making. All of the dynamics relating to both moisture and wind obviously apply on this third and final front as well, but there are a few other things worth quickly mentioning in this category.
First and foremost, we need to clarify what we mean here by “wet fuel” since not all “wet fuels” are created equal:
Types of “wet fuels” that you want to avoid:
- Wood that has been submerged in water for some time
- Wood that has been laying on the ground for some time
- Wood that is “green” (from a live tree or recently fell from a live tree
These three types of woods are typically saturated with moisture (contain moisture all the way through them) and are NOT suitable for fire making. Attempting to make fire with this type of wood is going to be an “uphill battle” for you.
Types of “wet fuels” that we can work with:
- Low hanging branches that rain has recently fallen on but are still dry on the inside
- Branches that have broken loose and fallen but are stuck in other branches
- Wood that is on the ground but isn’t laying flat on the ground
- Wood that has more resin in it (like pine, birch, etc. Resin repels water)
What you are looking for is wood that is wet on the surface only.
But how can you tell if wood is dry on the inside even if it is soaking wet on the outside? Give it the “SNAP” test! If you grab a branch on the lower part of a tree and try to bend it to one side, if it breaks off with a “SNAP” like a brittle pretzel, then it is likely dead and dry on the inside and suitable for use. If it bends like a gummy piece of licorice, then it is likely green and full of moisture and not optimal for fire making.
For larger pieces of wood that are too large in diameter to snap, give them a solid knock. A crisp, light, hollow sounding knock tends to indicate dry wood. A deep, heavy, dull, muted thud tends to indicate moisture in the wood.
If the wood is already loose, you can often determine moisture content by weight as well. If the log is heavier than you expected based on its appearance, it’s likely full of moisture. If it’s surprisingly light, then it is probably dry.
You can also take larger logs with a bit of moisture content (especially if said moisture is more on the surface) and put them around your fire to dry them off if need be. The other benefit of doing this is that you can also use that same wood as a wind barrier to protect your smaller fire from wind and moisture while your fire is its “infancy”!