How to Keep a Campfire Going Under Heavy Rain

Even a novice outdoor enthusiast will remember to bring something to start a fire with on his first foray into the woods. It can be as basic as a box of matches, a disposable lighter or the more exotic magnesium fire starter. Anyone of those mentioned will enable him to start a campfire; but can he accomplish the feat under a downpour?

A fire starter is useless during a downpour unless one has been schooled on survival skills or tutored by a how-to article such as this. A skilled outdoorsman will always have dry tinder on hand to start a fire with. Tinder is any material that catches fire quickly and easily.

It can be wood shavings, lint or newspaper strips. The most practical and efficient fire starters, in my opinion, are cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly (Vaseline). When saturated well, these cotton balls resists moisture absorption and burn much longer than ordinary tinder; the chance of getting a fire started during a rainfall are much greater.

Dukal 801 Cotton Balls, Non Sterile, Medium, White


Dukal 801 Cotton Balls, Non Sterile, Medium, White

The cotton balls are also very easy to pack and do not weigh very much. It is a necessary item on novice’s “must-have” list that needs to go into his backpack. He will also make sure that it is sealed in a waterproof container which, more often than not, is simply an ordinary ziplock bag.

The following scenario separates the novice from the seasoned outdoorsman. What do you do you are out of tinder but have an urgent need to get a fire started under the constant rain? Will frustration get the better of you and simply give up? Here’s what I would do.

Victorinox Swiss Army Pocket Knife


Victorinox Swiss Army Pocket Knife

A Swiss knife is useful for uneventful camping trips. However, on extended hikes, where you will have to contend with the random whims of Mother Nature, I always advise people to pack a heavier knife. A Bowie knife or a similar one not only conjures images of the frontiersman of yore but is an essential piece of equipment for extended trips. Here’s why.

Winchester Large Bowie Knife


Winchester 22-41206 Large Bowie Knife

After a day’s trek, you finally reach your campsite only to find it waterlogged from the incessant rain. You’re chilled to the bone and need fire not only to warm your body but to also cook the evening’s meal with.

The wet conditions have exhausted your tinder and there isn’t a dry blade of grass or twig to start a fire with.

Your heavy knife now comes to your rescue. How? Here’s the first answer to that “how” - to keep a fire going it must be under some kind of shelter or roof. You need to have poles to erect a shelter with and a Swiss knife simply wouldn’t be up to the job of chopping heavy branches.

The second answer to the “how” is this – when everything around you is waterlogged, only the stoutest dead tree limbs will have a dry inner core. You need a heavy knife to chop into the dry core and shave tinder with.

This activity can only be done under the shelter of course so it is assumed that your tent has been pitched prior to this activity.

Another “must have” that needs to be in your backpack is a couple of large heavy-duty trash bags. They can be used as emergency raincoats or in this particular case, as a waterproof roof for your campfire enclosure.

Let me point out that in Tropical countries plants with very large leaves are abundant and make excellent waterproof roofing materials. The Ti plant has such leaves but nothing will better the huge taro leaves which are virtual umbrellas.

I digressed. To continue, a length of paracord is another vital “must have” that has to go into your backpack. You never know when you need to hang something to keep it away from wild animals or perhaps jury rig broken equipment with paracord. In this particular rainy scenario, the paracord will be used to tie the spreaders onto the posts of the temporary fire shelter.

Here are some tips when building a roof shelter for your campfire

  • The 4 posts of the structure should be stout enough to carry considerable weight. Remember that everything will be waterlogged and much heavier. The attached drawing will provide you with a good idea why stout posts are needed. I usually use at least 1 ½” diameter posts to support the aggregate weight of drying firewood, a firestop fashioned out of forest debris found on the ground and odds and ends to weigh the trash bag cover in place.
How to Keep a Campfire Going Under Heavy Rain

How to Keep a Campfire Going Under Heavy Rain

  • ​The distance between poles should at least be 20” to prevent them from being scorched by the fire and also to dry firewood of ideal length.
  • The fire should be started on a bed of logs to elevate it from the saturated ground. This also negates the need to dig a runoff ditch around the shelter and as the fire burns into the logs you will have the long-lasting ember.
  • Never use rock as a platform for your fire. This is quite dangerous unless you know how to identify rocks that can withstand extreme heat and not burst like a grenade. I know what kind of rocks to use because we actually used them for cooking our “kalua” pig in our “Imus” (underground oven) back in the days in Hawaii. But I am digressing once more, google this Hawaiian method of cooking if you want to find out more about it.
  • The roof of your cooking shelter must at least be 30” from the ground to prevent the rising heat from scorching your plastic trash bag (or even a spare jacket or raincoat for that matter). Remember that the low part of the roof slope must be away from you for better access into the fire shelter.
  • A drying rack must be incorporated into your shelter to enable you to stock up on firewood and kindling in anticipation of more rain.

You know the old cliché that goes: “a picture paints a thousand words”? Well, that quotation definitely applies to this how-to. The next time you have to deal with thunderstorms at some remote campfire, this article will hopefully enable you to start a campfire without resorting to hair-pulling.