When forced into a survival scenario, there are many priorities to consider. The four pillars of survival are food, water, fire, and shelter. However, in many ways fire should be your primary focus. In cold or wet conditions, you can die from exposure in as little as a few hours. Fire is one of the fastest ways to get warm and prevent hypothermia. In addition, fire allows you to purify water, cook food, light your camp, repel insects, and ward off predators. Perhaps the most important benefit is that fire is a great way to boost morale. After a long day of struggling through your survival efforts, staring into a warm fire can really help prepare you for the challenges of the day to come. This is why collecting firewood is so important.
Properly Collecting Firewood
However, getting a fire started is not always easy. There have been times that despite my best efforts I was not able to get my firewood to light because of the moisture present. During my first winter survival challenge I faced this scenario. The temperatures during the day were around 20F with 20 mph winds, and I spend most of the day building a shelter. It had snowed most of the day and had rained in the days before my challenge, so everything was damp. I collected firewood, and with about an hour of daylight left I started trying to light my tinder. Attempt after attempt failed as I watched the sun go down. It would be a long night.
The temperatures dropped to -1F while the winds continued to pound my shelter. I monitored my body temperature while I tried to keep my blood pumping with squats and jumping jacks. The shelter was little help with these frigid temperatures. At around 1am my body temperature dropped below 96F and I was forced to tap out as I entered the early stages of hypothermia. After learning from my firewood-gathering mistakes, I repeated the challenge the following weekend with similar conditions. Despite my fingers and toes still being numb from the prior attempt, I was successful this time.
Your first priority when gathering firewood should be tinder. This is the fine material needed to take a spark or a flame. Often dry materials like grasses, leaves, or pine needles can work for tinder. However, with wet conditions you may need to get creative. Cattail fluff works well as tinder and stays protected from moisture. Birch bark has a chemical inside that is highly flammable and waterproof. Pine cones may be wet on the outside but are often dry on the inside. Pine resin is waterproof and highly flammable. Any of these options can greatly help you get tinder started. Your finished tinder bundle should be large enough that you can barely fit both hands around it.
Kindling consists of your small and medium sized sticks. It is best that you collect dead branches that are still attached to trees and up off of the ground. Anything on the ground will likely be saturated and will not light. To ensure the kindling is completely dead and dry, try bending it and you should get a nice snap as it breaks. To further eliminate moisture, you can use a knife or hatchet to strip the bark off of the sticks. Your kindling bundle should be large enough that you can barely fit both arms around it.
Fuel wood is your larger branches and logs. Again, you want to find dead wood that is up off of the ground. Be sure that it is not starting to rot as this can make it much harder to get it to light. Stripping the bark off of your fuel wood is also a good idea. In addition, splitting your wood can help. It exposes the dry inner wood to the flames which helps it light. If you do not have a hatchet or ax, you can use a knife and baton your logs. Simply stand up your log, place your knife blade on the end, and use a large stick to strike the blade and split the log. If you want your fire to last all night, your stack of fuel wood should be about knee high.
After collecting your firewood, be sure to store it in a dry location in case it rains or snows. Once your fire is going, you should also set pieces of fuel wood around the fire so that the heat starts to dry it before you need to place it in the fire. Because of the importance of firewood, I often select my shelter location based on how much dead wood I see in the area. Collecting firewood is hard work, and you want the process to be as efficient as possible. In addition, when in doubt I always prefer to collect more wood than I will need. I have heard on several occasions that you should take however much firewood you think you will need and then double it. If you follow this advice, you should have a roaring fire that will easily last until dawn.