How to Build a Campfire in the Rain
A drizzly trip forces us to do some creative problem solving in order to honor an old tradition: Linking the Fire.
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Rain comes down in gentle taps, rolling off our plastic tarp. Damp. The skies over Holy Cross are blue, with the occasional tuft of cotton ball cloud. Above our position — and down wind — we sat beneath a dreary gray roof.
I pointed with the knife I’d been using to shave tinder for the fire. “That’s our weather in a little while. Do you think we can get a fire going when the rain breaks?”
“Maybe. It’ll be tough.” My friend stretches and leans back on the log he’s sitting on. “We have the wood we brought in from last night, but even that’s a bit damp.”
We both look down at the small pile of wood and twigs we’d stacked.
“Do we really need the fire?” I ask. “I mean, we have the stoves for cooking.” I nudge my tiny MSR “Mini-Rocket” with my toe — still cooling down from breakfast.
My friend looked at me, incredulous. “Do we really need to go backpacking? What about whiskey and cigars? Oh, we don’t need those either right?”
I roll my eyes.
“Of course we don’t need them! It’s just part of the fun. Besides—” he lifts up a tiny glass stopper bottle, filled with a chalky gray substance. He gives it a shake. “—it’s tradition.”
I lean forward over my knees, chewing my lower lip. “Hmm.” I stare blankly at the ground, mulling over possible solutions. The camp stove comes back into focus.
“I’ve got an idea.”
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We spend the next few minutes laying pieces of kindling over the stove’s cooking grate, listening to the low roar of the burner, and watching wisps of white smoke rise from the wood.
“Nice and dry,” my friend gives a nod of approval.
The rain stops tapping on the tarp overhead.
“I think that’s our cue,” I say. “I’ll start putting everything together, if you’ve got this?”
I grab my fire kit from my pack, and head to the campsite’s crude fire ring; a circle of wobbly rocks with huge, petrified logs serving as benches. Inside the kit, I have a few critical items that always help in a pinch, especially when dealing with wet wood.
The materials are packed in film cannisters (remember those) inside a zip-lock bag:
Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly
A Blast Match fire starter
Plenty of frope1
I look for the driest spot within the fire ring, then set out building a little nest of rope fibers. I fill the nest with cotton ball eggs, then set to work surrounding it all with a teepee of tiny, dry twigs.
I place a little ball of my remaining fibers on a flat, dry rock, and strike it with the Blast Match. White-hot magnesium shavings shower the tinder, giving me a small flame.
I carefully transfer the burning material to the nest and blow a lung full of air onto the tiny ember. Flames erupt from the nest, lapping at the twigs.
“Bring me some of the bigger stuff, would you?” I call over my shoulder.
I breathe across the fire again, slow and strong. The wood crackles.
“Here,” my friend lays some slightly larger wood atop the small structure I had built.
There’s a high-pitched hiss as the last of the trapped moisture escapes, followed by a sharp crack. We add more. The fire consumes, expanding quickly to fill the rock ring.
“Looks like we’ll be getting some more rain in a few minutes,” my friend points to the sky over Holy Cross, now dark gray.
“It won’t matter. Not enough to put this out.”
“Then it’s time to link the fire,” he says. He pulls the stopper out of the glass bottle. He pours its contents — ashes from a previous campfire — over the flames. A few cinders float upward before vanishing.
“That means this will be a good trip," my friend assures me.
His prediction proved correct. Despite that bit of rain, we kept the fire going for the rest of our trip. The next day was beautiful, spent doing a little fishing, drawing, and relaxing in hammocks by the sides of a crystal lake.
Before we left, we properly extinguished the fire and ensured the coals were cool to the touch. My friend took glass bottle and scooped it full of new ashes; the newest link in a chain spanning years of adventures through the wild.
Each Experience Builds on the Last
My original idea for writing Cole’s Climb was to fill a deep void that exists between content for casual day hikers, and serious technical content for alpinists. Something that would help the everyman plan for bigger adventures, armed with the training to do so comfortably; the knowledge to do so safely; and the reverence to do so sustainably.
Part of that process is a lot like linking the fire: each new adventure builds on the one before it like links in a chain, or steppingstones along a much longer path.
All of these experiences make us stronger, better thinkers, and cooler under pressure; making us more prepared to bite off bigger and bigger challenges as we go.
I Want to Hear from You
What is your favorite tradition? It doesn’t have to be in the outdoors!
Frayed rope fibers, pulled apart from an old school, non-nylon, untreated rope.