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Fire and Rain
Dr. André F. Bourbeau

This commentary, authored by Dr. André F. Bourbeau, is based on a post made originally to the Primitive Skills Group mailing list. Re-published here by permission of the author. © 1997 André F. Bourbeau - All rights reserved.

In my opinion, knowing how to start a fire and how to keep it going in a drenching downpour is one of the absolutely essential survival skills. No one is going to make ME believe that I can go out there in freezing rain at about 0 degrees Celsius, after it's been raining for days, pile up some half frozen and sogging wet debris for hours to make a debris hut, crawl in with non-waterproof clothes on, and not fall victim to hypothermia in very short order. Been there, done it - just doesn't work! I speak from experience. I've slept out with no gear whatsoever in that precise kind of weather, at the very least, 100 times in the past 25 years.

When the going gets rough, and days of freezing rain, sometimes followed by -35 degrees is just about as rough as it gets, the only thing that will save your life is fire. Noted survival expert, Tom Elpel, just came back from a 4 day walkabout. How did he spend each night? By a fire. I do the same, and any experienced outdoorsman will also do the same.

Fire, fire, fire - you've got to become a pyromaniac. It's the only way to survive! Freezing rain is worse than deep cold, because you can't even build a snow cave or snow shelter...

If there's material for a debris hut, that means there are trees, and if there are trees, there is firewood, and if there is firewood, there is fire. And if there are no trees, and everything is soaking wet and freezing cold, and you have no rain gear or shelter, sorry folks, but your luck has just run out.

Just like bough beds - make me laugh! Just try lying on one of those soggy soaking wet beds made from dripping evergreen branches. You won't last 2 hours in really cold weather, I guarantee it.

So, if you want to survive, learn how to make a fire in the rain. Sorry, that just can't be learned by reading, you have to practice. Why practice when it's nice out? You don't need a fire then! It's when it's miserable and soggy and soaking wet and all your clothes are drenched that you need a nice big bright beautiful fire to dry you out and keep you warm. Please practice this skill during the worst thunderstorms you can find, close to camp. THIS is one skill which WILL save your life- even without shelter.

Out of 32 students who sign up for my bachelor's degree in outdoor adventure pursuits in their first year at the University of Quebec, on average, only 1 or 2 can successfully start a fire in the rain - and they all have experience. Imagine beginners... No wonder so many people die from hypothermia.

The problem is that everyone has learned to make a fire by picking out small twigs from conifers, then putting them on the fire one by one, then bigger ones, then bigger ones still - as if size of wood and leaving enough air were the only factors to consider when making fire. It isn't as simple as that. There is a lot more to this skill than meets the eye.

Of all the skills I teach, starting fire in the worst downpours (at least with matches, BIC lighters and a magnesium match) is on the very top of my list of priorities. I cannot EVER stress this enough. If you want to survive, LEARN THIS SKILL!

Best wishes for dry weather in the meantime.

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Article authored by Dr. André F. Bourbeau
Email to: bourbeau@VIDEOTRON.CA

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Revision: 03 April 3, 1997
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© 1997 André F. Bourbeau - All rights reserved.
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