Winter fire making can be a humbling experience. When we went up to the Pack Station a few weeks ago, we had a tremendously difficult time starting a fire. The weather had provided us with a unique mix of rain and snow which caused everything to be soaking wet and encased in a sheet of ice. I imagine that this will become a trend as the season progresses further into spring. Given the absolute importance of fire for survival in cold/wet conditions, I figured I ought to do a post regarding winter fire making.
In wet and/or snowy winter conditions finding dry fuel can be a challenge. Ever heard the saying “high and dry”? It is referring to where to look for fire wood! Especially if the ground is covered in several feet of snow. Look into the trees for any dead/dry branches or twigs still hanging off of them. Pine trees are a great source of fire wood. When you break anything from the tree, it will make a sharp snap if it is bone dry. Hold the twigs to your lips as an additional check for moisture.
In the winter a good axe is worth it’s weight in gold. If you have an axe you can fell small trees (No bigger than about 6-8 inches thick) and split them down to the dry interior layers of heart wood. A folding hand saw or bucksaw is also very useful for processing wood.
Once collected, organize your fuel into kindling, tinder, and fuel wood. Avoid putting your fuel directly onto snowy or wet surfaces.
Now, it’s time to start building your fire. If possible, find a location that is sheltered from adverse weather conditions. Once your spot is chosen, begin by using a few logs to build a platform on the snow or mud. This will allow the fire to “float” on the snow rather than melting into it. Eventually the platform will heat up and begin sinking so it is recommended that you dig as far down into the snow as possible (the platform is also recommended for wet/muddy surfaces). On top of this platform you can build your tepee or log cabin style fire. I usually add wood into one of these configurations as I go.
Now for the tricky part. For lighting a fire in any wet or snowy environment I recommend you have an accelerant to help you ignite potentially damp kindling and tinder. I typically use a cotton ball coated with vaseline, Wet Fire Cubes (can be purchased at just about any sporting goods store), or Esbit tablets. Based on our experience a few weeks ago, I would recommend bringing a couple Esbit tablets along as they get HOT and burn for quite a while. Whatever you use, the longer the burn time the better. The purpose of these items is to dry and light wet tinder and kindling.
Stack your kindling within arms reach. At least during the initial stages of the fire, avoid using anything that has been in direct contact with the snow. Grind up any tinder as fine as possible and place it in a pile on the platform. This is also where you will place your accelerant. Take your thinnest/driest pieces of kindling and place them in a tepee configuration over your tinder.
Now light your tinder pile. Patience is key during winter fire making. You may have to wait for your fuel to dry out in order to burn. This means that each stage of fuel could take a while to ignite. Gradually add more and more fuel to the fire and eventually you should have a nice toasty blaze rolling.
Ever wonder how to build an igloo? Well here is the cheater’s version, the Quincy Hut…
The Quincy Hut (or Quinzhee hut) is a great shelter option in shallow snow where digging a snow cave is impossible. Essentially all you need to do is make a massive pile of compacted snow and burrow into it.
Snow is actually a great insulating material for winter shelters. The inside temperature of a Quincy Hut shelter will stay somewhere around 32 degrees. That may sound cold, but when it is in the single digits or less outside, that is a HUGE difference. Personally, I would prefer a Quincy Hut over a tent in the winter back country.
Quincy Hut Notes:
*Remember to keep a shovel with you when you sleep. It is possible for a hard winter storm to snow you in while you sleep.
*Crack the door a little or poke ventilation holes through the walls to prevent suffocation. It is unlikely, but possible.
*After digging in, you will be soaked! I recommend having an extra set of dry clothes handy. Otherwise, you will have to build a fire to dry off.
Winter survival adventures could be just over the horizon up here at JC High Country! Though winter has already been here for a while, that doesn’t mean we can’t explore the possibilities of doing Winter Survival Courses in the future. We have the skills to do it! We just need to overcome a couple more logistical hurdles. This also means that JC High Country may be operating year round in years to come.
Whether you find yourself in the wilderness lost, injured, alone, or all of the above; It is important to keep calm and to not panic. The first thing you should do is assess your surroundings and take inventory of everything you have on you. Even the most seemingly insignificant items in your pockets could save your life.
Every scenario is different, your assessment of the situation, environment, and resources will determine what you do first. For example: If you are out of water in the desert, finding a water source will be your top priority. Whereas in blizzard conditions shelter and fire could be your first necessities. Your needs will continue to dictate the order in which you prioritize your goals.
The priorities of work for the first 48 hours and beyond are as follows:
First 24 Hours:
- Find water source
- Construct shelter
- Build fire
- Signal for Rescue
Second 24 Hours and Beyond:
- Make tools and weapons
- Find food
- Improve, improve, improve!
*Note that food isn’t a priority until the first four priorities are met. You can go two weeks without food but only 2-3 days without water and only a few hours without shelter in some environments.
*Also worth mentioning is that many edible plants have poisonous look a likes. Only eat something if you are 100% sure of it’s identification and characteristics.
Change is in the air up here at JC High Country. This spring, in addition to our world class hunting and wilderness adventure trips, we will be offering wilderness survival and back-country skills courses. These courses will provide the opportunity to learn from some of the most experienced outdoorsmen in the industry. Students will have the chance to challenge themselves and experience what it really means to live off of the land.
Whether you come through our courses or not, we will also be including posts here with which we hope to help readers become more confident and proficient in the great outdoors. You never know which post could benefit you or even save your life. We will cover topics such as: Emergency skills, living off the land, first aid, equipment considerations, and how to travel safely and efficiently through the wilderness.
I am the new Chief Survival Instructor here at JC High Country. For a more detailed description of my background and qualifications please check out my instructor bio page. In a nutshell however, I am a former Marine Corps Scout Sniper and Mountain Survival Instructor. I may have some experience, but I realize that everyone I meet knows something that I don’t. So by all means, any comments or feedback to my posts would be greatly appreciated. Lets make this a place to exchange some knowledge and better ourselves as outdoors-men and women.