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.