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How To Start A Survival Fire When It’s Cold, Wet & Miserable

How To Start A Survival Fire When It’s Cold, Wet & Miserable

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With winter weather finally here in most of the country, it’s a good idea to keep yourself ready to start a fire. We aren’t normally warned about pending survival situations, so it’s important to carry an EDC bag or survival kit with us at all times. That ounce of prevention really is worth much more than a pound (or three) of cure.

If there’s ever a time when starting a fire is critical, it’s in cold weather. The biggest survival danger we face in the wintertime is hypothermia. Cold weather is bad enough on its own, but if you happen to fall in a river, or otherwise get wet, your chances of survival drop from difficult to very iffy indeed.

But starting a fire in cold weather isn’t anywhere near as easy as it is in warm weather. Not only are you fighting the difficulties of heavy clothing and your body being made stiff from the cold, but finding dry fuel and a good place for a fire are much more difficult in the cold. On top of that, it seems like most fire-starters just don’t want to work as good when it’s cold outside.

Locating the Fire

Finding a good location for your fire is even more critical in cold weather than it is at other times. To start with, the ground may not be dry. Chances are, things will be covered with snow, making it hard to find good, clear locations. If they aren’t covered with snow, then you might find that all you have is frozen ground. That won’t work well, either, as the fire will melt the water in the ground, which will then try to extinguish the fire.

Your best bet is a bed of stones — not just a circle of stones around the fire, but stones under the fire, as well. That will not only protect your fire from the wet ground, but also from any water from melting snow that decides it wants to try and run through your fire pit.

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You can easily make a broom out of pine branches to clear off an area and find the stones you need for your fire. If no pine trees are available, then you might want to try pulling up a handful of long dried grass.

Finding Dry Fuel

Fuel can be deceptive in the wintertime; that which looks dry might not be. The problem is that any water in the wood is probably frozen, making the wood seem dry. Unless it is coated in snow or ice, a branch laying on the ground will look dry, even if it’s filled with ice.

Always check the weight of any branches you pick up. With experience, you’ll soon have a pretty good idea how much a dry branch of a certain size should weigh. Try comparing dry branches to freshly cut, green branches sometime, and you’ll see that the green branches weigh considerably more. So, if the branch is heavier than that, it’s most likely not a dry branch.

Look for dry branches in the same places you would if it were raining. That means sheltered areas where the rain won’t fall directly on them, while being off the ground so that they don’t soak up water from the ground. One of my favorite such places is the underside of deadfall trees. There are usually a whole bunch of dry branches which can be broken off easily.

Dry Tinder

How To Start A Survival Fire When It’s Cold, Wet & Miserable

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The bigger problem is going to be in finding anything you can use as tinder. Tinder, by definition, is dry stuff. But you’re not going to find much dry stuff around, unless you happen to find an abandoned bird’s nest somewhere.

This is why our ancestors carried a tinder box with them when traveling. Rather than having to look for tinder when it would be hard to find, they were able to use the tinder they were carrying with them. Then, when they found something that would work as tinder, they replenished their stock.

This is what you should do, as well; carry your tinder with you. Whether that’s in the form of char-cloth or a commercial “fire-starter,” having something that will readily ignite with you is a great guarantee of your survival. You could find everything else you need in nature, but if you can’t find something to use as tinder, you’re going to have trouble making a fire.

I carry a commercial fire-starter with me, as well as cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. Either one will work, even with damp wood, so I’m always sure that I can start a fire. Between the two, I have enough in my bug-out bag to start 50 fires and enough in my EDC to start 20. Why? Because I want to be sure that I can get a fire going, if I need one.

Starting Your Fire

This isn’t the time for impressing people with your ability to start a fire by rubbing two dry sticks together. Nor is it a good time to try and get a couple of sparks from a Ferro Rod into some dry tinder. If you need a survival fire in the winter, then you can’t afford to waste any time. Forget finesse and go for the sure methods of fire-starting, matches or a butane lighter.

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Butane lighters are my favorite fire-starting technique. The best are the ones which have a piezo-electric igniter. Not only will those work every time you strike it, but they continue striking, so that if the wind blows the flame out, it reignites immediately. A waterproof butane lighter with a piezo-electric igniter isn’t anywhere near as cheap as a disposable Bic, but they are worth the investment.

Now, I’ve got to say something about butane lighters here. That is, they don’t work in cold weather. If the weather is cold enough that you’re wearing a coat, it’s cold enough to keep the butane in your lighter from turning into a gas. But, there’s an easy way to overcome this; that’s to keep the lighter inside your clothing, where the heat from your body will makes sure that the butane can flow.

Of course, matches will work as well, especially if you spend the extra money to buy stormproof ones. The only problem is that you’ll be more limited as to the number of fires you can start.

A Final Thought

One way to eliminate the problem of having to start fires in cold weather is to carry one with you. The American Indians did this, carrying hot coals in a cone made out of tree bark. If you’re in a survival situation, you might want to consider doing this, too. Not only will this keep your fire going, but it makes an excellent hand warmer, as well.

What winter fire-starting advice would you add? Share your tips in the section below:

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  1. I too carry cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly. Only a tiny bit torn off a saturated cotton ball will burn long enough to ignite dry tinder, making your cotton ball supply last a long, long time. Even when it’s gone there will be petroleum jelly left in the container which you can smear on a dry stick to ignite. Petroleum jelly will ignite even when wet.

  2. I spent three winters in Fairbanks Alaska from 1956 to 1959. I could always start a fire in three foot deep snow 20 to 50 below zero with 1 to 2 waxed wooden matches. Any time I
    saw a paperback birch tree I would peel the loose bark off it. I always kept a pocket full
    of it. It will light even if it is wet. There small dead evergreens sticking out of the snow.
    I would break them up and make a little platform on the snow, then stack fire starting with
    bark and working up the sizes of wood. The matches were waterproof, but I still carried
    them in a waterproof container. we were warned that if we saw a puddle at 50 to 60 below
    zero, it was probably fuel from a cracked tank.

  3. While a lot of this information is quite good one must consider that building a bed of rocks under a fire is dangerous. Rocks that are wet have the capacity to expand and explode and scatter projectiles towards the fire builder.This could lead to serious injury.
    Common sense folks is paramount here. You’re better off digging a pit into the ground with the stones and going below the wet or snow covered area for your fire. Don’t forget to make a keyhole so there is enough airflow to feed the fire. Fire needs air, fuel and heat to survive.
    Just food for thought….

    • I have built plenty of fires directly on top of the snow and never had a problem with the snow melting underneath. Heat rises.

  4. Jack London wrote a short story on the subject entitled “To build a fire”. It’s not really instructilonal, more of a cautiolnary tale. But, still a worthwhile read.

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