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The Simple Way To Start A Fire In The Snow

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Wintertime is the hardest time to survive. A combination of the weather and the lack of readily available food have caused many a hearty soul to lose their lives through the years. Proper preparation and care are necessary to survive.

If there ever was a time when you need a fire, it’s when you’re stranded outside in the snow. As darkness falls, the temperatures can plummet, leaving you feeling as if you’re sitting in an icebox. Without a fire, this could lead to a very dangerous situation, one that could cost you the loss of some fingers and toes to frostbite or even the loss of your life.

Starting a fire can be especially difficult in the cold of winter. About the only thing harder is trying to do it in the middle of a rainstorm. There are two basic problems in the snow. The first is that snow melted by the fire turns to water, which can quench your flames and hard work. The second is that it is heat, not a flame, which causes fuel to burn. In the cold of winter, you actually have to raise the temperature of the fuel farther, so that it will ignite. This can make the fire start slower than normal.

Selecting a Site

The first thing to consider when starting a fire in the snow is the site. The fire must be in a location where it is protected from the snow, as well as from wind and water. Oftentimes, people traveling in the wilderness like to start a fire under a tree. That may not work if the tree has a lot of snow burden. The warm air from the fire could cause that snow to soften and fall off the tree into the fire.

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If you decide to start a fire under a tree, first reach up and knock the snow off the branches above the fire. That eliminates the risk and doesn’t make it so that you have to clear the same site twice.

Once you’ve done that, start to clear the snow from the actual site. You can either brush the snow away or tamp it down by walking on it. If you are going to tamp it down, realize that it will melt, so you want to make sure that the water can drain way from the site.

Building the Fire Pit

I’m a firm believer in putting in a stone floor for my fire pit whenever I’m making a fire in the rain or snow. By raising the fuel an inch or two above the ground and having it sit on stones, I provide the water channels to run off through. Never put the stones right up against each other when doing this, but leave a small space between them.

You need a good heat reflector when building a fire in the snow. After all, the main purpose of building the fire is to keep you warm. Adding a hefty heat reflector will help tremendously with that. A big tree, a cliff face or a large stone can work as a heat reflector. You can also make one out of a rescue blanket, using the silver side to give the most reflection.

Image source: granonemoregrear blog

Image source: granonemoregrear blog

Clear a place to pile extra firewood near the fire as well. If possible, raise that area up on rocks as well. If not, use a couple of crosswise sticks to keep the wood out of the snow. Any wood you find will probably have some snow accumulated on it, so a close firewood stack provides an opportunity for the wood to dry before you have to use it.

Building Your Fire

You’ll want to build your fire in the normal way, using tinder, kindling and fuel. When gathering your fuel, try and gather some large pieces, either sections of trunk or chunks of tree stump. Those will be especially good for keeping the fire burning through the night and helping to keep you warm. Gather extra wood, as you’ll find yourself going through it faster than normal.

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If your tinder and kindling are dry, you shouldn’t have much trouble starting the fire, although you might find that it takes longer than normal. Remember: You have to add more heat than normal to the tinder in order to bring it up to burning temperatures.

I’m a firm believer in starting fires with one match or with one use of my metal match. I basically try to force that on myself so that I know I can always start a fire in the worst circumstances. However, when it is rainy or snowy, I don’t mind using an accelerant if I can’t start the fire right away.

My favorite fire accelerant is cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly. Actually, instead of cotton balls, I usually use the cotton makeup removal rounds. They tend to keep together better as I’m working the petroleum jelly into them. Although most people use the backside of a spoon to work the petroleum jelly in, I’ve found that I can do a better job with my fingers.

Getting the Most Out of Your Fire

You want to make sure that your shelter and your fire are very close together. As much as possible, build the fire right in the entrance to your tent or other shelter, always being careful to not let anything flammable or that can melt get too close to the fire. Rescue blankets in the back and roof of your shelter can help keep the heat from your fire in your shelter, keeping you warmer. I always travel with several of them so that I can capture heat in this manner. You also want to make sure you have one between you and the ground.

Heat rocks in the fire and use them to warm your bed before getting into it. A heated rock can also be wrapped in a spare sweater to sleep with, as a heater in your bed. While rocks are not the most comfortable bed companion, you’ll enjoy the warmth.

Coals are the most important part of any fire, as they generate the most heat. Keep adding fuel to your fire so that it can burn and be converted to charcoal. At that point, it will be generating the most heat that it can. That’s much more important than having a lot of pretty flames shoot up from the fire.

The coals from a fire can be moved, using them to warm the ground beneath your bed. Use sticks or a camp shovel to move them to where you are going to sleep and then back again to your fire pit, once they’ve warmed the ground.

What are your tips for starting a fire in the snow? Share them in the section below:

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  1. Thank you for a well done article. With 39 years of outdoor experience during all seasons in Alaska, I can confirm that starting a fire can be a real challenge in rain or deep snow. Try to anticipate the need for a fire before you get so cold that you are shivering or otherwise fumbling with matches, lighter, etc. Allow plenty of extra time to do what is a relatively easy task in milder weather conditions. If possible, gather “squaw wood”, the dead lower branches on standing trees, to use for kindling. Look for sap or pitch to help catch your fire starter. Often thumb size sticks can be split open with a knife to reach dry wood that can be further split or shaved for big tinder or mini-kindling burning. Windproof and waterproof matches & lighters along with a judicious supply of commercial fire sticks or starters, to be used only in a true emergency, are worth the cost and their weight in gold. Consider surplus store trioxane packets, fire starter pastes, or your homemade cotton-ball-Vaseline carried in a zip-lock baggie. A small candle stub can prolong a starting flame if protected from wind and rain. Liquid accelerants are easy to spill, leak, or evaporate unintentionally; I don’t consider them as reliable as the other items mentioned. At the same time, I acknowledge that modern, light-weight back-packing stoves can provide a welcome and quick source of heat in trying weather conditions, but they can be difficult to start in very cold temperatures, and, of course, they cease function when the fuel is gone. Your suggestions on using naturally available resources are valid and helpful.

  2. Wow! I learned some great tips. Thanks.

  3. Winter camping is an activity that I’ve enjoyed for several years now. And over the years, I’ve tried several different fire starting techniques, in a controlled setting. Meaning I had a back up just in case the method I was testing, failed and on a few occasions, I am very fortunate that I did…

    Ultimate Survival Technologies makes this product called Wetfire,, on a coolness rating scale, it rates 4 out 5 stars, but… This was one of those occasions that I was grateful I had back up. The Wetfire I had must have been a bad batch, because no matter what I tried, even soaking it in hand sanitizer (one of my back ups) it would not ignite or even smolder… I did purchase another pack and it worked perfectly, in pouring rain the whole cube ignited and burned for close to four minutes. I usually shave off a pea size amount and find it to be more than enough.

    Now building a fire in snow is tricky, as Mr. Thomas mentioned, having a base under the fire is important, to keep the melting snow from extinguishing the flames. Where I winter camp, there is usually at least six feet of snow or more, so rocks aren’t really accessible, short of getting in a stream, which makes for a very difficult climb out. So, what I do is build a base out of larger branches and then build the fire bundle on top of it.

    I’ve used pine sap and it makes a fantastic fire starter, but it is not always readily available. One thing that I always have with me and it pulls double duty, are cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol. They ignite easily and burn long enough to get some kindling started, plus they are great for basic first aid wound cleaning. I store them in a zip log bag.

    Steel wool and a 9 volt battery is another great option, especially in windy conditions. Just be sure not to store them together. When pressed against the steel wool, the battery creates a glowing ember that can be used to ignite a tinder bundle.

    Some other tested and proven fire starters are:
    – Dryer Lint
    – Marshmallows
    – Carmex or Vaseline lip balm (the squeezable kind)… Note, keep it in your pocket to keep it soft and easier to squeeze from the tube.

    Mr. Thomas mentioned building the fire as close to the opening of your tent or shelter as possible and draping emergency blankets around the back, top and bottom of the shelter to keep heat in. This an awesome suggestion. You can also drape visqueen (plastic sheeting) over the entrance to your tent, this will allow radiant heat from the fire to pass through and more to be retained in the shelter, just make sure that it is a safe distance from the fire.

    Well, I hope that these suggestions are found to be helpful.

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