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Winter Fire Building Practice Trip

Winter Fire in a Snow Pit
Winter Fire in a Snow Pit

This trip was motivated by an accident report I read about in Appalachia Magazine where the victim couldn’t get a fire started in winter conditions. The Appalachia Accident Editor recommended that winter hikers practice winter firelighting skills which is a topic that’s left out of most winter hiking and backpacking curriculums that I’ve taught. A curious omission if you think about it, since winter is the time of year when you can’t count on a rescue and need to be the most self-reliant. I subsequently wrote about this topic in Winter Survival Fire Lighting Skills – Why Don’t We Teach Them?

After that article was published, my friend Mike (hikerbox), suggested we go on a winter backpacking trip and practice our own winter firelighting skills. I invited my friend Ryan (guthook) along and we decided to combine our trip with a climb up Mt Moriah, on the edge of the Wild River Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The turnoff into the Wilderness is about 2/3 of the way up the mountain, so we figured we’d hike part way up, before descending the Moriah Brook Trail and finding a campsite for the night. The following morning, we climbed back up to the ridge and continued to the summit of Mt Moriah in single digit weather.

Mike and Ryan are both experienced New Hampshire winter backpackers, so we didn’t plan out a full gear list because we all know what to bring on trips like this (See Winter Backpacking Gear List for an example winter gear list.) But I did write a more detailed plan for the skills we wanted to practice on our trip in order to make sure we were all on the same page about our objectives.

Wild River Wilderness - Guthook Breaks Trail
Wild River Wilderness – Guthook Breaks Trail

Skills Practice Plan

Campsite Selection Criteria

  • Near a larger hardwood blow down that is not green and not on the ground (wet), which we can process for firewood.
  • It would be ideal if we found a site reasonably near running water, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time melting snow. This may be difficult and risky though with snow ledges along the river
  • Site surrounded by trees for wind protection, but with enough space that we don’t set surrounding trees on fire
  • No snow overhead on overhanging boughs
  • Large erratic, mound, or rock face that we can either build a fire in front of, or sit in front of facing the fire, to serve as a heat reflector. We can also build a heat reflector using snow or with firewood.

Fire building in winter

Mike and Ryan digging out a snow pit for our fire and kitchen
Mike and Ryan digging out a snow pit for our fire and kitchen
1. Dig out snow, down to earth if possible
2. In the interests of LNT, build fire on top a wood raft (thick logs) to prevent ground scorching and drowning the fire in snowmelt. Afterwards, disperse ash and unburnt wood where others can’t see it.

3. Wood processing skill practice

  • Batoning with a survival knife  – to create kindling
  • Sawing larger limbs and how to prevent binding
  • Kindling collection
  • Making feathersticks
  • Natural tinder collection (birchbark…depends on what else we find in the forest such as grass, cat tails, etc)
  • Lighting tinder using a fire steel and bushcraft knife.
Tinders we can bring along to try out
  • White gas
  • Cotton balls soaked in vaseline
  • All cotton dryer link
  • Cliff bar wrappers….
  • Egg carton dipped in wax
  • etc.
4. I’d like to practice two long burning fire variants, time permitting.
  • Pyramid fire, built on top of a thick wood raft. Once the raft is built we can take turns building and starting fires on top of it using different firestarters and tinders.
  • Parallel fire lay (just requires two larger log lengths, about 6 inches in diameter)
5. Fire augmentation  (time permitting)
  • Build a log screen behind fire to create updraft and better heat reflection
  • Build a log screen behind our sitting spot to block wind and reflect heat

Survival Shelter Practice

Mike's snow shelter with a tarp. Ryan and I wimped out an slept in our tents.
Mike’s snow shelter with a tarp. Ryan and I wimped out and slept in our tents.

Usually, there’s not enough snow in the White Mountains to build a snow cave or carve snow blocks from wind slab. In these conditions, the easiest shelter to build is really a snow trench or one covered with a tarp, for the purpose of getting out of the wind.

  • Snow trench
    • We’ll skip insulating the group with pine boughs in the name of LNT. Bring one or two well insulated sleeping pads, instead.
    • Build a multi-level trench with cold sink
  • Snow trench with tarp overhead (variant)
  • Sleeping in a bivy sack
It’s up to you if you want to sleep like this or bring a tent for greater comfort. 
Guthook, a Whisperlite Jedi, setting up our snow meltig station
Guthook, a Whisperlite Jedi, setting up our snow melting station

Group Gear

  • At least two stoves (Philip is likely to bring an inverted canister stove)
  • Folding Silky Saw (Philip)
  • 3 Mora bushcraft knifes (Philip will supply)
  • Avalanche shovel (at least 2)
  • At least one fire steel (Philip has one)
  • Possibly a cheap tarp for heat reflection (we’ll want one with grommets, cordage)

Suggested gear – thick foam pad for sitting on, insulated water bottle holders, lots of rich food and hot drinks

Camping at the head of the Moriah Brook Trail
Camping at the head of the Moriah Brook Trail, Wild River Wilderness

The Actual Trip

Things didn’t go quite as planned, but judging by the amount of wood smoke I have in my clothes, we did enjoy some small success at starting a winter fire.

Mike batoning (splitting wood) with a survival knife
Mike batoning (splitting wood) with a survival knife

One thing is for sure. We were humbled by the experience. All of us are experienced firebuilders, but getting a roaring fire going in winter proved beyond us. I feel that I still need more practice, as do Mike and Ryan. I have another backpacking trip coming up this weekend and plan to build another fire on it.

Wood collection and classification
Wood collection and classification

The biggest obstacle we encountered was developing enough coals during the beginning kindling stage of the fire to get our large wood pieces to light. We tried all kinds of long burning firestarters to help things along ranging from vaseline soaked cotton balls to Esbit cubes, but we couldn’t get beyond that stage.

I think the problem is that we relied on unprocessed kindling, not kindling that had been hand-spilt into finer pieces, thereby exposing the drier inner wood core.My next winter wood fire will be built using very fine batoned (hand-split) wood on top of a wooden raft. I have a hunch that will work, but I can only prove it to myself by trying it.

Mike lighting a vaseline covered cotton ball with a firesteel
Mike lighting a vaseline covered cotton ball with a fire steel

Despite our limited success, did do a few things right.

  1. We found a great campsite, open but sheltered from the wind, without any overhanging trees covered with snow.
  2. We dug a fire pit down to ground level so that our fire wouldn’t sink into the snow. The pit blocked the wind and acted as a heat reflector.
  3. We built a wood raft to build our fire on top of so it wouldn’t drown in snow melt from the walls of the fire pit or scorch the frozen ground underneath.
  4. We collected a good amount of wood using my saw and batoned it using our survival knives.
  5. We experimented with a number of different ignition sources and tinder types.
  6. We dispersed any trace of our fire pit when we departed and buried all evidence of our kitchen.
Filling in our kitchen to Leave No Trace
Filling in our kitchen to Leave No Trace

The Importance of Practice

I think the key to becoming a good hiker or backpacker is in learning and practicing new skills until they become second nature. So it doesn’t really bother me that much that we weren’t 100% successful in mastering the skill of lighting a roaring fire in winter. I know from experience that developing skills like this takes time, repetition, and failure, and I’m ok with that. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning how to do things right, and is a good thing as long as it doesn’t kill you in the process. It’s important to make those mistakes in more controlled practice sessions like this however, so you have the skills when your life does depend on them.

22 comments

  1. Yes, practice makes perfect and this trip serves to show how difficult seemingly simple things can really be in a real setting. Good read.

  2. Comfort smomfort! Once I turned around so the snow wasn’t blowing in my face that tarp was great.

    I think we picked an especially wet area too but I agree, more kindling from baton’d pieces would have worked better. That and a tepee fire to dry out the larger stuff vs. the upside down fire and log cabin fires we tried.

  3. That’s a awesome trip!

  4. Very good article, I would thought winter fire is essential, part of winter survival.

  5. Philip,

    Judging by the picture it seems you guys are working backwards. It appears you have all your larger wood below your kindling. It looks like you were hoping to start the kindling near the top and let the fire work down throughout the wood. I have built many fires in the woods in winter. From 2 inches of wet snow to 3 1/2 feet of powder in single digit temps. I have never encountered a problem. Your wood grouping is good and essential for quick feeding of the right sized fuel as needed. All you should have done is laid your bottom base out,used your tinder wood on top of that and gently fed gradually larger sized pieces to your fire. Heat rises. It burns upward better.You could box your tinder in with larger pieces and gradually pyramid them upwards as your fire gets hotter.Just leave yourself enough room to feed the fire in the beginning. I only use naturally occurring wood and rarely have had a need to “process” my wood other than cutting it to size. I could be looking at your methods wrong and the picture may be deceiving..but..my two cents.

    Bruce

    • We initially tried to build an “upside down” fire which has the advantage of not needing much maintenance and a long burn once it gets going. The coals generated by the tinder and smaller sticks are supposed to fall down and light the larger pieces. Unfortunately I think our wood was wetter than we could tell since it was all frozen solid. We eventually tried a log cabin style fire on top of the larger pieces but couldn’t generate enough coals to get them to light.

      I think the pyramid like you describe is the way to go since it would use more of the heat to dry out the bigger pieces of wood.

      • I have become enamored with the upside down fire, but living in the wet Northwest I have also seen them sputter out. The key is to have a significant pile of additional small material to feed the top as it burns through the initial material (which also means you need to stick around and watch the fires development)…..in such wet situations even the best initial pile of dryish wood on top won’t generate enough coals. Despite this limitation, I still prefer it to blowing on a tee pee set up for 30 minutes. I do agree on prepping this top group of wood to be split as well as possible.

  6. I’ve not tried this in winter camping, so I don’t have direct experience, but I’m inclined to agree with Philip above. Everything looks great about your firewood pile, except it seems the smaller, more quickly burning items should be just above the “snow barrier” logs, and beneath the gradually larger pieces of wood. I like the elevation and draft increase you’d get from the “snow barrier” logs, but agree the small kindling items should be in the middle of the pile, not at the top. My one cent anyway. Thanks for posting this and taking the effort of going out there to try ideas out for real. Really enjoy this blog.

  7. I know eleven year old Boy Scouts who can build fires better…Go buy a BSA Handbook or Field Guide.
    PS you may want to check NH RSAs concerning fires and cutting trees, despite the deep snow and LNT best practices you still may be violating the law.

  8. Mike is doing a good job cutting with the knife, away from himself in the batoning pic. I sometimes catch myself cutting towards myself with a knife and stop myself before it’s to late.

  9. I’ve built many fires in the winter, in the Adirondacks, sometimes using wood that was partially buried under the snow. Here’s what I’ve learned:

    1. It’s not that hard – honest :)
    2. No need to dig down really far. But you do need packed snow base, and 6-9″ of logs between the snow and the fire to keep the snow from melting.
    3. DO NOT use ANY sort of fancy fire-lay. Those are for Boy Scouts who want to prepare a fire in the daylight, and light it later when it’s dark ;). Just lay a hat full of tinder in a pile and light it, adding one handful of twigs at a time in a cross-cross / overlapping manner. Wait a minute or three until it’s all burning hot, then repeat with handfuls of pencil-size kindling. Wait a minute or three until it’s all burning hot, then repeat with thumb size kindling. Wait 3-5 minutes and repeat with 2 finger size fuel. Wait 5-10 minutes and repeat with wrist sized fuel. Wait 10-15 minutes and add 4″ diameter fuel. Done :)
    4. If things aren’t progressing and look like the fire might go out, then add airflow (by fanning with your hat).
    5. Always remember: Heat rises – fire doesn’t go downward to get to more fuel. It also doesn’t go sideways to get to more fuel. Pile the handfuls of tinder and fuel into the top of the Flames. After the fire is burning hot, you can spread it out. Not before.
    6. Wood must dry first, then be heated until the point it bursts into flame. If the twigs are covered with ice, then the outer 1/8″ is water logged, and you’ll need to use shavings instead of twigs. If the small sticks are covered with ice, then treat the outer 1/8″ (all the way around) as if it was water. ie: you’ll need a fire to dry them out before they will burn. You’ll need to make your own kindling by splitting pencil size peices out from the inside (dry part) of a bigger branch. All this is not as hard as it sounds: I start with a long wrist sized branch, cut it into pieces 15″ long, split 4 pieces onto quarters, split 4 of the quarters into pencils, and cut the inner 1/2 of 4 quarters into shavings. Then I just need enough 4″ logs to match my desired burn time, and about the 2/3 that number of wrist size logs. Usually, you can get all that from 1 branch sticking out of the snow, but attached to a fallen tree.

    Ps: I always use the LMF Army firsteel. I have 2 scripto lighters that have fluid and spark, but won’t light. I also like vaseline soaked cotton balls. They make life a lot easier if you have to make fire in a medium rain, and don’t want to rig a tarp over the fire pit first. Or if you can only find smaller branches, and they are water logged from sitting in the leaf mold for months…

  10. Hi Philip. Not trying to be rude, but have you ever slept out in the winter with only a fire (no sleeping bag) to stay alive? Is that fire lay intended to be a survival fire?

    • No -we’re working up to that. The point is to gradually reduce our reliance on equipment in order to prepare for an oh shit scenario, like when a snow bridge collapses and you get soaking wet because you fall in a stream (where a stove isn’t going to help much) and you need to dry your clothes.

      • Cool. The reason I asked is because I do have experience in survival training and experience in extreme weather; what you’re demonstrating in this blog doesn’t fit the scenario you’re apparently training for. I guess I just don’t see the point in writing an instructional article on winter survival when you have no experience and skill with it. Maybe write on what you actually know, like backpacking. The internet is full enough already of articles and videos by people talking about things they have no experience with.

      • But this isn’t an instructional article. It’s a trip report, where one of our objectives was to try to build a winter fire. If anything, I’m trying to demonstrate that I am NOT an expert and that developing such expertise takes practice and failure.

      • Ok, it seems like it’s both. It isn’t hard to actually safely practice some winter survival skills. Go out and make your fire and whatever else you do and try to survive a few nights in the winter; just bring a sleeping bag and whatever else in case you fail and need it.

  11. Great read. A couple years ago I challenged myself to get better at winter, or more important wet weather, fire making. Needless to say, the experiments were very humbling. I’m sure plenty people will tell you what you did wrong, but the best (and most rewarding) way to learn is to just practice. Like you, I chose cheap and lightweight fire starters and tinder with the same mediocre results. When it’s wet, processing wood is really the key, although it’s time and energy consuming. One great hint I can offer you is to carry your wood burning stove to help make coals. I have successfully used my caldera cone (on top of a “wood raft”) many times to create great coals and dry out larger tinder. Good luck experimenting and have fun.

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