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Winter Fire Building Practice – Twice Makes Right

A winter fire made from batoned wood
A winter fire made from batoned wood

I headed back into the winter woods to practice building a winter fire, a survival skill that I want to master in case I ever need an emergency fire. (see Winter Survival Fire Lighting Skills – Why Don’t We Teach Them? and  Winter Fire Building Trip.)

The objective of this practice session was to see if I could build a fire with wood that had been split into very thin, pencil sized pieces of wood using a Mora Bushcraft Survival Knife, using a practice known as batoning. I deliberately limited the fire wood I collected to a length of blow down that I found above ground, unburied by snow, because I wanted to see whether I could get a fire made with just batoned wood. While this constraint might sound artificial, I’d argue that it’s surprisingly realistic.

If you need to start an emergency winter fire in deep snow, you don’t want to spend a lot of time snowshoeing through unbroken woods in search of kindling because it uses up a lot of energy. There’s also the added danger of falling into a spruce trap, which is a void around the base of a spruce formed when snow collects on the lower branches but forms a well around the base of a tree. If you are alone and fall into one, it’s very difficult to pull yourself out without the help of friends, effectively making it a death sentence in winter.

Dig down to the ground to prevent drowning the fire when it starts burning
Dig down to the ground to prevent drowning the fire in snowmelt when it starts burning

With 8 inches of fresh powder on the ground, I snowshoed into a remote region of the White Mountains where I could build a low impact, leave no trace fire and remain undisturbed. Fire making is legal in the White Mountain National Forest provided you follow local backcountry regulations.

Once I’d found a suitable dead tree that I could process into firewood, I dug a snow pit all the way down to the leaf covered ground, so I could prevent the fire from melting into the snow and drowning in snowmelt once it got going. I also built a little bench that I could sit on and a wind break to block the wind against my back. I’d oriented my bench so that the smoke from the fire would blow away from my face.

Cut a six foot branch about the thickness of your arm
Cut a six-foot branch about the thickness of your arm

Next, I cut off a six-foot branch with my folding Silky Saw, about the diameter of my arm, and dragged it over to my fire pit and foam sitting pad to process further.

Cut into thirds and use one as a baton
Cut into thirds and use one as a baton

I cut the log into three pieces, one to use as a baton, and the other two to split into firewood.

Splitting wood into thinner pieces using a survival knife, a process called battoning
Splitting wood into thinner pieces using a survival knife, a process called battoning

The idea behind batoning is to split a length of wood into smaller pieces exposing center pieces which are drier than the wood closer to the bark. To baton a piece of wood, you place a survival knife across the top and bash it into the wood using a wooden club, called a baton. Holding onto the knife handle, you keep hitting the front end of the knife with the baton until the wood splits. A four-inch bushcraft knife is the perfect size for this process.

There is an art to getting good splits without exerting a lot of energy during batoning. Wood with a lot of knots in it is very hard to split with a knife. Longer pieces take less effort to split than shorter pieces, and it’s best to start taking splits closer to the perimeter of the wood rather than the center to help prevent your knife from binding (getting stuck) in the wood.

Progressively split the wood into smaller and smaller pieces down to the thickness of a wooden pencil or thinner
Progressively split the wood into smaller and smaller pieces down to the thickness of a wooden pencil or thinner

For each piece of wood I split off, I continued batoning it into smaller and smaller pieces, until I had several piles of assorted sizes, including pencil sized strips that I planned to use for kindling. I piled these on top of my foam pad sit to keep snow from collecting on them.

The initial firelay - a wooden raft with kindling piled on top
The initial firelay – a wooden raft with kindling piled on top

I saved a few larger pieces and used these to build a raft on top of the frozen ground, keeping lots of space between them to promote airflow. Next I stacked kindling on top of the raft, and lit it with vaseline covered cotton balls, using my bushcraft knife and a fire steel as my ignition source.

While the kindling did catch fire, it didn’t remain lit after the vaseline balls burned up. I could hear the moisture in the kindling boil off while it was burning, so I reasoned that I needed a fire starter that could burn long enough to dry out the initial batch of kindling so that it could burn unassisted, and dry the next batch of wood placed on top of it.

As it happens, I always carry a few ESBIT cubes in my fire making kit, which burn for about 10 minutes. I placed one in the center of my kindling pile and it worked as desired, kick starting the fire into a self-perpetuating burn-dry-burn mode.

Most of the deadfall is buried under snow in this  hardwood forest.
Most of the deadfall is buried under snow in this hardwood forest.

Lessons Learned

I’ve concluded that it’s good to bring a longer burning fire starter to help dry out your kindling when starting fires in winter. While an ESBIT cube did the job for me, I plan to experiment with carrying wax covered egg cartons cells or an emergency candle to see they’re better for my needs. In either case, I plan to continue carrying vaseline covered cotton balls, which are very easy to light with a fire steel, and use them to light a longer burning fuel source in order dry my kindling.

During this practice session, it was interesting to see that the wood I split from the middle of the log still contained moisture in it. I hadn’t expected that to be the case. I suspect this will vary from tree species to tree species.

Splitting my wood into very thin pencil-size pieces made all the difference in starting this fire, not only because they are easier to light, but also because they promote more air flow through the initial firelay. I was also surprised by how much wood I could generate by batoning a single six-foot long branch. I’d located my fire pit just steps from the blow down that I used as my fuel source, a practice which make sense to repeat in the future.

I’m glad I’m practicing this winter fire making skill this year. It’s a good survival skill to have in my pocket.

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36 comments

  1. Phillip, in my experience, pencil sized wood is still too large to start the fire unless (as you did) you use something like an esbit tab. If I want to start it with Vaseline cotton balls, I’ve found it best to split some of my kindling even smaller, to the size of match sticks or toothpicks. Doing that, I can usually get it going well enough to gradually work up to pencil size, and then larger. This generally works unless the wood is really wet. When I fail to get a fire going, it is usually because I got in too big a hurry, and failed to split the wood small enough.

    That is a good way to practice, and build ones skills. However, in a real emergency you need a fire “right now”, and using esbit tabs, a candle stub, etc, as you did, is appropriate.

    • Great advice Tom.
      I do believe I am getting the hang of this!

      • Philip, next time, propane stove…Or better yet, bring your car and stay inside it. WAY warmer. There’s yer problem.

      • That was good advice Tom; From one Alaskan to another. And Philip, I saw some evergreens in your photos. Any dead twigs, called Squaw Wood, below the greenery is incredibly combustible. If there is no green on them they are good to go. Harvesting squaw wood makes quick and hot burning kindling without wasting time batoning wood into small pieces. Chunks of hardened sap which can be found on most evergreens is also great for instant heat. I use the vaseline/cotton ball method myself but sometimes the cold has made me want a hot fire faster. Fortunately here in Alaska, in spite of the cold, we have lots of material to work with. Your steps in building a winter fire is a ton of good advice for the novice. It takes practice to become adept so keep practicing. I do.

  2. Phillip, Thanks so much for being the one that actually goes through the hard stuff in order to impart wisdom! I have had increased success in starting and maintaining fires because of articles like yours which certainly increases the enjoyment of being outdoors in cold or inclement weather.

  3. Cary road flares.

  4. Your just having just too much fun Phil…great educational piece. Now the next time to keep it true survival, find or locate a flat rock to build your fire on…A couple of times when I had a trap line and wanted to thaw out my fingers and toes, I used a number of thick Spruce Bark slabs from a Dead tree that I layered four into a 12×12 base on the cleared ground and built the fire on that For kindling I use the small dead branches from under a Pine tree and the smaller branches of downed trees as you show in the pictures which I crumbled up and made a nice little 4 inch pile of. I gather these as I hike along the trail or cross country as a “just in case” issue. Small Pine or Fir is the best because it still has a bit of pitch in it.. My Favorite Winter knife for many years was a Quartermaster K-Bar, or my 1970 Randall Hunter, their collectors items now so I have retired them for my Grandkids. Most of the time I carry a Buck Folding Hunter Knife I bought in 1977 at their factory in El Cajon, Ca. before they moved, it is still going strong. The weak part in any folding knife other than cheap metal in the blade, is the handle the blade is attached to and how it is attached. I’ve seen friends bust a number of knives at the joint where it is attached to the handle which just couldn’t deal with the pounding. One word of caution is never Hammer on the side the joint is on,,always have blade long enough to stick through to the opposite side of the wood you are splitting, this can avoid the broken joint issue on cheaper knives…because when you smack down, you holding the knife handle in one hand and forcing it upwards and the strike with the baton forces it downward which can and will lead to a snapped or broken knife at that joint in cheap knives…. Thanks as always great information..

  5. There is something very satisfying starting a fire in the woods with a bare essential amount of materials and tools. Great skills to learn that are quickly being lost I think. I hardly ever start fires when backpacking, usually only when car camping as it is a different environment and different energy sitting around a fire ring at a camp site with the wife, rather than being alone on the side of a trail starting a fire.

    I actually decided to build a fire in my back yard last week. I used nothing but my fire steel and some drier lint. I learned quickly how fast drier lint burns up, you will need a lot more of it than you realize. I used about a fist sized chunk. Luckily my firewood was from some trees that got trimmed earlier in the fall, so everything was completely dried out. Believe me, it is much more difficult to get a fire started when it is 4 degrees with a -10 windchill. Lessons learned!

  6. I reference that video in an earlier article. Kirtley and Mears are great.

  7. Any particular reason you aren’t experimenting with using a hatchet, or something similar? Seems like a hatchet, ax, or other chopping device would be good for batoning, and potentially good for cutting the log into multiple pieces.

    • Besides being much heavier, hatchets and axes are quite dangerous in untrained hands (I am untrained). But a folding saw and bushcraft knife cannot be beat in terms of versatility and they’re very easy to learn how to use safely.

  8. A fire starter/kindling material I like very much is cotton make-up pads dipped in a mix of melted wax with a little lamp oil. When dried they are waterproof, not messy, compact, will take a spark from a ferro rod (tear to expose fibers) and long burning. You can effectively replace your PJCB and esbit tablets. Not my idea, but works great and better IMO than others I have tried. Ease of use combined with effectiveness and convenient carry makes it a winner for me.

  9. SUCCESS! Excellent! You carry fire starters (lint, esbit, vaseline soaked cotton balls…) why not carry/light your fire with strike anywhere weather proof matches? Don’t get me wrong, fire steal is an essential in any survival kit, but matches can give a measure of ease in a tough situation.

  10. very interesting read i started changing up my fire making kit after messing around last winter with frozen blow down in the dark on a section hike, having some trouble. i didn’t plan on making a fire on the trip but wanted to entertain the idea.i also depend mostly on the esbit for starter now.as well as multiple back ups. braided twine attached to fire steel so it can be frayed down for kindling. brown bag my days food to keep organized and fire kindling, candle lantern, chap-stick and q-tip to make candle lantern, book of matches in tiny zip lock, mini bic with zip tie around the red depressor to keep from gasses from leaking out and the Vaseline cotton balls i used last year. i do still have to pick up a knife for battoning getting to the hart of the wood when it’;s frozen like that is important. but for the time being i have friends that look like Rambo with knives strapped to everything you can strap a kife to. i can just beg and barrow till i get my own.

  11. As Tom in Alaska and Eddie s. alluded to, I see lots of twigs sticking off those branches in your picture. That’s what I think of as “kindling”. As many of those as possible will get a nice little blaze going in no time. I try to start with the smallest stuff I can find, and build the size of the pieces little by little, often stepping back in size and feeding in smaller pieces under larger ones to keep the fire hot.

  12. Another thought I had that might be interesting to experiment with, although I have not tried it myself: a Dakota fire. Usually made with two holes in the ground (or in the snow, I’m thinking), with a tunnel between them at the bottom of the holes. One hole contains the fire, pulling air into it from the other hole, through the tunnel, as the hot air in the “fire hole” rises. Might help fuel it, since you’re already in a hole, probably decreasing your air flow somewhat.

    • In winter? You’d die of starvation before you could dig a hole in the frozen ground.

      • That’s why I wrote, “(or in the snow, I’m thinking)”. The Dakota fire is made in the ground during the seasons when you can dig in the ground easily. I wasn’t suggesting that you try to dig into the frozen ground. You are already digging a hole in the snow for your fire (which probably decreases the air getting to it efficiently); why not dig another hole in the snow next to it, with a tunnel between them (through the snow), to better fuel your fire with air?

      • BTW, the usual purpose of a Dakota fire, so I’ve read, is for stealth (and possibly to create something of an oven effect). It hides the flames, and is supposed to eliminate, or at least decrease, the smoke. However, again, it seems like it might make your fire — already in a hole — burn more efficiently.

  13. You missed the “Tinder” part of the fire lay :).

    Next time, use your knife to turn some of the inner edges of the split pieces into a big pile of shavings. Then you won’t need any esbit cubes. The shavings will burn long and hot enough to dry out the kindling.

    Ps: great blog. I’d like to hear your thoughts on layering alternatives – and what worked versus didn’t work for you. I’m still using old school fleece layers and a shell – and wondering if using a soft shell (etc) would work better. I’d love to find a layering system that drys fast, and only requires adding & removing the outer layer – instead of mid layers…

  14. In the boy scouts when I was growing up, we actually filled the egg carton wells half-way up with the wax, resulting in pseudo-candles that lit easily and lasted a long time with or without other additives in the wax as per http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-make-AMAZING-fire-starters-BoyScout-Style/. Another method was the “fire bug” as described here: http://www.boyscouttrail.com/webelos/w2/otherresources/webelos-outdoorsman-ideas.htm. Also, we learned to use a knife to split off splinters/twigs from larger sticks- leaving them attached to the larger stick, to form a “feather stick” ala http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feather_stick.

  15. I just did a very similar experiment a few weeks ago. I used a Bahco Laplander folding saw (6.6oz) and a Mora Light My Fire knife / firesteel (3.9oz) for batoning.

    However, I had to also use Fiskars 14″ axe (1lb 7oz) as I was trying to make a Finnish style rakovalkea fire that would last 6+ hours. I was trying to see how long it would provide heat with little to no maintenance using 10′ of 7″ partially rotted spruce logs cut at 5′ and stacked upon each other. Besides that, everything else I learned was very similar to your experience.

    All my wood was either wet or frozen. I lit cotton balls with the firesteel in the handle of the knife, but, as you found, it wouldn’t keep the wood going. I ended up successful with 4 cotton balls (qty 10 = 1.4oz) and 2 egg carton cup / dryer lint / wax covered concoctions (.3oz each – see tip below), plus some birch bark. The firesteel lit the cotton balls, which lit the eggs cartons, which lit the pencil size kindling, etc., etc.. I also used the branches batoned from the 10′ of spruce between the logs. I found that the egg carton cups will burn for 10 minutes and were critical to getting the fire established.

    FWIW, that fire burned for about 6 hours with no more than 10 minutes of help (additional twigs) on my part.

    Perhaps more relevant here tho is how I made the egg carton starters. Instructions can be found anywhere online that are pretty much the same using a double boiler on a stove. I modified them to expedite the process… use small elastic bands to hold the cup together rather than string (pull the elastic off after they dry). Also, use kitchen / bbq tongs to lower the cup into the wax… much better than trying to submerge it – it wants to float. HTH.

    • Very interesting. Yeah, I know exactly what kind of fire you mean. I want to try that too. Probably need a bigger saw though.

      • Yes. I agree totally with your tool choices for a more conventional fire lay as well. The axe is too heavy and far more dangerous than necessary, especially for processing the wood to a very small size. My saw was not quite able to process that larger log. Had I found a smaller tree in the range of 5-6″ I would have been fine with the Laplander and knife and would probably still have gotten 4+ hours.

  16. Hello all,
    Ok, Tom in Alaska said something very important, smaller is better. Continue to cut until you get the wood to pencil size then perform an Alaskan cut. An Alaskan cut is: put the wood onto flatten side of bigger piece of the split wood, take your knife point and drive it into the center of the smaller piece of wood. The idea is to push the knife through so the point sticks into bigger piece of wood. Once this is done, give a slight twist to knife starting to separate the little wood. Then pull wood against the blade. Adjust and repeat. You can cut the wood down to paper thin. (Ok this really is easier than it sounds). (And took much longer to write out than what I thought in my head).

    The other thing is look for birch bark or “indian” sap. Indian sap can be collected from spruce trees, it is highly flammable and readily available. Once collected it looks like fire paste. Birch bark (readily available in Northern Latitudes) and green evergreen branches will burn fairly easy and very hot. Will smoke then turn to big hot flames.

    I prefer flint and steel for winter fire building. It works everytime and last forever. With a little practice you can get a fire and boil water in less than ten minutes. Then use spruce needles to make spruce needle tea and get a shot of vitamin C from it.

    Pitchy softwoods are best for emergency winter fires. Oh and use parafin wax mix with dryer lint and pour into cupcake cups or cardboard egg cartons.

    Dennis
    “We have but one life to live. Live it, for the opposite is to regret it!”

  17. Highly recommend Sven Saws. Might be overkill for this but I use mine all the damn time. Cheers

  18. Thank you. This was a very helpful post.

    • I carried a Sven Saw for years. Never once did I use it. Too much trouble taking it out, assembling it and tightening the wing nut. I’m talking at -20 to -30 temps mostly, which is when I would make 40 mile treks in Interior Alaska. I would just whip out my Estwing Axe 26″. It handled what I needed it to do with much more ease and sweat than using the saw. These days however, I have gotten a large Silky pruning saw, I think it is 18″. It is much easier than the Sven as all you do is pull it out of the hard sheath. Quick, easy and oh so effective. It is even easier than the Estwing Axe as there is less effort and less sweat. Sometimes you just have to experiment and learn from experience what works best in what situation.

      • I’ve switched to a big silky too. Also, I’ve started using the dead branches at the base of spruces as tinder. I only do this in remote off trail areas which see no traffic so no one sees it (hence, leave no trace)

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