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Winter Survival Fire Lighting Skills – Why Don’t We Teach Them?

The latest issue of the Appalachia Journal arrived last night and I immediately turned to the Accidents Section to read the analysis of this autumn’s accident reports. Established in 1876, Appalachian is America’s longest running journal of mountaineering and conservation. Published quarterly, it’s known for its well written stories and essays, and its famous accident report section. Incidentally, I met the current editor, Christine Woodside, when we both volunteered as Samaritan care givers for a rescue on Mt Washington, a few years ago.

There were quite a few accidents analyzed in this latest issue, particularly ones where hikers and skiers underestimated the danger of winter-like conditions in New Hampshire’s White Mountains during the autumn and spring shoulder seasons. One of the editor’s conclusions that drew my eye was the following quote, in response to a hiker’s inability to start a winter fire when he was cold and wet and had to spend an unexpected night out.

[quote] An added survival note: practicing methods of lighting a fire in snowy, cold, wet conditions seems worthwhile.
[/quote]

While this would seem to be common sense, none of the winter hiking, backpacking, or mountaineering courses I’ve ever taken or participated in teaching includes a section on how to light a survival fire in snowy, cold wet conditions. Why is that, one wonders?

I think it’s largely because building campfires has been so thoroughly discredited by the Leave No Trace movement, which is ironic or unfortunate, depending on your perspective, because LNT ethics are considered less important than one’s survival in an emergency situation. LNT educators will tell you that the amount of damage caused by deploying a search and rescue team, where two dozen people tramp through the woods in a grid search, and helicopters search for you overhead, far outweighs the impact of building an emergency fire for the night.

Equally puzzling, are why hikers carry fire making supplies, but never stop to use them in many of the rescue scenarios described in Appalachia. Once you get below treeline (which is the most important factor for winter survival), stopping to make a fire and sit out the night (in addition to using your extra insulation to get warm), makes a lot more sense than stumbling around in deep snow, lost, and in the dark.

What about stoves? They’re certainly good for melting water, and every solo winter hiker or group should carry one. But stoves have their limits if you are cold and wet. Unless, you’re willing to set your clothes on fire, a stove is not going to help dry you off, nor is a single stove likely to satisfy a group’s energy needs for a night. A warming or signal fire would be much more useful in a serious emergency.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that US population growth will result in more people seeking winter recreation and more demand for emergency services. It seems that teaching more winter survival and self-reliance skills would be a way to help reduce hikers’ reliance on frivolous search and rescue call outs rather than making them the norm.

This could be as simple as having students practice preparing a winter fire site, gathering and preparing wood, and building and lighting a small fire in existing fire rings (in winter, when they’re buried by snow) using the techniques described in the above video. Fire can be a life saver, but only if it’s a taught skill.

If you’re a winter hiker, when was the last time you practiced making a survival fire in winter?

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24 comments

  1. That’s a very good point that one ought to practice building a fire in the conditions that they will need to survive in.

    For backpackers this is a good reason to carry a white gas stove in cold and wet weather. When nothing else burns, white gas will.

    HJ

  2. Agreed, sometimes I think we’ve made the woods a museum to be viewed from groomed trails but never touched.

  3. I’m surprised that you’re experience with LNT is that it has discredited campfire making.
    As a LNT Master Educator I’m always very careful to balance my presentation when it comes to making a fire. I provide the pro&con for fire vs stove and show the techniques for making a responsible fire that minimizes the impact.
    I don’t think I’m discrediting fire making skills but I will likely add a few comments about how valuable they are because stoves can fail.
    With that being said, if I have a stove, yes-it might not be enough by itself to dry my clothes or provide heat for a group, it can be a great fire starting tool.
    A backpacking stove is a practical blow-torch which can provide hi temp, sustained flame to a wood source. If the fuel is liquid and the stove is no longer operable then the fuel is useful for starting a fire.
    .
    A survival situation requires making optimal use of the tools which are available. Following LNT means the first thing you do is 1-Plan Ahead and Prepare. You anticipate all the situations both good and bad and equip yourself to deal with them.
    Regarding those rescues in the Appalachia Journal, you noted yourself that “hikers and skiers underestimated the danger of winter-like conditions … during the autumn and spring shoulder seasons”. I would say those people were _Not_ aware of or following Leave No Trace principles.
    .
    Laying the blame for a lack of fire starting skills on Leave No Trace is a bit of a ‘red herring’ that works as a segue in your article but doesn’t really address the initial premise that none of the winter hiking, backpacking, or mountaineering courses you’ve taken included a section on how to light a survival fire. That to me is poor course development not necessarily LNT discrediting fire starting skills.
    After all that I do want to commend you on the video. There were a lot of very useful tips and techniques demonstrated in a very clear manner. Well done!
    C’ya in the woods…

    • Bob – you’re preaching to the choir here. I’m a LNT master Educator myself.
      While I agree that the people involved in accidents were not prepared, I think you underestimate the effect that LNT has squelched the teaching of firemaking skills in three-season and four-season backpacking instruction. I’m sure *you* know the difference between rules and ethics, but the sad truth is that most people (and instructors) perceive LNT as a system of rules about what you can’t do in the outdoors, and making campfires outside of campgrounds is one of them. I say this from first hand experience. It was only after becoming an LNT Master Educator that I started making campfires, because I finally understood how to build them in a low impact way and how to make ethical decisions about their use.

      • Yes Phillip we are speaking to the same ultimate goal. I’m fairly well connected with several LNT folks in Boulder. I’m going to bring up this point with them that maybe Trainers and ME’s may be leaning too heavily on the ‘no fire is a good fire’ message.
        I’ll be surprised though if the response isn’t something related to the 1st principle.
        Keep doing what you’re doing!

  4. I agree with you Phillip. When I was ten I used to be able to brag about starting fires in a snowbank which I did on a regular basis at our local pond to keep warm with and to thaw out our frozen toes, or what felt like frozen toes, from playing Ice Hockey. I had a reputation for being able to and the girls would always come over to me and say “Eddie, Roger is trying to start a fire, will you do it for him, were cold!”. But I learned from my Father and my Uncle how to do it on various Ice Fishing trips and Deer Hunting trips which fewer and fewer people are doing these days. Most are opting for a day in the snow hiking and then a cozy cabin at a resort for the night…One item that was stressed by my Dad, and later at Marine Corps Winter Training at Pickel Meadows is do not start a fire under a Fir or Pine tree that is covered with snow….My secret to a successful fire in a snowbank, well two….really thick Bark on the bottom and or aluminum foil.. Another was to find an old punky log and split it apart to use as the base..

    • The key, I find, is to build a raft of thick logs as a base as far down into the snowpack as possible so the fire doesn’t drown in snowmelt…which is where your punky log or thick bark comes into play.

    • I think fire-making skills in general are deteriorating because of all the education in our schools about not playing with matches or playing with fire when we are children. In modern society it is dangerous. In the wilderness, it could be a matter of survival. I grew up hunting and fishing, I had a .22 before I was a teenager. We made fires on the ice, during in the winter, while ice fishing. I look at my kids and think of all the internet connectivity they have and they have no survival skills. This year, for Christmas, they got hiking gear. They are going out into the woods, with just what is on their backs and they are going to spend the night. They will learn something, other than posting selfies on Tumblr, if it kills them. My girlfriend if afraid of fire. She won’t even light candles. No idea why, she says it just scares her.

  5. As a Scout leader, we practice winter fire making skills at least twice a year on our winter campouts (More if we get unexpected snow early or late!). We make sure that the boys have multiple ways to make a spark and a couple of different types of “tinder”. We usually bring cotton soaked in vaseline, Esbit tabs and alcohol stove fuel.

  6. Practice, practice, practice. An armful of twigs, two handful of sticks, and a few logs is a good starting point. A common mistake is to gather a bunch of logs and then not have enough sticks to get the logs lit off the tinder.

    Having failed to be able to start or sustain a fire more than a few times, I now make sure I carry enough insulation to survive the night.

  7. This was a great post. Though I was a Boy Scout, we were an urban troop that never went backpacking and when we camped in the winter it was always in a cabin. My mom, however, was a Girl Scout leader for many years who wasn’t content with the traditional Girl Scout curriculum–she used her skills growing up as the daughter of a hunter in Western New York to teach the girls how to winter camp in tents, dress appropriately for the conditions, build improvised shelters and build fires in the snow. Luckily, she taught me, too. She even hosted winter competitions between the Girl Scout troop and local Boy Scout troops. The girls won most years, because they practiced the techniques until they mastered them, while the boys were running on bravado ;)

  8. I think the line between LNT and lack of fire making skills really comes down less to some edict given out, or a decree that fires are never to be made, and more that by practicing LNT, we all have far fewer opportunities to practice making fires, at least in the backcountry. I practice whenever I’m at a campground, and having a wood stove at home helps with practicing too, especially when I forget to cover the woodpile and it’s all soaking wet…

    • This is a good point. I’d have no qualms about starting a fire in a survival situation, I don’t think, but I haven’t started all that many fires in my life, so who knows if I’d be successful. I’m also not entirely sure how I’d go about becoming more experienced, since I’ll probably always camp with a stove, and I’m not sure where I could practice campfire building near my house. Maybe I’ll have to try to take advantage of preexisting fire-rings next time I’m at a tent site.

  9. I was once a sar member. As team mule i carried a white gas stove. We all carried fire starting equipment. Personally i carried 3 ways of starting a fire–small butane lighter, water proof matches and flint. I figured the most important part was getting ignition of the small twigs and branches so i also carried vaseline soaked cotton balls and raffia grass (from hobby stores).
    In high wind or rain and snow conditions i ignited the starter in a bag. Practice practice practice.
    I still hike and carry this gear in case

    • Practice practice practice.

      As you say, the conditions in which you start a fire can vary widely (rain, snow, wind), so practice is vital to figure the best way to mitigate these external factors and take advantage of ones you might encounter such as natural heat reflectors or wind breaks such as root balls or erratics.

      I have to check out “raffia grass”. Thanks,

  10. I spent 8 years helping my grandfather guide for elk in the Rockies. Learned several ways to build a fire in the rain and snow. A good base to keep it from flooding is a must. Nothing beats a tube of vasoline and some cotton balls, and at least 4 ignition sources. My kids know that as soon as it rains, we put on our gear and we practice lighting fires. Practice, practice, practice!

  11. Fire starting skills have always been one of the things I always plan to get around too, but it never seems to work out like that. It is probably because I’m over confident. I’ve never really had an issue starting a fire when needed, and I’ve never ended up really cold. I bring the right layers and always keep my sleeping bag dry.

    However, I could end up having the worst case scenario and I have been talking about doing a weekend of survival skills with my brother.

    • I’m big on practicing before the big event. Like anything, starting a fire is going to be a lot harder when you are cold, confused, and feeling desperate. The best thing for me to do to avoid feeling this way is to figure out what does and doesn’t work by trying lots of things in a more controlled and safe practice session, and then becoming an expert on one or two that will work in the clutch. I treat winter and cold wet weather with enormous respect and while I’m confident, I also make sure my skills and my companions are up to snuff before I go on an adventure.

  12. The decline in fire-making skills was observed by Bradford Angier a long time ago. Even Col. Townsend noticed the trend in the lack of fire-making skills in his 1958 book and partly blamed it on the Forest Service’s fire-fighting awareness as well as stoveing.

    But he also noted forest-fires are caused by people who don’t know how to make low-impact camp-fires and ones who are ignorant of the dangers they bring.

  13. A small extra tip: give the stem of the spruce a good kick and move quickly a couple of meteres away before you start collecting tinder and wood from it.
    Getting your neck full of snow sucks.

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