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