Do you carry firestarters on winter hikes for use in an emergency if you have an accident and become immobilized or need to hunker down in bad weather? I have news for you. Starting a campfire in winter is devilishly difficult when you have your wits about you and borderline impossible when you’re hypothermic in a survival situation. If there’s snow on the ground and you want a heat source to help warm you or melt snow for drinking water, you’d be much better off carrying a stove. Much better.
This topic came to mind because a seasoned hiker died recently from hypothermia in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. While the emergency gear they carried or didn’t carry has not been published, the local social media boards were alive with hikers listing the emergency winter gear they carry, including fire starters.
About 9 years ago, I took a winter backpacking trip into the Moriah Brook Drainage in New Hampshire’s White Mountain with two friends, Guthook and HikerBox, to practice our winter fire-starting skills. It was an eye-opener. We came prepared with fire starters, saws, tools, and avalanche shovels for prepping wood and digging a fire pit in the snow, but we couldn’t keep a fire going for our lives. Luckily I brought a whisperlite white gas stove.
The problem with starting a fire in winter is that the fuel (wood) is covered with snow and the moisture in that fuel is frozen, so it quashes any attempt to ignite it. It also takes a lot of time to collect, so if you’re borderline hypothermic and “out of it”, you’re going to have a hard time collecting wood and waiting around for a fire to grow large enough to provide any relief to save your ass.
My takeaway from that experience is to:
- carry emergency insulation like a sleeping pad/sleeping bag or quilt/bivy combination or a pad/heavy parka/insulated pants so you can stay warm enough to survive a night out.
- travel with experienced companions who will notice when you begin to get hypothermic and will take remedial action.
- On long and sketchy hikes with little hope of fast rescue, carry a stove, preferably a white gas stove, since the fuel will ignite down to -40F below. A jetboil or canister stove will only work down to 15F degrees if you’re lucky. Don’t count on Esbit cubes to do much – they simply don’t have the fuel power to light wet wood or melt snow unless you carry dozens of them.
I think organizations that advocate carrying emergency fire starters in winter conditions, including New Hampshire Fish and Game and the USFS, haven’t thought through the difficulty of starting an emergency fire in winter. What works in warm weather, will not work in high winter when you realize your life is in danger.
Before you put your trust in making an emergency fire in winter, my advice is to test it out. I think you’ll find it’s a lot harder than it sounds.