This post may contain affiliate links.

Winter Hiking and Emergency Fires: Think Again

Winter-Fire-in-a-Snow-Pit

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:

  1. 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.
  2. travel with experienced companions who will notice when you begin to get hypothermic and will take remedial action.
  3. 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.

12 comments

  1. In addition, wouldn’t a person want to try to hunker down, literally and shelter out of the wind? What I envision wouldn’t be conducive to gaining much advantage from a fire, if a person could start one.

    P.S. You’re keeping my basic math skills sharp. Please don’t advance to fractions or Algebra.

    • You’d think, but people do really strange things when they’re alone and hypothermic. For example, there’s something called “paradoxical undressing” which is frequently observed in hypothermic victims, where they undress in extreme cold.

  2. I agree. Trying to start a fire in an emergency is ludicrous. I also think most people hiking in the Whites during the winter are rolling the dice because they don’t carry sleeping bags, insulated pads, or a shelter. Most are carrying a regular day pack with an extra layer, some water and a snack. Maybe they have a space blanket, like that is going to save them. There are so many things that can go wrong in the winter with severe consequences: fall and shred a knee, get soaked on a stream crossing, lose the trail, etc. it is amazing the body count is not higher.

  3. This is a vivid illustration of the core value of your blog- reality not theory coming through with concrete practical guidance that, in this case, could save a life. Thank you!!

  4. Philip, Again a great and timely article. Having emergency gear with you to survive a night is critical, especially in the winter months. Having that extra 7- 10lbs of emergency gear (winter load) is a small price to pay to live to hike another day. When I used to lead for the AMC on winter day hikes, we always carried group gear in case a participant became immobile due to an injury or health/medical event. The group gear consisted of 2 foam pads, sleeping bag, bivy bag, a white fuel stove& pot and an emergency shelter (like a tent with no poles-held up by people’s back while sitting in it). As the leader I also carried a set of insulation pants and a heavy puffy jacket, figuring I would be with the immobile participant until rescue personnel arrived. One should always ask themselves when on a hike that if you or your hiking partner became immobilized (at the most exposed point of your hike) could you two survive the next 12+ hours with what gear you have in your packs. If your answer is no or maybe, then seriously think about what emergency gear you need to carry. To also prepare oneself for a potential emergency on a hike, you should think of some scenarios that could realistically happen and how you should react to the incident at hand. I call this “What if” scenario training. What if Bob falls into the stream and is totally wet(in cold weather). What if Susan starts showing signs of hypothermia or hyperthermia. What if Bill sustains a lower leg injury and cannot be moved. Thinking of these realistic scenarios can help prepare your responsiveness so you when you are presented such a situation you have at least a basic plan of action instead of being surprised and starting from scratch.

  5. If you’re not going to carry a white gas stove at least throw an Emberlit in your pack with those firestarters. It weighs nothing and small, dry wood in the form of the dead lower branches on evergreen trees is abundant nearly everywhere. It’s also a decent redundancy if your stove won’t light for some reason like you’re on an overnight in the Dry River and you decided to try your luck with stale superfuel you found in the back of your gear closet.

    • I always test my superfuel (white gas) before taking it on winter trips. But a mini wood stove might be useful if you can keep the base dry. Actually one of those small solo stoves would be better than an emberlit because the bottom of the can is solid. Of course, you still need to have your wits together to collect any wood.

  6. I agree, a white gas stove is essential for winter survival. In addition, if you can find enough wood you can dry it out a bit by holding the wood over the stove. Just watch your fuel consumption so you don’t run out. You can also boil water and put it into a nalgene bottle then stick it inside your shirt/coat. Also carry some hand warmers and stick them onto your shirt.

  7. A useful piece, thank you.
    However, for UK readers, it is largely irrelevant. Our tree cover on most hills is minimal to nonexistent, except at low level. So, if you are having an epic on nearly every hill I can think of, lighting a fire is not a viable option.
    At the same time, we have a lot less snow than you do.
    I always have a lightweight bivvy bag with me, along with a survival shelter and spare warm clothes (in a dry bag). But you have set me thinking of carrying a stove. I have a Primus Spider, which is great in the cold, as you can invert the gas canister.

  8. I have tried to light fires in the winter and it is not easy and in an emergency I bet I would even struggle to light a match or lighter since my hands are likely to go first. I was very impressed how well one of the small rechargeable electric pumps for inflating an air mattress worked to help get a winter fire going with damp wood (that is what you get winter camping with imaginative young teens that like to play with fire).

    I always carry a sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack along with a bivy and a short foam mat. I am not an expert but I think people view a sleeping bag as bulky and heavy. I often also carry down pants, down jacket,waterproof shell jacket and shell pants and those four items weigh more than my sleeping bag and bivy. Never mind that my sleeping bag also covers my feet, hands and head. I am all for self rescuing and walking out but a sleeping bag in my mind buys me time. I fall in a river I get my wet clothes off and get in my sleeping bag, I get lost and it gets dark, I get caught in a white out and can’t see, I hurt my leg and can’t walk etc etc. I have a wisperlite and use it for winter camping but I carry esbit for emergencies on day hikes. I have tried melting snow and gotten probably less than half a cup with one tablet haha. I make an emergency pouch at the beginning of the season though with a compass, knife, socks, esbit etc.etc. I need things I can leave in the pouch all season and just put the pouch in my backpack otherwise getting up at 4am sometimes I will tend to forget individual items. I think your underlying message of trying and testing things out that you will need in an emergency is very important even the backyard is fine if it is cold and have enough snow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve *