The ideal conditions for starting a fire involve dry tinder and wood, ambient or warm temperatures, and perhaps a slight breeze. Not exactly the conditions you would find yourself in during a winter storm when you need a fire the most. Extreme winter conditions, such as heavy snowfall, icy rain, strong wind gusts, and damp wood, can make building a fire challenging for even an experienced outdoors person.
Your number one priority surviving outdoors during the winter will be to establish a safe Shelter from the elements. While a shelter will trap your body heat, a fire may be necessary to help you dry off and conserve your body’s energy, preventing possible Hypothermia and Frostbite. Fires are also a great way to mark your location if a rescue party is looking for you. If you are on a planned trip, fires can be useful for cooking food and boiling water for drinking.
Choosing a Location
Try to build your fire next to a cliff, large stone, or a large tree that will reflect the heat back to your body. In a pinch, you can use a tarp or emergency mylar blanket with the silver side facing the fire to act as a heat reflector. Be very careful that you place the mylar or the tarp far enough away that sparks from the fire won’t melt or catch.
If you are building a fire in a snowstorm or in the rain, try and shelter your fire as much as possible. Again, large trees or cliffs may offer your fire the protection it needs. You may be able to use a tarp to cover the area, though be mindful of the size of your fire and the placement of your tarp. You will want the tarp to be high enough off the fire that it will not scorch, melt, or catch fire itself. In an extreme situation, you may need to use your body to shelter your fire until it becomes large enough that it can sustain itself.
Setting Up the Area
If you determine that the best place for your fire is under a large tree, begin the set up for your fire by shaking off all snow and ice from overhead branches. The heat from the fire will begin to melt the ice and snow and they are likely to drip down on your fire.
After you’ve cleared the branches above the fire, clear away the area where your fire will sit. If the snow is too deep you can instead stomp the snow down to pack it tightly.
It is important to elevate your fire off the ground using stones or sticks when building in snowy, damp, or wet conditions. As snow and ice melt off your firewood, the water will need to drain away otherwise the fire may be extinguished by a growing puddle of water. While this can also be accomplished by digging a drainage ditch, by elevating the fire off the ground you allow more oxygen to reach the fire, creating a hotter, better burning fire.
Stack all extra firewood nearby so that the heat of your fire can begin to dry out the extra wood and make it easier to catch when you add it to your fire. Elevate your extra firewood off the ground to allow the ice and snow to melt off and drain away from your stored firewood.
Bad Weather Firestarters
In order for a fire to start, your tinder and firewood must reach a combustible temperature. Fires in the summer, even after a summer rain, can be easier to start because the wood will be closer to a combustible temperature than even dry wood in the winter. You will need more heat to get your fire started in the cold.
Firestarters, both natural and manmade, burn very quickly but burn very hot. They work as a tool you can use to help get your fire started, but will not sustain your blaze. Your firestarter will help warm and catch your kindling which in turn will warm and catch your actual firewood.
The following fire starters are known to work in the damp and wet conditions you are likely to find yourself in during the winter season.
Birch Tree Bark
Birch tree bark contains oils that are naturally water repellent and makes for a great firestarter. Combine the bark with birch tree twigs and leaves as kindling to get your fire started quickly.
Evergreen trees, especially pine trees, provide a variety of highly combustible materials to work with. The sap from pine trees is highly flammable and a commonly manufactured fire starter, fatwood, is made from the heartwood of pine trees with concentrated pine resin.
Cones from all types of evergreen trees make great firestarters and the needles work as easy fire tinder. The wood from evergreen trees catches easily, but it also burns quickly. Consider starting your fire with branches and limbs from evergreen trees and as your fire develops add logs from deciduous trees, trees that normally shed leaves during the winter. These logs will not catch fire as easily, but they burn much slower and will last longer.
Many backpackers and campers will carry homemade firestarters in their packs. Common homemade fire starters include cotton balls dipped in paraffin wax or petroleum jelly. A less common alternative is waxed cardboard. These firestarters are fairly small and compact but will burn at very high temperatures long enough to get your kindling started. They are also very easy to store and to carry. Keep them in an old pill bottle or other small containers. Even if they are exposed to the rain, as long as they are completely coated in wax they will remain waterproof.
Steel wool also makes a great fire starter in damp and wet conditions. Steel wool can be completely submerged in water and will still catch fire fairly easily.
Magnesium burns incredibly hot and typically only a few flakes scraped off a magnesium block will be required to get a fire started.
Building Up The Blaze
When starting a fire in poor weather conditions it becomes more important than ever to build your fire up slowly. Begin with small pieces of wood that catch easily and add on slightly larger pieces until you are able to feed your fire the largest of your logs. As your fire develops coals, the hottest part of your fire, it will become easier for any damp or wet wood to quickly dry and ignite. If you put on large logs too quickly, your fire may not be hot enough to dry them and the moisture from your log may put out your fire.
Also be aware that no matter how wet the wood is on the outside, the inside of the log will be drier. Consider stripping the outside of your logs with a hatchet or knife to remove the outer layer of moisture before adding the log to your fire.
We hope you will test out our suggestions in a safe environment, such as during a cold rain in your backyard, to practice the techniques and you can rest easy knowing you will always be Prepared4X.