10 Things To Know – Part Five: To Build A Fire

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 24, 2007      

I’ve messed up more than a few times and spent an un-planned night out without gear. Good memories now, a bit uncomfortable at the time. Dangling on the side of El Capitan in a thunderstorm with nothing more than a T-shirt and rain jacket. Dumb. Shivering all night on the Titan tower in Utah, that time with a T-shirt and NO jacket. Double dumb.

And the unplanned bivvys in winter. Scary.

Yet thinking back, there wasn’t one unplanned bivouac when snow was involved where we didn’t have some sort of fire — either a stove to make hot drinks, or something to ignite firewood.

Campfire in the snow.
You know that old saying about “white man build big fire?” Here is proof.

Indeed, campfires can save your butt. Yet the thing is, when you really need a fire is usually when it’s the most difficult to build. Double that verity when there’s snow on the ground. So how?

Lessons learned: Along with your first aid supplies (however minimal) — ALWAYS include something you can use as a fire starter. At the least, carry a couple of butane lighters and a packet of waterproof matches. Test the matches at home, some don’t work. If necessary rubber band the lighters so they can’t empty in your pack. For starter fuel, you can shave a block of alpine wax into a wad of crumbled twigs (regular hydrocarbon wax, not fluorocarbon). Or carry a dedicated fire starter such as the blocks of paraffin/sawdust mix you can buy just about anywhere. Another good starter is cotton balls soaked with Vaseline (carry in a film canister). Mostly, avoid fire starters that flame up hot but die out fast. You want something with staying power. Test at home.

Then the burning question, how to build a fire in the snow? If the snowpack is only a few feet thick, dig down to the ground. Otherwise pack out an area then build a platform out of branches. Once the fire is going it’ll melt down into the snowpack and you’ll need to shovel out the perimeter, but initially you need a place to work.

Lay a medium size chunk of branch on your platform, around 4 inches in diameter. You’ll use this to prop up the kindling above your fire starter.

Next, find some dry kindling. For advice about that, I spoke with author Buck Tilton since he wrote the definitive book on the subject. Buck said the main thing is to find small dry wood, usually by getting in near the trunk of trees. He said to gather above the snowpack since any wood in the snow will have a high moisture content. In my experience, you can almost always find wood dry enough to ignite if you look for it with care — and have your fire starter!

Assuming you’ve found reasonably dry wood, start your build with a forearm sized wad of “twiggies” about the diameter of a wood match or smaller. Lean the twiggies on that branch you placed on the platform, so you end up with a space underneath for your fire starter. On top of the twiggies place finger sized wood. Keep a nearby stash of twiggies and small wood. Finally, stick your fire starter under the whole mess and ignite. If it’s raining or snowing, have someone shelter the build while you’re working. If the fire starter burns out and you only get a smolder, try blowing while you add twiggies to the hot spot. It’s surprising how well that works.

What to do if you can’t find dry wood? Get out your knife. Find the driest branches you can and whittle down to dry wood. Make starter material by carving shavings off the dry areas you exposed. Sprinkle with crumbs of conifer sap. Support a pile of such kindling over your fire starter, and light. Common mistake with this is not making enough shavings, as the flames from those have to dry and ignite any larger wood you place on top.

Overall, care and preparation are key. You don’t want to be in a rush, and you’ll need hands that can operate in the cold. Thus, if you’re not sure you need a fire, err on the side of caution and build one anyway. Don’t be afraid to practice.

I asked Buck what fire starter he likes and he offered this:
“I’m going to vote for the Spark-Lite. You can use it with one hand (should the other hand be busy) to create a small shower of sparks. You can get it packaged with a small handfull of fire starting tablets that burn for a couple of minutes each. It weighs less than an ounce with the tabs. All things considered, a good fire starting kit. ”

Any blog readers have favorite fire starting methods? Pray tell…

The list:
10. Jump start a car without blinding yourself.

9. First-aid a serious laceration.

8. Rip skins in the wind without giving your scalp a bikini wax.

7. Fix a broken ski pole with duct tape and pocket knife.

6. Do a jump turn in the face of danger.

5. Start a fire while you are shivering and wet.

4. Read a topo map quickly.

3. Quickly dig a person out of an avalanche.

2. Keep your feet warm.

1. Practice a humble mindset so caution rules the day.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


26 Responses to “10 Things To Know – Part Five: To Build A Fire”

  1. Ricky September 24th, 2007 11:33 am

    Dryer Lint is probably the cheapest alternative.

    I like to have a magnesium/flint block on me most of the time… even if you out of matches/lighters this can get something going…(I’ve got no association just a link) http://www.doanfirestarter.com/

    P.S. I couldn’t flow the link to Buck’s book

  2. Big Sky Rida September 24th, 2007 12:20 pm

    One little side note to a great article…in the past when starting fires, I have used my shovel blade to start the fire on untill you are positive that it’s rolling. The metal is a good thermal sink and helps get wet fuels burning…a little black on your shovel is a good war scar too…

  3. Lou September 24th, 2007 12:24 pm

    Good idea about the shovel!

  4. razmaspaz September 24th, 2007 1:26 pm

    I prefer the cotton ball and vaseline method. I’ve never had to use this in an emergency, but it has worked reliably for me every time. The cotton balls burn for a long time, and they weigh next to nothing, which is great. Stuffed in a film canister, and inside a plastic bag, they are easy to keep dry, and you can store dozens of them in there.

  5. jason September 24th, 2007 3:09 pm

    I always pack little squares of innertube as a firestarter. A small patch of rubber that burns super hot and stays lit for a while, even on snow. I reckon it’s not the most “green” way to start a fire, but it works. At least it recycles those flats, right? (The shovel idea is $$)

  6. Lou September 24th, 2007 3:11 pm

    Ricky, I think I fixed the book link, check it out…

  7. Njord September 24th, 2007 4:08 pm

    I find it interesting that someone actually likes the “Spark Lite Aviation Fire Starter”. I’ve been issued that P-O-S serveral times during my time as an Army pilot… and have found is worthless! I’d much rather carry two lighter instead. This is something that I learned the hard way during an “escape and survival” school. Something awesome that I learned involved looking for a pine tree that was felled suddenly through either lighting, earth slide, etc. Pitch will collect and crystallize in the tree resulting in the world’s greatest fire starter. This “pine pitch” when shaved will even start a fire in rain (which I also had to learn the hard way). Matter-of-fact, I’m so impressed with “pine pitch” that I collect it when ever I come accoss a suitable tree for starting fires during future camping trip (and to impress friends with this amazing stuff). Well worth investigating…


  8. Barry September 24th, 2007 6:15 pm

    This is an old boy scout skill that many people seem to take for granted. There is nothing like a fire to raise the spirits in a tough situation, I recommend practicing before it is needed.
    I’ve had really good luck with el cheapo Bic lighters, really bad luck with waterproof matches. I like cotton balls and vaseline, I’ve seen drier lint used. The wax impregnated fire starting sticks are great, they burn a long time and can be broken up to spread the ignition. I’ve started fire on snow on top of a small piece of tin foil which seemed to work well. Use a heat reflector if possible to direct the precious warmth – even a pile of wood can work.
    The old bush pilot trick of using a tin can full of gas works amazingly well, I highly recommend it if your in a position where you have access to gas, make sure to use a tin can or something that won’t burn through right away.
    Finally, big may not be better, though it is true that many folks like the inferno approach. Don’t forget that getting the fire going is only the start, fires use up a surprising amount of wood.

  9. Ian September 24th, 2007 9:21 pm

    CHEETOS. seriously. best fire starter ever. try it. film canister of cheetos. also emergency food. and lightwieght.

  10. Matus September 25th, 2007 12:11 am

    If you have only matches and no firestarter, you can get very good material directly from the conifers – they are full of pitch. You just need to cut through the bark, collect the pitch with some paper or with the branches…

  11. Matus September 25th, 2007 1:02 am

    I always carry grabber warmers with me. Very light and very helpful. I have not tested them for emergency use (e.g. instead of fire). Here in Europe it is not possible to make a fire in the mountains – due to strict rules in national parks.

  12. Marc September 25th, 2007 6:30 am

    In addition to the great suggestions arleady made, I find that I have plenty of firestarting material in my first aid kit, the moisture senstive of which I keep dry in a heavy duty quart ziploc freezer bag. Gauze, 4 x 4’s, whatever kind of cotton you have, you can turn into tinder. Alternatively or additionally, I’ll use the isopropyl I carry for wound sterilization to soak some type of cotton for firestarting. A little common sense using isopropyl and fire is necessary, of course, but it isn’t extremely hazardous.

  13. Mark September 25th, 2007 7:46 am

    A small pocket knife saw can really help get branches for the fire. Some snow saws work quite well for this too.

  14. Lou September 25th, 2007 8:41 am

    Njord, I guess it’s time for a gear review! I’ll get one of those fire starters and give the ol’ once over. Perhaps there is an upgraded version now or something like that.

    My approach has always been to carry matches, two Bic lighters, and a chunk of alpine wax. But the fanatics at Backpacking Light are saying that carrying the Spark Lite instead of lighters saves weight, so I’m interested in it for sure (though I’ll still carry my chunk of alpine wax, so who knows what the best combo is).

  15. Shane September 25th, 2007 9:48 am

    Let’s not forget what it takes to keep a fire burning once it’s been started – lots of wood.

    One of the few skills that I remember learning in Boy Scouts was that you shouldn’t even think about starting a fire until you have enough wood piled up to last the night. Nothing worse than leaving the fire to get wood only to return to find that the fire burned out while you were away.

  16. Seth Flanigan September 25th, 2007 7:29 pm

    A friend of mine melts parfin wax with dryer lint into paper nut-cups (found at your local grocery). It seems to work really well in the snow (at least the couple times I’ve seen it). It ignites quite easy with the ol’ reliable bick.

  17. Eyesack September 28th, 2007 7:12 am

    I get the lighters with the child proof locks on them. I have noticed that they are less likely to accidentally get pushed on losing all the gas, but hard to light with cold fingers. I will rap a Lighter and a homemade fire starter in plastic wrap and jam them in the handle of my shovel. The plastic wrap is a good fire starter in a pinch.

    I will make my paraffin, sawdust and lint combo and pour it into an old paper egg carton bottom making 12 individual fire starters.

  18. steve seckinger September 30th, 2007 9:38 am

    I just ran across Landmann Fire Starters at the supermarket. Each firestarter packet is a paraffin based substance that burns when the packet itself is lit. These are tiny and light – 8 grams each, about 2×3 inches, very thin, and burns 7 1/2 minutes with a 4 inch flame (the box claims 10 minutes).

  19. jamie tackman October 2nd, 2007 4:45 pm

    Lou, I never, never go anywhere without a nice piece of “pitchwood” it requires no care, and makes my pack smell good. That and a bic, and you can start a fire in the most misserable conditions (and I have). I taught my daughter that you can hunker down and get by if you have fire and steel. bic, pitch, knife.

  20. Johnny boy November 3rd, 2007 12:08 pm

    Great article, but what about when you are above the tree line? sol?

  21. Dan Lowell November 4th, 2007 3:52 pm

    Pitch story: I apologize for the digression, but for those of you who have used pitch and “understand” it, this will provide you with a grin. I used to start fires in our wood burning stove with slivers of pitch from the couple of 10 inch diameter (18 inches long) rounds of pure pitch that I had rat-holed away in the garage along with some kindling. The pitch worked great. Well, too great. I was out of the house one cold January (Truckee) morning (swilling coffee with other people who can’t sleep) when my wife decided to start the fire. After she got it going, she didn’t feel like going outside for more wood from the wood pile, so, she threw one of the rounds of pitch into the stove, which, of course, quickly turned into a conflageration. A chunk of pitch that big is very heavy. I can’t believe she actually wrestled it into the stove. As it were, I happened along just in time to panic along with her. Man was that stove humming. The house didn’t burn down and I didn’t need to clean our chimmney that season, but it was scary. The moral is: If you have a good stash of pitch, make sure the other inhabitants of your dwelling understand clearly just how good that stuff is for starting a fire. On the other hand, if you really want to burn something down…

  22. Cheyenne November 24th, 2007 5:10 pm

    Calcium Carbide + water = acetylene

    Calcium Carbide is what cavers use in carbide lamps. A couple of small “pebbles” in a watertight container. Just add a little bit of water and it will produce acetylene gas. A small spark is all that is needed to ignite the gas. A small quantity will last for a few minutes.

  23. gresham October 22nd, 2010 10:05 am

    Practice is the key and you can hone your skills depending where you build your fire. Lighting an open fire will have the same core skills but, for example it is useful to consider the airflow in a stove and know how to rage a stove. Some extra pointers: http://www.energysavingathome.co.uk/_article-fire_starting_in_a_stove.html. The more you read the more little tips you find, then keep practicing.

  24. Bob January 3rd, 2013 7:15 pm

    Quick story. Mid-December decided to camp out Lake Sebago New York State. It was mild on Long Island. Much colder at the campsite. Pitched my tent. No wind to speak of, temp in low 20’s F. Had a box of wooden matches. The force of striking the match on the box flint just twisted the match out of my fingers. I couldn’t feel my fingers at all. Lucky for me my car was right there. Broke camp, drove home. Gave me new respect for the cold. All the above tips are great, can’t wait to try the vaseline soaked cotton balls. But when it’s real cold, be prepared for numb fingers. Have a plan B.

  25. Micah January 7th, 2015 11:05 pm

    A friend and I went out on an overnighter on New Year’s Eve in the Washington Cascades. Very great trip but, exhausted from the hike, chilled from sweat, and hungry, we were unable to get a fire going that night and ended up bundled in sleeping bags by 430pm. I was disappointed with myself. Very good article. I will definitely be more prepared next time. From what I have read, cedar bark can burn pretty well pulled right off the tree, as well as birch bark. Also, dry pine needles catch easy but don’t burn long. Even green pine needles will burn.

  26. Jules January 17th, 2015 5:09 pm

    Hand sanitizer started the fire when we went winter camping. Also turning your water bottles upside down let’s ice for at the bottom of the bottle first not the top. Nothing more frustrating than seeing your drinking water trapped under an inch of ice.

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