Winter Fire Building Practice Trip

Winter Fire in a Snow Pit
Winter Fire in a Snow Pit

This trip was motivated by an accident report I read about in Appalachia Magazine where the victim couldn’t get a fire started in winter conditions. The Appalachia Accident Editor recommended that winter hikers practice winter firelighting skills which is a topic that’s left out of most winter hiking and backpacking curriculums that I’ve taught. A curious omission if you think about it, since winter is the time of year when you can’t count on a rescue and need to be the most self-reliant. I subsequently wrote about this topic in Winter Survival Fire Lighting Skills – Why Don’t We Teach Them?

After that article was published, my friend Mike (hikerbox), suggested we go on a winter backpacking trip and practice our own winter firelighting skills. I invited my friend Ryan (guthook) along and we decided to combine our trip with a climb up Mt Moriah, on the edge of the Wild River Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The turnoff into the Wilderness is about 2/3 of the way up the mountain, so we figured we’d hike part way up, before descending the Moriah Brook Trail and finding a campsite for the night. The following morning, we climbed back up to the ridge and continued to the summit of Mt Moriah in single digit weather.

Mike and Ryan are both experienced New Hampshire winter backpackers, so we didn’t plan out a full gear list because we all know what to bring on trips like this (See Winter Backpacking Gear List for an example winter gear list.) But I did write a more detailed plan for the skills we wanted to practice on our trip in order to make sure we were all on the same page about our objectives.

Wild River Wilderness - Guthook Breaks Trail
Wild River Wilderness – Guthook Breaks Trail

Skills Practice Plan

Campsite Selection Criteria

  • Near a larger hardwood blow down that is not green and not on the ground (wet), which we can process for firewood.
  • It would be ideal if we found a site reasonably near running water, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time melting snow. This may be difficult and risky though with snow ledges along the river
  • Site surrounded by trees for wind protection, but with enough space that we don’t set surrounding trees on fire
  • No snow overhead on overhanging boughs
  • Large erratic, mound, or rock face that we can either build a fire in front of, or sit in front of facing the fire, to serve as a heat reflector. We can also build a heat reflector using snow or with firewood.

Fire building in winter

Mike and Ryan digging out a snow pit for our fire and kitchen
Mike and Ryan digging out a snow pit for our fire and kitchen

1. Dig out snow, down to earth if possible

2. In the interests of LNT, build fire on top a wood raft (thick logs) to prevent ground scorching and drowning the fire in snowmelt. Afterwards, disperse ash and unburnt wood where others can’t see it.

3. Wood processing skill practice

  • Batoning with a survival knife  – to create kindling
  • Sawing larger limbs and how to prevent binding
  • Kindling collection
  • Making feathersticks
  • Natural tinder collection (birchbark…depends on what else we find in the forest such as grass, cat tails, etc)
  • Lighting tinder using a fire steel and bushcraft knife.

Tinders we can bring along to try out

  • White gas
  • Cotton balls soaked in vaseline
  • All cotton dryer link
  • Cliff bar wrappers….
  • Egg carton dipped in wax
  • etc.

4. I’d like to practice two long burning fire variants, time permitting.

  • Pyramid fire, built on top of a thick wood raft. Once the raft is built we can take turns building and starting fires on top of it using different firestarters and tinders.
  • Parallel fire lay (just requires two larger log lengths, about 6 inches in diameter)

5. Fire augmentation  (time permitting)

  • Build a log screen behind fire to create updraft and better heat reflection
  • Build a log screen behind our sitting spot to block wind and reflect heat

Survival Shelter Practice

Mike's snow shelter with a tarp. Ryan and I wimped out an slept in our tents.
Mike’s snow shelter with a tarp. Ryan and I wimped out and slept in our tents.

Usually, there’s not enough snow in the White Mountains to build a snow cave or carve snow blocks from wind slab. In these conditions, the easiest shelter to build is really a snow trench or one covered with a tarp, for the purpose of getting out of the wind.

  • Snow trench
    • We’ll skip insulating the group with pine boughs in the name of LNT. Bring one or two well insulated sleeping pads, instead.
    • Build a multi-level trench with cold sink
  • Snow trench with tarp overhead (variant)
  • Sleeping in a bivy sack

It’s up to you if you want to sleep like this or bring a tent for greater comfort. 

Guthook, a Whisperlite Jedi, setting up our snow meltig station
Guthook, a Whisperlite Jedi, setting up our snow melting station

Group Gear

  • At least two stoves (Philip is likely to bring an inverted canister stove)
  • Folding Silky Saw (Philip)
  • 3 Mora bushcraft knifes (Philip will supply)
  • Avalanche shovel (at least 2)
  • At least one fire steel (Philip has one)
  • Possibly a cheap tarp for heat reflection (we’ll want one with grommets, cordage)

Suggested gear – thick foam pad for sitting on, insulated water bottle holders, lots of rich food and hot drinks

Camping at the head of the Moriah Brook Trail
Camping at the head of the Moriah Brook Trail, Wild River Wilderness

The Actual Trip

Things didn’t go quite as planned, but judging by the amount of wood smoke I have in my clothes, we did enjoy some small success at starting a winter fire.

Mike batoning (splitting wood) with a survival knife
Mike batoning (splitting wood) with a survival knife

One thing is for sure. We were humbled by the experience. All of us are experienced firebuilders, but getting a roaring fire going in winter proved beyond us. I feel that I still need more practice, as do Mike and Ryan. I have another backpacking trip coming up this weekend and plan to build another fire on it.

Wood collection and classification
Wood collection and classification

The biggest obstacle we encountered was developing enough coals during the beginning kindling stage of the fire to get our large wood pieces to light. We tried all kinds of long burning firestarters to help things along ranging from vaseline soaked cotton balls to Esbit cubes, but we couldn’t get beyond that stage.

I think the problem is that we relied on unprocessed kindling, not kindling that had been hand-spilt into finer pieces, thereby exposing the drier inner wood core.My next winter wood fire will be built using very fine batoned (hand-split) wood on top of a wooden raft. I have a hunch that will work, but I can only prove it to myself by trying it.

Mike lighting a vaseline covered cotton ball with a firesteel
Mike lighting a vaseline covered cotton ball with a fire steel

Despite our limited success, did do a few things right.

  1. We found a great campsite, open but sheltered from the wind, without any overhanging trees covered with snow.
  2. We dug a fire pit down to ground level so that our fire wouldn’t sink into the snow. The pit blocked the wind and acted as a heat reflector.
  3. We built a wood raft to build our fire on top of so it wouldn’t drown in snow melt from the walls of the fire pit or scorch the frozen ground underneath.
  4. We collected a good amount of wood using my saw and batoned it using our survival knives.
  5. We experimented with a number of different ignition sources and tinder types.
  6. We dispersed any trace of our fire pit when we departed and buried all evidence of our kitchen.
Filling in our kitchen to Leave No Trace
Filling in our kitchen to Leave No Trace

The Importance of Practice

I think the key to becoming a good hiker or backpacker is in learning and practicing new skills until they become second nature. So it doesn’t really bother me that much that we weren’t 100% successful in mastering the skill of lighting a roaring fire in winter. I know from experience that developing skills like this takes time, repetition, and failure, and I’m ok with that. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning how to do things right, and is a good thing as long as it doesn’t kill you in the process. It’s important to make those mistakes in more controlled practice sessions like this however, so you have the skills when your life does depend on them.

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