With wintertime coming, it’s time to rethink some of our survival strategies. Not that there is anything wrong with the strategies that we have, but rather that some methodologies which we are accustomed to using, may not be effective in the cold and snow. At the same time, winter forces us to think about the risk of hypothermia, something that isn’t anywhere near as common in warmer weather.
With the high risk of hypothermia, we’d better make sure that we have the ability to start a fire… anywhere, anytime. That might even mean starting it in freezing rain; just about the worst conditions you could possibly think of.
There are two major concerns here: the difficulty of starting a fire when it is wet, and the need to be able to start it quickly in less than ideal conditions. Some fire starting techniques won’t work at all when it’s wet out and others won’t work at all if it’s cold. So some special precautions will have to be taken.
The first concern we have to consider is that the ground is going to be wet. Oh, it might be frozen water, but that’s still water. I guarantee you, when the fire gets going, that frozen water under the fire won’t be frozen any more.
At the same time, chances are that you’re going to have to protect the fire from the wind, especially while starting it. So you need to select your location carefully, where it will provide you with the most heat, while being protected itself. Ideally, you want it right in front of your shelter, just far enough away to not catch your shelter on fire. That way, it can help to keep you warm while you sleep.
You want to raise your fire above the ground as well, either by placing it on a large rock or by creating a rock-floored fire pit. Either way, the idea is to make sure that there is drainage for any water, so that it doesn’t flood the fire.
The other thing you want to do is put a heat reflector behind your fire. This can be a pile of logs, logs that are held in place by stakes, or rocks. Of the three, rocks are best, as they will absorb the heat from the fire and then radiate it back out, long after the fire is extinguished.
Finding Dry Fuel
It can be challenging to find dry fuel to burn when you’re out in the wintertime. The trick here is to look at places which will be sheltered from the snow, such as under overhanging rocks and embankments, in the midst of a thicket or the bottom side of an uprooted tree.
You can use wood that is slightly damp, especially once your fire has been started. It will tend to make more smoke, but that can be useful as well, especially if you need to use your fire as a signal fire as well.
The one thing you can’t count on is finding dry tinder. That’s why our ancestors carried a tinder box, where they would keep spare tinder that they found along the trail. By doing so, they were always sure to have tinder available when they needed it, especially when it was cold or wet.
Starting the Fire
This is not the time to show off with your most exotic fire starting technique; you want something quick and sure. If you have a flamethrower in your pack, that’s just about ideal. If you don’t have one, I’d recommend a stormproof or windproof lighter. These are butane lighters with a piezoelectric igniter. Because the igniter is constantly sparking, it reignites the butane as fast as the wind can blow it out.
There is one problem with these lighters, just like there is with any butane lighter. That is, they don’t handle cold very well. If you try to flick your Bic in below freezing temperatures, it’s not going to work. The same is true of these. But you can solve that problem very easily, just by keeping the lighter inside your clothes, where your body heat will keep it warm.
The other good thing to have with you is something to use as an accelerant. This is basically anything flammable, which can be used to get your fire going. There are some commercial accelerants on the market which are quite good, especially the cube ones that work in wet weather (they’re listed online as “fire starters” not accelerants), but you can make your own as well.
One of the easiest and best homemade fire accelerants is made from cotton balls and petroleum jelly. You take a spoon and scoop up some petroleum jelly with the backside and then use it to work that into the cotton ball, being sure to get all the sides. Once saturated, keep in an airtight container until needed. They will burn hot enough to start damp wood burning, for about three minutes.
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