Murphy’s Law is gonna attack your stove on a cold and wet night. And when it does, life can start to seem pretty grim, especially if the grub you’re carrying needs to be cooked to be eaten.
So, rule number one: Always have some extra snack food handy so that even if you can’t cook, you can eat.
And rule number two: Know how to build a fire.
But building a fire in the snow is a little trickier than in the middle of summer. Here are the basics:
Gather all your wood first. Organize it by piece size so that you’ll have just the right piece when you need it.
Even wood buried under a layer of snow can be dry enough to burn, especially if the snow is light and fluffy, which means that it has less moisture content. The worse the snow is for making snowballs, the better your chance of finding dry wood.
Break a stick to see if it’s dry inside. If it cracks, it most likely is. But there’s one exception: If you’re hiking after a winter rain, that crackling snap could be ice, from water that soaked through the wood and then froze. If that’s the case, you’ll need to look for dry wood in protected areas, like under thick vegetation or in the hollow of an old tree stump.
Try wood from different places around your site. Keep track of what wood you found where, so that if some of it goes up well and some of it simply smolders and smokes, you’ll know where to return for more of the good stuff.
Wet or damp wood can take some time to get going. That’s why firestarter is one of the ten essentials. You can buy firestarter at an outfitter, an army-navy store, or at convenience stores in many rural areas. Look for tubes of fireribbon, balls of wax mixed with sawdust, or tablets made of petroleum.
My favorite in-field trick is using laundry lint, which might be hanging around the inside of your pockets somewhere. Another quick fire-starting trick: If you’ve got a little petroleum jelly or cooking oil, and a Q-tip, apply the oil (or petroleum jelly) to the Q-tip and set it alight. You can also use old guidebook pages or the pages of that lousy paperback you’ve been toting along to read at night. Don’t bother using toilet paper—it burns for only a second.
Pine needles and birch bark are great fire starters. But don’t rip birch bark off of living trees—look for downed stumps.
Don’t forget your stove fuel: a dash of gas can give your fire the kick it needs to get going. For safety’s sake, put the fuel on the fire before you light it, never after. Then toss in a match—and STAND BACK!
If the snow isn’t too deep, dig a hole to make the fire on solid ground. If the ground is completely covered with very deep snow, tamp down the snow so it’s a solid, hard platform. (This will also form a depression, which will act as a windbreak.) Then put a layer of wood down on the snow, and build the fire on that. (Otherwise, the fire will sink into the snow and go out before it even gets going.)
When the fire is roaring, put any damp wood around it. The heat from the fire will dry it out, and you’ll have a stash of dry wood for later, or for morning.