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Pass/Fail: Build a Fire on Snow

The solitude of a winter night beckons. But will our writer’s attempts to stay warm be a roaring success or a sputtering failure?

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From my bedroom window, I watch the clouds rolling over the mountains. Snow falls all night long, blanketing the valley floor with a few inches of light, fluffy powder. In the morning, I strap my lightweight shovel and hatchet to the outside of my backpack, don my snowshoes, and set off on the Wigwam Trail in Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness.

I relish in the satisfying crunch of powder under my snowshoes as I weave between the pine trees. The forest is still and quiet—mine are the only tracks in sight. These are the joys of winter adventuring: silence and solitude.

But of course, there are challenges, like piercing cold and buried campsites. I want to spend the night out here, and it’ll be much more pleasant and cozy with a fire. Plus, it will give me a chance to practice my winter survival skills in case I’m ever stuck without warm gear.

I learned just how difficult building a fire on snow can be when I got caught in an unexpected storm on a backpacking trip a while back. The problem wasn’t finding dry wood; it was finding any wood at all. The forest floor and all its logs were buried and I could only dig up so much by hand. And what I did collect, I could not do much with—it was hard to light, and the snow kept melting into the fire, extinguishing the coals. I gave up after a handful of attempts and crawled into my tent before dark.

But if cavemen could master fire, so can I. This time, I’ve brought a mini shovel and a small hatchet (for splitting branches, not chopping trees), and I’ve done some research about building a fire in winter. I also have my most reliable trick: a cotton ball soaked in petroleum jelly that will light easily and burn slowly. Pine needles and cones can be used to get the blaze going, but that’s easier said than done—they burn bright, but not long. It’s ideal to have a guaranteed, homemade firestarter.

It’s a bluebird day, and between the sunshine and the exertion of the hike, I’m warm. I sit down under a pine, basking in the silence and the glittering of the pillowy snow. I gaze over a mountainside laden with white-clad trees, and the rocky cliffs that hang over the valley.

But as soon as the sun dips behind the mountains when I arrive at my campsite by the river, the cold air penetrates my layers, sending a shiver through me. I have no intention of retreating into my sleeping bag at 5 p.m. like last time. It’s time to put my fire-building skills to the test.

I begin scouring the forest floor for the ends of fallen branches that poke out from the powder. I take my time digging them up so I don’t break a sweat. Once I have a dozen or so lengths of wood, I split them. Though the bark is wet, the insides are still dry and ready to burn. I chip away small shards of wood to use for kindling, gradually working my way up in size. My goal is to have twice as much fuel as I would for a summertime fire—the hotter and bigger my bed of coals, the better the chance my blaze will endure.

I use the shovel to dig out a 3-foot-wide hole in the snow, all the way to the ground, then line it with sturdy wet logs to create a firm, heat-resistant base. This way, even as the fire melts the snow around it, the coals will stay dry on top of the logs (I learned this trick the hard way, after watching a fire I’d built on top of the snow collapse in on itself and extinguish). I pile some snow up around the pit to protect it from the wind. Lastly, I arrange my kindling on top of the base and bring out my cotton balls and lighter.

I touch the small flame to my firestarter and it glows, burning slowly and steadily thanks to the petroleum jelly. It catches the kindling that I piled on top of the wet-log base—great, but I can’t celebrate just yet. Slowly, I feed the shavings and then the small, split sticks into the flame. The key here is to be patient—I have to increase the size of the fuel in small increments to ensure that coals form below. It feels almost like attending some ancient and sacred rite. I arrange the bigger logs around the fire so they can dry out. Finally, once my pile of kindling is burning steadily, I add a log.

Satisfied, I watch the flames flicker against the walls of my snow pit. I sit and take off my gloves, holding my hands up to the heat. It’s no tremendous feat, but I’ve never felt more confident in my ability to camp in winter. I sit back, anticipating the comfy stargazing to come. The forest is at peace—all I hear is the gentle crackling of my fire. And that is music to my ears.  

The Verdict: Pass

Practice, the proper tools, and a boatload of patience led to success.

Skill School: Become a Fire Master

Come prepared
A lightweight shovel comes in handy to dig up wood in deep snow. Use a small axe or hatchet to access the dry core inside of wet logs and to make tinder. Soak a few cotton balls in petroleum jelly, pack them in a pill bottle, and use them to reliably start the blaze.

Dig a pit
Scoop out the snow down to ground level, then construct a platform out of wood or stones at the bottom (one large, flat stone works best).

Leave No Trace
Only gather dead, downed wood in areas where it is abundant; never cut down standing trees or live branches. To avoid leaving evidence of your firepit, always scatter your ashes after letting them cool completely.

Have patience
Fire-building on snow takes more time and effort than in dry conditions. Don’t rush, and add fuel little by little to form a bed of coals.  

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