Quick Tips

1/5/2018: Starting a fire in extreme cold and snow

Today we have some fast tips to help get a roaring fire to keep you warm during your extreme cold weather camping trip. This past New Year’s weekend, we ventured out to test gear at zero degrees and used a few fire making tips to fight off the cold.

Starting a fire in extremely cold weather is more of a challenge due to two main obstacles.  The first is that snow melted near the fire turns to water, which in turn can quench your flames and hard work. The second is that it is heat, not a flame, which causes fuel (tinder, kindling, logs, etc) to burn. In the cold of winter, you actually have to raise the temperature of the fuel further, so that it will ignite. As a result, this can make the fire start slower than normal. When a fire heats wood to 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), the water inside the wood boils and escapes as steam. As the wood dries, at 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit), it begins to release combustible gases that ignite when they contact an open flame. The gases burn, gradually raising the temperature of the wood to 593 degrees Celsius (1,100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Now where are we going to place this fire? It depends, but first clear the snow and find true ground. If you build your fire directly on the damp soil, a lot of heat will get pulled into the soil, and you won’t stay as warm which completely defeats the purpose of the fire, so you will need to find a way to build a base for the fire. Make sure there’s no way for water to flow under this foundation of the fire as the melting snow is going to make water to put your flames out and possibly cool your flames.  If you find some flat rocks to put on the ground, your fire won’t lose as much heat but make sure not to use rocks from a river because these stones can crack if you put them in the fire. Maybe you can’t find any flat rocks. In that case, make a mound of dirt for the fire. Elevate it a little bit so water doesn’t get into the fire and so there is enough airflow.

Before you start laying out your kindling and other favorite fire starters, place a sheet of tin foil down on your foundation. This simple and very portable material will do a great job reflecting the heat back towards your fuel supply and minimize the heat lose to ground and rocks.  We do not recommend the traditional circle of rocks around the fire when temperatures are below freezing.  We have found that they just pull the heat out of your fire inhibiting it from generating heat to dry the wood and continuing to grow.

Last tip:  Birch Bark

We have just been amazed at the flammability of birch bark.  We have found large sections from fallen trees downed in damp soil or frozen in snow and water. This bark will ignite easily and burn hot like it has a composition of flammable oil in it.

There are several species of birch trees found across the U.S. including ashe, dwarf, gray, paper, river, sweet, water, and yellow varieties. One common thing that all these varieties share is their natural ability to assist in fire starting. The bark of birch trees contains a natural oil that burns extremely well and also sheds water for less-than-ideal circumstances.

The properties of birch bark make it an awesome tool in nature that we should not pass up but we do also have an obligation to gather it correctly so we can continuously harvest without harming the tree.  (The Green Gear Guys prefer to search the forest floor for birch bark versus peeling it from the trees.)

Birch trees have two layers of bark – the outer layer and the inner layer. Our goal when harvesting is to make sure that we harvest just the outer layer without damaging the inner layer. The most ideal time to harvest birch bark is between mid-June and early-July. In order to reduce the chances of the tree dying, it is recommended to choose trees more than 6″ in diameter but if you are careful, you can harvest much smaller ones as well.

The outer layer of bark is only around 1/8″ thick or less, so try not to go too deep. Run your blade around the tree, trying to stay as straight as possible. Repeat this process again approximately 8″-10″ above or below your previous cut. Next, connect your cuts with a single vertical cut and very carefully peel back the bark – taking care not to damage the inner layer. Once removed, the bark will want to roll. We recommend rolling it up as tightly as possible and storing it in a ziplock bag or waterproof container until it is time to use.

Please share your favorite trick to start a fire in not so ideal conditions.


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