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How to Build a Fire in the Snow

Whether you are a dedicated winter outdoorsman or in desperate need of fire in a survival situation, the knowledge of how to build a fire in the snow is a necessary survival skill.

Very rarely do we put ourselves in a position where a fire is our only means of maintaining core body temperature. However, in a survival situation that just might be the case. In a cold water submersion, it is fire that might save your life.

Knowing how to build a fire in the snow is necessary for survival
Knowing how to build a fire in the snow is necessary for survival

In many parts of the nation with winter comes the snow. Beautiful from the window of a well-heated home but perilous if you are lost or battered by an abrupt blizzard in the high country. A landscape of virgin snow presents many challenges when it comes to starting a fire. Let’s review those challenges as we discuss how to build a fire in the snow. 

Choosing the Best Location

The first step in building a fire is to consider the location. In the snow and cold weather, you are going to deal with wind. The wind will radically affect your ability to start a fire. The early stages of building a fire in the wind can be tormenting. Steady winds and big gusts will blow out your fire before it can get going.

So, choosing a location in the middle of a field is not the best idea. Building fire in a valley, against a rising hillside, or in or around a collection of boulders is a much better choice. Look for something that can block the wind and even reflect the heat back to you. 

Finding Fuel

Finding the right fuel to build a fire in the snow can be challenging. Standing dead trees are harder to find in the winter, newly fallen trees might be covered with snow. 

A fire that is really going to warm you, and the cold air around you, needs to be big. A roaring fire is necessary to heat you enough to affect your core body temperature and to sustain itself in the falling snow. 

I like to look up for dead limbs on big fallen trees that are not dry rotted. If you have the capability, you can bring a small tree down and process it yourself. If it is live, then you will be burning greenwood. That can be a struggle because greenwood has a lot of moisture in it. 

Seek out fallen pine as it has burns hot and fast to get the fire started. If I am burning greenwood, I like to get the ball rolling with some sappy fallen pine. 

You will need lots of fuel so spend some time seeking out plenty of fuel. The rule of thumb is to gather what you think you will need and then times that by 3! 

Obviously, if your hands are numb and you are freezing to death, warm them by whatever kind of fire you can muster first. But don’t go too far for fuel because a small fire can go out fast. 

Kindling a fire with small sticks and paper
Kindling a fire with small sticks and paper

Finding Kindling 

This is really where the battle will be won. For starting fire in the elements and in the cold, you need lots of quality kindling. When it is raining, wet, snowing or any other kind of precipitation, I gather my kindling from the branches of trees. 

Dead wood and dry wood get hung in the branches of trees all the time. If you look above, you will see big wood and many small sticks hung in those trees. The benefit here is that this wood has basically been air-dried up there.

Gather as many pencil sized and larger sticks that you can find and break them up into two different piles. The first pile is for pencil sized, in thickness. The second is for everything bigger. When your tinder catches fire you are going to add the pencil sized sticks to the flame first and then the kindling. 

Cold and Wet Weather Tinder 

The best practice is to pack tinder in your hiking, camping, or bug out bag. Dryer lint is my favorite and I pack a big Ziplock full of it in my own bag. I also save used candle wax, warm it and stir some of the dryer lint into this. 

While it is warm, I pack this mixture into wax cups. It looks gnarly. My son calls it bigfoot fur and it burns for about 15 minutes! 

Another option, if you are not carrying any tinder from home, is to gather things that could be dried like bark, shred it, and store it in a pocket close to your body. Over time this will dry it out. You really need fine dry tinder to catch in cold and wet conditions. 

I would also recommend using a lighter for this kind of fire. You can start with a ferrocerium rod but be sure you have a lighter as it will make this process much easier and if you are truly concerned with hypothermia, you need a quick option. 

The Best Fire Lay for Fire in the Snow

How you build your fire will also have a huge effect on the success of your fire in the snow. I will dig the snow away from the area where I am going to build my fire and then create a platform of 6, or so, 10-12 inch sticks. This will keep my tinder and kindling up off the cold wet ground. 

Then you can arrange your fuel in a log cabin style with 2 pieces of wood parallel to one another and then the next two stacked on top the opposite way. About three layers of this will do. Don’t start with your biggest fuel. 

Light your tinder and add your kindling at the center of your “log cabin” then let the rest of the build catch fire. Add more kindling as needed until the fire cranks up and catches the large logs. 

The log cabin build also protects the fire from wind better than a typical teepee build.

Reflecting the Heat

Campfire burns in the snow in the forest hill
Reflect the heat from the fire back towards you

At this point, you should have a fire burning. Be patient and avoid smothering it. Let it mature and add fuel as needed. 

You might want to find some large logs, rocks or build a simple wall of stacked sticks next to the fire to help reflect the heat back to you. It will make all the difference and will maximize how much fuel you have to burn to heat the air around you. 

Again, this can be achieved also by choosing the right spot to build a fire. If you build a fire amongst some tall boulders or in a tighter space that is protected from wind, the heat will naturally reflect back to you.

Build a Fire in the Snow: Prep for Today and Tomorrow

Survival in the winter - boiling water
Survival in the winter – boiling water

Now, with your fire, you can boil water, cook food, or just bask in the heat of its warmth. Be sure you have enough fuel to keep it going for a while. 

You will also want to start thinking about your next fire. How are you going to light the fire tomorrow or the next day? Making some charcloth is a great way to sure up fire for the next day. You could also take some tinder materials and dry them thoroughly by the fire then pack them away. Making a tinder bundle while you have the heat of the fire, in wet conditions, is great insurance for tomorrow’s fire.