Building and Maintaining a Sustainable Fire in Winter

Any Temperature Below Freezing in the Wilderness Can be Life Threatening. Here’s How to Survive When the Odds are Against You.

Fire and water don’t mix. That’s what makes building any fire on snow and ice so difficult. Any fire in the vicinity of snow covered or frozen soil will quickly go out as the heat turns the surrounding ground to puddles and mud. Fortunately, many cultures who live in frigid parts of the world have had a few thousand years to figure out some solutions.

You can thank the Scandinavians, Siberians and many people who have lived across Northern Canada for some creative ways to beat the cold. Names have even been attributed to some of their fire inventions like the Norwegian Upside-Down Fire, Siberian Fire on the Rocks and the Canadian Candle. They range from simple to complex but once you understand the concept, you’ll have a valuable survival skill to add to your wilderness survival toolbox.

The Concept

You need to find a way to separate the heat of the fire from the ice and snow. This begins with an obvious task -use a shovel, large piece of bark, your boots or even your gloved hands to clear as much snow away from the ground where you’re going to build your fire. It’s tempting to think that’s all there is to it, but if you’ve ever built a fire on frozen ground you’ve learned the hard way that the ice in the ground will turn your coals to smoldering charcoal.

The Wood Problem 

You don’t have to be an expert to know that dry wood is the best wood for starting a fire. So is dry tinder or the small flammable materials that turn a flame into the beginning of a fire.

Freshly Fallen Snow

Unfortunately, a freshly fallen snow can make any wood it comes in contact with a poor source for any fire. The best solution comes in a few forms:

1. Bark

Certain trees present bark that serves as ideal sources of kindling at any time of year. These include birch, aspen and cedar. They are highly resinous, and the bark peels off of the tree easily. Because the trunks of any tree extends high above the ground, any snowfall will not adhere to at least one side of the tree. These trees also possess a thin bark layer on their surface that is easy to peel and is quick to flame to easily cause small sticks to light. But where do you find dry, small sticks?

2. Pine Needles

Pine needles are also resinous and highly flammable.

Pine Needles

Look for dead branches with brown needles or at the base of a pine tree in a pine grove where the needles collect. The good news is that even green pine needles burn well but the dry, brown needles are best for tinder.

Pine Tree Protection

The ground under pine trees will often be clear of snow and the dry pine needles can make an excellent source of kindling to start a fire. When used in combination with bark from a birch, aspen or cedar you’re getting to a good foundation for fire starting.

3. Fuzz Sticks

Another term that tells it like it is. A fuzz stick is a small, dry branch that has been shaved with a knife, but the curls of wood are still attached. This exposes the dry, inner wood and the shaved curls are quick to ignite. Another advantage of a Fuzz Stick is that the shaved flanges will easily burn even when the outside of the branch is wet. They can be used in place of kindling and even tinder when everything is wet.

4. Deadfall Branches

A deadfall is any tree that has died and fallen to the ground. The branches of the tree will often be sticking up high into the air and devoid of snow or ice. Break off some of the smaller branches and then collect and stack the tree branches you harvest by size, so you have increasingly larger branches to use to build up the platform for your fire.

Large Deadfall

It’s also possible that some of the branches have kept the tree elevated above the ground reducing the amount of snow or ice on any deadfall.

If possible, break off larger parts of the tree or drag the whole trunk to your fire-site if its size allows. Once your fire is started you can use the fire to gradually burn through any long logs to create smaller size logs that can eventually allow you to create a roaring fire.

All Night Fire

This gets to sustaining your fire once it’s started…

Sustaining a Winter Fire

While there are a variety of ways to start a fire in snow and ice, there’s more to it than just getting a fire started. You need to be able to sustain the fire through the night and for as long as the fire defines the location of your camp. This is one of those situations where more is definitely better. Searching for wood in deep snow at two in the morning when the weather is well below freezing is not a good idea.

The problem emerges as a fire gets larger and starts to cause more and more of the surrounding ground to channel thawed water towards the base of the fire. That’s why sustainability is as important as fire starting for any winter fire solution. This first example demonstrates this solution well.

The Norwegian Upside-Down Fire

This is literally what it says. It’s a fire that’s built upside down with the larger logs at the bottom on the frozen ground and is built up with progressively smaller pieces of branches to sticks to tinder and kindling at the top.

Norwegian Upside-Down Fire Construction

The fire is lit at the top and as it burns the coals work their way down through the ever-larger layers of wood.

Norwegian Upside-Down Fire Starting

At a certain point you can start to pile larger pieces of wood with the assurance that your larger logs at the base will continue to provide an insulating layer against the ice in the ground and the surrounding snow.

Norwegian Upside-Down Fire Sustained

By the time the coals have burnt through those base logs the ground will be sufficiently dry to allow you to maintain the fire in a traditional way. This fire making approach is widespread across Arctic cultures, but the Canadians took it to a new level with the Canadian Candle.

The Canadian Candle

The Canadian Candle starts with a large log stood on end or a stump. This position effectively raises the fire and coals above snow and ice. Using either a saw or some well placed ax strokes, narrow channels are cut down through the log or stump with the grain in a crisscross shape. You can cut additional channels down into the wood if you have a larger log. The resulting gaps are then filled with tinder and kindling and lit.

Canadian Candle Startup

Over time more kindling and larger sticks are added to the gaps until coals start to form on the interior of the facing channels. The close proximity of the coals facing each other in the long cuts in the top of the wood feeds on itself causing the fire to continue to burn as the coals radiate heat towards each other.

Canadian Candle Sustained by Internal Radiant Heat

The fire emerging from the top of the log or stump gives it the appearance of a large candle. Thus, the name.

A benefit of this fire making approach is the ability to place a pot or pan on top of the flat surface at the top of the log. This makes a very efficient cooking platform and the gaps in the log under the pot or pan will continue to allow air to circulate and keep the fire going. New pieces of kindling can be inserted into the gaps to reinvigorate the fire and the coals. But there’s more than one way to start and sustain a fire in winter snow and the Siberians did it simply with a fire on the rocks.

Siberian Fire on the Rocks

 Siberia is covered with a layer of granite miles deep. This is sometimes referred to as the Siberian Shield and is the result of millions of years of volcanic eruptions covering the Eurasian Continent. Canada has a similar geologic shield covering most of the country.

The reason that ground defined by rock presents such a good opportunity for fire building is that any ice will most likely be a thin layer that can and will evaporate quickly. Frozen soil turns to mud. Frozen rock turns to rock.

Siberian Fire on the Rocks

However, any residual snow or ice will still challenge the beginning of any fire so it’s best to pile some rocks at the base and around your fire. The Siberians often combined two concepts which started with a Norwegian upside-down fire in their rock pits although they probably called it a Siberian upside-down fire. Once the rocky ground and surrounding rocks were sufficiently dry the fire could be built up to burn through the night.

And then there’s an idea often used by Native-Americans in winter using a naturally, hollow stump.

The Hollow Stump Fire

A hollow stump with a natural impression in the middle is usually the result of wood rot. As a result, a hollow stump will still hold some degree of moisture both when frozen and thawed. The good news is that the moisture will evaporate in short order and the stump itself will serve to help sustain the fire. Native people kept track of the location of these stumps and would often stop and base their winter camps around stumps with these characteristics.

Hollow Stump

Once again, an upside-down fire configuration was often used to get the fire started and once burning, additional wood plus the wood from the stump kept the fire going.

Practice for the Fun of It 

The next time you get together with friends or family, regardless of the time of year, try some of these fire making approaches instead of your conventional fire building methods. It’s good to know what you’ll need to do ahead of time if you ever find yourself in deep winter and in need of a warm, sustainable fire in the ice and snow.

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