Part 3 - Almost Everything You Need To Know About Winter Camping
Updated: Jan 31
We've covered clothing, footwear, and shelters. Now we will hit fire, snowshoes, crampons and crossing ice safely making trips safer and more fun.
Becoming A Master Of Fire
Whether hot or cold tenting, the ability to make fire is often the difference between a fun winter camping trip and a borderline survival situation. The only time I don't have a fire when winter camping is when I'm in the alpine zone and there are no trees or in the Eastern High Peaks of the Adirondacks as they don't allow fires, even in winter.
Build a fire kit to always have with you during winter trips so you improve your odds of getting a fire going. Your kit should contain multiple methods of ignition, tinder materials, a knife, and a saw. If you are using a hot tent then an ax or hatchet can be helpful to split the wood small enough to fit in your stove.
For lighting a fire in winter, I suggest a ferrocerium rod, a lighter, and storm-proof matches. In cold conditions, lighters don't work well so keep the lighter in an inside pocket to keep it warm enough to function. Keep your matches in a waterproof container and bring an extra friction strip to strike them on. UCO Stormproof matches come in a kit of 25 matches and an extra friction pad in a waterproof case.
A ferrocerium rod is made of a mix of metals that combust when scraped. When used properly it will give you a shower of 3000 Celsius sparks which can ignite various tinder sources including waxed cotton, birch bark, and fatwood shavings. While this technique requires a bit of skill and practice, the advantage is that they work regardless of temperature and even when wet. Check out the video below.
In my kit, I carry a few Wetfire cubes and cotton pads with vaseline or wax. Additionally, I will forage for natural tinder materials picking up birch bark, Chaga fungus, or fatwood when I come across it.
Chaga is a fungus that grows on birch trees in northern forests. It is easy to identify as it looks like a burnt marshmallow. The layer under the bark of the fungus works as a
tinder source for ember based fires (the kind you need to blow into flame inside a bird's nest of tinder materials). If dry all you have to do is scrape off a quarter-sized pile of Chaga dust and hit it sparks from either a Ferro rod or flint and steel.
Fatwood is pine wood that is saturated with sap. Pine sap is very flammable so it makes a great fire starter. An easy way to find fatwood is to look for the low dead branches on a pine tree. The shoulder of the branch nearest the trunk will often be loaded with sap. Using a saw, cut the branch off about six inches away from the trunk and then cut again as close to the trunk as possible. The trunk side end will usually be a dark amber which is what the saturated end looks like. Give it a smell and if you get a strong Pinesol-like smell it is a good indication you have a lot of sap. Split this into a number of slices and you have the perfect firestarters to make feather sticks or shavings out of. A couple of these pieces split down into 8 or more pieces depending on the size of the branch can also make great kindling.
Wetfire is a mix of wax and other combustible materials that ignites easily and will burn for more than 5 minutes even in wet and windy conditions. You can also use waxed barbeque lighting cubes. These are a similar product but come in a tray like chocolates so you will need to store them in a zip lock bag.
Homemade fire-starters made from cotton makeup removal pads are cheap and easy. The simplest is to put a quarter-sized dollop of Vaseline on the center of the pad and fold it over like a taco. Store these in a small ziplock bag to keep them dry.
You can easily make waterproof fire starters by melting wax and dipping the cotton pad in it. You can store them in a small round candy tin. They are waterproof until you prepare them for use. WIth you knife lightly scrape one side until some cotton fibers start to be exposed. You can now light these with just about any ignition source even the sparks from an empty Bic lighter. Then it will burn like a candle for up to 10 minutes.
Steps To Guarantee A Successful Fire In The Snow
Collecting and Processing Fuel
Any fire requires wood and in winter this usually means a lot of wood. When you are looking for firewood you want to look for standing dead trees as anything on the ground will be wet and covered in snow. You never want to cut down live trees for firewood as they are wet inside and won't burn effectively. Plus you don't want to be needlessly harming live trees.
You will need three sizes of fuel for your fire. First is tinder is an easily combustible material such as cotton balls with vaseline, birch bark or fatwood shavings. The next size up will be kindling which can be small dry twigs that are pencil thickness or smaller or split down wood too much the same size. Finally, you have fuel wood which is thumb-sized and bigger to feed the fire.
I always have tinder materials with me but will try to use natural materials I harvest from the forest whenever I can to both work on my skills and save the resources that I've brought. Always have guaranteed tinder sources in case of an emergency. You don't want to be scavenging around the forest if someone in your party is hypothermic and needs to be warmed up now. As far as natural tinder sources the most common and easiest to find are birch bark, fatwood from pine trees or make feather sticks from dry wood that you've split into sticks.
For kindling, the easiest and quickest thing to find is the low dead branches on coniferous trees. Pine, spruce, fir, and cedar trees are plentiful in Eastern North America. As the tree grows the lower branches die but stay on the tree which helps them stay dry. You can tell the branch is dry inside if it snaps off clean and crisp. You can collect a large bundle of these without tools. I like to collect a bundle that is the size of my arms around as if I was giving a hug. This will be more than enough to get a fire going, even in wet conditions.
The other way to get kindling is to take larger wood pieces and split them down into twig sized pieces. This can be done by cutting the wood into pieces that are about a foot long and then splitting them with an ax or batoning them with a sturdy knife and club. If you are going to baton the wood then start on the outside rather than trying to split it down the middle, if the pieces are bigger than 4 inches in diameter.
Whether twigs or wood you are splitting down, I suggest keeping it all on a foam sleeping pad or garbage bag so you keep it dry.
When looking for dead trees to harvest in winter it can be hard to tell what is dead as they all are missing their leaves. Keep an eye out for ones fallen over and leaning against other trees, missing bark or coniferous trees missing all the needles. I recommend against trying to cut down any standing dead trees that are bigger than 6 inches in diameter as this can be dangerous if you don't know what you are doing.
Once you've found a good candidate break out your folding saw or bow saw. I will cut a wedge out about halfway through and then back cut to fell the tree. If you do this correctly the tree will fall in the direction of the wedge you've cut. Keep an eye on the path it will fall in when you cut the wedge. As you make your back cut make sure to be standing off to the side as the tree can kick back when it finally let's go.
Once you have your tree down, cut it into 6-foot lengths to make it easier to transport back to camp. Depending on what type of fire you are going to build you may not have to cut them any smaller than this once you have them where you are going to have your fire. If you plan to use the fire to keep you warm all night long then you will need at least 10 pieces of wood that are six feet long by 6-8 inches in diameter.
If you are using a hot tent with a stove, all of the wood will have to be processed down small enough to fit in the stove so make sure you allot enough time, otherwise, you will be working by headlamp and it gets much colder after the sun goes down.
Preparing The Fire Lay
Once you've collected your wood, you will need to prepare your fire location. The first thing will be to shovel out the snow to get down to the ground. Having a fire on top of the snow will cause the snow to melt and fire to sink, possibly putting it out. Clear away enough snow so you have at least a 3 feet on each plus space for you to sit away from the fire. Give at least 5 feet in front of the fire as it can be pretty hot.
Depending on what you are using the fire to accomplish will dictate what type of fire you make. If it is just for temporary warmth then a log cabin can be quick and easy. If you want a longer burning fire then I like to use either a top-down fire or Siberian log fire.
For a quick and easy log cabin fire, you will want to start by laying a platform of sticks or small logs to keep it off the wet ground. This base will vary from 12 inches by 12 inches up to a 3-foot square depending on the size of fire you want to make. I lay these sticks down parallel to each other so it looks like a miniature log raft.
Then place a piece about 3 inches in diameter on the base 90 degrees from the first layer about a third of the way in from the edge. This cross brace will act as the support to place your kindling against once you start your tinder. This way you have created a lean-to over you tinder source once it is ignited which keeps from smothering the flame but also allows enough airflow for the fire to grow.
Once the fire is going you will then build a log cabin around the fire by placing two pieces of wood on either side of the fire. The next level will be placed on top of these at a 90-degree angle and continue with this for 2 or 3 more layers. With the top layer, you should then build a roof by loosely placing medium-sized sticks or logs across the last layer. The heat radiating out will heat and dry the wood that isn't in contact with the fire and the top logs will ignite creating a very hot fire relatively quickly.
This type of fire is great when you need quick heat but will burn up the wood pretty quickly.
This type of fire lay burns for a long time and doesn't require a lot of tending once it is started. You start by building a platform of the thickest logs you have and then add a level with slightly smaller logs 90 degrees from the first. Continue like this until you have a wood platform built. I aim to have the platform be about 3/4 as high as it is wide.
Then you will start the fire on top just like you would on the ground. I prefer the lean-to method with the single cross brace log of about 2-3 inches. Start your tinder source just in front of the log and then lay your twig bundle or kindling against this log to create a lean-to.
Once started this type of fire burns from the top-down, hence the name. You have just added most of the wood ahead of time. If you want to make the fire burn longer then pack a bit of snow between the logs of the first few layers. This will slow down the burn as the heat from above will have to melt and evaporate this moisture.
Siberian Log Fire
For a longer burning fire, you can't beat the Siberian log fire. This type of fire lay is great for heating a lean-to shelter as it is wide and directional. You will need at least 10 logs that are 6 feet long and 8-10 inches in diameter. Once you have the snow cleared you will lay the fattest log out parallel to the front of your lean-to about 4-5 feet away. This base log can be harvested from the ground as a wet log will burn longer as the base.
Then you will place as many logs as will fit across the base log. These logs will be with the tips overhanging on the side of the shelter by about 8 inches with the other end on the ground. The tips should be touching while the tails should be fanned out.
Once you have set up the fire lay you will start your under the overhanging logs in the middle of the base log. You can also place the base log, start the fire and then place the overhanging logs. Either way works well.
To tend the fire you only need to add the occasional piece to the fire underneath, push the tips together, and move the logs forward when the tips burn down. Once established, the fire will burn for hours without needing to be tended making it well suited for getting some sleep. If you are camping with others, set up a rotating schedule to tend the fire so everyone can get enough sleep throughout the night.
See the photos and illustrations to see how the fire lay works.
Starting A Fire
Once you have your fire lay in place it is time to start your fire. Preparation is the key to a successful fire so make sure you have a twig or kindling bundle ready to go. If you are using split down wood as kindling I would suggest using your knife and making a bunch of feather sticks (at least 10) so you increase the surface area of the wood making initial ignition easier.
Place your tinder source on the raft of sticks in front of the cross brace of wood you have placed. Depending on your tinder source and ignition method, you may have to process your tinder. If you are using cotton with vaseline this will mean fluffing it up a bit while birch bark will need to be scraped so you have a small pile of bits if you using a Ferro rod to start the fire. If you are using an open flame like matches or lighter you can get away with minimal processing. Every match or use of your lighter is using a resource so you want to prepare correctly so you don't need more than one match or less than 5 seconds of your lighter.
Once you have ignited your tinder source lay a bundle of twigs across the cross brace on your raft of sticks over the flame. If you are using feather sticks then do the same thing but add them one at a time once the previous has started to burn.
Once the flame is higher than your initial kindling you can start adding small sticks or split wood about the size of your thumb. About 10-15 of these will give you a relatively sustainable fire that will then start to burn larger pieces of wood. When you add pieces to make sure they are in contact with the flame but have room for air to move between.
To help larger pieces start to burn you can blow into the coals at the heart of the fire. This extra oxygen will help the fire burn hotter and help the big chunks of wood ignite quicker. A plastic tube like the hose from a Camel Bak can be used to direct your breath into the fire without you having to get close and put your face into the heat and smoke.
Tending The Fire
Fire needs heat, oxygen, and fuel. Once the fire is established the heat is there so it is just a case of managing the other two. If pieces of wood are too close together it can limit airflow while too far apart will limit the heat they share. This is when moving pieces around, propping a piece up or adding more wood will come in. If a piece of wood is directly laying on the coals it may not burn cleanly so prying under the end with a stick can allow some extra air in improving the combustion.
Putting Out Your Fire And Cleaning Up
Unless you are using the fire to heat a shelter or in a hot tent, you want to make sure it is out before you go to bed. In winter this can be as easy as moving the bigger pieces apart and shoveling some snow on top. The heat will melt the snow and extinguish the fire. Turn off your headlamp and look for any glowing coals that are left and dump some snow on them.
Once you are ready to leave camp, disperse the unburned wood away from camp and rebury the area in snow. This will minimize any impact and will keep people from thinking this is a fire pit on non-winter months.
When Do You Need Microspikes or Crampons?
On trails that see a lot of traffic or in conditions with regular thaw and freeze cycles, you are likely to run into icy patches and unevenly compressed snow. Microspikes and trail crampons will give you the traction to hike in these conditions when it isn't deep enough to need now shoes.
We are fans of the Hillsound Trail Crampon Extreme as they offer great traction, stay on well and have a great warranty.
When Do You Need To Start Using Snowshoes?
Once the snow is 8-12 inches you will benefit by wearing your snowshoes. Snowshoes spread out your weight and help keep you from slipping on icy steep terrain as most modern snowshoes also have metal crampons on the bottom.
Not only will it make it easier to walk in deep snow, but you will also keep from post-holing. This is the deep hole left when you hike in deep snow without snowshoes. The hole will harden becoming a danger to people hiking after you.
Don't be that person who leaves a trail of postholes for others to fall into.
How To Cross Ice Safely
One of the unique things about winter is where your routes can take you. When the lakes and ponds freeze you have a whole new path you can take. I enjoy hiking canoe routes, walking on the frozen lakes and using the portages to connect. This can be especially useful if you are pulling a sled as the lakes are flat.
You will need traction devices like trail crampons or snowshoes with crampons as the ice will be slippery. Snowshoes have the added benefit of spreading your weight out which will help reduce the risk of breaking through the ice.
Before heading out on the frozen water it is important to be sure of the ice thickness and quality. While ice as thin as 2 inches (50 mm) can be strong enough to support a person walking on it, I will only head out on the ice that is at least 5 inches (125 mm) thick. I've fallen through before and will do just about anything to avoid that.
If there is ice fishing in the area you are heading to you can check with a local fishing shop or guides to see what the thickness is. It is also possible to test the ice yourself. You will need an ice pick or ice ax to chop through the ice to measure.
Ice that is clear, blue or green will be much stronger than milky or grey colored ice as the later has a lot of air in it making it weaker. Snow build up on ice can add to the risk as it can cover up cracks and make it hard to tell the thickness.
Avoid inlets and outlets as the flow of water will tend to keep the ice from fully forming. Give beaver dams a wide berth as they have the same effect. Places where a lake narrows will tend to have more current which can have dangerously thin ice if the wider areas are only marginal. Stay off of any river with a fast current because the water levels may have dropped leaving open air under the ice.
Use the buddy system, so you will have assistance if you go through the ice. If you are crossing ice it is a good idea to carry 50 feet of rope and ice picks to assist getting out of the water. Ice picks are handles with a metal spike on the end that will allow you to pull yourself up on the ice.
Walk spaced out 40-50 feet so if one goes through it isn't likely to spread and lead to others falling in as well.
What To Do If You Fall Through The Ice
If you have the bad luck to go through the ice the first thing you need to do is not panic. The cold water will feel like a punch to the gut and suck the wind out of you but stay calm. You have 3-5 minutes before the cold severely affects your ability to help yourself. You will have a tendency to tense and hold your breath due to the cold but focus on your breathing as you try to get out as you need oxygen when you are exerting yourself. Holding your breath will tire you out quicker.
You may need to jettison your snowshoes or skis to get out so know how to release them when you can't see them.
Get to the edge and using your ice picks to pull yourself up out of the water on your stomach. Your hiking partners can assist by tossing you the rope with a loop tied in the end.
Once out head to shore to change into dry clothing and get a fire started to warm up. Use the fire to dry your wet clothing. When I fell through the ice, I built two fires around 8 feet apart and stood between the two to speed up getting warm.
Your partner who didn't get wet can work on collecting wood to feed the fire once it is started so you can focus on getting warm. Hot drinks can help as well as heating packs. Keep moving in place as this will help blood circulate and add to your warmth.
The Wrap Up
Now that you know about fire, traction and walking on ice you can start to plan day trips. In our next installment we will cover sleep systems, cooking, trip planning and gear lists. Comment below if you have any winter camping tips or want us to cover a topic we haven't yet.