You are miles from your truck trying to fill your last deer tag, or shed-hunting, or maybe just hiking in the snowy woods or mountains. Suppose you get turned around and it’s getting dark, or you slip and fall into a frozen stream…? At the very least you will be cold and miserable; at the very worst you could die. Never venture outside in the winter without an emergency fire plan.
These essentials weigh next to nothing; carry them in a waterproof pouch in your pack.
Butane lighter: Old school was to carry some waterproof matches in a Baggie, and I still do that sometimes. But better is to pack a modern survival lighter, like the Cabela’s Alaskan Outfitter. It is waterproof, wind-proof, and has a big, easy-to-use ignition switch, something you need when sparking a fire with numb fingers and the cold shakes.
Tinder: This critical stuff jump-starts your fire. I carry a quart-size Baggie stuffed with a mix of shredded wax paper, dry leaves, dead grass, tiny sticks and the like. Most people overlook this, but you need dry tinder.
Paste: I often carry a tube of Coghlan’s Fire Paste. Squeeze some of the flammable gel on kindling and larger sticks wood. As the tinder ignites, the paste will fire and blow the wood into a fast, hot flame.
Build A Fire
In an emergency, you don’t have time to find the perfect fire site. Just think, “Out of the wind and dry.” Check the south side of a ridge or bluff that is out of a cold north or northwest wind. Plus, a southern exposure is warmed naturally by any sun that is out. Look for a thermal spot that is sheltered by evergreen trees, but remember back to your Boy Scout days—never build a fire under snow-laden branches. If you can find a sheltered spot near big rocks, they will help hold and reflect your fire’s heat and light.
With your boots, scuff out a huge spot (maybe six by eight feet) in wet dirt or snow. Clear enough dry ground not only for your fire pit, but also to stack your wood and keep it close and dry.
Most important step of all: Work fast before dark to gather enough kindling, small fuel (sticks thick as your fingers), larger fuel (thick as hot dogs) and finally logs that will burn for hours. In a survival situation, a big mistake that cold, scared people often make is to gather too little wood. If you use up your tinder and kindling but your fire burns out in 20 minutes or so, you’re in trouble.
Gather whatever dry wood that is close and available, but know that soft woods like fir, holly, and apple burn quickly and brightly and give off good heat. Other sticks that are easy to start in an emergency situation include birch, pine, elm, dogwood, and hemlock. Once your fire grows big and hot, add oak, maple, hickory, or other hardwood logs, which burn slowler and crumble into red embers that give off warmth for hours.
Obviously, the deader and drier the wood the better. Remember Scout rule #2: snap dead sticks and branches off standing trees and the tops of dead-falls.
I use a one-side anchor for a backcountry fire, generally a large log. I lay it perpendicular to any slight wind that is blowing at ground level. Then I lean a big, wide heaping of kindling wood against it (leave open holes so enough air is there to start a flame). I stuff a tinder ball beneath the kindling, pop my lighter on it and presto, instant flame. I keep adding lots of kindling and larger branches (with dabs of Fire Paste as needed) until I have roiling flames.
Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a huge stack of dry wood at the ready and for the long run. As your fire grows, keep adding larger and larger fuel. Those big flames will keep you warm, dry you out, and give you the will to survive a cold, dark night if you have to.