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What are the techniques for starting and maintaining a fire in a survival situation when snow is present?

I would like to know if there are any known techniques for starting and maintaining a fire in the wild for survival reasons when there is snow on the ground.

Does the amount of snow alter the technique that is required?

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    The only time I ever did this, a member of my patrol had a road flare that we used to start the fire in desperation. So I can confirm that works. – Todd Wilcox Jan 10 '17 at 13:25
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    Obviously, the first thing to do is to read the Jack London story. – Hot Licks Jan 10 '17 at 23:45
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    There are. They all involve a shovel. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jan 11 '17 at 9:13
  • One word. Gandalf. – DJClayworth Feb 27 '17 at 3:46
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Aside from what is mentioned in the answers to this question (How to light a fire with wet firewood?) the things you need to be concerned about in winter are the cold, frozen wood, and your fire being extinguished by snow.

On winter camps one story that always went around was one of a man who died because after he built his fire and was just barely getting it going, a sluff of snow fell from the tree he was taking shelter under and extinguished it. By the time he had built it back up again, his hands were too frozen to strike a match. So make sure you're building your fire away from anything that can extinguish it.

As far as preparing your fire, you don't have to worry too much about how much snow is beneath it as long as it is somewhat packed down and you have a base of limbs or logs. The best thing to do is lay a base of logs on the snow and build your fire on top of that, then your tinder is protected from the melting snow, which to be frank doesn't really melt that fast even after your fire gets going. When I was a kid we started a huge bonfire on a mountain lake once because we thought it'd be cool to watch it burn through the ice and get extinguished in the lake. The once 20ft flame fire simply burnt out after a long time and didn't even make a dent in the ice, it just made the surface wet and slick.

Frozen wood can take even longer to burn than wet wood can, because you have to thaw it out first, so select your wood by taking dead branches high off the ground without any snow on them, or actually fall a dead tree and take the wood from the top and chop your wood really fine to get the dry stuff from the centre.

My favourite winter fire is made using four-foot logs between two and four inches in diameter. I set two larger logs parallel on the ground, then start laying the other logs across them until I have a 4ft x 4ft grill. Take a few of the logs out of the middle to start the fire with a typical tipi fire, then once it starts burning and you get few coals, replace the logs. This type of fire has several advantages:

First, you don't have to cut as much wood, the logs are quick and easy to cut because they're skinny, and you don't have to chop any. You simply cut small deadfall trees, or use large branches. In my part of the world we have lots of lodgepole pines, which choke the sun out to the forest floor and kill off a lot of smaller trees, so there's an endless supply of smaller deadfall, perfect for firewood.

Second, after you get a good bed of coals, this fire becomes the perfect fire for warming you up and drying things out, because it's a low-flame, high-heat type of fire. Your logs will burn through in the middle and fall into the coals, when they do, simply tuck the fallen logs under the others and replace them with new ones on top. You will quickly have a 16 square-foot bed of hot coals covered by a grill of skinny logs with very little flame. It's also excellent for cooking because you have the same amount of area to put pans and kettles (just make sure they're sitting on the new logs).

Third, You can use frozen logs once the fire gets going. When you're replacing logs, you can throw icy frozen solid logs into your grill and they will quickly thaw out and start to burn.

As an aside, one thing I always carry with me now in the winter is white gas or starter fluid to start my winter fires if it's taking too long to do so with tinder. In emergent situations, you may not have the ability to prepare a proper fire as is illustrated in the frozen-hands story I shared above. But with lighter fluid, you don't need much dexterity to squirt that on and throw a match at it.

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    one story that always went around — that sounds suspiciously like Jack London's short story To Build a Fire. Still good advice though. – zwol Jan 9 '17 at 20:51
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    @zwol It very well could be! I heard it first as an urban legend as kid at a survival winter camp. Thanks for the link! – ShemSeger Jan 9 '17 at 21:05
  • FWIW, snow melts much faster than ice. The air gaps in the snow slow the heat transfer and allow much faster local melting. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Jan 10 '17 at 18:33
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    @FredtheMagicWonderDog True, but in my experience it doesn't take long for the snow beneath a fire to become as dense as ice. – ShemSeger Jan 10 '17 at 20:13
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The base

You need to clear an area so that there is little snow on the ground; eventually, your fire will settle down to the ground, so, the less snow there is underneath, the better.

In really bad situations, you can't move the snow (maybe it's icy, or you don't have a shovel or easy means to move the snow?) or the depth isn't known. What you can do is to lay larger logs to make a flooring of sorts, then build your fire atop that.

Another technique is to build a fire on top of a rock; again, you will have to clear snow, but if that's not feasible, you could still lay down flooring logs.

You might also want to build a fire on top of a tree stump. You might find some debris, like a pot or a #10 tin can in which you can build your fire. Or large wet strips of tree bark. Or a fallen tree. Or maybe you have aluminum foil in your gear; use that for underneath the fire.

Keep in mind that a survival fire should have two purposes: to keep you warm, and to make you noticed. In keeping you warm, you need to locate it so that it won't melt snow in your shelter area; that means clearing out as much snow as possible around your shelter area. Again, make a log flooring if this isn't feasible.

To make you visible, build the fire at higher elevations, so that any smoke generated won't blend with any trees making it harder to pinpoint you.

Starting the fire

You didn't indicate your experience in starting fires, so, for posterity, I'll just assume you don't know; if anything, the tips can be useful for others.

Firestarters

If you don't have firestarters, you can use birch bark—and only birch bark. Such can be found by its distinctive white (or silver) coloring, and which can occasionally be found peeling from a tree or log. You want to collect it from ground logs to prevent injury to a living tree; however, in survival in the snow, it may be impossible to find on the ground: you'll have to get it from a live tree. Birch bark contains a waxy substance which makes it nearly waterproof and easily lit. That is your firestarter (hopefully, you have matches or a lighter?). But take only what you need, and no more, unless you're getting it from dead trees/logs. In areas where birch isn't available, an excellent firestarter is Old Man's Beard. It grows everywhere, and is most commonly found on pine and oak branches, sometimes hanging in long, beard-like strands. It is a light grey-green color, and it will light even when wet.

Tinder

Use the fire starter to light small wood -- tinder -- that easily snaps when bent. This should be dead wood, not green from a tree. In snow conditions, it's freezing, and hard to tell if the wood is dead or just frozen if you don't have experience. If the twigs come from a branch with leaves on it, it's probably green or live, so keep looking. Green tinder won't light well.

Kindling

Use the tinder twigs as a base to light slightly larger wood, maybe 1" in diameter or less. Build this wood in a neat fashion, like a tee-pee shape, or a lean-to shape. It should be built to shield the tinder from being blown out from any wind, snow, or rain.

Lay larger pieces on top of the small wood. Don't crowd the fire, give it a chance to catch and breathe. Once going, you can add larger wood.

Staying warm

In a survival situation, you need to keep warm. If you have a reflecting blanket/tarp, wrap it around the coldest member of your group, with the shiny side inside. This causes the dark side to absorb sunlight, the exact opposite of what you want to do in scorching heat. Everyone should keep moving to keep the body core as warm as possible: this will help to ward off hypothermia.

One way to keep moving is to keep looking for firewood. You don't know for how long you'll need to be there. Maybe you're lost, or maybe you're not but you're stuck in a weather pattern preventing you from moving. Whatever the case, have ample firewood on hand. Anyone suspected of having hypothermia should not be left unattended: they may wander, creating a new survival problem for you. But they should be moving as much as possible.

Eat, drink, and be merry

Once your fire is built and you have a shelter in case you'll be there awhile, next up is to find water, food, and help, pretty much in that order. It is most important to have a good attitude. That will help you think clearly and be proactive about what to do. When/if hypothermia does set in, a depressed attitude will be more noticeable, so, there are many reasons for having a positive and upbeat attitude, including from those who are normally sullen. Being depressed in cases like this creates arguments, makes it harder to identify hypothermia, and generally is a selfish attitude. This is not the time to be selfish. Water is easy, just melt or eat snow. (That's a good way to create other medical problems, but worry about that later). Do eat snow sparingly, though it will cool the core -- the very thing you don't want to do right now. Next up is food. You may have to do without, unless you're good at hunting, trapping, or fishing.

Help!

Calling for help can pose challenges, too. You might have a cellphone, use that. Yelling is a waste of time, unless you're near a well-traveled trail. Anyone hearing you won't be able to pinpoint you, and snow will absorb sound, so, you won't have benefit there. A whistle can help, and will save your voice if you need it.

Use a reflector -- like a mirror -- to reflect sunlight on passersby you might see, or on buildings you see in the distance.

The fire building technique doesn't change regardless of the snow on the ground. What changes is the amount of work you have to do to get the snow out of the way, or why you are in survival mode at all. If you have only a light dusting of snow, or you've cleared most -- but not all -- of it away, you might decide that you have enough firewood to not worry about melting snow putting your fire out.

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    I'd recommend removing the tree stump idea. That's a fire you aren't easily going to extinguish as the fire will burn down the stump into the roots. Granted it's winter and snowy, but I'd never recommend someone starting a ground fire, you could potentially kill the surrounding trees by killing their roots underground. – ShemSeger Jan 9 '17 at 15:57
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    I just made an account to comment here: If you are in a survival situation, in the snow, and there is the possibility of hypothermia, peeling too much bark off of a tree is the LAST thing you need to worry about. Preserving human life in a situation like this is more important that protecting plant life any day. (and White Birch trees are arguably my favorite type of trees!) – user12081 Jan 9 '17 at 18:12
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    @Mehrdad And I'm obliged to agree. Human life is obviously more important. It's just that I've lived through a number of terrifying forest fires. The Fort McMurray forest fires affected a lot of people in my area this summer, I've been on evacuation alert several times because of wildfires, and I know what it's like to stare up at flames higher than the treetops moving ever so steadily towards your home. People in my neck of the woods are just a bit touchy about potentially starting a wildfire. – ShemSeger Jan 11 '17 at 16:11
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    @Mehrdad There's also the potential that the fire could burn underground straight on until spring, then start a serious wildfire that could put a lot of people in danger. There's a ground fire in the woods north of where I live that was ignited by lightning strike and has been burning for years. They keep the woods around it deforested so it can't start anything big aboveground, but it keeps creeping slow and steadily underground. – ShemSeger Jan 11 '17 at 16:29
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    @Mehrdad Yes, years, decades even, as long as there's something to burn under there, you never really know what's going on underground. I've seen vents of methane and natural gas coming out of the ground that burned for a long time. – ShemSeger Jan 11 '17 at 21:28
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Just to add to what others have said, snow can be pretty useful for managing wind. You can use it to build a wall if there is too much wind. You can then make a hole in that wall to let wind in. Then all you need to do is block the hole or unblock it to manage how much air reaches the fire. If you orient this hole well, you can get really good wind control :)

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The base of large trees usually have bare ground (at least less snow). But you need to be careful not to burn the tree and melting snow in tree as it will rain down on you and the fire. A micro fire in a pot will still generate a good bit of heat. And you are protected from the elements under the tree.

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I'd say this depends much more on how wet the conditions are in general than just whether there's snow on the ground: when winter-camping in Manitoba, we trampled down the snow a bit and started campfires on top of that. It was usually easy to find birch and spruce wood that was reasonably dry (due to the very low temperatures the air is often very dry, and the climate is continental and quite sunny also in winter, and due to low population density it is easy to find suitable dead trees that have been dried by wind + sun). We used a bit of petroleum jelly/vaseline to light the fire. Petroleum jelly also comes handy for protecting the skin, so it is something we anyways had with us - and it was recommended to take enough have some left in case of needing to start a fire in an emergency situation. (Some people prepare cotton wool balls with petroleum jelly, otherwise you can put some on bark or on a bit of toilet paper or something the like.) If you have and the wind isn't too strong (build a windshade, e.g. from snow or use a sleeping pad) you can also light a candle and drip wax on/between your kindling.

On the whole I found building campfires in Manitoban winter much easier than starting a campfire in winter in Germany (even without snow/at slightly > 0°C) when everything is very wet (also birch is much less common here).


Thawing the moisture in the wood in addition to evaporating does take more energy, but actually not very much (44 kJ/mol vaporization enthalpy vs. 6 kJ/mol for thawing).

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