I frequently hike and camp in the forests of the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, etc). Considering this climate can get quite cold in the Fall & Winter, what are the best strategies to starting a fire? Assuming I have a lighter, what materials would be best to gather? Are any types of wood structures better for this climate (tepee, log cabin, etc)?
There are a lot of ways to start fires, from a lighter to a chocolate bar and soda can. The basic principles always apply, though: you need oxygen, heat, and fuel (see fire triangle). If you can combine these three just right, you'll get fire.
There is a sort of art to starting a fire. Generally you will need:
- Tinder: tiny twigs (dry pine branches are a good source), cedar or birch bark, lint from the laundry room at home, or newspaper all make excellent tinder. It's not a bad idea to keep a small amount of tinder in a plastic bag in your backpack, but you'll usually be able to find enough out in the woods. See: Tinder (Wikipedia) for a list of other materials that make good tinder.
- Kindling: slightly larger pieces of wood that you can ignite with your tinder.
- A good supply of wood in varying sizes to build your way up from the kindling
You can either stack the kindling around or on top of your tinder before lighting it, or add it as the tinder burns. Flame tends to burn from the bottom up, so starting tinder on top of kindling is not going to work as well (if at all).
If you are using matches, stack some kindling around or on top of the tinder, making a sort of "log cabin" or "tipi" out of small sticks. Make sure to leave room for air to get to the flame, and an opening for your match to light the tinder.
Once your tinder is lit, the flame should slowly grow, consuming the tinder and igniting the kindling. Gently blowing on the flame will add oxygen and help this process along. Keep adding wood and blowing or fanning as needed, and gradually increase the size of the wood you add as the flame grows. Before long you'll have a nice flame going and you'll be able to sit back and enjoy the warmth.
When cold temperature is an issue, your fire may be harder to start, but the biggest reason will likely be yourself. Your cold hands and waning patience are more likely to make your fire harder to start than anything else.
Fingerless gloves are good to keep your hands warm while allowing fine manipulation of twigs and leaves, and the lighter.
You can also shelter yourself from the wind to keep yourself more comfortable as you try to start the fire. Or make yourself a hot beverage (yes, with a stove).
Also, teamwork. Take turns running around in the woods collecting fire wood (heating yourself up) and working on the fire (freezing your hands off).
Good kindling and tinder is essential - things like cotton balls, newspaper, toilet paper or dried wood can be beneficial here. If you haven't brought anything with you look for small, dry twigs which should ignite fairly easily. Other dried material such as dried grass also works well.
As well as the usual matches and lighter I also always carry a firesteel - takes a bit of knack to use it but it'll create sparks pretty much anywhere, even if it's cold and soaking wet (though obviously make sure your tinder / kindling isn't!)
Once you've got your tinder ignited, slowly add the kindling (don't add too much at once or you'll likely starve the flame of oxygen. Once you've got a nice fire going with the kindling you can look to add bigger logs, again gradually and making sure they're thoroughly dry, until you have a fire the size you need.
Although not strictly speaking part of this question, I think it's always worth remembering that you should take steps to make sure your fire is safely extinguished as well - see here for the related question!
If you can find a decent supply of semi-dry birch bark (which contains a natural accelerant) you are at least off to a good start. Then general fire-making steps kick back in two-fold.
I don't see air temperature as playing any part in the equation. I just wrote some instructions for starting a camp fire and they should apply to pretty much every situation.