Knowing how to light a fire is a source of security when on a winter trek. A fire provides heat and light, which means you can boil water and heat up food if for some reason your camping stove stops working. Fire can also be used to signal for help in emergency situations, both during the day and at night. If there is one survival skill that you should have when you head out on a winter trek, it is the ability to light a fire – and understand the many different ways this can be done.
A fire requires heat, fuel and oxygen in appropriate proportions in order to burn. If you are starting a fire from scratch, find a good location that has a good oxygen supply and is sheltered from the wind. Also, make sure that you have gathered all the wood you will need before you light the fire, because once the fire is burning you should not leave it unattended - and you should not hunt for wood in the dark.
Something to light the fire with
There are many different ways to light a fire and you should master a number of them. The most common, of course, are normal matches and a lighter, while a flint fire starter requires a little more practice. Remember that matches need to be kept dry and butane lighters might not work in the cold, which means that these two options are perhaps not the best alternative for a winter trek. Our recommendation is to bring:
• Matches packed in a waterproof container (for extra protection, wooden matches can be dipped in paraffin/wax or even painted with nail polish!)
• Some wax paper (often found where grill charcoal is sold), bark or something similar
• Flint fire starter and knife
The wax paper is flammable and is used to help twigs, bark, grass and any other material you have gathered catch fire. Cotton grass or cotton also works well, and one survival trick is actually to bring a tampon – the compact fibres can be peeled off in small portions and breathe life into many fires.
Fire – a check list
Here is a suggestion for how to go about lighting a fire.
1. Gather firewood, enough to last the entire time
2. Choose a location where there is no risk that the fire will spread or damage the ground or vegetation. When there is no snow, gravel and sand are the best surfaces.
3. Build a fireplace, place stones in a ring or dig a hole. In the snow you may need to dig down a bit and perhaps even use logs or thicker branches as a platform for the fire so it does not sink down into the snow.
4. If you have time, build a reflector. Place two vertical poles at each end and then pile wood in between them, kind of like an old-fashioned fence. The reflector will reflect the heat back towards you and also function as a drying rack for wet wood.
5. Light the fire! Once the finest material, often the twigs, has caught fire, continue to increase the size of the branches until you are using chopped logs. Make sure there is plenty of air.
6. Keep an eye on the fire so it does not spread – or die too early.
7. When you are finished, do not forget to put it out (read more below).
Several words about this process
Different types of wood burn differently, but when you are out in the wilderness you usually do not have the opportunity to choose. The best fuel consists of twigs and dry branches found on the ground. Dry twigs lying under a spruce tree are often excellent for starting fires – even in wet weather. Fatwood is an excellent fuel and is normally found in the pine stumps found at the edge of boggy areas (although you should not take dead pines that are still standing - they are often the home of birds, insects, etc.). Fresh wood contains a lot of moisture, but frozen birch or alder can work if you already have a strong fire with good core heat.
Remember that the right of common access means that you are not allowed to tear or chop down living bushes or trees, and this includes ripping bark off a live tree. You must also know what rules apply to lighting a fire in the area where you are since special restrictions apply in national parks and nature reservations in particular. It might be completely forbidden to light a fire, or fires might only be allowed in specifically allocated fireplaces. In an emergency situation where your life or the life of another person is in danger, however, it is permissible to light a fire even in protected areas.
Just as important to put it out
You must be very careful about putting out your fire, and double-check the fireplace to make sure that the fire cannot start again once you have left. Root fires can go down quite far underground, which means that your fire could come back to life. This is why it is not advisable to build your fireplace on peat, moss or earthy woodland - the fire can smoulder there for a long time.
In order to put out your fire, pour water on it, or if you cover it with snow, continue to add more snow as the snow melts. When you are done, cover it with one last layer of snow. If you lined your fireplace with stones, it is a good idea to spread them out since the concentrated heat can bring flames back to life.
Light many fires
Lighting a fire, just as with many other aspects of outdoor living, is not something you can just read about and do. Not only do you need to practice, but you need to practice different methods so that the skills are firmly rooted when you need them most. Practice lighting fires when you are out on shorter treks with friends and family, picking mushrooms or berries, biking, fishing, etc.
P.S. An important footnote about fire and hypothermia!
Never place a seriously hypothermic person close to a fire to warm up. This person must be treated with extreme caution and the warm-up process must occur slowly. However, a fire can provide you and other members of your group, who perhaps shared reinforcement garments with the hypothermic person, with a source of heat.
• More about hypothermia