I’ve messed up more than a few times and spent an un-planned night out without gear. Good memories now, a bit uncomfortable at the time. Dangling on the side of El Capitan in a thunderstorm with nothing more than a T-shirt and rain jacket. Dumb. Shivering all night on the Titan tower in Utah, that time with a T-shirt and NO jacket. Double dumb.
And the unplanned bivvys in winter. Scary.
Yet thinking back, there wasn’t one unplanned bivouac when snow was involved where we didn’t have some sort of fire — either a stove to make hot drinks, or something to ignite firewood.
Indeed, campfires can save your butt. Yet the thing is, when you really need a fire is usually when it’s the most difficult to build. Double that verity when there’s snow on the ground. So how?
Lessons learned: Along with your first aid supplies (however minimal) — ALWAYS include something you can use as a fire starter. At the least, carry a couple of butane lighters and a packet of waterproof matches. Test the matches at home, some don’t work. If necessary rubber band the lighters so they can’t empty in your pack. For starter fuel, you can shave a block of alpine wax into a wad of crumbled twigs (regular hydrocarbon wax, not fluorocarbon). Or carry a dedicated fire starter such as the blocks of paraffin/sawdust mix you can buy just about anywhere. Another good starter is cotton balls soaked with Vaseline (carry in a film canister). Mostly, avoid fire starters that flame up hot but die out fast. You want something with staying power. Test at home.
Then the burning question, how to build a fire in the snow? If the snowpack is only a few feet thick, dig down to the ground. Otherwise pack out an area then build a platform out of branches. Once the fire is going it’ll melt down into the snowpack and you’ll need to shovel out the perimeter, but initially you need a place to work.
Lay a medium size chunk of branch on your platform, around 4 inches in diameter. You’ll use this to prop up the kindling above your fire starter.
Next, find some dry kindling. For advice about that, I spoke with author Buck Tilton since he wrote the definitive book on the subject. Buck said the main thing is to find small dry wood, usually by getting in near the trunk of trees. He said to gather above the snowpack since any wood in the snow will have a high moisture content. In my experience, you can almost always find wood dry enough to ignite if you look for it with care — and have your fire starter!
Assuming you’ve found reasonably dry wood, start your build with a forearm sized wad of “twiggies” about the diameter of a wood match or smaller. Lean the twiggies on that branch you placed on the platform, so you end up with a space underneath for your fire starter. On top of the twiggies place finger sized wood. Keep a nearby stash of twiggies and small wood. Finally, stick your fire starter under the whole mess and ignite. If it’s raining or snowing, have someone shelter the build while you’re working. If the fire starter burns out and you only get a smolder, try blowing while you add twiggies to the hot spot. It’s surprising how well that works.
What to do if you can’t find dry wood? Get out your knife. Find the driest branches you can and whittle down to dry wood. Make starter material by carving shavings off the dry areas you exposed. Sprinkle with crumbs of conifer sap. Support a pile of such kindling over your fire starter, and light. Common mistake with this is not making enough shavings, as the flames from those have to dry and ignite any larger wood you place on top.
Overall, care and preparation are key. You don’t want to be in a rush, and you’ll need hands that can operate in the cold. Thus, if you’re not sure you need a fire, err on the side of caution and build one anyway. Don’t be afraid to practice.
I asked Buck what fire starter he likes and he offered this:
“I’m going to vote for the Spark-Lite. You can use it with one hand (should the other hand be busy) to create a small shower of sparks. You can get it packaged with a small handfull of fire starting tablets that burn for a couple of minutes each. It weighs less than an ounce with the tabs. All things considered, a good fire starting kit. ”
Any blog readers have favorite fire starting methods? Pray tell…
10. Jump start a car without blinding yourself.
9. First-aid a serious laceration.
8. Rip skins in the wind without giving your scalp a bikini wax.
7. Fix a broken ski pole with duct tape and pocket knife.
6. Do a jump turn in the face of danger.
5. Start a fire while you are shivering and wet.
3. Quickly dig a person out of an avalanche.
1. Practice a humble mindset so caution rules the day.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.