Winter camping is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re a keen outdoorsman, woman, or family, winter camping provides adventures, new horizons, and (bug-free) outdoor entertainment! If you’re ready to take on the challenge of winter camping, one of the most important skills you can learn is how to build an appropriate winter campfire.
Why Go Winter Camping?
If you’re a fan of winter sports, you’ll love winter camping. It offers a great chance for ice fishing, snow-shoeing, or cross-country skiing. It also tends to be a lot less crowded than summer camping, when everyone is out to enjoy the sunshine. One option for winter camping is to choose existing campsites. However, there are plenty of reasons to choose the backcountry for your winter camping adventures. Though an off-season camping site has existing fire pits, it also tends to be more open and doesn’t shield you from the wind as much as you’d like.
Summer campfires offer a great opportunity for smores and storytelling, but they also tend to be largely unnecessary. They’re great for keeping bugs away, but they don’t really need to keep you warm. Winter is a different story. Letting the fire burn down on a winter camping trip can risk your health and safety.
Building a fire in the winter means you can enjoy all the excitement of a winter camping trip. It may even save your life if you’re out in the wilderness in the winter!
Get The Right Equipment
Winter camping requires its own gear. You’ll want to bring a lot of layers, as well as sleeping bag liners, a hot water bottle, a stove suitable for cold temperatures, and insulation for your tent. Remember that when it comes to winter camping, your pack will be bulkier, and heavier, thanks to the extra insulation. You’ll also want extra fuel to keep a camp stove warm, and relight a fire, in case it gets wet.
To build a fire, you’ll need to start with a fire pit. You’ll need the tools for digging a fire pit unless you choose an existing fire pit. Follow these instructions to dig yourself a decent fire pit.
Digging a Fire Pit
To dig a proper fire pit in the winter, you’ll want a pit that is protected from the elements. This is why you’ll want to choose a space that is protected from wind or snow. If you’re directly under a tree, remember to knock the snow from the branches ahead of time.
If the snow is deep, make the fire on top of the snow by placing a row of logs on top, and a piece of sheet metal over the logs. The logs below the metal will stop the snow from melting too quickly. You can pile your firewood on top of this platform.
If you have the tools for digging, and the snow is less than a foot, you should be able to dig a proper fire pit. You can dig down to about three inches above solid ground. Circle your firepit with stones. You should place the stones next to each other, but not touching directly. For added protection, build the platform described above.
Best Wood For Winter Camping
Different woods burn at different rates, and some burn better for warmth than others. Conifer or evergreen trees are sweet, and readily available when you’re winter camping, but you’ll want wood that burns best to keep you warm. You’ll also want to know what the best wood to start your fire is, if you’re not using flint, fire-starter, or a lighter.
Oak – Oak is very dense and burns hot. You should season it at least once a year, but it’s a great log for winter camping.
Maple – Maple wood is a hot burning firewood, but difficult to split. It’s very sturdy and will keep you very warm during your camping trip.
Cherry – Cherry burns a medium heat, and provides a sweeter smell. It also produces less smoke. It does tend to spark more, and you should make sure to keep your fire pit away from your tents.
Birch – Birch burns fast and bright, but not very warm. It makes great kindling, but shouldn’t be used as your main firewood.
Pine – Pine is readily available on a winter camping trip, but it’s not a great choice for firewood. The high sap content means it burns messy and unevenly. It cant be counted on as firewood.
Chestnut – Not ideal for firewood. It burns and splits easily, but won’t keep you warm, thanks to the low heat it burns at. It also sparks a lot and smokes heavily. That makes it less than ideal for camping.
Now that we’ve covered the woods you’ll want to consider, and how to build up your fire pit, follow these instructions to build up your perfect winter fire.
Start The Fire
Choose a space away from your tent, where wandering sparks won’t cause a problem. That first spark is important to your fire. You can use lighters, windproof matches, a Ferro rod, flint, or other fire starters of your choice.
From there, you’ll want to use tinder to build up the fire. When it comes to a winter fire, you’ll need to ensure your tinder stays dry. Anything from moss, paper, birch bark, and even twigs can make decent tinder to get your fire started. Stay away from anything damp, and stay away from pine needles and more flexible wood, which takes longer to burn, and produces more smoke than flame.
You’ll want to light with a match or a lighter. Use water-proof matches. Don’t forget to blow on the base of the fire to provide oxygen and allow the fire to ignite fully. As the fire burns, avoid errant sparks by moving the embers to the center of the pit.
The Fire Pit Technique
If you’ve never built a fire from scratch before, follow these tips for a roaring, even-burning fire!
By stacking your fire pit and a teepee style, and surrounding the fire with larger logs, you can keep a roaring fire going. You’ll need to keep tossing smaller sticks into the fire to grow the flames and burn the larger logs later when you’ve got a decent fire going in the pit. To invert this pattern, you can choose the upside-down version. You start with three or four large logs, side by side at the bottom of your fire pit. Layer smaller logs at 90-degree angles on top. Continue alternating, and place the tinder on top. The tinder will burn first, and the fire will slowly catch on the way down.
Another technique for building a fire in the log cabin style. In this style, you place two larger pieces of firewood, parallel to each other, and then turn 90 degrees, and place two smaller pieces on the top to form a square. Your tinder is then placed inside the square, to burn the fire quickly.
Keep It Growing
You need to find dry wood for your fire pit. Use conifer species like cedar and spruce. Pine is a good option, but as we’ve mentioned, it tends to smoke up rapidly, and the high sap concentration makes it messy to burn. Once you’ve started a decent fire, you’ll want to move on to hardy woods like maple and oak to keep your fire going.
When you’re looking for firewood, you’ll want to focus on taking the wood from dead trees and stumps. Dead trees are dried out and burn better than live trees. To ensure you’ve got a dead tree, try the scratch test.
The Scratch Test
Scratching the bark will show you if a tree is dead or alive. Dead trees make the best firewood. During times of drought and high temperatures, a tree may “sacrifice” branches. It’s the natural version of pruning. Trees will drop sticks, and sometimes entire branches to conserve resources. This is why it’s best to perform the scratch test on a tree trunk rather than on branches and stems. It’s also handy for choosing the safest place to set up camp since dying trees can topple in strong winds
Use a fingernail or small pocketknife to remove a small strip of the exterior bark from the trunk. You shouldn’t create a hole in the trunk, just a little surface “wound.” If you see green, you know that the tree is alive.
Winter camping is a great time for the whole family, but it does require some changes in the usual routine. Building a fire in the winter is an essential skill for any outdoorsman (or woman.) From the right wood to the best choices for building your fire pit in or above the snow, our guide can help you build a fire in even the most frigid conditions.