How to Start a Fire in the Snow in Freezing Cold Weather

If you find yourself in the woods with a generous amount of snow on the ground, creating a fire can be a daunting task, but it’s critical for your survival.

During the winter months, you’re going to want to create a fire as soon as possible if you’re stranded in the woods. Or even if you’re just spending a night out before hunting in the morning.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to properly start a fire in the snow. Let’s get to it!

Can You Build a Fire In Extreme Cold?

While anything is possible with the right tools and know-how, the harsh winter cold can certainly make things a little more challenging, especially if you live in a northern climate.

The most difficult part about being outdoors in the cold weather for an extended period of time is building a fire.

That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re always prepared if you plan on camping, hiking, or hunting in the snow. You never know when disaster may strike and you could get lost out in the freezing cold.

Here are some useful items you may want to consider bringing along if you plan on camping out in the extreme cold:

  • Hand warmers
  • Four season tent
  • Fire-starting tools
    • Lighter
    • Matches
    • Ferro rod and striker
    • Magnesium fire starter
  • Down sleeping bag
  • Emergency blanket
  • Calorie dense snacks and protein bars
  • Premade tinder (cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, dryer lint inside of paper towel rolls, etc.)

All of these items are pretty easy to obtain and are all fairly small, other than the tent and sleeping bag. As long as you have a decent-sized backpack you should have no problem carrying all of this winter-approved camping gear.

The most important survival tools are going to be the tinder and the fire-starting tools, namely because, without them, you’re going to be spending a lot more time attempting to strike a spark. And when it’s freezing outside, you’re going to want a roaring winter campfire as soon as possible.

Materials Needed for a Winter Campfire

You need two things to build a campfire — wood and a way to create a spark. We’ll get to creating a spark here in a second, but first, let’s talk about gathering wood.

There are three kinds of fire-starting material you’ll need. These include:

Tinder is the finest of the materials, the dead grass, leaves, and pocket lint that will catch fire quickly. Look for peeling tree bark, specifically birch bark because of its papery texture.

Oak trees also tend to hold onto their dead leaves throughout the winter, and they’re a great way to urge a spark into a flame. Dried-out pine or fir needles, harvested from the ground around the trunk, also work well.

Kindling consists of twigs and small branches that will catch the tinder’s flame. Finding kindling in a wooded region during the winter can be difficult because so many trees have lost their leaves, you can’t tell what’s dead and what’s not.

A good way to tell the difference is if you grab onto a branch and try to bend it. If there’s some give and it bends, it’s alive. If it’s brittle and remains relatively straight, it’s dead.

Also, if you want to avoid playing the “searching for dead foilage game”, you may want to look out for coniferous trees. Because most species of coniferous trees don’t shed their needles in the winter, you can easily distinguish the dead limbs from the live ones.

Finally, you’ll need the fuelwood, which is the real heart of the fire. Look for those dead trees that aren’t covered in snow. Half-stumps or cankerous trees usually break apart with a bit of force, even if they’re quite large.

Generally, you’ll want much more fuelwood than kindling and much more kindling than tinder. But, it’s always a good idea to stock up as much as possible, because who knows how long your fire will last. The more dead the wood, the quicker it will burn.

How To Start A Fire in the Snow

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of ways to start a campfire in winter. It’s a fairly simple process, but because of the likelihood of cold winds, precipitation, and impending darkness, there’s really only one method that matters.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to how to make a fire pit in the snow:

1. Find a Clear Area

 The first step is to find a relatively open area that’s also sheltered. This is kind of counterintuitive, so let me explain.

You don’t want your fire to melt snow off tree branches above you and shower you in melting snow. Your location should be far enough from any trees that are covered in snow or low-hanging branches that might get set ablaze.

By the same token, if it’s windy or snowing, you’re going to want at least a modicum of shelter. If you can find an area that’s protected by an overhanging boulder or a copse of tall pine trees, hunker down there.

Alternatively, you can fund a small gully or space between two hills to camp down in. You want to make sure your fire is out of the wind because once it’s started, you’ll need to keep it going, sometimes indefinitely.

Once you’ve decided on a spot, you can go ahead and gather the aforementioned materials before starting step two.

2. Dig a Pit

Starting a campfire on top of a layer of snow won’t end well. Once the fire heats up enough, it will melt all the snow underneath it and extinguish itself.

To combat this, you first have to dig a pit to house your fire. Now, you really don’t have to dig into the earth, just use your hands or your boots to clear a ring in the snow. Once you’ve hit grass or underbrush, you’ve gone deep enough.

Your fire pit should be at least a foot in diameter. Feel free to clear out a place to sit or lay down as well, because your body heat will also melt the snow under you.

When digging a pit, try to pile the excess snow up around the edges of the pit. This can help protect it from the wind.

3. Line Your Pit

Not everyone deems this step necessary, but we think if you have time, it’s an important addition to the process.

There should be bare earth at the bottom of your pit, and to keep the residual moisture from seeping into the bottom of your fire, you should line your firepit.

You can use heavy branches to form a mini raft-like structure in the bottom, or you can find a few flat stones to create a kind of hearth.

We recommend using stones because you can use them as a solid surface for cooking food if you have any. But, if you’re short on time and really can’t find stones because the snow is so deep, go ahead and use the heavy branches for the base.

4. Ignite the Fire

The last step of the process is to set that baby on fire. If you came prepared, that should be a breeze with your Ferro rod and striker or your pack of matches.

But, if you’re unlucky or unprepared, there are a few ways you can create a spark.

Many survivalists might jump up with their hands raised, shouting about fire ploughs and fire bows. But, in the dead of winter, with a foot of snow, finding strong enough wood for either of those bushcraft methods is going to be tough.

Instead, we suggest using the stone and steel method. Finding a rock is going to be much easier than finding a sturdy piece of dry wood.

Search around tree trunks and by streambeds. Once you’ve found a palm-sized stone, you’re going to either need a piece of metal or another stone.

You can use:

  • Knife
  • Jewelry
  • Belt buckle
  • Jacket zipper

Quickly strike the stone and the metal (or the other stone) together until they create a spark. Try to capture the spark with your tinder and blow on it gently until it creates a flame.

Then, gradually add your kindling until the flame is going strong. Add your fuelwood and voila! You’ve successfully made a fire in the snow.

Try not to smother it by adding too much material at the same time. Keep a consistent stream of wood going in to constantly feed the flames.

You’re Now More Prepared!

Getting lost in the wilderness during the summer might be a quirky adventure you tell your friends about later, but being stranded in the dead of winter is a real life-or-death situation.

That’s why we recommend that everyone, regardless of age or occupation, learn basic survival skills such as how to create a fire in the snow.

You never know when it could be the difference between life and death!