Fire Starting in Cold Weather
(Adapted from the U.S. Army Survival Manual)
Fire is especially important in cold weather. It not only
provides a means to prepare food, but also to get warm and to
melt snow or ice for water. It also provides you with a significant
psychological boost by making you feel a little more secure in
All wood will burn, but some types of wood create more smoke
than others. For instance, coniferous trees that contain resin
and tar create more and darker smoke than deciduous trees.
There are few materials to use for fuel in the high mountainous
regions of the arctic. You may find some grasses and moss, but
very little. The lower the elevation, the more fuel available.
You may find some scrub willow and small, stunted spruce trees
above the tree line. On sea ice, fuels are seemingly nonexistent.
Driftwood or fats may be the only fuels available to a survivor
on the barren coastlines in the arctic and subarctic regions.
Abundant fuels within the tree line are -
Spruce trees are common in the interior regions. As
a conifer, spruce makes a lot of smoke when burned in the spring
and summer months. However, it burns almost smoke-free in late
fall and winter.
Tamarack tree is also a conifer. It is the only tree
of the pine family that loses its needles in the fall. Without
its needles, it looks like a dead spruce, but it has many knobby
buds and cones on its bare branches. When burning, tamarack wood
makes a lot of smoke and is excellent for signaling purposes.
Birch trees are deciduous and the wood burns hot and
fast, as if soaked with oil or kerosene. Most birches grow near
streams and lakes, but occasionally you will find a few on higher
ground and away from water.
Willow and alder grow in arctic regions, normally
in marsh areas or near lakes and streams. These woods burn hot
and fast without much smoke.
Dried moss, grass, and scrub willow are
other materials you can use for fuel. These are usually plentiful
near streams in tundras (open, treeless plains). By bundling
or twisting grasses or other scrub vegetation to form a large,
solid mass, you will have a slower burning, more productive fuel.
If fuel or oil is available from a wrecked vehicle or downed
aircraft, use it for fuel. Leave the fuel in the tank for storage,
drawing on the supply only as you need it. Oil congeals in extremely
cold temperatures, therefore, drain it from the vehicle or aircraft
while still warm if there is no danger of explosion or fire.
If you have no container, let the oil drain onto the snow or
ice. Scoop up the fuel as you need it.
CAUTION : Do not expose flesh to petroleum, oil, and
lubricants in extremely cold temperatures. The liquid state of
these products is deceptive in that it can cause frostbite.
Some plastic products, such as MRE spoons, helmet visors,
visor housings, aid foam rubber will ignite quickly from a burning
match. They will also burn long enough to help start a fire.
For example, a plastic spoon will burn for about 10 minutes.
In cold weather regions, there are some hazards in using fires,
whether to keep warm or to cook. For example -
Fires have been known to burn underground, resurfacing nearby.
Therefore, do not build a fire too close to a shelter.
In snow shelters, excessive heat will melt the insulating
layer of snow that may also be your camouflage.
A fire inside a shelter lacking adequate ventilation can result
in carbon monoxide poisoning.
A person trying to get warm or to dry clothes may become careless
and burn or scorch his clothing and equipment.
Melting overhead snow may get you wet, bury you and your equipment,
and possibly extinguish your fire.
In general, a small fire and some type of stove is the best
combination for cooking purposes. A hobo stove is particularly
suitable to the arctic. It is easy to make out of a tin can,
and it conserves fuel. A bed of hot coals provides the best cooking
heat. Coals from a crisscross fire will settle uniformly. Make
this type of fire by crisscrossing the firewood. A simple crane
propped on a forked stick will hold a cooking container over
For heating purposes, a single candle provides enough heat
to warm an enclosed shelter. A small fire about the size of a
mans hand requires very little fuel, yet it generates considerable
warmth and is hot enough to warm liquids.
Steve's Notes: In cold regions, look for sap oozing
out of pine, spruce and fir trees. This can be broken off in
chunks if frozen, or scraped off with a stick. It burns for quite
a while, even when wet, making it excellent for fire starting.
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