To Build a Fire

Here living along the old Iditarod Trail, in winter the difference of prolonging one’s existence in the land of the living, or being ensconced on the wrong side of the grass may come down to whether or not you can get a roaring fire going, and fast! Most people are not very good at it, and even most survival “experts” show either a lack of moxie in this area or advise methods good only for softer climes.

For purposes of separating pretty-good methods from really-good, let’s use a scenario where you’ve broken through the ice at way below zero and somehow dragged yourself into deep snow on shore. Soaked to the core, and with capabilities diminishing by the second, you have only a few minutes and one try to kindle your blaze. In that scenario where you only have what you’re wearing for resources, and that almost worthless as insulation, here are a few winter fire-building do-and-don’t points that could save your life.

  1. Do not allow your life to depend upon any emergency fire-building method that features an open flame. It’s fine to carry mechanical lighters and matches for general fire starting, but if your last-ditch method depends upon flame, you could well find yourself freezing into your final repose. For instance, windproof/waterproof matches are not “strike-anywhere” matches. They depend upon the striking surface of the box retaining its integrity, and that surface is identical to that found on a matchbook. Yea, maybe you keep yours in double ziplocks or some such protection. But everything about you is wet. If it only takes a little more than the condensation from a few heavy breaths to mess that striking surface up, imagine it after a dunking. Same with butane lighter flints. (Plus, butane freezes in extreme cold.)
  2. Make sure your fire-starting methods, tools and materials do not depend upon finger-tip dexterity. Have your hands ever been so cold they feel like clubs and no amount of concentration can make them work? In my escape-from-the-water scenario, that’s what they’ll be like. (I’ve gotta tell you that in that state, even my best methods are iffy.) Whenever I see anyone touting magnesium bars, I know I’m in the presence of a know-nothing, someone who’s never had his hands numb, nor had to build a fire fast in below zero temperatures, nor ever tried to      corral magnesium whittlings in a wind, nor thought about how much time it would take to build a suitable platform, while his capabilities descend, to catch the shavings instead of just letting them fall atop deep snow. No, the bar is practically useless. What these so-called experts should be telling about is that wonderful striker on the bar’s other side.
  3. What you need are fire-building tools and tinder that are so compact you’ll always have them in your pocket and so waterproof you could submerge them for a year, fish them out, and fire right up. They also should be able to be used with almost frozen hands, aided, in initial (get-out-and-get-ready) steps if necessary by your chattering teeth.
  4. Your method should be able to, in a minute or so, get green wood or soaked wood blazing. Look at most common woodlands. Usually there are far more live, growing trees and brush around you than dead, standing stuff. What you want is to be able to fire up this poor, but at-hand fuel to stabilize yourself until you gain ability to foray out to gather more high-quality dry materials and structure a better fire.
  5. Traveling in winter, carry a metal striker and piece of hacksaw blade big enough to hang onto using mostly your palms. On a grinder, grind off the teeth to sharpen the blade flat like an ice skate. Put your waterproof tinder—that needs only a spark to fire up—in some easy-to-open container, like a 35mm film canister, which can be opened with your teeth.
  6. Keep a 1”X 8” strip of bike or—better yet—truck inner-tube flat in the bottom of each pocket. (Flat, they’re more out-of-the-way than something like clunky flares. Remember, this is stuff you might tote for years and never use.) As quickly as you light your tinder, place an X of two strips over it, suspended by twigs to keep the X off the flame. (Ever see a car aflame with its tires burning? Out on the  highway, firemen often just let those tires burn themselves out.) Your strips will torch off the greenest of live wood, or fry the water from sticks that have been underwater for years.

Now you sure don’t want to stand down-wind from such a fire! And if some jerk from E.P.A. Enforcement shows up threatening government reprisals because of air pollution, throw the clown into the ice-hole you just escaped from. If he’s lucky enough to drag himself out (without the aid you probably won’t give him anyway) see if he’ll beg refuge at your blaze.  


Learn about Rod’s two-volume work,
TRAILBREAKERS, Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod at


One thought on “To Build a Fire

  1. From the space program we got Velcro (I think) — from Iditarod, survival tips for anyone stranded in a snowstorm or bitter cold: skiers, motorists, mountain climbers, hikers, snowmobilers (okay, snowmachiners) . . .

    Great article, full of common-sense advise that practically nobody knows! Now if it would only get cold and snowy here in New England, I’d give it a try.

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