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Tricks for fire on top of deep snow

Anyone have any good strategies for having a good fire on top of deep snow? The only stratagy I have developed is starting the fire on top of some bark or on top of several larger logs placed side by side to let the fire get a bit bigger before it starts melting snow. I'm sure there are many more tricks in addition to this though.

If you use a bed of logs, and build a "red man's fire" rather than a "white man's fire", the fire won't melt down through the snow. Another approach that requires carrying some extra weight is to use a fire pan on legs (I have one I have occasionally used). You can also find a bare rock in many cases, but this is not recommended, since it leaves an ugly black scar on the rock that will stick out like a sore thumb in the other 3 seasons, a clear violation of LNT principles. Used to be you could get asbestos sheets, that is until it was realized that it is way too easy to get the tiny fibers into your lungs, which causes some pretty bad diseases (which are frequently fatal in a very unpleasant way).

Do not gather rocks from the local, still-flowing stream and use those as a base. When the fire gets hot enough, the water in cracks, crevices, and holes in the rock will vaporize and can shatter the rock (think "granitic shrapnel"). In fact, in general do not get rocks from streams too near a fire, even in summer.

Carry an oil pan. What are they, maybe 1.5 lbs, 20" diameter and 5" deep. Just right for a small campfire. Set it atop a layer of sticks and then build the fire in it. The sticks keep it from melting/sinking into the snow.

If you really need to build a fire, the area under pines, hemlocks and other evergreens is always less snowcovered, and offers good protection from the elements. Make sure you clear the needles away first, and watch for low-hanging branches. Of course, you'll want to use a pan or fire blanket as well... Sounds like a good argument for a sierra stove!!!

Side Note:
I read somewhere that the area where the Donner Party's fire ring/pit was built was over 8 feet below the surface of the snow!


I read somewhere that the area where the Donner Party's fire ring/pit was built was over 8 feet below the surface of the snow!

Sounds apocryphal, though believable. The Donner party was actually scattered over quite a large area around Donner Lake (it had another name at the time) and back down toward where Truckee is now. There are markers in Donner Lake State Park at some of the cabin sites. All of the groups built cabins and, according to the information at the park and in various books I have read, their fires and cooking were in the cabins. One of their problems was that, although they actually had plenty of meat from slaughtering all the oxen, they lost track of where the carcasses were placed, due to the depth of the snow. The hides in most cases were stored in the rafters of the cabins, so some of them chewed on the hides to get some nourishment. There is still a lot of controversy over how many of the party actually resorted to cannibalism, but the best evidence suggests it was only a small fraction of the survivors, maybe as few as 3 or 4. The famous Virginia Reed letter only refers to one specific person (an elderly lady who ate part of her deceased husband) and implies that no one in her family did so. The Reed father was the one who was expelled back near the Utah-Nevada border for beating his man-servant to death, but ended up organizing the first successful rescue party, and later became a prominent citizen and politician in California. His expulsion was the event that put Donner in charge.

Here is what I have usually done, over many years and it works well.

Stomp snow down rockhard for about 10-12 ft. in diameter, let freeze.

Cut some GREEN logs, as thick as possible, Larch or Douglas Fir is best due to nearly fireproof bark, these should be 4 ft. in length or a bit more.

Build a SMALL fire, using bone-dry wood of fairly small dimensions, this used to be called a "teafire" in the center of your platform and you can usually keep a fire going this way over two hours if you do not build it too big.

Lots of work, CAN be done in B.C. type forests without marring the environment, IF, you are careful, but, I seldom bother as it is SO labour intensive.

Loggers here will build a fire against the cutbank of a new logging or skid road and you CAN find this type of bank due to natural geological processes and do the same. I DON'T as the fire heat can cause sluffing and even an avalanche in even timebered areas, I will not take ANY chances with avalanches.

Except in emergencies, building a fire against or just under a living tree, especially a Cedar is potentially a source of wildfire in the coming summer, this is NOT BS and also will severely impact the tree and scar it. If a dead snag, a fire may bring the tree down on top of you, so, avoid doing this unless you absolutely MUST have that fire and can camp away from it....seems a waste of heat, to me.

Anyone thinking about building a fire in winter should read BOTH of Jack London's versions of "To Build a Fire." Slightly different versions with drastically different endings. In fact, anyone thinking of wandering in the woods on a snowy and cold evening should read these. Great stories, lots to think about.

Green logs on packed snow is the consensus answer in most circles. Building a small fire in the lee of a tree, where the snow may be less deep works well too. Kutenay brings up a good point about the potential future fire danger, however a small fire has a very low chance of heating a taproot to the point where it will smolder for several months. I've only seen this happen with large wildfires that burn at least the ladder fuels, if not full crowning fires.

It's not the taproot that ignites, it is the buttresses on the crown root which can then hold fire UNDER snowcover for months. I have seen this many times here in BC, usually in Thuja Plicata stands of older trees and also in the large stumps left from logging those virgin trees.

Building fires close to trees is a bad idea, there are more problems than the convenience is worth. In most regions, a large fire pit can be scraped out of the snow with your ski, snowshoe or whatever and then a fire CAN be built that will last indefinitely. We usually do this along a creek bank and the spring freshet washes away any traces left, done it many times at home in the Kootenays of BC.

I would generally agree that building a fire near trees is a bad idea, but in my defense, I did say "Use a fire pan or blanket" thus keeping the heat off of the ground. I also assume that WISam has the common sense not to build a blazing inferno under low branches - You know "white Man" style.

Going back to my many previous posts on the subject, my first gut feeling was to immediately ask "Why build a fire at all?" Is it necessary? Are we talking emergency situations, for cooking, or is this just for fun? But that was a whole other thread - a long one! Good discussion though.

I used to strap a Smokey Joe onto my sled. Put manzanita charcoal in the bottom of the sled for balast... Then I had two pieces of lath that tied to the ends of the three legs so it sat on the snow.
Jim S

This weekend at the winter camping course I originated and currently help teach, one group had taken two discarded skis, cut them to size, and bolted a small Weber to them. They hauled the Weber and a huge amount of charcoal into the campsite (charcoal in a kiddy sled with the ski-grill trailing behind), dug their 2-person snowshelters, then grilled steaks and other food on the grill. I don't think that qualifies as Ultralite, but sure is in the "luxo" category. (yes, Jim, this is the one you helped with one winter, still being held, but in a different location than when you were assisting).

Where I walk there is mostly twisted low birces. I use to find a dead tree, about 10 cm (4 inces) in diameter. It is of no comsequence if the tree is wet. This I cut in 4 logs, aprox the length from fingertip to albow. Fix them parallell into the snow. On top of that i put dry wood, first coarse then smaller. On top of all this I make the fire. This firemethod will last for 3-4 hours without burning down into the snow.

I use this method in the summer too, if there is no used fireplace near by that I can reuse. Makes less burnmarks in the nature.

October 23, 2020
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