How to Make Fire in the Snow

How to Make Fire in the Snow

We just had our first snow! It lasted a week and melted. But before long they’ll be a multiplier of feet of snow on the ground that won’t go away any time time soon. So it begs the question can you make fire in the snow? This is BushLife so of course you can and I’ll show you how. There’s no reason why we can’t enjoy a fire on our backcountry adventures. And worse, we may NEED a fire for a survival situation one day. So it’s another skill to add to your arsenal of skills and be confident in the woods!

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Where Do You Find Dry Wood?

The first part of any fire is always fuel. No Wood = No Fire. But if you have ever tried to burn wet wood you’ll know it’s a complete nightmare. So the trick and this works by the way on a rainy day in the summer, is to look for dead standing wood. The last place to source your wood is off the ground. Any log lying on a forest floor is soaking up moisture from the ground. In todays context, it’s also buried in snow and getting wet from multiple sides. When a tree dies and is still standing, it dries out a lot better.

In addition to above, when you look at a dead standing tree you should know that some sections are better than others. For example, a large protruding branch creates a sort of shoulder pocket on its underside where it meets the main trunk of the tree. This will be it’s driest section. You have a knife on you right? We’ll get to that in just a minute. If the outside layer of that dead standing tree branch is wet, that’s fine because the inside of it is likely dry. With some basic tools, you can expose the dry inner and have your fuel to start a fire.

Basic Cutting Tools

A knife is your best friend in the woods. If you could only have 1 tool, that’s the one you want. I carry the Morakniv Garberg Carbon and it has a full tang. That means it’s strong enough that I can use a piece of wood to bash on the knife and batton through big pieces of wood. Essentially creating an axe. Read our full review of the Morakniv Garberg Carbon knife to learn some vital skills that can coincide with using a really good knife. Particularly feather sticking as it will help immensely with any fire making situation, let alone fire in the snow.

The second thing you want is a saw. A saw can process more wood and do it faster than an axe. I carry the Silky Big Boy and I love this thing. I won’t go into the woods without it and in fact I have removed downed trees that have fallen across the trail – blocking my access to get back out whether I am on an ATV, sled or even the car on a backwoods road. It’s a light folding saw that fits in a back pack but is big enough to gar-berate some big trees!

Of course, there’s always the good old axe. If you love your axe and must have it, take it with you. Just remember not to bring your regular axe or maul. You want a pack axe that’s more manageable to haul if you are on foot or tight for space.

Prioritize Your Tools

At a minimum, ALWAYS carry a suitable knife when in the woods. If carrying an appropriate pack, have a knife and a saw at a minimum. It doesn’t matter by the way if you are on a hike, ATV, sled and so forth. Always carry some basic gear with you for those SHTF scenarios, especially during the colder months.

Prep Your “Fire in the Snow” Fire Place

This is the big one for fire in the snow! What do we do when we make fire?

  • Tinder on the bottom
  • Kindling on top of tinder
  • Main pieces on top of kindling

That’s obviously not going to work to make fire in the snow. Just for the record, there are fire lays that are backwards where the kindling is on top of the main wood and the fire burns down. But let’s not go there today. We will simply steal one idea from the reverse fire lay in a minute.

If you find a “fire pit”, Ie. dirt with rocks around it that you or someone else built out in the woods, it too will be full of snow. Even if you can clear out a good chunk of the snow and get a fire going, as the heat comes up it will constantly melt the remaining snow. That will obviously put out your hot coals on the bottom which is really the heart of the fire. Even if you manage to get past that, the melting water will bubble and steam in the ashes and it’s a constant uphill battle.

Your Fire in the Snow Solution

The easiest solution is to clear the snow from an area, any flat area by the way as long as it’s safe. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just remove the heavy stuff. Then place a layer of rocks down as a base. No rocks available? I figured as much but that’s fine as well. Use wood! Cut some really thick branches or log pieces with your saw and lay them down on the ground. You use that as your base to get your fire out of the snow. You can then build a regular old fire lay on top the way you are used to and your fire will burn.

The Plow Pile!

I’ve used the wood underlay method above on the side of my driveway. You know what I mean, the part that’s about 3-4 feet high from plowing. In fact, you were looking at it as the top photograph was its start. I still don’t fully know how as it’s remarkable but I managed to get it to burn all the way down to the ground! It took forever but the fire lasted and burned nicely the whole time. I suspect as the melt dribbled, it refroze in the snow below creating a hard ice layer that the fire “sat” on. My point is that if you can make fire in the snow, on top of 3′ of it, you can easily do it on the ground over inches of snow.

3 Sources of Ignition

Here’s a recurring theme on this blog and anyone else’s who knows what they are talking about. ALWAYS carry 3 sources of ignition! If you are reading about making fire in the snow, there’s a good chance you want the knowledge to conquer a survival situation. The following 3 items hardly take any room or weight, so make sure you carry the backup to the backup and don’t learn this the hard way.

Bic Lighter

The bic is the gold standard for fire and it’s cheap as dirt. It’s always smart and even fun to learn different methods of fire making. But don’t kid yourself, when you really need it the rule of thumb is to use the fastest, easiest method you have.

The bic gets a bad wrap for 2 reasons. One is that it doesn’t work when it’s cold. While that’s true, I don’t have that problem as I keep mine in an inner pocket close to my body. It’s an issue for any gas lighter so it’s not a bic problem rather than a fuel problem. The second is water. Yes, if you drop it in water and it gets water logged it won’t work. BUT if you blow on it fiercely, it’s far easier than you think to dry it out and get it working again. I’m talking 30 seconds here and you can fix a wet bic.

Tip: Wrap gorilla tape around your bic. The tape is handy for gear repair or even medical. But it’s an amazing tinder that burns easily and for a long time. It will save your backside one day.


This one’s a no brainer, sort of. Matches have changed over the years and you just don’t take the cute and cuddly candle matches into the woods. We have super matches nowadays that come in waterproof containers such as the UCO Stormproof Match Kit.

Ferrocerium Rod

Fire Making with a Ferro Rod

The fire steel! Throwing sparks in the thousands of degrees, thousands of times and working in any weather conditions. It’s the ultimate backup. Not sure on how to use a Ferro Rod, no worries we got you covered in How to Use a Ferro Rod. If you don’t feel like reading, no problem. Make it easy by carrying some vaseline soaked cotton balls in a ziplock and it’s fool proof. The spine of that Morakniv Garberg Carbon knife I keep talking about will work with the Ferro Rod to generate those very sparks. That’s of course if you lose the striker that comes with the Ferro Rod. Kick it up yet another notch with a rod that also includes a magnesium bar such as the Fire-Fast Trekker.

Let’s Get Back to Fuel, For a Fire in the Snow

This post assumes you have some basic fire skills so we won’t waste time on that. We covered what tools you need and why and we covered elevating the fire off the ground and snow. Which is probably the single biggest takeaway today. Let’s hone those wood skills a little more before we wrap up.

How to Identify a Dead Standing Tree

It’s obviously late fall, winter or early spring since there’s snow on the ground. That also means the leaves are down and let’s face it, most deciduous trees kind of look the same now. It can be really challenging to spot a dead tree this time of year.

Tip: If in doubt, a quick check on any branch for dryness is snapping it. Dry branches don’t tear, they snap. They’ll also burn well!

If a tree is split heavily somewhere from storm damage or leaning super heavily, it’s probably dead. Ash trees are dying in droves thanks to the ash borer beatle. With dead ash trees, you’ll notice the tree is missing a lot of bark. Underneath, the barkless sections will be a brighter yellowish colour. Trees missing a lot of bark are always a dead giveaway. Woodpecker holes or rot holes are generally a good sign of dead or dying trees as well. And of course when a tree just looks sickly or rotting, it’s a good sign you found a winner.

Other Useful Trees

The bark from birch trees makes for an excellent tinder. Birch bark will burn for a fair amount of time and is a great free resource. Scrapping birch bark (with a 90 degree spine on a knife like that of the Morakniv Garberg) and then using the Ferro Rod on it works well – if you forgot the cotton balls at home!

Fatwood from pine is absolutely amazing. It takes a while to learn finding it but it’s the exception to dead trees on the ground. When a pine tree dies, all the oily sap inside it which burns amazingly will flow to the bottom. This includes branches sticking up on a tree laying flat! That means you can find it accessibly from the forest floor. You can even scrape fatwood just like birch bark and use the Ferro Rod on its shavings as tinder. Even bigger pieces will burn extremely well.

Punk wood. Wood that is rotting turns “punky”. You know a rotting piece by sight but it’s also substantially lighter. Punk wood is another excellent fire starter and it’s another item scooped from the forest floor. Just don’t forget, you can open wood up and grab inner pieces which are drier.

Fire in the Snow

Don’t just read about it, get out and try it! You’ll be happy you did if you ever find yourself in a situation when you need to make a fire in the snow. It’s also good practice next time you are in the woods to learn to identify dead standing trees. Lastly, take the kids on a fatwood scavenger hunt. Why pay $20 for a small piece of it in an outdoors store. When you find a good section in a tree, you’ll find what would cost you hundreds of dollars if you had to buy it. If successful, throw some in your pack and understand that all the time you just spent looking for it is saved when you really need it one day.

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Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

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