If you’re considering trying out winter camping for the first time, you probably have one question at the forefront of your mind…
“How do I build a campfire in the winter?”
Honestly, it’s not as easy as starting a campfire in the summer. However, it is doable–and we’re here to tell you how!
Let’s go over how to build a winter campfire!
What You Need to Build a Winter Campfire
Firepit or Fire Ring
Most campgrounds require you to build your campfires in established pits or rings within the boundaries of your campsite. Even parks that allow free camping tend to have strict rules about where you can build fires.
In the winter, particularly if there’s little to no snow, this becomes especially important.
Any surrounding foliage will likely be dead and dry, providing an unfortunately perfect opportunity for fire to catch and spread where it isn’t wanted.
Free fires are discouraged at all times, but the dry season ups the risk considerably. Make sure you contain your fire to designated areas.
Dry kindling is the key ingredient to a successful fire! However, if you’re in an area that has been buried in heavy snow, that very thing can be difficult to find.
If you bring your own firewood, you shouldn’t have to worry about tracking extra fuel down. However, if it needs a little extra kick, try and track down dry grasses, twigs, or other flammable bits to throw into the mix.
Your ability to find dry kindling will be drastically effected by the type and amount of snow in your area, as well as the current temperature. If the temperature has gone up and the snow has begun to melt, it will be very hard to find anything not soaked in snowmelt.
A good way to test this is by balling the snow in your fist and seeing if it holds its shape. If the snow is “packing snow,” everything under it will probably be wet.
However, if the temperature is very cold and the snow has a dust-like texture, you may be able to get away with clearing off logs and branches and burning them.
In case your fire pit or fire ring is wet on the surface, bring a shovel along to dig down to drier dirt.
If the ground is frozen and difficult to plant your shovel into, don’t bother digging.
If you set your fire on top of frozen ground, the heat will soften it, but it will also melt the moisture in the dirt. This will leave you with a soggy surface, and your fire won’t last long.
Worst case scenario, if your fire pit or ring is too wet or too frozen to fix, you can gather a heap of stones.
With your rocks, form a stable surface you can build your winter campfire on without risking the damp soil putting it out.
Try to hunt down large, smooth stones. The flatter the better, but you can make any stones work.
If you’re going to be winter camping, you’ll want to add fire starters to your basic camping equipment stash.
Starting a winter campfire is difficult enough. Trust us, you’ll want the added advantage of fire starters!
Fire starters will help kickstart your blaze much faster than trying to light kindling and hoping for the best. You can also light multiple to really cover your bases and get that fire roaring.
This is your best shot at having a successful fire catch in a timely manner.
However, if you don’t have your own fire starters on hand, you can use “natural” fire starters. Try to track down pinecones or tree bark to create a pseudo-fire starter.
Getting a winter campfire to reach its full potential isn’t a passive endeavor. You’re going to need to do a lot of poking and prodding to keep things moving in the right direction.
Unless you’re confident in your ability to track down a proper stick to do the job, bring a fire poker with you! Flooding your winter campfire with oxygen is the best way to get a strong flame going.
How to Build a Winter Campfire
Assess Your Site
First, assess your campsite and the fire pit or ring you’ll be using to house your fire. Test whether the environment seems dry enough to be hospitable to a winter campfire.
If the conditions aren’t right, you don’t want to waste energy–or fuel–on trying to build a winter campfire. You want to check for dampness, wind, and weather conditions.
Obviously, if conditions are too wet, your fire won’t hold.
If the wind is blowing higher than five miles per hour, don’t risk a campfire.
If you check the weather and notice an impending snowstorm, it’s probably best not to waste your time starting a fire. It might be nice for a bit, but the snow will quickly put an end to that.
Get your materials together!
Gather your dry wood from its storage space and pile it on something that will shield it from the wet ground—for instance, a tarp, a plastic bag, or even a camping chair.
If you’ve gathered kindling, either add it to the pile of firewood or, for extra safety, stick it inside a waterproof plastic bag.
Try to take out one or two more fire starters than you think you’ll need, just in case the first couple don’t take. Sometimes fire starters can be fussy, and it may take more than one attempt to get your wood burning.
Arrange Your Burning Medium
Once you have everything within reach, start building the fire itself!
The best way to arrange wood for a winter campfire is the “log cabin” arrangement. This arrangement will allow oxygen to flood the core of the fire, keeping it burning strong and long. Meanwhile, the outer logs protect from stronger gusts of wind that could kill your fire before it starts.
If you do end up setting your fire and then getting hit with an expected snowstorm, this arrangement will give your fire its best chance at surviving as long as possible.
Set the Fire
Once you have your log cabin arranged, get your fire started!
Ensure your kindling has remained dry before you light your fire starters. If anything has happened to compromise your burning medium, you don’t want to waste your supplies on a fire that won’t light.
Once you’re sure everything is ready, light your fire starters and let them work their magic. You should see the fire gradually spreading and growing. If your fire starters fail to catch the kindling, and you’ve already ensured the kindling has no issues, try another fire starter in a different section of the kindling than before.
Stoke, Stoke, Stoke!
Leaving your fire to fend for itself will sound the death knell for your winter campfire plans.
Stay near your campfire with your fire poker in hand. If you notice the flames dying down in certain portions of the fire, stoke until it leaps back to life.
Staying active about keeping your fire properly tended will not only make sure it stays lit longer; it will keep you warmer, as well!
Though there’s a temptation in the cold to huddle up, it’s actually better to keep yourself moving. Blood flow will help keep you warmer and prevent conditions such as frostbite or hypothermia.
While you might not need to worry too much about these things if you’re camping recreationally, they’re important to remember if you end up in a survival situation.
Add Fuel as Needed
When stoking doesn’t help the fire liven up, it’s time to add more fuel.
As you’re feeding the fire, make sure you don’t accidentally smother it by piling too many logs on top. Try and keep the center of your “log cabin” open at the top.
If needed, you can add more kindling. However, you want to try and conserve your kindling as much as possible for your next fire, so try and keep it as a last resort if the fire is dying.
Enjoy Your Fire!
Now that you have a healthy winter campfire going, sit back and enjoy the warmth! Keep tending to it as needed, but unless you’re in a dire situation, you can take time to sit and simply bask in its heat and light for a while.
Safety Concerns to Consider
There are some safety concerns to keep in mind for yourself as you’re building a winter fire.
If you’re building a fire barehanded in the cold, your hands can quickly become numb. This can result in you holding them too close to the fire without realizing your skin is being damaged.
On the other hand, if you keep your gloves on, there’s potential for sparks to catch them on fire.
The best way to stay safe while wearing winter gear and attempting to build a winter campfire is to stay geared up, but keep fire safety tools nearby.
A water bucket would normally suffice; however, in this case, the water might freeze. So in the winter, you should bring a fire extinguisher along with you.
Do your best to stay out of reach of popping logs or flying sparks.
Why Build a Winter Campfire?
There are many reasons to learn how to build a winter campfire, even though it’s something of an undertaking.
Firstly, the camping experience just isn’t complete without a campfire. Something about the cozy atmosphere begs for a campfire gathering, especially when you add in the chill of winter.
Secondly, if you find yourself camping in the cold due to an emergency situation, a fire may become life or death rather than fun and games. Knowing how to build a winter campfire could end up saving your life if you ever end up stranded in frigid weather.
Even if you’re camping recreationally, temperatures can sometimes drop well below what you expected. Having the option to warm yourself up is always a good idea.
Frequently Asked Questions
Under what conditions should I not build a winter campfire?
As mentioned previously, avoid building a fire when the wind speeds are too high. Wind is the most common culprit behind the spread of wildfires, and it can easily blow embers onto your tent, other camping supplies, or nearby brush.
Another reason to decide against building a winter campfire? Burn bans. Always check the regulations for the area you’re camping in before setting a fire.
Can I cook over my campfire in the winter?
You can cook over your winter campfire! Just keep in mind that it could take longer than usual.
If you’re cooking foods that are dangerous to consume at certain temperatures, such as meat, bring a meat thermometer along to test the internal temperature.
We recommend trying out some smores over your winter campfire. In the cold, nothing will hit the spot quite as well as a warm, gooey dessert keeping you cozy.
How can I keep my firewood dry while winter camping?
While it’s not ideal, one way to keep your firewood dry is by keeping it in your tent with you.
You can also keep it shut safely in your car.
If you want to keep it outside, wrap it tightly in a waterproof tarp or plastic covering.
Now You Know How to Build a Winter Campfire!
Now that you know how to build a winter campfire, you can test your mettle at winter camping with confidence.
For more winter camping advice, visit our winter camping section now!
- About the Author
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Cassidy Eubanks is a proud Michigander, an avid reader, and a writer for Apple Pie Media. Her bachelor’s in Creative Writing has fueled her love of storytelling in all its forms…including campfire stories!
With many years of both tent camping and RV camping under her belt, the ability to roll her ankle multiple times without actually spraining it while hiking, and a foolproof method for making the perfect s’more, Cassidy loves sharing different tips, tricks, and tools on Beyond the Tent to make your camping trip as simple and stress-free as possible.