Firemaking, how to keep warm if you're lost or stranded

I was reading field manuals again, and found some more great timeless info. In the unlikely event that you become lost or stranded on a winter hike, it’s good to have even basic firemaking skills in your back pocket (and supplies in your pack as well). It might seem silly to keep basic fire-starting supplies in your daypack, but you never know when you might need them, and they don’t take up much space or weight.

Here are some basic tips from the US Army’s survival manual, FM21-76 (Department of the Army Field Manual). Excerpts are indicated in italics.

Keep your matches dry

Always carry a supply of matches in a waterproof container. They are a necessity, especially where snow and ice add to the problem of securing tinder for a fire started by primitive methods. Use your matches sparingly, and use a candle to start a fire.

Selecting a site

Select a site where you and your fire are protected from wind. Standing timber or brush makes a good windbreak in wooded areas, but in open country you will have to provide some form of protection. A row of snow blocks, the shelter of a ridge, or a scooped-out side of a snowdrift will serve as a windbreak on the ice pack. A circular wall of brush, cut and stuck in the snow or ground, works will in willow country. A ring of evergreen boughs is good in timber. Make your windbreak about four feet high and except for an entrance, let it encircle the fire. Protect the fire from snow melting on overhanging tree limbs.

Locate your fire carefully to avoid setting a forest fire. If the fire must be built on wet ground or snow, first build a platform of logs or stones.


Use kindling that burns readily to start your fire, such as small strips of dry wood, pine knots, bark, twigs, palm leaves, pine needles, dead upright grass, ground lichens, ferns, plant and bird down.

Cut your dry wood into shavings before attempting to set it afire. One of the best and most commonly found kindling material is punk, the completely rotted portions of dead logs or trees. Dry punk can be found even in wet weather by knocking away the soggy outer portions with a knife, stick, or even your hands. Even when wet the resinous pitch in pine knots or dried stumps ignites readily. Loose bark of the living birch tree also contains a resinous oil which burns rapidly.


Anything that burns is good fuel, and many kinds are available in the far north—animal blubber, lichens, exposed lumps of coal, driftwood, grass, and birch bark.

Fuel in subpolar regions is usually wood. The driest wood is found in dead standing trees. In living trees, branches above snow level are the driest. In the tundra regions you can split green willows and birches into fine pieces and burn them.

In treeless areas, rely on grasses, dried animal dung, animal fats, and sometimes even coal, oil shale, or peat which may be exposed on the surface.

General considerations

Don’t build your fire too big. Small fires are easier to control. Build a series of small fires in a circle around you in cold weather. They give more heat than one big fire.

Have other tips? Leave them in the comments!

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