How to make a fire in winter?

Jouni Laaksonen 12.2.2018

Making a fire is an essential part of hiking in Finland. Finland is one of the most forested countries in the world, so there is no lack of firewood. Naturally you need to behave responsibly, but do enjoy a campfire if you happen to come to Finland.

Wild camp in winter, campfire in winter

I have been skiing for seven days, and now it is very early morning for the 8th day. I prepare my breakfast porridge on fire, and at the same time fire gives me warmth and light. You can see my tarp farther back. Traditionally you would pitch your tarp just beside the fire and maybe keep the fire going through the night. Nowadays this is not needed due to good sleeping bags. I usually leave some room between my tarp or tent and the fire, to prevent anything important from burning.

In winter the importance of the fire rises much higher than in summer. Especially if the temperature is very low, a warming fire is very nice. But, there is a lot of snow, isn’t making a fire difficult? No, though you need to know what to do. Let’s see:

1 Always have matches or/and lighter with you. And packed waterproof! Also always carry a knife, and if you are on a multi-day expedition, carry also an ax. (Often you manage without ax, but sometimes it is essential.)

With a woodshed

2 In campfire site you have dry firewood in the shed, so everything is easy.

2a Chop the firewood, chunks of many sizes, also splinters thinner than your finger.

2b Shove most of the snow away from the fireplace.

2c Make a “bed” out of firewood, i.e. place three to four larger chunks of firewood on the bottom of the fireplace. This is important! The “bed” provides a dry platform to place tinder on, and when you light the fire, this “bed” starts to ignite, or smoulder, produce heat, as well as the thinner kindling above it.

2d Carve tinder (kiehinen, see pic) , or if there is birch in the woodshed, pull some birch bark from the firewood provided. Never pull birch bark out of living trees!

Kiehiset, tinder, feather stick

In Finland we often carve tinder called kiehinen. Would this be feather stick in English? (This time I’m carving kiehinen in a wilderness hut, but the idea is the same outdoors.) You take a branchless, straight piece of wood (preferably pine) and you carve as thin a woodchip as you can, but you do not cut it out of the piece of wood. Instead you carve another thin woodchip, and a dozen of them. After a dozen or two you finally cut the kiehinen out of the piece of wood.
See a 3 minute video! Before starting this video I’ve done tasks 2a-2d and now let’s start 2e. I did not use spade, I just used my feet and hands to dig a hole in the snow. I shot this video on my own home yard, so there isn’t a metallic grate or hook, or benches around the fireplace. But the firewood is from my own woodshed, so in that aspect this is just like on a campfire site. Firewood is dry birch, tinder is birch bark and kindling is dry pine, so starting the fire is very easy. The video is uncut, this is as long as it takes to make the fire going. There’s about 70 cm of snow and it is –15°C, normal winter conditions in Northern Finland.

2e Place your tinder on the “bed” you made earlier. You can light the tinder now, or you can first build a loose crisscross of finger-width splinters i.e. kindling above the tinder.

2f When you get both tinder and kindling burning brightly, add a bit thicker chunks of wood. when those burn well, you can start to feed the fire with wood chunks about the thickness of your wrist, or larger, depending on how big and long-lasting fire you need.

Campfire site with a metallic grate for the kettle

Campfire sit with a hook for the kettle

At a campfire site there usually is a metallic grate or hook like in these pics. They make cooking easy. Though, if it is a hook, you need to have a handle in your kettle.

2e Use the firewood sparingly – unless you are in emergency. If you for example just fell through ice and are soaking wet, do make a very big fire!

Without a woodshed

3 Outside campfires you are allowed to make a fire in Northern Finland on most of state-owned land.  If you opt for this, make sure you know you are on state-owned land, and that you are not inside a protection area where making a fire is prohibited. See more at

3a The procedure is much the same, but of course lack of woodshed makes this a bit more difficult. So, first you need to gather firewood. You may not touch living or standing trees, but fallen branches are ok. Look for tall old pines, and usually you find fallen largish and dry branches under them.

3b Kick and dig a bit of a hole into the snow, but you do not need to dig all the way to the ground. A shovel/spade is handy, but not necessary.

Wild camp in winter

This time we had a shovel with us, but I don’t carry it always. You sit on your sleeping pad, never on snow.

3c Make a proper “bed” out of largest pieces of branches. Well, before this you already  cut the branches to about arm length, by snapping them against your knee, or with your ax. Or if you have a saw, good, but that’s not as important as an ax can be in an emergency situation.

3d The “bed” you made prevents the fire from sinking uncontrollably into snow. Your fire will sink slowly towards the ground. If you are camping and keep a fire burning for a longer time in the evening, eventually you will have a deep hole in the snow and your morning fire you will make on the ground. That is no problem, you just adjust your sitting place accordingly.

3e Place tinder on the “bed”, then finger-width dry splinters or very thin dry branches, and light the fire. Add thin dry branches, then a bit thicker, and when the fire is burning properly you can add larger chunks of branches, and not-so-dry-ones, too.

Wild camp in winter, though not a camp, but a lunch fire


These times I was skiing without a shovel, or a saw either. I kicked some snow off and helped with my hands. Then placed a “bed” of larger pieces of fallen branches, and well, I already told all of this, didn’t I? 🙂 To make a quick lunch and fill your water bottle you really don’t need much firewood.

3f In campfire sites you usually can place your kettle on a metallic grate, or hang it on a hook. Outside campfire sites you don’t have these. You can stick a long stave into the snow beside your fire, inclined so that the other end goes above the fire. Then hang your kettle to that. Or build a tripod out of three sticks and a bit of metallic wire. Myself, I rarely bother to do that. I just build the fire so that the top of the logs is evenish, and I place my kettle straight on the fire. Of course I keep an eye on the kettle so that it does not spill. I don’t recall when I would have spilled last time.

In summertime making a fire is usually easier, though not so if it is raining heavily. And if it is dry, you need to take into account forest fire warning. But let’s discuss these aspects in June or July.

And, hmm, maybe also campfire ethics would be a topic for some future post? Though I’ll reveal some of my thoughts on this subject straight away: In Finland there is plenty of firewood everywhere, especially in winter there is no risk of forest fire whatsoever, and wood is renewable fuel unlike gasoline or gas. Of course you use firewood sparingly, use only campfire sites in popular destinations, and you do not leave any traces – yes, more on this later.

* * *

After these many winter posts let’s see next week what does hiking look in August.


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