No outdoor experience is complete without sitting around a fireplace, sharing stories, or reveling in peace and quiet. More than just a social gathering place, a campfire also lets you cook your meals and of course, keeps you warm. Fire is never more important than on an overnight excursion during the winter. Starting a fire in winter conditions is considerably more difficult than any other time of year, save for heavy rains.
Although it may be more difficult it is not at all impossible. As with anything else some proper planning and preparation will make this a lot easier, should you find yourself needing to start a fire in the winter.
Clear Your Site
When picking where to build your fire look for something that can reflect heat back at you. If this isn't an option, you can definitely stack some rocks or build a snow wall to help push some of the heat back to your camp. While not a necessity it will definitely help keep you a little bit warmer on a chilly winter night. Once you've picked your site be sure to clear any snow to give yourself as dry of a bed as possible. If there's simply too much snow, or it's too dense, you can simply pack it down. Just keep in mind that snow packed under your fire will melt, so be sure to leave some openings for water to channel out of.
Next you'll want to look above. Are there tree branches covered in snow? If so, you'll probably want to clear that from above your intended fireplace, as that can cause issues once your firing is going in full force. Check carefully around, and make sure to remove any snow that could melt and extinguish or weaken your fire.
Finally, once the site is cleared out, you'll want to start building your fireplace. A simple ring of stones will help to contain your fire, leaving openings for melted snow to seep through. The most important part of building your structure will be trying to elevate your fuel off of the wet ground. Even if there's a miniscule amount of snow left from your cleared site, this can cause difficulties with getting your fire started. Adding some stones to the middle of your ring allows you to keep your fuel an inch or so off the ground. Another tip is to pull some dry bark, as this makes a great platform for your tinder and kindling.
Luckily dry wood is more available than you might think in the winter. Snow doesn't seep through like rain water would, leaving the interior of branches and trees mostly dry. Leafless branches are plentiful during the winter, ideal for kindling. We have many species of tree in the United States that shed their bark, and especially so during the winter. This is great for both kindling, and tinder if broken down more. If you're unable to split larger logs, removing the bark should reveal a drier interior, which will be easier to burn than when it's covered with wet, snow covered bark.
For actual meaningful fuel, looking for dead trees is a nearly surefire way to find some dry fuel for your fire. Having tools to cut or split this wood is ideal, but if it's not available to you look for things that can be broken down by hand. Large, thick branches will be more brittle from a dead tree in the winter and are great sources of fuel if other tools are not available to you.
Once you've gathered your kindling and fuel you'll also want to elevate this off the ground to keep the wood as dry as possible. Taking two long branches, you can set them on the ground parallel to each other and stack your wood on top of those poles. This keeps your wood slightly elevated, and if any snow should melt near your fuel stockpile it should run underneath, keeping your fuel dry.
Start and Maintain
An important thing to keep in mind is that when temperatures are lower, such as in the winter, it will take more effort to generate the necessary heat to get a fire going. If you're using flint steel it might take a bit more effort to get the spark to catch on your cold tinder. Additionally, if you had to use a bow method, you'll be expending significantly more energy to generate the friction needed to produce an ember.
For this purpose I would always recommend packing a lighter or waterproof matches, as well as your own tinder. Whenever I go out in the winter, a lighter and a plastic bag stuffed with dryer lint are always included in my pack. Dryer lint can be compressed to increase the burn time and intensity if need be, but otherwise works as a great tinder which you can spread amongst some smaller twigs to get your fire going quicker.
Once you have it going, keep a close eye on it. If you weren't careful with clearing the site, your small ember can quickly go out as the heat starts to melt any remaining snow underneath. If the fire begins dying, take some dry kindling and catch some of the flame to transfer to another bed. Adding more wood to a weak fire is a good way to stifle it, leaving you back at square one. You will also likely be burning through more fuel than you would on a Spring or Summer night, so stock extra fuel so you don't have to make a foraging trip at dark.
As always, be sure to plan accordingly and never push yourself past your means. Should you be planning on a winter trip, always prepare for an overnight stay, just in case.