Photo by Justin A. Levine
Construct the fire. From bottom, the alcohol pad is on top of its foil wrapper to keep it off the wet ground; dryer lint is above the alcohol pad and topped with birch bark; and the smallest twigs are placed on top.
 
View similar articles:
By Location:
Central AdirondacksChateaugayKeene/Keene ValleyLake ClearLake GeorgeNorth CountryNorth CreekSaranac LakeStar LakeTri-LakesTupper LakeVermontville
By Category:
Nature/WildlifeTrips
 

The mud season may not be prime time for camping, but with the unpredictable weather that spring brings, a warm day can turn into a hypothermia-inducing night pretty quickly.

Spring is the consummate time for hypothermia. With the desire to have winter over, many people venture out in the spring. But a steady rain and breeze combined with temperatures in the 30s or 40s can create the perfect storm for outdoors adventurers.

Obviously, the best way to avoid cold injuries in the spring is to avoid those conditions altogether, but that's not likely as the sun is warm and we have spent the winter cooped up.

But what do you do if you get lost or stuck somewhere, and you notice the early signs of hypothermia, such as shivering, fatigue, difficulty speaking and a lack of coordination?

The first thing to do is shed any wet clothes you have and put on some dry stuff. Then, get out of the wind the best you can, and finally, get a fire going.

Unfortunately, the conditions that lead to hypothermia are also antithetical to building fires. The wind and rain can prove almost insurmountable, but with a little planning and thought, a fire can be made in almost any conditions.

The three things a fire needs are fuel, heat and oxygen. There's more than enough oxygen in the air we breathe, so no need to pack that along. As far as heat goes, it is a poorly prepared hiker indeed who doesn't have matches and/or a lighter with them at all times. So that leaves us with the question of fuel.

Finding dry wood and kindling to get a fire going can be a difficult task. But carrying a few simple things in your pack and knowing where to look in the wild for fuel can literally save your life. If you're well-prepared, you likely have some dryer lint, alcohol prep pads, roofing tar paper or some sort of easily combustible material in your pack. But don't fret if you don't, nature can provide.

While disturbing trees and starting fires is likely illegal no matter where you are lost in the Adirondacks, it is unlikely that you will get in trouble for doing so if it means that the rangers don't have to carry your lifeless body out of the woods.

As far as kindling goes, there are a few key things to keep an eye out for. Birch trees of any species act as great kindling. The bark is highly flammable, and if you peel off the outer layers of the bark, underneath will likely be dry regardless of the rain or snow that may be falling. Paper birches are the most common, but yellow birch bark will serve just as well.

Another place to look for dryer kindling is in downed trees. Twigs and branches that are lying on the ground are likely too wet after the winter to ignite easily, so look for branches that are sticking up into the air. Any tree that falls will probably have branches that are not on the ground, and those are the ones to go after. Even in the rain, sticks that are suspended in the air are going to be dryer than anything you pick up off the ground.

A good rule of thumb for how much fire material you should gather is to get more than you think you'll need, and then double it. Not only will this prevent you from having to scramble to keep a little fire going, but moving around will also create body heat to warm you up, and keep your mind occupied.

Once you've gathered far more material than you think you'll need, prepare the area where you want the fire. You want the ground to be dry, a goal that may require you to put down some tree bark or evergreen branches to keep the flames off of the wet ground.

Make sure you're prepared with increasingly larger pieces of wood so that you can make the fire bigger once you get it going. Do this prior to starting the fire, as the young fire may require near-constant attention in the wind and wetness.

There are any number of ways to build a fire, from the log cabin style to the pyramid, and practicing at home will help tell you which works better. It is very important to , make sure your fire site is protected from the wind.

Once you've got your site all set with a dry base, plenty of kindling and larger sticks, feel free to light that sucker on fire. Be patient and prepared to help the fire along with gentle blows of breath, and keep feeding it increasingly larger sticks. It shouldn't take too long before the fire is warming you.

It's always good to carry a couple of fire-starting implements in case one fails, so you should have both matches and a lighter or a flint and steel. Whatever you use, make sure you have a backup.

If you're lucky enough to have birch bark, the fire should take off pretty easily. The bark will burn wet, unlike paper or dryer lint. Roofing paper is waterproof, and alcohol pads provide not only highly flammable material, but the little envelope they come in keeps the pads off the wet ground as well.

One other note on life-saving fires: If you're lost and think people may be looking for you, make sure your fire is an aid in that effort. During the day when the sun is bright, burn as much wet and green stuff as you can to make the fire smoky, while keeping the fire going. The smoke will be visible and searchers will be able to smell it from farther away. Once the sun starts to set, though, your fire should be as bright as possible so that it can be seen in the dark more easily.

Just keep in mind that a lighter and matches weigh next to nothing and take up no room in your pack. It's better to be prepared with provisions you'll never use than to spend a cold night desperately trying to rub two sticks together.