PAT NEAL: To build a fire

Camping isn’t just for summer anymore. The woods, beaches and campgrounds are full of campers in the dead of winter.

These are not the carefree campers of summer. They are refugees of the cabin fever syndrome who escape into the wilderness to control the symptoms of this ravaging condition and revel in the silence of the forest through the long nights of winter — until the trees start falling. That can be a problem.

It was for a camper on the upper Hoh River this winter, when a giant Sitka spruce tipped over in a windstorm, missing him by inches but trapping him in his motor home until rescued by the heroic efforts of the Jefferson County Road Crew.

These minor details do not matter to the true winter campers, because more of them were camped under the same majestic patch of ancient old-growth timber a few days later. Campers seldom look up to notice they will be sleeping under several hundred pounds of dead limbs in the crown of a dying old-growth tree that loggers call a widow-maker.

Getting crushed by falling trees is an inevitable risk of winter camping that most campers ignore. You might as well have a campfire. There are people who say it’s OK to camp without a campfire. I’m not one of them.

Building a campfire is one of the most important skills you can have out in the frozen woods in winter, where wood lying on the forest floor is liable to be sprouting mushrooms. They don’t burn very well until you get a hot fire going.

Just finding a place dry enough to build a fire is a challenge. A burning match can be extinguished by the falling rain before it can burn halfway to your fingertips.

Building a fire is a challenge, an art and sometimes magic all rolled into one time-consuming failure that can make the difference between a cozy camp and a bone-chilling form of water torture.

It can be difficult to get a hot fire going without petroleum products and a gas-powered fan. You have to find pitch, either from an old growth Sitka spruce or a Douglas fir tree.

You might have to hike around quite a while to find enough pitch to build a fire, but once you do, it’s probably time to stop and make camp anyway. Finding enough pitch is the problem.

It’s at times like these that a bear can be your best friend. They strip the cambium layer of the trees in the spring. The pitch is the lifeblood of the tree that flows out when the tree is wounded. Sometimes the pitch will drip onto the ground, where it forms a coal-like mass with twigs and needles.

Set fire to this and stand back. Once you get a pile of pitch burning, you have to keep it going with plenty of night wood.

James Swan, who explored and wrote about his adventures on the Peninsula starting in the 1850s, described his Chinook friends as “The most expert people to build fires in wet weather I have ever met with.”

They had no pitch. The Chinook gathered the dead hollow stalks of the cow parsnip, which contained a dry sort of tinder inside no matter how hard it rained. They soon had a blazing fire going.

This is a handy trick that would depend on the presence of plenty of dried cow parsnips, which, in my experience, never seem to be around when you need them.

All of which confirms the suspicion that camping in winter may not be for everyone.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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