Building a Reflector Fire

A reflector fire is really any fire that has some sort of flat surface behind it to direct the heat back out past the fire. This surface is erected behind the fire and pointed, for example, at the face of a tent, lean-to or other shelter.

This back reflector can be made out of a few large slabs of bark, several logs laid against supports and stacked upon each other to form the surface. Rocks can also be used but just like those used to ring a fire, make sure they do not contain moisture. That trapped moisture can be heated to where it’s like a steam engine with no release valve. Exploding rocks can send shrapnel and shards flying in every direction!

Lay some logs on top of one another against the sloping back. Form a rectangle on the floor at the base of the slope as your fireplace. By lighting a fire in the middle most of the heat will be reflected back to the front of the fire, making cooking easy. Be sure that you build it so the ‘grate’ or fireplace faces the wind.

A good reflector close to the fire will help reflect the heat back towards you. Not only this but it helps to draw the smoke upwards instead of getting in your eyes. You can use this to your advantage by also reflecting heat into your shelter.

Notice when we discussed campfire location I recommended that you did not make a fire up against a large boulder or tree stump. Build the fire away from the rock/stump and place a reflector on the other side. As the rock reflects the heat onto your back, the reflector warms you to the front.

If there are no ‘natural reflectors’ simply build several reflectors of your own and place one behind you, then one on the other side of the fire.

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Space Blankets

First developed by NASA in 1964 for the US space program, space blankets consist of a thin sheet of plastic coated with a metallic reflecting agent which reflects up to 97% of radiated heat.  Many campers have a space blanket in their emergency kit, however, few have ever used one.

Space blankets are not blankets.  We usually think of a blanket as something that will insulate from the cold air – you can fold up a wool blanket and place it on the snow, sit on the blanket and for the most part your posterior won’t get overly cold. Conversely, space blankets offer near zero insulating properties and conduct cold or hot temperatures very efficiently.

The purpose of a space blanket is to reflect heat back towards the source of the heat. If you are very cold a space blanket alone will do little to help reheat you.  If, however, if you are producing heat (e.g. a marathon runner at the end of a long run)  a space blanket will significantly slow down the rate at which your radiated heat dissipates into the environment.  If you find yourself stranded in a blizzard you can use a space blanket to slow the rate of heat loss but it won’t do anything to heat you up after you’ve spent 2 hours wandering around.

Space blankets have drawbacks:

  • You can never get a space blanket folded up like they were before you opened them.
  • Light weight space blankets tear easily and may be single use.
  • Space blankets are loud and can crinkle through the night.

So what good are space blankets then?

  • Space blankets are inexpensive, light weight and packable.
  • Space blankets are multi-purpose; serving as a clothing, a shelter or signaling device.
  • A space blanket can be used as a emergency poncho or wind jacket.
  • Space blankets can be used as a emergency shelter.  They can shed rain/snow and offer a good wind break.
  • A space blanket can be used under a sleeping bag as a ground cloth.
  • Space blankets will reflect the sun’s energy away from you and provide shade.
  • A space blanket makes a good emergency signal flapping in the breeze and reflecting sunlight.
  • A space blanket can be used as a heat reflector in back of a camp fire to direct heat from the fire.
  • In a first aid situation a space blanket can be combined with a traditional blanket to maximize the reheating of a victim much better than either used by themselves.

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Survival Kit

I have a survival kit that I take on canoe trips and some adventures.  On our latest winter camping venture we got talking about doing a ‘survival overnight’.  The idea would be to camp out overnight with minimal gear.  How minimal was the topic of most of the discussion.  Doing the trip somewhere safe where someone could bail out if necessary was another discussion.

A starting point for an overnight survival kit would probably include most of these items.

A water tight plastic Ovaltine bottle to store 16 items.

  • Four fire starters: box matches, a Bic lighter, Fire Steel fire starter and matches with an emery board in a pill prescription bottle.
  • Two fire tinder sources: cotton balls swabbed with Vaseline and WetFire tablets.
  • Alcohol hand cleaner (can also serve as fire starter)
  • Iodine water treatment tablets
  • Micro cordage
  • A Leatherman Squirt multi-tool
  • A whistle
  • Compass
  • Toilet paper
  • Aluminum foil
  • Emergency poncho
  • Emergency space blanket

Everything fits inside the bottle and stays dry.

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Snow Fleas (Springtails)

Snow fleas (springtails) are so called because they are observed jumping about on the surface of snow on a warm winter day, often near trees. Adults are 1–2 mm  long and their dark color makes them appear as specks that have been compared ashes scattered on the snow.

The snow flea is able to function in winter because they manufacture a kind of protein, like antifreeze, inside their bodies that allows them to survive much colder temperatures.

Snow fleas catapult themselves 50-100 times it’s body length in a random direction by releasing two tail-like “spring” projections located on their abdomen.

Snow fleas eat decaying organic matter such the mold and fungus found on decaying leaf matter, as well as bacteria, fungi  and algae.  Snow fleas are attracted to wet surroundings where they make their home in the soil.

While snow fleas are active  from November to March they are most apparent when the snow pack starts to thaw in late winter. During the warmer months they are harder to detect since they live under ground coming out only when they eat. During the early spring months snow fleas mate and the female deposits her eggs in the soil. In either case the eggs hatch during the spring months and the tiny nymphs will feed through the summer.  By winter the nymphs have matured into adults. Predators of snow fleas include beetles, ants, mites, centipedes, and other small insect-eaters.

Adirondack Park Nature Magazine, hosted by Tom and Jackie Kalinowski, has an interesting and informative video.


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When Is It ‘Winter Camping’ ?

Winter is associated with migration, hibernation, changes in animal behavior, plants becoming dormant, and humans experiencing special health concerns ranging from hypothermia to seasonal depression. Winter even invokes its own special vocabularies to describe the conditions (e.g. black ice, whiteouts, and corn snow). Descriptions of winter camping depend on geographic location, opportunities to go camping and desire to impress your friends and relatives. There are groups from northern Canada to the Ozarks that claim winter camping experience; although I am sure their conditions and experiences are greatly different.

How you define winter camping might depend on your definition of ‘winter’.

  • Meteorological or thermological winter is defined as the three month period associated with the coldest average temperatures so the start of meteorological winter can change depending on how far north one lives. This corresponds to the months of December, January and February in the Northern Hemisphere and June, July and August in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Astronomically, winter can be defined as beginning on the winter solstice, the day of the year which has fewest hours of daylight, and ending on the following equinox. In the USA this defines winter as roughly beginning December 21 or 22 and ending about March 20 or 21.

The organization with perhaps the most winter camping experience, or at least the most participants, the Boys Scouts of America, define cold weather camping as taking place when the temperature is below 50F and involves cold, wet and/or windy conditions.

Many view permanent snow cover and/or ice as a critical aspect of winter camping, requiring cross-country skis or snowshoes to traverse the winter landscape.

One might decide that winter camping is camping which requires specialized cold weather gear such as snow shovels, white gas stoves, crampons, insulated clothing and four season tents and/or require specialized skills such as building snow shelters.

Regardless of your location, most agree that nighttime dominates the winter season and lower temperatures are part of the equation. Dealing with the weather, cold temperatures and inclement conditions challenge a winter camper’s physical comfort.

Winter camping has been described to me as a time when one switched from “camping to enable hiking to hiking to enable camping.”

Regardless of the definition you chose, winter camping provides an opportunity to be out of doors 24 hours a day. Winter camping is not an end in itself; it is merely the vehicle that allows us to enjoy being outside. Everyone fears being cold. I dislike being cold just as much as the next person and so I take care to prevent that from happening. When winter camping is done right you won’t be cold. .


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A Ruffed Grouse’s Kieppe

Ruffed grouse require a specific combination of habitats to survive.  They live in mature deciduous forests that include nearby stands of poplars or birches.  During most of the year, they eat the buds and twigs of these trees. They roost in coniferous trees when they’re available, but they also roost in large deciduous trees.

In the fall Ruffed Grouse layer in stores of fat, grow a long downy covering for body and legs and put on their snowshoes, which consist of little horny comb-like appendages (pectinations) that grow from the sides of the toes to help support the weight of the body on the snow.

Ruffed grouse survive winter snow storms by diving full speed into deep snow at dusk to sleep.  They may tunnel a short distance (10-14″) to form a burrow, known as a kieppe (kee-ep-ee).   Falling snow can hide the evidence of its entry.  The insulating qualities of both their feathers and the snow itself prevent the birds from freezing.  In the morning, the birds break out of their caves and take off again. If there is a cold snap or heavy snowfall, the ruffed grouse might remain in a snow cave for a few days, making them vulnerable to predators such as foxes and bobcats.

A grouse bursting at one’s feet from flat snow covered ground can be quite startling. This grouse had left before I approached on snowshoes, but one can see the faint feathery outlines of it’s wings and tail around the escape hole.

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