Building and tending a fire is an essential part of survival in many situations, and one of the skills that most preppers endeavor to learn early on in their pursuits. A proper fire can help keep you warm, heat a space, cook food, provide light, signal for help and provide security.
But now as always fire is a dangerous, fickle servant, more than capable of hurting or killing you. Shelter is another critical survival consideration and it is natural that some people might think to build their fire inside their shelter, an attempt to get as much thermal bang for their buck as possible. But is this a good idea?
Is it safe to make a fire inside your shelter?
Maybe: it is generally safe to build a fire inside your shelter so long as you provide a safe enclosure for it, and adequate ventilation for smoke and other gasses. Not providing for either is a serious safety hazard.
An improper enclosure or lack of adequate standoff can see your shelter catch fire. Lack of ventilation ensures dangerous carbon monoxide will buildup and make you ill… or worse.
In the remainder of this article we will share with you various factors and concerns that can help you determine whether or not building a fire in your shelter is a good idea.
Consider Shelter Type and Construction
The type and size of your shelter along with the materials it is made of will be of paramount importance when considering whether or not you can build or bring a fire inside it. A hastily constructed lean-to made from dry pine, grasses, and bark is probably one that needs your fire kept at a modest distance lest it catch and burn with you under it.
Conversely, a proper house with a fireplace will be much more suitable for tending a fire while inhabiting it and something like a snow cave cannot burn at all, though CO buildup is still an issue.
Something like a tent made from synthetic fabric is a bit dicey; even if it does not catch fire intense heat can easily melt these materials and care must be taken to ensure that does not happen. Something like canvas is more resistant to melting, but more likely to burn.
The size of the fire makes a difference also; a small flame from a portable stove fuel tablet is something entirely different from a crackling campfire!
Ventilation is Essential for Safety!
Any combustible material will release carbon monoxide (CO) gas in addition to other particulates and gasses. CO is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and much of the time it is too late to effect self-rescue when you start to feel the effects if you feel them at all; many victims succumb to this deadly killer while asleep.
The key to preventing CO buildup is properly venting a fire, and ensuring that plenty of fresh air is entering the space where the fire is burning – a procedure sometimes at odds with the business of warming a space!
No matter what kind of shelter you are occupying, ensure that there is a direct way for smoke to vacate the space. Anytime you have smoke building up there is an attendant risk of CO buildup.
The best vents are right above the fire, where hot gasses and other combustion byproducts can escape immediately and easily.
Even in a comparatively open shelter, CO gas can accumulate near a ceiling or floor where it might start to poison you. Make sure your sleeping area receives plenty of fresh air just to be on the safe side!
Any fire burning in a structure needs some kind of enclosure to protect the surrounding material from heat and flames. In a conventional fireplace, this is the hearth, made of stone, brick or some other flame-proof material. This is the surrounding ring of stones for a campfire.
A wood-burning stove serves as its own enclosure. The box and lid of a charcoal grill is another good example.
Less conventional examples could be a soup can if you wanted to burn a candle inside your vehicle to help ward off the cold and dark, however slightly. It might be an inverted Dutch oven to keep your camp stove off the floor of your tent.
Remember: You are trying to prevent heat scorching of your shelter materials and inadvertently catching it on fire.
When in Doubt, Keep it Out
If you have any doubts whatsoever about the suitability of your shelter for hosting a fire, either its own inflammability or lack of ventilation, don’t risk it! Accidental fires are extremely dangerous, and can rapidly get out of control.
Being wounded or killed by smoke inhalation or the fire itself is hardly out of the question and even in the best case scenario you will likely be looking at the total loss of your shelter.
If you need to warm up your shelter at any rate you can try making use of hot rocks warmed by the fire, creating a smaller, inner shelter (a “microclimate”) inside your shelter or positioning yourself near the edge or opening of the shelter closest to the fire in order to catch more emitted heat. Other options include the use of reflectors and emergency blankets to help reflect heat where you need it.
Fire is naturally a valuable commodity in all kinds of survival situations but you must be prudent when it comes to managing it; building a fire inside your own shelter is never something that should be done lightly. Failing to heed this essential wisdom could result in your death or the loss of your shelter entirely.
It is possible to safely build and manage a fire inside your shelter but the viability and safety of doing so is largely dependent on the type, size and material of your shelter, the size of the fire, and what kind of enclosure and venting you are able to provide for the fire.
Making any kind of error or mistake is liable to result in a serious accident. Besides the obvious risk of damaging or burning down your shelter, carbon monoxide gas buildup is an ever-present hazard associated with combustion. Only by carefully assessing and managing all risk factors can a fire be built in any shelter.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.