Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Different types of wood have varying benefits for campfires, with factors like heat generation, burn time, and scent being crucial.
- Ash, particularly White Ash, is a versatile wood that burns for a long time and delivers great heat, even when green.
- Oaks and Hickory are valued for their slow, heat-intensive burning.
- Black Birch and Swamp Birch provide a high heat and a pleasant scent, but their high sap content necessitates rapid cutting and drying after felling.
- Beech, Cedar, and Hawthorn offer additional benefits such as safety around children, a pleasing aromatic scent, and a long burn duration.
- Safety and efficiency in maintaining a campfire can be improved by using hardwoods, dry and seasoned firewood, and large pieces of wood, as well as by managing the fire’s oxygen supply effectively.
Some wood is far better for warmth and cooking in the wilderness than others. It pays to be able to recognize the different species of trees you are collecting wood from.
Not all wood is equal as far as fire pit cooking and campfires are concerned. Some, like Ash (Fraxinus sps), are stalwarts of the firepit, giving great warmth even when green. Others, like the Elder, can give off toxic fumes.
Here is a handy guide to woods you are likely to find in cool to temperate regions of the world, such as North America and Europe.
1. White Ash (Fraxinus Americana)
White ash leaves are opposite each other. They are split into 5–9 oval leaflets with pointed tips. The trunk is yellow-brown to light gray. It feels corky and is deeply furrowed. The seeds are one-winged, dry, and flat.
All species of Ash make very good firewood. There’s White Ash, Black Ash, Green Ash, and Oregon Ash to choose from in the US.
Ash has a low moisture content, which means it is one of the very few woods you can burn green if you have to.
Ash splits easily, burns for a long time, and gives excellent heat. It can be made into charcoal, too.
White Ash is a dense wood that can be hard to cut. The only drawback to Ash is that it is susceptible to insect attack. Many Ash trees have died from attacks by Emerald Ash Borer beetles.
2. Oaks (Quercus sp.)
American White Oaks (Q. alba) grow exclusively in North America. They make up 33% of American hardwood resources. Red Oak is also very common. In Eastern North America alone, there are 50 species of Oak recorded.
Most oaks have lobed leaves. Some of these are rounded; others have points. They are deciduous, with the exception of Holm oak, which is evergreen.
Oaks have acorn nuts in the autumn. These turn from green to brown and have a scaly cap at the top.
Oaks are of great value to native wildlife. Oak wood is highly prized as it is very dense and burns slowly, giving off a lot of heat. It does need to be well seasoned, however. Below is American White Oak.
3. Hickory (Carya sp.)
There are 18 species of Hickory trees worldwide. 12 of these are native to North America, while 6 originate from China and India. The rest can be found in Canada and South America.
There’s Shagbark Hickory, with its telltale peeling bark that makes it look shaggy. The hickory, otherwise known as a Walnut tree, is from the Juglandaceae family.
Hickory trees produce large nuts in green cases. Most of these are edible. These crack open when ripe to reveal the nut in a hard case. They grow 30m (100 ft) tall. They have compound leaves split into 3–17 leaflets, depending on the species. Some species turn yellow in the autumn.
Hickory wood is dense and hard to cut and split. It burns hot for a long time once it is properly seasoned. It takes a year to season hickory wood. Hickory wood is so tough that the seventh President of the US had the nickname ‘Old Hickory’.
4. Black Birch (Betula nigra)
Black Birch is native to North America. It’s found on riverbanks and in wet places. It has toothed leaves that turn yellow in the autumn. Its bark is cinnamon-brown. The bark tends to peel off and look ragged.
Black Birch is a fast-growing deciduous tree. There are several species of birch you are likely to come across. Black Birch is the best birch for firewood, as it is the densest and gives off a lovely scent when burned.
Black birch wood needs to be cut and split soon after felling due to the high sap content.
5. Swamp Birch (Betula pumila)
Swamp birch is native to the US. It is found in four states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
Swamp Birch has a silver-yellow, smooth bark. The bark tends to curl off the tree. The leaves are rounded and toothed. The tree is small. It has a shrub-like habit with several trunks. It favors wet areas such as fenland.
Swamp or Yellow Birch is also good firewood. The wood is dense and has a scent like wintergreen.
As with Black Birch, the wood has a high sap content and needs to be split and dried as soon as possible after felling. The wood does dry slowly and is hard to split.
6. European and American Beech (Fagus sylvatica and F. grandifolia )
The leaves are broadly elliptic (oval-shaped) with a slight wavy margin. They turn coppery orange in the autumn.
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) also has silver-gray bark. It reaches 21.3m (70 ft) in height. It had a rounded shape. The leaves turn golden bronze in the autumn. Both species have triangular-shaped nuts in cases with blunt prickles.
Beech wood burns hot and long. It doesn’t produce many sparks, so it is safer for cooking and fires with children present.
The bark stays on the wood, so it doesn’t make too much of a mess. This wood will produce up to 27.5 million BTUs per cord.
7. Cedar (Cedrus sp.)
There are four species of true cedar, but there are 11 types of cedar across the US and more across the world.
The four true species are the Atlas Cedar, Himalayan Cedar, Cyprus Cedar, and Lebanon Cedar. Cedars are conifers. They are also softwoods.
Cedars have needle-shaped leaves like pine trees, but the needles are not the same. The needles on cedars are much shorter than pine needles: 0.3 to 2.3 inches (8 to 60 mm).
Cedar needles form whorls radiating out from a central axis. They are triangular in cross-section when cut.
Cedar wood is a pleasure to burn, as it has a lovely aromatic scent.
The oils inside cedar wood make it excellent as kindling wood. It is easy to start a fire and quickly make it hot. It’s also a great wood for cooking over, as it imparts flavor to the food. It goes well with salmon.
8. Maple (Acer sp.)
There are hundreds of species of Maple. Most are native to Asia. Some are from North America or Europe. Most are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the autumn. There are a few species of evergreen maple in the Mediterranean.
Maple tree leaves are wide and have 3 to 9 lobes. They have obvious veins. Many turn a beautiful red or yellow color in the autumn.
Maple bark turns dark brown as the tree ages. It is arranged on horizontal plates. Maples have bright red blossoms in the spring. They have winged fruits.
Maple wood takes six months to season. It burns long and hot. Sugar maple (A. saccharum) wood has a delicious scent.
The only drawback is that it is hard to split. Sugar maple creates a heat of 24.0 million BTUs per cord. It is ideal for furnaces and stoves.
9. Pine (Pinus sp.)
There are 115 species of pine worldwide. Pine trees are distinguishable by their conical growth pattern. They have long needles borne in papery sheaths called fascicles. They have woody cones that bear their seeds.
Pine trees have a pleasant aromatic scent when broken or burned. This comes from the resinous sap. Pine trees grow fast and produce softwood.
Pine wood is good to use for kindling as the resin is flammable. Resinous sticks of pine kindling are known as fatwood.
Pine produces a lot of sparks due to the resin. Due to this, it can be unsafe to use as cooking firewood. It can create wood tar, which is messy. It doesn’t rot quickly, which is handy if you’re storing it.
10. Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)
Hawthorn has beautiful glossy burgundy bark and twigs. The leaves are small and deeply lobed in many species. Some are rounded.
The flowers are often white or pink. The fruits are red and starchy, as they are high in pectin. Hawthorn provides food for many birds.
Hawthorn is my favorite burning wood. It burns hot for a long time. It glows in the fireplace with its clean heat. It is a good choice for a winter fire as it doesn’t need much maintenance.
The only drawback of hawthorn is that it is thorny. This makes it more of a fuss to split and cut. It can be hard to split, too, as it doesn’t grow straight but has twists in it.
The best species for firewood are found in North America. I have found UK hawthorn (C. monogyna) to be more than adequate.
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How to Keep a Fire Going
If you want a fire to last for several hours, there are some steps you can take.
- Use hardwoods. Put fast-burning woods like pine or cedar on to start the fire. Add slow-burning hardwood logs afterwards. Hawthorn is a good choice, as is oak. Both of these woods burn slowly and give off good heat.
- Use dry and seasoned firewood. If wood has moisture in it, your fire may go out faster and need more tending. Firewood should have a moisture content of 20% or less.
- Use large pieces of wood. Start with smaller pieces. If you place these on top of the larger pieces, they will add light to the larger piece.
- Make an ‘upside-down’ fire. Start with large pieces and make a gradual change to smaller pieces and kindling on top. This is lower maintenance, as once you have set it up, it doesn’t need much tending.
- Create air gaps in the fire. Your fire needs enough oxygen to thrive, but not big draughts that will make it burn too fast. A criss-cross pattern works best.
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Best Wood for…
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Woods to Avoid
Not all woods are good for fire pits and campfire cooking. Here’s a list of woods you should avoid.
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What is the best wood for roasting marshmallows?
Wood that creates a good bed of embers is best for roasting marshmallows. If you can use charcoal made of wood like ash, that will work even better.
The trick to marshmallows is not to get them in the flames. They only need a low level of heat to go gooey.
What’s the best wood for campfire cooking?
The best campfire woods for cooking don’t spit, burn for a long time, and create a good bed of embers. It’s not the ones that make the biggest flames that will burn the food.
Most of the woods mentioned above, except pine, are ideal for cooking. Cedar, fruit woods, and beech add a lovely flavor and scent to food.
What’s the best wood for a stove?
Hardwoods like beech, oak, and hawthorne are best for burning in a stove. They create a high heat and don’t contain much wood tar, which can clog chimneys and stoves and make a mess.
What’s the best wood for an outdoor fire pit?
Outdoor fire pit wood should burn hot and long but have the least amount of smoke possible. Good choices include oak, hickory (walnut or pecan), and fruit wood. Fruit wood will have a lovely scent. Maple is also a great choice.
Can I burn diseased wood?
Burning diseased wood is actually recommended by foresters, as it destroys fungi and pests. If a piece of wood is really rotten with fungi spores, it won’t burn very well, but just stay well away and don’t breathe in the spores before it is burned.
Don’t use it to cook with, however. Don’t move the wood to a new location before it is burned, as this could spread disease.