Whether you are preparing for a camping trip, heating your home, or breaking out the smoker, wood is a necessity. However, some woods are much better than others.
Hickory is one of the best woods for campfires, while the common Pine is considered low quality. Some woods are even toxic when burned, like Mango.
You could just choose wood and stick to it, but the supply chain issues during the Covid Pandemic and the changing weather patterns have taught us to be flexible. Your go-to wood may not always be available. Instead, learning which characteristics make for good firewood, and having several backup options will ensure you are always prepared.
What Makes Some Wood Better Than Others?
Several characteristics are considered when ranking types of firewood. The ideal firewood seasons easily, is locally sourced, burns hot, and produces little smoke or popping. Here are four metrics that can predict which woods are high-quality firewood.
The first, and most easily spotted is the hardness of the wood. Softwood burns quickly with few coals, while hardwood takes much longer to burn. To check whether the wood is hard or soft, you can measure how densely the rings are packed. The thinner the rings, the harder the wood.
The second thing to consider after the hardness of wood is its’ moisture content. Good firewood is very dry, as moisture will cause smoking and popping. All freshly cut (a.k.a. green) wood has too much moisture, which is why it is seasoned. The more moisture wood has in it, the longer it will take to season. Most well-ranked firewood can be seasoned in a few months to a year.
Burn time is linked to the wood’s hardness, but variables in wood growth patterns can make some similar hardness woods burn longer than others. The best firewood will take a long time to burn and will leave coals behind which will continue to put out heat.
It is not enough for firewood to burn long; we must also consider how hot it burns. If you are primarily using fire for heating, this is even more crucial. The heat that will be generated by firewood is listed in BTU (British Thermal Units). Orange and Hickory have the highest BTUs per cord at around thirty.
The most important thing about finding good firewood is whether it is from the local area. This is obvious because native woods are more plentiful, but there is also another reason. Parasites and diseases spread from forest to forest very quickly when you bring in outside firewood, and this can have a terrible impact on your local environment. You should always try to source firewood from the local area.
Best Wood for a Campfire
Now that you know what makes for good firewood, let us talk about some of the best choices.
If you are primarily concerned with heating, then Hickory is one of the best choices available. Only a handful of woods burn hotter or longer than hickory, and none of them are common in this area of the world. Additionally, Hickory is not as difficult to split as some of the others on this list.
Cedar wood is most used for kindling. It does not produce as much heat, nor does it make good coals. However, it lights easily, is low-effort to split, and is naturally pest-repellent for easy storage. Cedar is also often used in smoking meat because it has a nice flavor.
White oak is an exceptionally good firewood because it is hard, burns hot, and seasons in only 6 months to a year. Additionally, oak is readily available in many locations. It burns clean, although most people prefer Hickory for the fragrance (oak has little to no smell).
You will find Cherry and other fruit woods (apple, orange, etc.) at most retailers because campers and Barbecue Aficionados favor them alike. It does not burn as cleanly as some other woods on this list, but the smell makes up for it. Fruit woods are considered the best-smelling woods on the market!
Ash is mid-range heating firewood. It is excellent at producing coals and smokes little. However, it does not match up to woods like Hickory. It is one of the most easily sourced woods which makes it a good choice for the casual user.
If you live in the Southwestern United States, then Dogwood will be readily available. This wood burns clean and hot. It is a great choice for a campfire if you can find it.
Then we have woods that are suitable for campfires but burn faster or take much longer to season. Some of these woods are quite common, while others are unusual in the United States.
Worst Woods for a Campfire
These woods on the other hand are best avoided. Some are simply poor quality, while others are dangerous.
Pine is a common standby for campfires because of its pervasiveness. You can find pine about anywhere, and it seasons quickly. Additionally, it has a pleasant aroma. Finally, pine is naturally pest resistant, so you can store it longer and more easily than other firewood. For these reasons, some people swear by pine, but it creates poor-quality fires. It does not burn as hot or as cleanly as many other kinds of wood.
While driftwood is a tempting choice when having a beachside bonfire, it is unsafe. This is because driftwood could come from anywhere. The risk is that you burn something toxic. Even if no toxic trees grow in your area, this is not necessarily a guarantee. The ocean can bring driftwood large distances, and what you find may not be local. Additionally, you may be unlucky enough to find wood that has been treated somehow and discarded. You should always know exactly what kind of wood you are burning.
Spruce, while like pine, is a much worse choice for firewood. You should never burn spruce. Its’ sap creates toxic fumes when burned. When inhaled this can cause breathing problems and trying to cook on a spruce fire can poison you.
Mango wood may seem safe because many other fruit kinds of wood are high-quality firewood, however, Mango is the exception that proves the rule. Mango sap and fruit peel are full of a chemical called Allergenic urushiol. This compound has a similar effect to poison ivy or poison oak and can cause painful itching when handled. Mango firewood is more likely to cause a rash than it is a pleasant fire.
In summary, there are a variety of woods that make great firewood. When choosing some wood, consider where it grows, how hot and clean it burns, and how long it takes to season. Hickory, Cedar, Oak, and Cherry are all common woods in the United States that are top-tier firewood.
Other options include Ash or Dogwood. There are many other good firewoods but avoiding those that are not locally sourced is wise. Transporting wood over great distances contributes to the spread of dangerous parasites.
You should avoid burning mystery wood like driftwood, as some woods produce toxic fumes. Common woods that are toxic include Spruce and Mango wood.