PICKING THE RIGHT WOOD FOR YOUR CAMP FIRE
Updated: Feb 1
Do you know how to choose the best fuel for your fire?
Here is some helpful Frontiersman advice on how some firewood types are better than others
There are so many people interested in learning how to start fire using the old ways that it can be easy to forget about step-2, which is selecting the best fuel once the fire has been lit. Most important is knowing the difference between good and poor burning woods. It's true that there are times where one must settle for whatever can be found but there is a difference between accepting limited options and actually knowing what those options are. In this case, it's about a clean burning wood that will leave good coals warm your lodge and cook your food as opposed to a smoky, crackling wood that leaves only a few dying coals once the flames have subsided.
(*Courtesy of Stone Soup Farm & Heritage Orchard in Oak Glen, CA.)
I was recently at an event and saw guys step over good deadfall woods like cedar and oak to gather up armloads of resinous, spitting pine instead. They spent the evening choking on smoke and complaining how it followed them around the firepit stinging their eyes. Their tin was blacker than a lawyer's hat and even if they had a good cook amongst them, the resin would undo any good flavor he could put in the pot or pan. When I got up in the pre-dawn, to stoke my coals and start the day, I looked over and saw a group of cold, tired men trying to re-light some fresh sticks with matches and balled-up typing paper. It was forgivable if they were all new to this, but I had a sinking feeling that they weren't so I sat down to write a few words on it. This is part two of the article but perhaps fuel selection is a better place to start the discussion.
The advantage of knowing good from poor fuel is to know which woods heat best and are able to last a long cold night adequately. A clean burning wood with good coals is better to cook on and prevents irritating your lungs and eyes. Resinous 'soft-woods' along with some poor-burning hard-woods heat insufficiently with significantly poor air quality within the heat zone and will make a mess of your cooking kit. In other words, you'll choke on smoke while getting insufficient heat from a spitting, crackling wildfire risk that will ruin the taste of your food. When picking up your deadfall or filling your homestead's woodpile, consider these guidelines to maximize heat output with a slow burn rate, minimal smoke, and good lasting coals. Your food will taste better; the forest will be safe from errant embers; and you will stay warmer.
Editor's note: I started this fire on site using dried lichen and pulverized wild blackberry vines for tinder, alder wood for the kindling, and apple wood deadfall from a nearby orchard dating back to the 1870s (courtesy of Stone Soup Farm & Heritage Orchard in Oak Glen, CA.)
Hardwood is Usually Best
I generally prefer hardwood (broadleaf) over softwoods (conifers) but sometimes broadleaf trees such as the willow are the worst kind of wood to forage*. And other times, a softwood such as Cedar breaks the rules and proves to be an excellent fuel wood.
Generally, you want a wood with a slow burn speed, that generates a good amount of heat yet burns clean, and leaves lasting coals. The best woods for this are Ash, Beech, Apple, Cherry, other fruit-woods, Cedar, Hickory, Sugar Maple, or Hawthorne. Woods that are considered medium-grade would include Oak, Maple, Alder, or Birch. These woods still burn well and will serve you just fine in cooking a meal or keeping warm.
Poor Burning Woods
Poor burning wood should only be used as a last resort. They are typically difficult to keep lit, or they may burn out too fast. They'll definitely smoke, spit, spark too much, and heat insufficiently. As far as making a good coal bed? Forget about it! Examples of poor firewood are Chestnut, Fir, Holly, Poplar, Spruce, or Willow. It’s also important to note that this kind of wood’s ash does not contain enough lye to make soap, or fortify Indian meal. (Stick to using good burning hardwood ash for this.)
Is there any good use for softwoods in fire-making? Yes, many softwoods make ideal kindling to get a fire started. Pine, poplar, and fir are great examples of a 'starter-fuel' that will flare up and produce just enough heat to light your fuel logs. However, the coals they leave will only last for a few minutes so have your hardwood fuel ready once the fire is made.
There are other things here to go over like the best way to start a fire and keeping your tin out of the flames, 'buffalo chip' fires, how poor woods can be made into the best charcoal or why you put ash in your cornmeal like a Tribesman would but that can wait for another time. Why waste all that opportunity in just one discussion?
Stay warm out there...
*Although willow is one of the worst campfire woods there is, it makes one of the absolute best sources of charcoal. It is good enough to be used in blacksmithing.