Types of Firewood and How They Burn

Not all wood is alike when it comes to building a fire. Some types of firewood are better for kindling, others can cause a fire to spark, release smoke, or give off more heat. Here’s a simple guide for picking the right wood for your next campfire.

Identifying Hard and Soft Woods

First, let’s talk about the two main classifications of wood – hardwoods and softwoods. Hardwoods are angiosperms. Angiosperm is a scientific term for plants that flower. All hardwood trees flower and encase their seeds in fruits (like apples and maple samaras). Hardwoods are also deciduous meaning they have a seasonal lifecycle. They lose their leaves in the fall and go dormant in the winter. Their leaves are mostly flat and broad. Because hardwoods grow slowly, they tend to be denser than softwoods.

Softwoods are gymnosperms which means they are non-flowering. Their seeds are found in cones. Softwoods are typically coniferous trees, sometimes called evergreens. They have needle-like or scale-like leaves that do not shed during the winter. Because they grow quickly, they tend to be less dense. Colder climates, like Canada, are ideal for softwood growth.

The terms hardwood and softwood are sometimes misleading. There are some softwoods that are denser than some hardwoods. However, generally speaking, hardwoods are denser.

Hardwood vs. Softwood Wood Burning

Whether you choose to burn hardwood or softwood really depends on what is available and what purpose your fire serves.

Hardwoods

Usually, hardwoods are regarded as better firewood. Because they are dense, they burn longer and produce more heat than softwoods. Hardwoods are great if you are a winter camper relying on fire to keep warm throughout the night. A hardwood fire will need less tending and will give off lots of heat. Hardwood fires also burn cleaner. That is, they produce less smoke and spark. If you are sleeping close to a fire, this means less chance that your sleeping bag becomes damaged.

Hardwoods are also a great choice for campfire cooking because they produce nice coals. You’ll get a more even cook from hardwood coals than from softwood flames.

Some good hardwood choices are oak, birch, ash, cherry, apple, and maple.

Softwoods

Some people prefer softwoods for campfires because they create big crackling fires quickly. Softwoods ignite faster than hardwoods because they are less dense. They make great kindling, especially if you find pieces with dried sap deposits. Because they burn fast, they do not burn for long. So, softwood is not what you want to rely on to keep warm throughout the night. Also, they do not create nice coals for campfire cooking.

Softwoods also produce a lot of smoke and spark. This can be annoying but I’ve found it helpful to ward off mosquitos. That being said, the science is inconclusive about whether mosquitos are repelled by smoke.

Great softwood choices are pine and cedar.

Campfire flames

Combining Softwoods and Hardwoods

Sometimes the best option is to burn some combination of softwood and hardwood. I like to start a campfire using softwood and switch to burning longer lasting hardwood. I then throw on the occasional softwood to watch the flames grow tall and hear the fire crackle loudly.

Check out this detailed chart from Utah State University. It lists the heat given off by different types of wood, how well they produce coals, sparks, and smoke.

Cured vs Green Wood

Burn cured wood whenever possible. Cured or seasoned wood is wood that has dried for a year or more. Green wood is wood that has been recently cut. Green wood contains a lot of moisture and won’t burn well. It also smokes a lot. It’s easy to tell the difference between green and cured wood. Cured wood has a lighter inside colour, it will often have cracks in it, and the bark will be loose.

Never burn treated or painted wood because it can be toxic.

Campfire 101

Check out other posts from Campfire 101 series: Fire Safety, 9 Natural Tinders and How They Burn, and Measuring Cooking Temperature. I’m wishing you all happy campfire memories! Stay safe and always respect local fire regulations.

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