Cut logs in pile

Camping 101: Knowing Your Firewood

There was once a time when you could bring firewood from home to the campground, collect an armful of squaw wood (thin pieces/limbs of dead wood), or even cut your own from the dead fall on the forest floor. Those days are almost gone.

Now you can’t even bring a few fireplace logs or chunks from the backyard spring clean up! The threat from invasive, tree-destroying critters makes such acts a finable offense throughout much of the country.

In Minnesota, for example, we are very concerned about the potentially devastating threat from the emerald ash borer. Since ash is also a premiere firewood species, we should all be concerned about this invasion. The state Department of Natural Resources has authorized wood merchants now whose firewood has to be certifiably safe. Bring some from out of the area and you are in big trouble!

As a safety precaution, wood is stripped of its bark to help eliminate the habitat for beetles to hide, and to detect telltale channels in the sapwood and other signs characteristic of certain invasive critters. Unless you really know your trees from the inside, you may not be able to tell one species from another. I graduated from college with a degree in Forestry and I don’t remember squat about interior wood characteristics.

Since the DNR has given its blessing to certain wood merchants, the easiest way to know what you are getting is to simply ask. Here are some of the more common campfire woods (sold and gathered where allowed) ranked according to their all-around performance as good “firewood.”

The criteria is basic: heat production, flame size and duration, speed of burn, and for cooking — production of a good bed of coals. Other attributes to help you decide include the amount and quality of smoke, aromatic smells and flavorings, and the amount of sparks generated:

Alder
Not on the “A” list of main firewoods, but so common, it’s an easy first choice to get a fire started. It produces low heat and is a fast burn. It does offer a mild flavor to meat from its smoke.

Apple
Not easy to find, but worth it. It’s aromatic (a fruity, sweet flavor). It produces a hot fire with a low flame.

Ash
A quality firewood sharing the very top of the list with a few select others. It’s aromatic, produces a good flame and lots of heat. It even burns while a bit green or wet (but not as well as when thoroughly dry).

Aspen/Cottonwood
Poor choices, but ones I’ve seen pawned off as firewood, even at some state parks (storm clean-up refuse mostly). It’s just not good firewood except maybe for emergencies.

Birch
Everyone knows about its bark’s fire starting ability. The birch as a firewood offers good flavor and scent, good heat, and is a fast burn.

Elm
Sometimes sold near urban areas — it needs at least two years to dry out so check with the source — otherwise expect lots of smoke!

Hickory
Another choice firewood at the top, hickory’s reputation as a smoker is world-renowned. It’s also a high heat producing hardwood species.

Maple
(Meaning, reds and sugars, NOT silver, box elder and other “soft” species). This is a good “fuel wood,” it produces a fair amount of flavorful smoke.

Oak
Another classic firewood, oak makes for a high heat producing, slow and steady-burning fire. Make sure your source has thoroughly dried the wood or you’ll be in for a rather unpleasantly smoky campfire.

Pine/Spruce
Two softwood species that are marginally good firewood. They are especially good as a fire starter (can be split or used whole as kindling). Pine is an especially sparking, spitting, nasty popping-and-crackling firewood that produces a good flame.

There are many other regional-specific woods that locals will swear by. Basically hardwoods (oak, ash, etc.) are best for long-term heat generation and coal bed production. Softwoods are fast burning and little else.

A word of caution — be sure of your source of twigs and other kindling in the woods. Some forms of poison ivy have large woody stems or vines — when burned the oils are in the smoke and can cause very serious problems if it comes in contact with the eyes or is inhaled.

For the most part, a bad fire is better than no fire at all — it’s the cave man in us all!

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12 Responses to “Camping 101: Knowing Your Firewood”

  1. Mike Prokap

    Interesting article . However I would strongly suggest a followup article showing pictures of the trees discussed with leaves and without . Then add close up pictures of the bark of each tree to better define the trees and their name to classify them!!
    Thanks Mike Prokap

    Reply
    • tom watson

      i agree and have done several articles in the past, in other venues, showing characteristic bark patterns, leaf ID (to compare nearby trees) and such. Limited space prevented me from doing so in this post. Thanks for your great comments.

      Reply
  2. Fred S

    Nice article, I have printed it out to take with me on future camping trips. Thanks

    Reply
  3. TOM WATSON

    MIKE PROKAP IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT ABOUT HAVING MORE INFORMATION. THIS WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AS PART OF A WINTER SEASON ARTICLE SO BARK RECOGNITION WAS MY MAIN OPTION AT THE TIME. I AM WORKING ON AN OVERVIEW OF EASY-TO-IDENTIFY TREES THAT WILL HELP YOU IDENTIFY THESE POPULAR TREES. Be Safe; Have Fun out there.

    Reply
  4. John

    Good article. I would add that pine is horrible for cooking. Some state parks sell pine to novice campers, and I have witnessed them cooking on it.

    Reply
    • tom watson

      Agree, a good starter wood but not the greatest for embers and pleasant burn.

      Reply
      • tom watson

        Also should mention that some state parks cut a lot of cottonwoods and split it for “firewood”, too….it’s another cheap, soft wood that doesn’t do well for coals but works for campfires. Wood should definitely be carefully selected for cooking vs. campfires. I’ve also seen some campgrounds offer up basically bundles of barked slabs and call it ‘firewood’ – again, bonfire yes, cooking? Hardly!

        Reply
  5. Rogelio Hernandez

    Being from south Texas, I may be a bit bias but, my favorite wood for cooking by far is mesquite. It is a hardwood, burning hot and slow, and adds lots of flavor if you like BBQ. I also like Hickory, pecan, and apple.

    Reply
    • Bill Bethel

      Mr Hernandez is right on.. also being a Texan, Mesiquite is OUR wood of choice for campfires as well as smoking our home grown beef, pork, chicken and fish.. Great long lasting armoma and fire,, Nuttin better for grilling those nice think Ribeyes..

      Reply
    • Tom Watson

      Agree, as a northern boy, I try to get store-bought mesquite chips whenever I can….love the smokey flavor!

      Reply
    • tom watson

      You bet, as a Yankee, I have always chosen mesquite as a primary BBQ wood, and the smoke flavor is awesome.

      Reply
  6. Emil

    I like using ash it burns hot and is stringy so it starts good

    Reply