Which Firewood is the Best for Camping?
There’s nothing like a warm, crackling campfire to soothe the camper’s soul. It’s the heart of the whole camping experience – a place to gather together and unwind from the day’s activities, where marshmallows are toasted to a golden brown or scorched to a crispy black, depending on your level of marshmallow toasting expertise! The guitar strums a light melody and spooky stories are told while family and friends huddle around the glow. It might seem completely unnecessary and a little excessive to bother worrying about the exact type of firewood to use when you’re camping.
After all, wood is wood, right? Does it really matter where the wood came from? As long as it burns, why should it matter whether your campfire wood came from a fallen tree beside your campsite? Or a bundle of wood you bought from a firewood supplier, or some old wooden furniture, or wood pallets you collected? That firewood supplier near the campground obviously has a monopoly on the stuff, and it seems like a quick cash-grab. Wouldn’t it be better to stock up on some cheap or free wood elsewhere?
The problem is, just one firewood log can spell disaster for an entire campsite. A single log can easily harbour small invasive and destructive insects like emerald ash borer or gypsy moth, or the tiny spores of a tree-killing fungus like oak wilt.
Uninvited Guests: Many campsites restrict their firewood use, so it’s a good idea to call ahead of time so you understand the regulations of the campsite, and can plan where you get your firewood. Generally, campsites restricting firewood use will encourage you to purchase certified safe firewood from specified sellers in the camp area.
There are a number of harmful pests you can inadvertently bring along on your camping trip with you, so take care that your firewood does not contain:
- Emerald Ash Borer: Prior to June of 2002, Emerald Ash Borer had never even been found in North America. This metallic blue-ish green beetle attacks and destroys ash trees, hurting forests, and requiring homeowners to cut every ash tree on their property (reducing the value of their home) to try to stop the spread of the pest.How did the Emerald Ash Borer get to the United States if it has never been on North America’s radar before 2002? – No reason is known for certain but it is believed the Emerald Ash Borer came in ash wood used for stabilizing cargo in ships or as crates designed for packing heavy consumer products. Introducing this beetle has resulted in devastation of trees all over North America.
- Gypsy Moth: The gypsy moth is an invasive species to North America, native to Asia and Europe. The gypsy moth was brought into Boston in the late 1860’sand has spread all over North America over the past century. Despite the somewhat successful use of insect predators to combat this pest, as well as fungal and viral controls, gypsy moth populations persist. They’ve grown in range and sometimes reach dangerous outbreak levels.Gypsy moth caterpillars strip their host trees of their leaves, mostly hardwood species, such as: oak, birch, poplar, willow, maple and others. During the gypsy moth outbreak years, nearly all broadleaf trees may be completely defoliated, and caterpillars appear everywhere. This species will commonly infest trees in woodland and suburban areas.
- Oak Wilt: A fungal disease that will kill an oak tree in the blink of an eye, Oak Wilt is most seriously connected with the Red Oak, and spreads rapidly from tree to tree. Since many trees are connected via root systems underground, it quickly infects neighbouring trees. It also spreads via insects and the movement of wood from one infected area to another.
Unknowingly transporting wood containing any of these known problems could quickly spell disaster for the campsite, and its surrounding forest, as well as people who live in the area. Treating and removing infected and dying trees is unfortunate and costly, which is why great care is taken to ensure that campers aren’t unknowingly introducing foreign pests into the habitat.
Instead of bringing your firewood along with you on your next camping trip, or bringing firewood home with you from another destination, acquire your firewood in the place you’re going to use it.
How far is too far to transport firewood? Five miles, fifty? It’s believed a ten mile radius is generally accepted. Anything greater than that will begin posing a risk of introducing invasive species.
How can you tell if your wood has pests? It’s sometimes impossible to tell, which can lead people to believe that their firewood harbours no problem pests. However, it is possible that tiny eggs the size of pinheads lurk beneath the surface of your firewood, so it’s easier to simply follow the guidelines stating not to transport firewood.
Remember that even wooden pallets, skids or crates you may have scavenged could have some unwanted guests. These sources of wood have travelled long distances and have not been treated to prevent the transportation of destructive pests.
Be sure your firewood is sourced from trees that have been harvested nearby – or purchase your firewood from a certified firewood dealer. This wood has been processed to exterminate any pests and diseases hitching a free ride into new territory. The phrase to remember here is “Get your firewood where you use it or know the laws before you move it!” Buying it where you burn it will cut down on the spread of invasive pests.
Softwood Vs. Hardwood – which firewood to choose?
Not all wood is created equal, and chances are you may have discovered this for yourself if you’ve scavenged fallen logs. Different species of trees will burn differently, owing to their individual cellular structures. “Burning” is a chemical reaction, and the way the wood grows allows for it to burn in different ways.
Different types of woods have their corresponding characteristics when burning. These characteristics include smokiness, heat production, and their burning rate, and of course these characteristics will determine which firewood works best for what type of fire.
No matter what type of tree it comes from, make sure it’s dead dry wood. Soggy, waterlogged wood simply will not burn. Damp wood will take forever to catch fire, and be a pain to keep burning. Wood that’s still alive will be tremendously harder to light and will burn with considerably less heat than dry, seasoned wood.
Typically, the easiest way for campers to identify hardwoods is by the shape of the leaf. A hardwood’s leaf is usually broad, and it helps if you know how to identify an oak, maple, and ash which fall under this category. Generally speaking, hardwoods are considered ideal firewood. When measuring the fire’s thermal quality, the most common unit of measurement used is called the BTU (or British Thermal Unit). BTUs measure what we feel as heat into measurable units. This firewood tends to burn hotter and more evenly, with more BTU potential per square inch than other types of firewood.
Although hardwoods burn hotter, they are also slower to light. However, they do give off less smoke than other woods which is a bonus.
Softwoods can be identified by their needles. Pine trees, spruces and firs, and generally most other evergreens fall under the category of softwoods. Softwoods unfortunately harbour less BTU potential than their hardwood counterparts, and also have the tendency to create a whole lot more smoke more than hardwoods do. This smoke may be an advantage if you’re attempting to smoke food, but generally speaking the amount of smoke will not exactly be an added campfire sing-a-long bonus.
There does lie a true advantage in the use of softwoods to build your campfire: Due to its lighter density, softwoods light much more quickly and easily. It is this particular reason softwoods make great fire starting kindling for any campfire, and can be used in conjunction with hardwood logs to get the perfect fire burning!
Keep in mind:
- Hardwoods such as maple, ash, or oak, burn hotter.
- Softwoods such as spruce, fir, and pine, catch fire quicker.
- If possible, start your fire using softwoods.
- After starting the fire, feed it with hardwoods for a consistently hot and steady fire.
Processed, Painted, and Preservative Treated Wood Scrap
It’s not considered ideal to burn scrap wood for a campfire, especially when cooking, and even if you are not using it to cook, it can release harmful chemicals into the environment. Preservative treated wood should never be used as firewood. For many years wood was treated with CCA, a preservative mixture composed of chromium, copper and arsenic. When CCA treated wood is burned, arsenic is released into the air and the rest is concentrated in the ash that remains in fire pit and surrounding area, anywhere ash falls. The ash containing the arsenic is highly toxic. Simply breathing in the fly ash from CCA treated wood can cause severe and tragic medical complications. It is illegal to burn CCA wood in all 50 states.
There are newer preservative formulations now that do not contain arsenic and have largely replaced the CCA treatment formerly used, but it is still not recommended for firewood use. If you’re finding scrap wood, it can be difficult to tell how old it is, and whether or not it was treated with high amounts of arsenic.
It’s not a good idea to burn coated or painted wood either, for similar reasons. Any toxins from paint or lacquer will be released into the air you breathe, the food you are cooking, and the environment that we all live in.
Things to consider when visiting a firewood dealer in your area:
When considering purchasing firewood from a firewood dealer in your area, or camping location, here are some points to consider.
- Find out from the seller where they got their wood. If it isn’t from the immediate location, or if they don’t know where the wood is from, you should consider finding another firewood dealer. You always want to know where your firewood is sourced, to minimize transporting pests.
- Find out if your state or region has a safe firewood certification process. If it does, ask the firewood dealer to see their certificate to sell quality and safe wood.
Choose your firewood wisely and once again, remember:
- Dry dead firewood is best, it lights better and burns steadier, and produces less smoke.
- You can typically tell the difference between hardwoods and softwoods by their leaves.
- Hardwood burns longer and hotter.
- Softwood burns faster and easier.
- Get your firewood where you use it, or know the laws before you move it!
- Never burn preservative treated or painted wood. It releases toxic and extremely harmful chemicals in the air and fire pit ash.
- It never hurts to ask questions from your firewood seller. Find out where the wood is from, and whether the wood they sell is certified.
Browse our Camping List and Tips category for more camping related ideas and information of your interest to guarantee yourself a smooth camping experience!