Some individuals love the smell of campfire. Stores have even started to produce campfire scented candles. Many times, the campfire smell is due to the smoke produced from the burning wood. However, campfire pits can certainly be too smoky.
So why do campfires smoke?
Campfire pits typically smoke for one of two reasons, wet wood or improper airflow. Wet wood smokes because of the moisture in the logs. This causes a smoking or steaming issue that does not allow the wood to burn cleanly. Improper airflow can have the same effect, since the fire may not burn hot enough to fully combust.
If you don’t use the correct materials or build your fire properly, it is likely that you will end up being smoked out. Below we will discuss the best types of wood, the most favorable wood conditions, and different methods of constructing a campfire in order to avoid smoke.
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Selecting the Perfect Building Materials
When you are going camping, you can either bring your own firewood or locate wood when you arrive at your destination. Most states have specific rules regarding transporting firewood due to pests and disease so be sure to abide by all laws and regulations.
The good news is that most campgrounds will sell firewood. In addition, it is quite common for those who live near to a campground or state park to sell firewood as well.
On the off chance that you did not bring firewood and cannot find any for sale, you will need to source wood from your surroundings. The type of wood you choose and its condition will play a large role in how much smoke your campfire pit produces.
- Dry and Seasoned or Fresh and Wet
Dead and dry wood produces the best campfire; burning hot and giving little smoke. Greenwood will not burn as hot, be difficult to start and be very smoky. Dead and dry wood is typically referred to as seasoned wood. Unlike greenwood, it has low moisture content.
Firewood that is sold is almost always seasoned. In order to season wood it must be cut, stacked, and left to dry; usually for close to a year. Greenwood is quite wet and has not had drying time. Fallen logs or wood from dead trees may also be in a seasoned condition.
Depending on the climate and weather conditions, fallen logs and even stacked logs may still be soggy. Exposed wood left in the rain, frost, or snow can leave it wet and unfavorable for campfire use. If your campsite has experienced precipitation recently, you will need to let your wood dry out.
When sourcing wood, search out dry logs that appear to be seasoned. Be careful about cutting down trees or branches. Certain campgrounds, State Parks, and other locations have rules against taking standing trees even if they are dead.
Because finding wood in good condition can be tricky, it is usually easiest to purchase your campfire logs when you arrive. Either from the campground or from a local. This way, you can be sure that it is seasoned. If you are foraging for logs, start by looking for fallen limbs rather than chopping down trees.
Types of Woods And How They Affect Smoke
The condition of the wood may be the most important factor when trying to build a low smoke campfire. The type of wood can also play a role. There are two predominant types, hardwoods, and softwoods.
Hardwoods have better properties for burning, they burn hotter, cleaner, and longer than softwoods. This isn’t to say that only hardwoods will burn, usually, any type of wood will, but some woods burn better than others. Hickory, ash, oak, and occasionally cedar are preferred by most campfire enthusiasts.
The denser the wood, the less water it can absorb and store. One such example is hickory. Therefore, with less water, you get less smoke, and hickory tends to be a clean burn. Additionally, its density means it will burn for a good amount of time and produce ample heat. Hickory is often used for cooking as it provides a pleasant taste and aroma to meats.
Oak is quite prevalent throughout the United States, this makes it a popular choice for campfires. It has a steady burn and produces decent heat, though it does not burn as hot as hickory. One important consideration is that your oak logs be completely dry before using them in a campfire.
Ash firewood does not give off a lot of smoke either. It is solid wood but relatively lightweight. It is conducive to campfires as it starts quickly and has a steady burn.
Though not very common, maple is another great hardwood choice. It can be challenging to cut and split, but once you have maple logs they will last you through the night and provide ample warmth.
Beechwood is very dense and requires seasoning for at least a year, if not longer. Due to this, it isn’t a very popular choice for campfires. However, if there is some available it will make a very hot and very long burning fire.
Finally, we have cherry wood. This is another popular selection among campers and cooks alike. It doesn’t burn too hot but burns well. Additionally, it won’t give off a great deal of smoke. The smoke that is produced often has a sweet and appealing smell.
Softwood is wood taken from deciduous or conifer trees, such as pine trees. Softwoods are not conducive to campfire burning. They are usually pretty wet (meaning smoky) and contain a fair amount of highly volatile sap.
One wood type that can be used for burning, but is actually considered a softwood is cedar. Cedar is a softwood, but surprisingly can be used for burning. It tends to burn low and slow instead of producing a roaring fire. It will also burn very hot and like cherry give off a nice fragrance.
Two other examples are spruce and pine. Unlike cedar, they are not recommended for campfires. If you do try to burn them in your campfire pit you will experience a lot of smoke.
- How to Choose the Best Wood
How can you find the perfect specimens? Here are some guidelines:
- Select wood that appears to be dry. Greenwood may be green in color but not always. Dry wood will have split or cracked ends and bark that easily falls away. Mold, mildew, and condensation indicate wet wood.
- Seasoned wood sounds dry and almost hollow. If you drop it or knock it on something you should hear a crisp tone and not a deep thud.
- Does it feel dry or wet?
- A musty, earthy smell is typical of wet wood. Dry wood is rather odorless.
Building the Perfect Campfire
Many campers have opinions on the best campfire setup and how to build a fire is often hotly debated, no pun intended. However, the best fires usually start with a great foundation.
Most campsites will have a fire pit, a fire ring, or even just an area previously used for burning. Still, check that the ground is free of dead leaves, trash, or anything dry that could ignite easily and in turn produce smoke.
Make sure you have gathered all of your wood and that it is nearby. Hardwood in the form of fat and short logs work best as fuel once your fire is going. For a fire starter, you will want small sticks. To ignite the fire find some dry leaves, brush, or even newspaper.
Getting your fire going will often (and hopefully) be the smokiest part. Once your fire is burning the smoke plume should subside. Proper airflow is another factor in the amount of smoke produced.
To maintain good airflow place your tinder or your clump of dry fire starter loosely in the middle of the burning area. Don’t tightly ball it up or compact it as this will prohibit airflow.
The kindling goes next, on top. These are your smaller sticks and twigs.
The last step is building the bulk of the campfire. You can start slow with only one or two logs and add fatter pieces of wood as the fire grows. Or you can build an entire structure with multiple pieces of wood. Popular setups include a cone with the wood stacked on its end or a box-type structure with the wood lying on its side, known as Lincoln log style.
The goal is to allow for good airflow throughout your structure as you build. Suffocate the flames will give off smoke and ultimately kill your fire. Once you have built your fire from base to initial structure, you can light the tinder. You may need to assist the flame by fanning or blowing it gently.
The flames should progress from the tinder to kindling to your logs. As soon as your kindling and tinder have burned up and your logs are on fire the smoke should dissipate. Slowly and strategically add more logs as you see fit, but don’t smother the fire.
Hot fires create less smoke, so do your best to keep it roaring. Hardwoods that are dry give off less smoke so use these for your main fuel source.
Nevertheless, smoke is a natural part of a campfire. If it is bothersome, try sitting downwind of your fire. Furthermore, sitting lower to the ground may help especially if there is no breeze.
What Else Produces Smoke?
If you have sourced the correct wood type and in the proper condition, you should be able to build a pretty decent non-smoky fire. However, there are a few other things you should take care not to do in order to cut down on smoke.
The first is putting too many logs on too fast. Fueling your fire too quickly will produce smoke. Hotter fires burn cleaner. Therefore, piling on a lot of logs will lower the temperature and make it more difficult for the fire to burn all the fuel, giving off smoke.
The second is throwing things, especially trash, into your fire. Dry leaves, garbage, and debris will give off smoke. This is because like throwing on too much wood, the fire will have a hard time burning all of the fuel completely.
Cutting Down on the Smoke
Smoke is a naturally occurring side effect of campfires and you will never be able to have an entirely smoke-free experience. However, with the right build and proper materials, you will hopefully be able to have less smoke for a more enjoyable campfire.