How to Build a Better Fire: The Best Firewood for Campfires

campfire burning at night
You have to love the hypnotic dancing of a healthy campfire at night.

Camping can never be complete without the nightly ritual of a good campfire. The crackle of burning wood, dancing yellow, red, and blue flames that draw the eyes in, giving a hypnotic and peaceful sway unlike anything else. Staring into the flames, to wood that turns a ghostly white glow as it turns into ashy coals – the flames still dancing all around it.

Ah, the best things of summer!

Whether telling ghost stories, winding down from a day in the outdoors, or simply enjoying be social with neighbors and friends around a backyard fire pit, a good campfire is a thing of beauty that most people appreciate.

Then again we’ve all been around a struggling fire and that’s just…well it’s just a special kind of sad.

While thoroughly experienced campers know better, many people don’t realize that the type of wood used makes a massive difference in the quality of the fire. Some wood catches much faster and easier, others burn much longer creating more heat for a longer amount of time. There are even types of wood that can help to keep mosquitoes and other pesky insects away, not to mention giving off a sweet, sweet smelling smoke.

Understanding the different pros and cons of various types of wood isn’t just useful for building the perfect campfire for your needs, but this is also really useful information to have if your home uses a wood burning stove or even to a limited extent in wilderness survival situations.

So what are the best types of firewood? Read on to find out!

What are the Best Woods for Firewood?

We will go into much further detail a bit further down the page, telling you all you need to know about each one, but if you’re looking for the quick bite checklist, here it is:

  • Best overall firewood: Red Oak & White Oak
  • Best firewood for fast burning: Birch
  • Best firewood for medium long-term heat: Walnut
  • Best firewood for repelling bugs:  Cedar

Honorable Mentions

  • Pine for fast burning firewood
  • Shagbark Hickory for long burning firewood
  • Sugar Maple for easy lighting firewood

These are not the only quality types of firewood that are available, just our overall top picks based on a variety of factors including heat put off from burning, time to burn, and very much ease of being able to acquire. There are plenty of “local” types of timber that produce incredible firewood but are very regionally based so we’re not going to spend a lot of time on those option. However if you have a chance at ironwood , Pacific Dogwood, or Oregon Oak – they’re not bad options for high heat, either.

Best Overall Firewood: Red & White Oak

Is there anything that oak can’t do? The two most common types of oak are red and white, and both are absolute all-stars when it comes to a lot of things: including acting as firewood. Oak is top of the list for two major reasons.

One: Oak is very dense which means it burns well, and burns for a long time. This means a lot more heat per stick, log, or bundle.

Two: Oak is common and can be widely found even across different continents – making it an ideal top choice since in most places it is a viable option.

Some woods burn really quickly, some burn really hot, and some burn for a long time. Red oak and white oak meet all of those criteria.

Why does oak burn the longest? Because it’s a dense thick hardwood. That means there’s more fuel there for the fire to burn, and it’s also why they make fantastic coals for campfire cooking.

Best Fast Burning Firewood: Birch

Birch is a double winner. Not only is birch one of the best fast burning firewood options, but dry birch bark is some of the absolute best natural fire starting materials out there. So why does birch bark burn so well?

I wondered about this for years, since I first experienced working with birch on Canada high adventure camping/fishing trips during the Scouting days.  Turns out it isn’t just imagination but there’s some science behind birch bark and why it makes for such a great fire starter! The oils in the bark make it virtually waterproof in many ways, causing bark off of the tree to be dry and because it’s thin it can easily be ripped, tore, or shaved for additional ease to make it catch a spark. Birch bark is an amazing fire starter.

As for the birch wood underneath, this is a softer hardwood. Because it aerates so well, it burns very fast and very hot, but also burns out more quickly than other hardwoods. However, if you’re looking for high heat fast to get going then birch is a winner.

Best Long-Term Heat Firewood: Walnut

Walnut is a medium heat hardwood, and one that burns for a long period of time. The smell of this wood brings back great memories for me because of the family’s sawmill. Easy to acquire, walnut burns well and it is a slow burn which makes it fantastic when you need a long steady heat. This made it great for Scouting camp outs when camping a meal for the entire troop and you need the fire and heat to last.

In addition to this walnut is a great choice for smoking food because of its pleasant scent.

Walnut is an outstanding firewood option for the long burn, especially when you want good heat and not super hot heat.

Best Campfire Wood for Repelling Bugs: Cedar

Every box of firewood we hauled in the camping trailer during my scouting days had a lot of walnut, some oak, and every single box had three to four pieces of cedar. Not only does cedar smell amazing, and cedar wood chips are used in a lot of classic barbecue cooking, but the scent that comes from cedar when it’s burned has long been rumored to keep mosquitoes away.

While I realize first hand experience isn’t the same as scientific study, I can attest from hundreds of days and nights camping that in my experience cedar absolutely thins out the mosquito numbers around camp. I’m pretty sure it does the same for gnats, as well. During Scouts we had the pleasant scent of burning cedar in the fire pit and combined with the best mosquito coils we could find that combination really did the trick!

Best Firewood Honorable Mentions

There are many other good options if you’re just going for a hot solid burn. Each one is going to be a little different and have different pros and cons. You’ll want to test around to figure out which are suitable for your specific needs.

Some great runner-ups include cherry (great for adding flavor to any meat you’re grilling, as well), elm, maple, and ironwood all have high density and give off an impressive amount of heat for the burn.

High Heat Value Woods

One of the reasons we chose white oak is because it is very widespread and very easy to find. There are actually many different types of wood that will give off a really high heat rating. Any of these are really solid choices and you shouldn’t be upset if you choose one of these over our top pick. The differences will generally be minimal, and in a few small cases, nearly impossible to tell apart.

However since a list of 300 options including those in one small pocket of isolated Appalachia really isn’t going to help the average pyromaniac in getting a better grill fire going.

More High Heat Woods We Love

  • American beech
  • Apple
  • Ironwood
  • Oak – Red & White
  • White ash
  • Yellow birch
  • Shagbark hickory
  • Sugar maple

Medium Heat Value Woods

  • Maple – red & silver
  • American elm
  • Black cherry
  • Douglas fir (softwood warning?)
  • Tamarack
  • White birch – birch bark

Low Heat Value Woods

  • Aspen
  • Cottonwood
  • Hemlock
  • Lodgepole pine
  • Red alder
  • Redwood
  • Sitka spruce
  • Western red cedar
  • White pine

As a note, one great resource for seeing the pure numbers on heat per cord wood can be found at the Chimney Sweep Online page.

Wet Wood vs. Dry Wood

No matter how good the species of wood is, if the highly burnable wood is soaking wet from being freshly cut and sitting out in the rain, it’s not going to burn. Especially over softwood that has been cut down and dried or treated over time. This sounds pretty simple, but you would be amazed how many people make this mistake.

Dry wood is absolutely the best, and that means the literal stage of wetness but also how long it has been since the tree was cut down. Green wood won’t burn as well, either, because there is still moisture in it. The firewood dries out over time and certain types of wood are even better for firewood when further treated.

Ash is one example where actual treatment (generally called “seasoning”) to further dry it out makes it much better as a firewood option.

Hardwood vs. Softwood

Well we can start off with the “Insert inappropriate joke here” placeholder. In all seriousness, though, there are two types of wood when looking at trees from a lumber perspective. Those considered softwood trees and then those considered hardwood trees. Generally speaking hardwood trees tend to burn better, putting off more heat and longer lasting flames for the same amount of wood.

This is like comparing the difference between oak and pine or walnut versus fir.

When you’re looking for wood for the purpose of actually creating a high quality fire, you may have to work with whatever you have at hand but when given the choice, look at hardwood options. With only a few exceptions they will generally be the better available options.

Warning on Burning Pine

While pine is one of the softwoods that can burn very quickly, and if the pine needles are dry they can be a quick way to help speed up lighting a teepee fire setup, there are a few reasons to be cautious using pine.

The reason you don’t want to use pine firewood outside is because there’s a lot of sap and tar in the wood. This can lead to some unpleasant tasting food because of the flavors the smoke pushes up, and if you are Dutch Oven cooking you don’t want that gunk building up on the outside of your cast iron.

The reason you never want to use pine firewood inside is that it has a reputation for contributing to the build-up of creosote in chimneys. While some recent studies argue that this is more due to green wood being burned, in any case creosote buildup can cause blockage, and create flammable piles in the brick.

This is how house fires start from the chimney.

Stay safe and don’t burn pine. Good for a softwood means it is still not comparable to any of the top hardwood options, which don’t bring the same potential hazards with them.

In Conclusion

A fire isn’t just a fire – especially if you are looking to heat a house, set up the perfect bed of coals for a cast iron Dutch oven cooked meal, or get the most long lasting heat while out at the cabin or camp. There are plenty of good options depending on what your needs are and now that you’ve read this article you have all the information that you need in order to pick the perfect firewood for your needs so you can create the perfect campfire!

How to Identify Red & White Oak Firewood

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