This article was updated June 2023.
The type of firewood you use can have a big effect on the results you get from your outdoor cooking. Some types of wood are perfect for kindling and getting your fire going, but burn too fast to sustain your firepit and create hot coals. Other types will burn away slowly all night, but can take forever to get started without some sort of supplemental firestarter and accompanying wood or coals.
Of course, the type of firewood you use also depends on where you are located and what sort of access/resources you have available. If you source your wood from a local supplier, you may need to outlay a little more expense wise, but you are paying for good quality, seasoned hardwood. Trust me, once you’ve used poor quality or green firewood and experienced how frustrating it can be, you’ll be happy to pay a little extra for the good stuff!
Cooking in a firepit at home means you can source premium quality wood and have it stored and ready to use. If you are camping, however, you may be a little more limited in your choices. If your vehicle is going to be parked where you are camping, you might be able to nominate someone to bring firewood in a utility truck or trailer. If you’ve hiked on foot to your campsite, you’re going to have to work with whatever you can find in your surroundings. Alot of serviced campsites do supply firewood for a fee, so this is worth checking out if you’re going to be staying somewhere with basic amenities.
Firewood can be divided in two groups, hard wood and soft wood. I will give you the advantages and disadvantages of these types of wood and how they are best used:
Hardwood vs Softwood for making a fire
Generally speaking, hardwood usually comes from deciduous trees (that is, trees who lose their leaves annually) and softwood is derived from evergreen trees. Hardwood, as the name would suggest, is much more difficult to cut or split due to it being more dense that softwood varieties. This density, however, means that hardwood lends itself to being more durable and slow burning. It also produces high heat. Hardwood is used in construction for its’ strength and durability, but the downside of using hardwood is that deciduous trees are usually more slow growing and therefore take a lot longer to replace.
Softwood is a more sustainable choice as evergreen trees grow faster and can be more easily replaced. Softwood is easier to work with in construction and much more easily ignited when it comes to using it as firewood. Though easily to split and get going, softwood does not burn quite as hot as hardwood and it burns quickly, meaning you will get through a far greater quantity of wood. In a nutshell, when it comes to firewood, softwood makes the best kindling and hardwood makes for a long lasting fire that produces good heat.
Types of Hardwood:
For outdoor cooking, hardwood really is ideal. It tends to burn much hotter and longer than softwoods like pine or birch due to its’ density. The downside to this density is that hardwoods take much longer to sean and dry out. Personally, I try to store hardwood I get my hands on to for 2-3 years before burning it. I have the luxury of having an arborist friend who can hook me up with a felled tree and an area that I can use for storing wood over a length of time. I realise this might not always be an option for everyone, so if you aren’t in a position to be able to store quanitites of hardwood, I’d recommend just paying a litte more for pre-seasoned hardwood from a local supplier. The most common types of hardwood in the US include:
Common Types of Hardwood:
One of the most common types of trees and best firewood you can choose, oak can be found pretty much anywhere. Three common species of oak are the northern red oak, white oak and pin oak. It’s a very dense hardwood tree, so it burns for a very long time and provides an excellent amount of heat for your camp oven and keeping you toasty while you’re outdoors. Because of its density, it requires continuous high heat to really start it burning well, so I’d recommend starting your fire off with a softwood, such as pine and birch. You just need to get a base going and then adding your oak on top of the fire – once it does get burning, there isn’t much maintenance required to keep your fire punching out good heat for hours.
Maple firewood is a great firewood choice and it’s a popular choice used for the smoking of food. Found in many areas across the Northern parts of the US and in Canada, charcoal from maples is an integral part of the Lincoln County Process used to make Tennessee Whiskey. A deciduous hardwood with above average heating values, maple is difficult to split because it is so incredibly dense. This also means it can be difficult to ignite, but once it does get going, it burns for hours, hot and clean (which means less smoke).
Elm is a very dense hardwood that is very common in many places. In North America, the elm tree is one of the most prolific trees you will find. The wood provides decent heat but it’s really hard work to split it into pieces or logs. Fortunately, dead elm trees are found pretty much everywhere due to tree disease and the wood from these standing dead trees can produce good firewood because of how dry the wood is.
The cherry is known for producing exceptional lumber. The wood is used to make furniture, flooring and cabinets. The wood fibre has a reddish hue on the inside and also has a pleasant fragrance. Cherry firewood is a popular choice for many people with open fireplaces in their homes due to its’ sweet burning aroma. However, it doesn’t burn as quite well as other hardwoods as it only produces a medium heat.
I just wanted to mention chestnut wood here based on personal experience! I do NOT recommend it as firewood. Chestnut is valued for its rich color and straight grain in manufacturing fine furniture, particularly desks, tables and chairs. Though this kind of hardwood burns and splits easily, it just produces a small flame that burns at a low heat and throws out a lot of sparks and heavy smoke. It really is quite unpleasant. If you have no choice but to use chestnut wood, I’d suggest trying to mix it with better quality hardwoods.
Common Softwood varieties:
Softwoods are highly flammable which makes them burn quickly and easily, albeit without producing that much heat. A load of softwood will do well for a quick campfire to heat water, but if you want to cook with hot coals or use a Dutch Oven, I’d suggest that you may need hardwood varieties for that. Softwood makes the best kindling, however, so it is still very valuable when it comes to outdoor firepit cooking.
Pine is a common kind of softwood. In temperate and tropical regions, they are fast-growing trees that will grow in relatively dense groups. Pine should only be burned outdoors, as when burned indoors, gases that move up through the chimney can form creosote deposits as the gases cool. Creosote build up can ultimately result in a chimney fire, so keep pine for use in your outdoor firepit. Oh, and whatever wood you do use for your indoor fireplace, you should be getting your chimney inspected and cleaned by a trained professional annually to reduce the risk of a fire occurring.
Softer than pine, birch wood can be found easily and cheaper to buy than many other species, however it burns quickly, so you go through it quite quickly. Birch can be really useful added in to a mixed load of firewood. There are different kinds of birch. The yellow birch and the black birch produce the best firewood in birch family. Another common species of birch called the white birch can also be used for firewood but it doesn’t supply as much heat as those two.
In conclusion, there are pros and cons to different types of firewood. Get yourself a mixed supply of both hard and soft wood if possible to make your experience cooking with fire as enjoyable as possible!