Our Complete Guide to Firewood: Best to Worst

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Firewood Best to Worst

A roaring fire, be it in an outdoor pit or an indoor burner, is a beautiful sight to behold.

Whether you’re cooking over an open campfire or you’re warming up your cabin, it’s important to use the right firewood. In this guide, we’re going to list the most common firewood options from best to worst.

The Best Wood for Burning

First, let’s take a look at which species you should look for when you’re gathering firewood and why these choices are the best.

Oak

Some of the best firewood you can get your hands on is from white and red oak trees. The wood from these trees extremely strong and dense, and it’s this density that makes it one of the best at producing a large amount of heat.

Oak is also very plentiful in many areas, so it shouldn’t be too hard to scavenge for it. Stronger, denser firewood like this will burn hotter and very often burn longer than many other different types of wood.

Ash

This is one of the very best woods for burning and is considered to be the ideal choice for campfires. With ash, you’ll get a long-lasting flame that puts out an enormous amount of heat. Another brilliant aspect of ash is the fact that it can be burnt quite effectively even when it’s not especially dry.

Hickory

Wood that comes from the hickory family of trees (such as pecan trees) is, much like oak, very dense and strong. It’s almost as good for use in a campfire as oak trees are and it’s also about as common.

Some hickory wood will actually burn hotter than oak, so in some cases, it’s even more desirable. It can be hard to split when you’re chopping up the wood, due to its strength, but because of this, it also retains very little moisture and therefore burns better.

Pro tip: read our guide on splitting wood with an axe.

Rowan

You can’t go wrong with using rowan wood in any type of fire. The great benefit of rowan is the fact that it burns for quite a long time, meaning you don’t have to feed the flames as much, and it generates a decent amount of heat.

Black Locust

It may be a lesser-known tree, but the black locust makes great firewood. Black locust mostly grows throughout the Appalachian Mountains and into Missouri and Arkansas, so if you’re camping in these areas, keep an eye out for it.

Black locust is very often used in the construction of fence posts because of its strength and density. It’s these same qualities that contribute to it being such good firewood to use while camping.

Beech

Using beech as firewood is a staple of outdoor life and something that campers have relied on for many years. It produces a strong and stable flame which lasts a decent amount of time. The one downside to beech is that it really does need to be completely dry to be lit.

Sugar Maple

If you’re looking for a wood that burns with fewer sparks than others and generally produces less smoke than other woods, sugar maple might just be the ideal choice for you. Sugar maple has a brilliant reputation amongst bushcraft experts.

You’ll find that sugar maple very often burns with more consistency than other species and puts out a good amount of heat for a long time period. As with many other types of firewood, sugar maple will burn less efficiently if you gather moist branches and logs.

White Ash

In some situations, you’ll be wanting to gather firewood that is lightweight and you can carry much more of. If you want to stockpile a decent amount of wood, white ash is a perfect option. It weighs considerably less than some of the other species we’ve listed.

Another advantage to using white ash is the fact that it’s extremely easy to chop into small, burnable logs. It’s a decently soft species of wood and this pliability really helps when it comes to splitting it.

Birch

Sometimes you’ll want to find firewood that’s simple to use and doesn’t require much coaxing on the fire. The bark of more mature birch trees is very often quite flammable, which makes it great for easily starting a fire and maintaining the heat.

Birch does tend to burn quicker than other wood we’ve listed, so it’s a good idea to make sure you have a generous pile set aside before starting your campfire. There are also several different types of birch, so experiment with what type works best for you.

Helpful Resources

Before we get into wood you should stay away from, let’s look at some resources you can take advantage of:

How to chop a tree down with an axe

How to split firewood with an axe

Best felling axes

How to season firewood

How to season firewood FAST

Drying firewood in an over

How to keep a fire burning all night

Last but not least… The all inclusive guide to building a fire.

What Wood Should I Stay Away From?

Now that you’ve got a better idea of the types of wood it’s beneficial and safe for you to burn, let’s take a look at the wood you should 100% stay away from.

We’re going to take it as a given that you already know not to burn wood that has been coated, painted, or pressure-treated. Burning wood like this can release toxic or harmful chemicals into the air and may have dire consequences for your health.

Green Wood

Essentially, green wood refers to any type of wood that has only just been cut down. It’s common to leave wood to “‘season” for at least 6-9 months before using it as firewood. Green wood is a surefire route to a disappointing campfire.

Don't Burn Green Wood

Freshly cut wood is full of sap, which is mostly just water. Because of this, it’s hard to light, doesn’t burn very well, and produces a foul smoke. The best way to test if the wood is green (if you haven’t cut it down yourself) is to see how firmly attached the bark is. If it’s still stuck solid, then the wood isn’t ready to burn yet.

Non-Local Wood

Sometimes, you’ll have to purchase firewood or bring in your own (if you’re travelling to a holiday home, for instance). When doing so, it’s essential to use wood that’s local to the area you’re visiting.

Using non-local wood can sometimes lead to you bringing in invasive wood pests and diseases. Species such as the emerald ash borer, the Asian longhorned beetle, and the goldspotted oak borer can ravage areas when they’reintroduced via non-local wood.

Driftwood

You might think you’ve struck gold when you come across a great big pile of driftwood, but don’t go dragging it back to your campfire. Driftwood is an awful wood to burn, and it’s not just because it’s damp and hard to light.

Because driftwood is very often saturated in salt, burning it can actually release harmful or toxic chemicals. You don’t want to ruin your trip out into the wild with a visit to the hospital, so stay away from the stuff.

Poisonous Wood

Don’t go picking up any wood covered with vines when you’re getting ready to set up your campfire. Burning poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and pretty much anything else with “poison” in the name, actually release the irritant oil urushiol into the smoke when they’re burnt.

Breathing in this irritant oil can cause horrific lung irritation and severe allergic respiratory problems. This is the last thing you want to happen, so always be wary of wood with vines on it and double check what you’re putting in your campfire.

Laburnum

Do your very best to stay away from laburnum wood while out in the wild. This is a species which doesn’t burn very well at all. It may not be especially harmful, but it produces an enormous amount of smoke for such a small and weak fire, so it’s not worth your time.

Poplar

Poplar is a similar type of wood as laburnum. Burning wood like this is more effort than it’s worth. It doesn’t light particularly well, produces a huge amount of pungent smoke, and delivers a disappointingly low-heat fire that isn’t efficient at all.

Sweet Chestnut

If you’re in an area where all you can get your hands on is sweet chestnut wood (which is absurd), it won’t do you any harm to burn it. It does deliver a decent amount of heat and it has a relatively solid lifespan.

However, you’ll find that sweet chestnut very easily splits while burning, which can be dangerous if you’re not keeping an eye on your fire. It also produces a lot of unnecessary smoke. Stick to the better options instead of wasting your time with wood like this.

Willow

There’s nothing especially terrible about willow wood apart from the fact it just doesn’t burn as well as other types. It produces an inefficient campfire and still delivers poor results even when it’s been seasoned and is thoroughly dry. It’s best just to avoid poor quality firewood like this.

Spruce

One of the worst qualities in firewood is burning out too quickly and producing a relatively low amount of heat. Spruce does just that; it’ll be burnt to nothing before you know it and you’ll have very little heat to show for it.

Oleander Shrub

The oleander shrub thrives in frost-free climates (like forests) and is sometimes misidentified as being perfectly safe to burn in a campfire. In actual fact, every single part of the shrub is toxic to human.

You definitely shouldn’t be burning this stuff and you don’t even want to go anywhere near it if you can avoid it. You’ll be dealing with more than just a disappointing campfire if you spend any time at all handling this shrub.

Holly

If you absolutely HAVE to use holly as firewood, we will say this – it lights exceptionally well whether it’s wet or dry, and will usually start up a fire straight away. Aside from that, it’s a terrible choice of wood. It burns out faster than nearly anything else and the heat it produces is pathetic (at best).

Endangered Species

Throughout North America alone, there are more than 20 endangered species of native trees. Species such as the blue ash, American chestnut, and the Kentucky coffee tree should never be cut down when you’re out camping.

Part of camping and being in the wild is about respecting nature and enjoying its beauty, so DO NOT attempt to cut down any endangered species. Apart from being disrespectful, you could contribute to the eventual extinction of these beautiful trees.

Do your research and find out what trees you should avoid cutting down in the area you’re visiting and learn to identify them by sight alone.

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