You hang up the phone and feel that uneasiness in your gut quickly fade as your lips begin to perch into an inevitable grin.
She bought it, you tell yourself. She totally bought it.
You don’t actually care whether or not your boss believes you — you called out sick because it’s Friday and you have more pressing matters than finishing that report or budgeting next month’s expenses.
It’s the Friday you’ve been waiting for: days, weeks, even months have passed since the winter sun said farewell and finally, the planet’s tilt presents a weekend of sunshine and warmth awaiting your adventure.
Of course, you’re already packed. Tent, bag, pad, axe, lantern, and everything else you may or may not need neatly packed in the back of your Subaru after three rounds of trunk Tetris. Digging through the glove box you find those waded pieces of legal paper possessing the forgotten truths of last year’s forage.
Fold after fold, you unravel what you thought was a map you neatly drew but now realize are simply some scribbles of sticks and stones that led you to wild ramps or asparagus or fiddlehead ferns. No compass. Not even a line with an N and S either point. You throw it away and realize you’ll have better luck without it.
You leave the market with jerky, sunflower seeds, some steaks, potatoes, artichokes, whiskey, water and maybe even some whole trout to replace the ones you already know you won’t be catching.
You are close — so close you can smell the fresh country air and feel the wildness blowing against your skin and you’re close but one thing remains uncrossed on your checklist.
The importance of firewood should never be overlooked, and we’re here to help determine the best woods to burn for your next campfire and outdoor feast.
Hardwood and Softwood
Admit it. At some point in your life you verbally released some hopes, or worse, some fears into the world and the rare but mystic self in you quickly followed by better knock on wood.
You knocked, not unlike your toes knocking the wooden bed frame or shins against the coffee table in the presence of darkness. These few occurrences might lead you to believe theirs no such thing as softwood, and with a few exceptions (looking at you cork oak) you’re right.
When discussing hard and soft wood with fire application in mind, we’re actually talking about the density of the wood, or the mass of wood per unit volume. Hardwoods like oaks or apple have roughly twice the density of softwoods such as pines or firs, meaning a cubic foot of oak will weigh about twice as much as said pine.
Why Density Matters
The denser the wood, the higher amount of BTUs released per volume of wood. The British Thermal Unit is the standard unit of heat, measured by the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.
In layman’s terms, the denser the wood, the more BTUs released, the hotter and longer the burn, making dense woods ideal for heating and cooking – especially once you hit the crucial coaling stage.
The downside to denser woods? They’re generally more expensive than their softer counterparts, but you’ll need much less in terms of volume, balancing out the price difference. They also make starting the fire a bit more difficult and take longer to season than softwood – which brings us to the next important factor of your firewood.
Leave the salt and pepper in the cupboard for this step, as the recipe for nicely seasoned wood requires but only two things: a cover or shelter for your wood and patience.
Green or freshly cut wood is considered to be at one hundred percent moisture, while properly seasoned wood should contain ten to twenty percent moisture depending on the climate and atmosphere your wood is stored. Seasoning green wood takes roughly eight months to a year for softer (less dense) woods, and up to two years for hardwoods.
Why Seasoning Matters
Unseasoned wood is despicably difficult, if not impossible to light. Suppose you are successful lighting a fire of fresh cut or even partially seasoned green wood, you are now burning a fire at less than half its heating potential.
That’s because the energy and heat that should be spent combusting wood particles is now only boiling the water molecules from the wood. This leads to uneven evaporating and mixing with resins, escaping gases and unburned particles creating unpleasant and unnecessary smoke and steam.
You’ll have an inconsistent fire with less heat, a hell of a time getting to the coaling stage, and an even worse time trying to cook over those fluctuating coals.
Using your senses, you’ll be able to tell whether or not that seasoned wood you found on Craigslist that costs half the price of every other cord around town is truly seasoned.
Pick up a piece of seasoned wood and you’ll find it seemingly lighter than its mass would lead you to believe. The next step is to visually inspect the wood. Looks pretty dry right? If its as dry as you want it, you’ll find cracks and crevices staring near the core growing outward towards the bark, which should be loose, tearing and falling away from the wood at parts.
Smell the wood. It should have a very subtle wood scent mixed with dust and dirt, implying it’s been outside in the sun and elements for some time. As for your ears work, when loosely tapping two pieces of seasoned wood, you’ll hear a higher pitched ding, cling, zing or maybe even a bing — opposed to green wood creating a low-toned thud.
As for taste, seasoned wood should have an unpleasant and bitter earthiness; unfortunately, green wood will have a similar if not indistinguishable flavor, making neither wood ideal for tasting in its raw form.
Now that we’ve covered the two most important factors of wood burning, let’s go over a few other woody ideas to keep in mind. Even some of the driest and best-seasoned softwoods contain enough resin to give your flame-broiled steak and charcoal-roasted vegetables an unpleasing and bitter flavor.
Some to avoid include pines, spruces, firs, and even juniper. Although they provide a pleasant festive aroma to the bonfire, keep everything but the covered cast iron away.
Be hip and buy local. Not only are you keeping money in your community, but more importantly you’ll be keeping non-native bugs and diseases out of others. According to Don’t Move Firewood, a campaign run by The Nature Conservancy’s Forest Health Protection Program, traveling firewood is the leading cause of spreading forest destroying pests and microbes.
You’ve heard it a thousand times, but we simply couldn’t write a post about firewood without mentioning it. PUT OUT YOUR FIRES. And then once you do, double and triple check.
You only brought two gallons of water with you? That’s right: either trek down to the lake with a bucket or open up that last craft beer and pour it over. Sure, lightning and lava start wildfires every year, but according to the National Park Service, ninety percent of wildfires are started by humans.
Our Favorite Woods for Campfire Feasts
Wood selections from fruit trees are excellent choices for your next outdoor feast. They fall into the hardwood category and produce hot coals that’ll last long enough to roast the whole lamb. Best of all, they produce extraordinary aromas and smooth smoke that won’t overpower your dinner.
Our picks: almond, apple, apricot, avocado, cherry, fig, olive, peach, pear, persimmon, walnut (while not as dense, wood from citrus trees make great firewood with a sweet fragrant smoke)
Well known for its beloved fruit, the pecan, hickory wood is one of the hardest woods available, making it popular in the home and the wild. The dense and sometimes twisted fibers make chopping somewhat strategic, but the spicy, smokey bouquet compliment meats and seafood unlike any other.
Our picks: red, pecan, shagback, shellback, pignut, bitternut
The oak species consists of roughly four hundred trees, the majority of which make for great firewood. This hardwood takes longer to season, but you won’t be disappointed by their higher BTU levels.
Our picks: black, live, northern red, scarlet, southern red, white, willow
For more options beyond these woods, consider ash, beech, birch, black locust, elm, eucalyptus, hard maple and manzanita.
When you’re ready to start chopping, be sure to snag one of our recommendations for the best camping hatchets.
This article was written by Derek Christensen, chef at Moonrise Standard.