How to Choose Wood for Campfires

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Believe it or not, the secret to good campfire cooking doesn’t start with great equipment or secret recipes, but simply, with your ability to build a good campfire. So, let’s chat about choosing campfire wood a bit more…

What makes good firewood?

The drier, the better! Scientifically speaking, wood is full of small tubes that transport water from the roots into the trunk and then into the branches. These tubes can hold water for weeks, sometimes months after the wood has been cut.

If the wood is still full of moisture, it won’t burn to its full potential. Energy from the fire will have to refocus on drying the wood first which is wasteful, and the smoke and fumes from green wood is a stronger pollutant.

Logs burning into coals on a campfire

The right wood = hot coals ready for some serious campfire cooking. Image: Ben Trewren. 

Looking for Natural Firewood

Whenever you’re looking for firewood in Australia, it’s going to depend ultimately on what is available in your local area. The key is to get your hands on firewood that is not only dry but dense.

Across Australia, Jarrah and Wandoo are the species of choice in Western Australia. In Tasmania, Brown Peppermint is considered the best, and in Queensland, Ironbark and Box are the preferred choices. The most popular though is River Red Gum which is the easiest to find in South Australia, Victoria and southern NSW.

Knowing the available species is only a small part of the adventure, as selection also depends on what you are using the wood for, as each species has its own burning rate, flame, coal and ash generation.

For example, River Red Gum is an excellent slow burner, but it doesn’t burn with a lot of flame, so it’s more optimal for cooking. Some species such as Turpentine and White Stringybark don’t produce a lot of flame – so they’re more suited to a wood oven for example.

Finding firewood that’s perfect for your needs can often be challenging – but never impossible! My recommendation is to try and test locally available firewood to see what works best for you. Alternatively, you could research what species are available in your area of adventure and then use resources such as this one to determine its suitability as firewood.

Also, make sure you do research so you can be certain that you can collect wood in that area – that way you know you’re not disturbing native vegetation or wildlife habitat.

A selction of wood ready for a campfire

A nice selection of wood ready for a campfire. Image: Ben Trewren. 

Purchasing Man-Made Firewood

New to the firewood market is the introduction of man-made firewood called Eco-Logs. Basically, Eco-logs are manufactured from sawdust and shavings that have been mechanically compressed to form a solid log. By utilising material, which would otherwise be considered waste, man-made fire logs help to reduce unnecessary felling of plantation timber and the destruction of habitat for Australian fauna.

There are several benefits of Eco-Logs over natural firewood. Firstly, they can be safely used as a concentrated fuel source, and they contain less than 10% moisture which results in more heat on a weight-for-weight basis. Man-made firewood is also very dense, which means you burn fewer logs to achieve the same output, and lastly, their compact size makes them easier to store and transport.

The concerns with Eco-Logs compared to natural firewood is that they come with a cost, you need to transport them to and from the supplier, and they don’t develop significantly hot coals.

Ekologs next to a cooker

Man-made firewood is an environmentally friendly and space saving option for campers. Image: Ekologs.

How to Select Firewood

Having decided that natural firewood is what you’re after, here are the best tips I can offer when selecting firewood:

  • Try and pick (or chop) wood to size so logs easily fit within the fireplace.
  • Look for dark to grey coloured wood – this signifies that the wood is older and drier.
  • Get a feel for the weight of the wood. Ideally, the wood should feel light which means little to no water.
  • Knock logs together for a hollow sound and look for wood with cracked ends – this means the wood is dry!
  • Select wood with the bark missing or pulling off – as bark needs moisture to adhere to the wood, this is also a good indication that it’s dry.

Wood chopping logs

Safety first! Make sure you know what you’re doing when cutting up firewood. Image: Ozpig Australia.

Cutting Wood

Another safety note when looking to source firewood – if you plan on cutting fallen trees and/or chopping up your own firewood, ensure that you are familiar with how to use a chainsaw, wedge, sledgehammer or whatever else your tool of choice might be.

These tools can become dangerous if not used correctly, and inattention can mean a nasty premature end to what should be a fantastic camping trip.

Can I use Railway Sleepers?

Right across Australia, there are many abandoned railway tracks, with many seeing the sleepers as an opportunity for easy, free and large quantities of firewood. However, it’s important to realise that railway sleepers will likely be contaminated to some extent by grease, oil, herbicides and/or heavy metals. The fumes given off when these products are burned can be toxic. Because of this, I’d recommend avoiding this type of wood for campfires.

So, now that you’ve got the basics for selecting wood down pat, you’re next campfire is sure to be a roaring success!

What are your best tips for selecting the right wood for your fire?