Out of all of the tools that a prepper is likely to use in a survival situation one of the most important, and most primordial, is fire. Fire has long been mankind’s servant, even though it is one that is never truly mastered.
Fire serves us by providing light, warmth, a way to cook our food and even a weapon in a pinch. But to create fire we must provide three things: heat, oxygen and fuel.
This quintessential tool deserves quintessential fuel, and there is no more common, adaptable and renewable fuel on Earth suitable for use in building a fire than wood.
Wood grows nearly anywhere you find people, and that means that pretty much wherever you happen to be when you need to get a fire going you’ll be able to collect adequate fuel in the form of firewood with just a little bit of effort.
But anybody can heap together a pile of branches and twigs before dousing it in lighter fluid and putting a match to it. It takes a skilled outdoorsman or a seasoned prepper to properly select, prepare and utilize firewood to produce a controllable and efficient fire.
Every prepper understands that making the best possible use of your resources is imperative in a long-term survival situation, and so today we’ll be giving you a primer on firewood for survival.
Wood is One of Our Oldest and Best Fuel
Compared to ages ago, we all live in an era of unrivaled technological wonders, and that includes fuel.
We have over a dozen fuels derived from petroleum alone, and more besides, suitable for use and everything from vehicles to lamps and all sorts of other contraptions for a variety of purposes. But for a very long time fuel sources were far more limited, less efficient and more laborious to prepare.
Throughout time, one of the best possible fuels for building and feeding a fire is wood. Wood is certainly easy to find and generally easy to prepare, though optimizing it for even, clean burning can take several months or even a year or longer.
Despite this, it is entirely possible to cut down a live tree, limb and buck it, and build a useful fire with it.
One of the best attributes of wood as a fuel for a campfire or cooking fire is its adaptability. Small fires can be made using nothing more than twigs and fallen branches.
Whole sections of logs can be notched and split open to form a sort of free-standing torch and stove.
Small staves of firewood can feed a fireplace, wood-burning stove or open campfire just as easily. Firewood can even be used in an ultra-efficient application by burning it in a rocket stove.
So, yeah, even though we have propane, white gas, kerosene and so many other convenient, modern fuels besides you would be a fool to omit firewood from your plans and preparations. In the following sections we will dig deeply into the topic of firewood.
The Species of Wood Makes a Difference
The first thing you should understand about wood in the context of burning it as fuel for a fire is that there are many different types or species of wood, and that the species of wood makes a big difference on its performance.
Even cut to the same size and seasoned for the same length of time, different species of wood can behave very differently when it comes to such characteristics as:
- Ignition temperature
- Heat output
- Smoke produced
- Spitting, sparking and popping
This is not to say you should become some kind of wood snob, or anything like that. You would be a fool to forgo pine in favor of oak in a survival situation when pine is what is abundant and all around you.
The point is you will be a better, well-rounded prepper if you learn the characteristics of various species of wood, particularly what is present in your region. Just like your granddad probably taught you, you should always choose the right tool for the job.
For instance, some woods, typically softwoods, ignite easily, burn quickly and work well in conjunction with longer burning woods when employed as kindling or a first stage fire.
Pine is one of the most common and the most popular for the purpose, but ash and birch work well also.
However, because these woods burn so quickly and so hot larger pieces might not burn evenly. Keeping short sections around 1 inch thick will allow you to burn them completely and under control.
Contrast this with longer burning species of wood like maple and oak. When you want to keep a fire going hot with minimal maintenance and interference these are excellent choices.
However, they have higher ignition temperatures and can be difficult to light on their own, even when using tinder, so they are best added as a second stage to fires that are already properly built and roaring hot.
Some woods are even desirable for burning because of special characteristics, such as aromas they can impart to the air or to food cooked over them. Cedar is one well-known example but pecan wood and cherry are also popular for the purpose.
There is so much you can do with a fire when you know what wood can do for you. But as you might imagine there’s a lot more to establishing yourself as a proper firemaster than learning the attributes of various woods.
Time to get on to the practical application part of this article: cutting, processing, seasoning and storing your firewood.
Black locust wood is a superb firewood because of its tremendous heat output by weight and low smoke generation.
With a predominantly neutral smell, the above characteristics make it exceptional for use in fireplaces or wood burning stoves, with its only shortcoming being that it throws off a modest amount of sparks.
Honly just gives up the first place slot to black locust when it comes to heat generation, burning extremely hot, and like the first place entry also generates very little in the way of smoke.
Where hickory comes into its own, though, is in its exceptionally pleasant aroma and tremendous flavors that can impart to food or barbecue cooked over it.
Unlike black locust, hickory would also produces very few sparks when burning, making it a slightly better choice in situations where secondary fire hazards are a concern.
White oak is yet another great performer as firewood. It burns quite hot though not as hot as hickory or black locust produces little smoke, throws off few sparks and is all around an excellent burning wood.
White oak is also very easy to split and process when it is well seasoned and can turn what is usually a laborious chore into a pleasant if vigorous exercise.
Can definitely be burned for heat in a pinch, and you should burn it if it is all you have or plentiful in your area, but it produces far less heat by weight than other woods, even other softwoods, and is notoriously difficult to split.
Not for nothing, burning elm generates a moderate amount of smoke (but few sparks) and the most unpleasant quirk of this species is that it absorbs odors from the area that it is growing in.
So if your elm was sourced from a nearby bog, swamp or cesspool you are in for a very rude surprise when you light it up!
Aspen is another poor performer when it comes to firewood. Low heat output, high smoke generation and a moderate amount of sparking means that the return on your investment is much lower than other woods and is going to increase your aggravation in the bargain.
Again, sspen can definitely be burned and will generate heat so don’t be afraid to in a pinch but if you are deliberately stockpiling wood to get you through the winter try to avoid this if you can.
Probably the most notorious species of wood there is in the context of firewood, pine does not have much to commend it aside from the fact it can keep you from freezing to death.
Very smoky, massive creosote buildup in chimneys and flew pipes, lots of sparks and an odor that is probably not as pleasant as you were imagining means pine is the absolute bottom of the barrel.
As might be expected, its heat output is particularly low, but surprisingly so compared to its weight. Burn this in your chimney or fireplace only if you have no other choice.
Can You Burn Newly Cut and Green Wood?
So let’s say you were out in the middle of the wilderness and collecting fuel for your campfire, or are just starting to harvest a tree to fuel a cozy fire in your fireplace at home.
You have plenty of live trees to choose from and the right tools to do the job safely. Is it possible to cut down a tree and then immediately chop it up into firewood sized chunks before burning it?
It is possible, yes. Should you? Not necessarily.
Wood is a living thing, at least while it is still part of the tree, and as such it contains a significant amount of moisture.
Newly cut wood or young saplings can still burn, but they will be difficult to ignite and will smoke furiously when they do catch fire.
They’re also far more prone to popping and spitting while burning, sometimes presenting a secondary fire hazard or an opportunity to get a good blister if you happen to be sitting too close to the fire.
Now, this does not mean you cannot make use of fresh cut or green wood as firewood; it will just be less efficient and generally more troublesome. The greater amount of smoke generated in particular can either help or hinder you depending on the setting.
In a survival situation where you are lost or stranded, a thick, white column of smoke is extremely visible against the sky, and can easily help rescuers lock onto your position.
However, the same smoke in a wood burning stove or fireplace will generate considerable amounts of creosote, accelerating wear and tear on your chimney and flue and increasing the likelihood of a dangerous chimney fire.
As long as you have the time, or the ability to gather it, you are much better off giving prepared firewood time to dry out completely, a process known as “seasoning,” or taking the time to locate fallen or otherwise dead wood that has been long expired and is hopefully dry.
Take care to avoid pieces that might have been left in standing water or subjected to any recent rains. More on this topic in the next section.
Cutting, Chopping and Splitting
Gathering wood off of the ground that has already fallen is nice and all, but generally if you want to amass a supply of firewood that will sustain you for any length of time you’re going to have to locate it, fell it, process it and chop it yourself.
This is only ever a laborious task, and a heck of a workout, but you can make the job a lot easier with the right tools.
Luckily, humans pretty much have mastered the art of felling and chopping trees and our tools reflect that. Whether you want to rely on power tools or classic manual chopping and cutting tools rest assured you can get the job done so long as you can supply the effort.
Caution: Felling a tree before processing it and turning it into firewood is necessarily a risky job. Danger abounds, be it falling branches that were hanging dead, just waiting to collapse on the unwary below (colloquially known as widowmakers in the logging trade) or the falling trunk of the tree itself, more than capable of crushing you flat. The tools themselves often pose the biggest danger, and a moment’s inattention, carelessness or ignorance in use can leave you with a severe wound. If this happens in a remote location, your number has probably come up. As always, get training from a skilled associate, or seek out professional training before embarking.
The classic felling axe is the quintessential tool for chopping down a tree and subsequently making firewood. Elegant in its simplicity and undeniably effective when kept sharp and wielded with skill, if you are only going to have one tool for the task make it a good axe.
It might not be the best tool for any given process but it is capable of doing everything from chopping down the tree initially to removing limbs (“limbing”), sectioning the trunk and subsequently splitting the sections into firewood.
A hatchet is little more than a compact axe, and works the same way for the same tasks. But what gains you get in convenience you give up in effectiveness, as the shorter handle generates less power and that means more swings to accomplish the same amount of work.
For many hikers and campers, the trade-off is worth it and you can always work with smaller trees to save yourself some effort.
Be very cautious when using a hatchet, as the smaller proportions means that a miss or glance when striking is significantly more likely to strike your legs or shins when you are working.
The iconic and intimidating tool for modern logging, a chainsaw saves tons of time and effort compared to using an ax, hatchet or handsaw.
The most obvious drawback of the chainsaw, of course, is that it is spectacularly dangerous to use. This tool requires both skill and strength in equal proportion to handle safely.
A detailed breakdown of these skills is beyond the confines of this article, but suffice it to say you are wise to use all recommended safety equipment in operation. Appropriately rated safety gear is the only thing that will save you from disaster in the event of a mishap.
When you need to make a tidy, straight cut or cannot get the appropriate angle of attack using an ax or hatchet, a hand saw can accomplish the same things a chainsaw can do, only you will have to supply the horsepower.
It’s like doing wind sprints with your arms! At any rate, despite working up a great lather you’ll find that a hand saw, properly maintained, is surprisingly quick and efficient, and a folding saw is a great addition to any backpack if you are going afield.
A splitting mall looks a lot like an axe at first glance to the uninitiated, but the mall has a notably flared back end following the typical sharpened wedge on the leading end of the head.
This is designed to forcibly break the wood in two when striking, and allows you to easily split your firewood when the time comes. You can do the same thing with an axe, but you’ll notice that the axe head is more likely to get stuck in tougher pieces when it bites in deeply.
The splitting mall is not something you need to carry a field unless you know you are going to be processing a ton of wood, but it is an indispensable tool around the homestead.
A wedge is exactly what it says. Made of hardened steel and separate from any handle of its own, a wedge can be placed in an initial notch or cut in the wood and then driven in using a sledgehammer or other striking tool like a field expedient baton.
With repeated strikes the wedge will open the separation in the wood wider and wider until it eventually splits, and multiple wedges can be used to split entire sections of trunks cleanly in two. The wedge is a great portable option for serious splitting when traveling light.
Proper Storage is Key to Good Firewood Performance
So the time has come to start accumulating firewood for future use. As we learned in the previous section, you know you need to dry the wood out, but what is the best way to do that?
Wood will dry out naturally on its own over time, but we must strive to get all the moisture out that we can. A few factors will contribute greatly to our objective:
Store the wood off the ground
Wood that is in contact with the ground will always maintain more moisture than wood that is not. Wood is porous, and can easily pull moisture out of the ground. This effect is magnified when it rains.
Aside from slowing or even preventing proper seasoning of the wood, allowing it to remain constantly moist or wet will promote fungal growth and rot that will quite literally eat up your firewood out from under you. That’s no good.
To combat this, store your wood on a water-resistant rack, one either designed for the purpose or improvised. Just because you stack your firewood piece by piece one on top of the other doesn’t mean the upper layers will be safe as they may draw moisture out of the layer beneath.
Pay attention to airflow
You can greatly accelerate the seasoning process by doing everything you can to improve the air flow over, around and through the spaces between your pieces of firewood.
Though it is tempting to stack them as tightly as possible to save space and make it appear tidier, this will retard the drying process.
Instead, leave a gap of about an inch between each piece and more if you can spare it. Also take care to stack your firewood some distance away from any nearby walls or other obstructions so that air may move all around the stack.
It is imperative that you cover your stack of firewood while it is seasoning. The worst thing that can happen is you allow a passing shower or thunderstorm to soak your firewood.
While it is true that your wood can dry out again, this will only slow things down, sometimes dramatically so, and just like leaving your wood in contact with the ground can dramatically increase the chances that rot, mold or fungus will take root, degrading or even destroying the wood you have worked so hard to prepare.
When it comes to covering your stack of firewood an overhead roof with ample overhang for rain protection is better than a tightly fitted tarp or other fabric cover.
Size it right
Properly sizing your firewood is imperative for good performance, and what size you should split your wood into is determined by the size of the fire you want to build, the size of the container or fireplace and the purpose for the wood.
For medium diameter trunks and branches, splitting a section into quarters is generally adequate, though large diameter trunk sections could be split into sixths or even eighths.
No matter what size wood you are using, the important thing is that you split it, period; splitting wood exposes the inner core and fibers, drying it out quicker and making it easier to burn in general. The hard exterior is always tougher to ignite.
Keep it away from your house
Ask anybody who has cultivated a proper stack of seasoned firewood before and they will be happy to tell you about all the many, varied, wild critters that take up residence in that stack of drawing wood.
Mice, snakes, bugs of all kinds including, most worryingly, termites will be bee-lining for that stack of wood to make their new home. Not for nothing, bees and wasps will also readily build hives and nests respectively in a long undisturbed stack of firewood.
These are things you’ll just have to deal with when the time comes to access your wood, but the point is you do not, under any conditions, want that assortment of critters gaining access to your home, especially the termites.
Don’t keep your stack of firewood in the garage, under the carport or right up against your home.
Once you have done all of this, all that is left to do is give your firewood time.
Seasoning wood takes longer than you might expect, and with the right kind of wood and ideal conditions it could be ready to go into the fire pit or the fireplace and as little as 3 months, but it is wiser to count on a much longer time frame.
Many woods in temperate conditions will take upwards of 6 months, and some especially resonance woods can take as long as a year, perhaps a little more.
Still, playing the waiting game is far easier than processing the firewood in the first place, so all you need to do is focus on keeping it dry in the interim.
Legality of Gathering Firewood
So the notion of having access to plentiful, renewable fuel for your fire all around you is very tantalizing indeed, but believe it or not you will still have to pay attention to any laws governing property rights, trespassing and more if you want to gather it ethically.
It is easy to think that a branch, stick or log lying dead on the ground is basically refuse and free for the taking but that just isn’t true.
That stick or branch fell off of a tree, and that tree belongs to someone and that means subsequently the potential firewood belongs to someone. If it doesn’t belong to you, you must get permission from the owner to collect it, otherwise you are stealing.
Even when you are gathering from locations where you have been cleared ahead of time for your venture, you must make sure you do not accidentally trespass on any neighboring properties.
You might be surprised how uptight and vigorous people can get about their property rights, and honestly I don’t blame them.
This extends even to gathering firewood from public spaces, like the side of roadways, medians and so forth. Laws vary widely from place to place, but if you enter any of these places that are not approved for pedestrians and do so without a good reason you could be fine or charged with trespassing.
Similarly, even when city or county crews are trimming trees for any number of reasons that does not mean you have carte blanche permission to take what you want.
Generally, if you ask, no one will stop you from hauling what is in actuality yard waste away on your own dime, but you should never, ever assume until you have received proper permission.
Firewood is among the very oldest options for fuel when it comes to stoking a campfire or stove, but it works just as well today as it has throughout the centuries.
This is one subject where a little bit of know-how can translate into a major return on investment when it comes to controlling you’re fire and getting the most out of it.
Don’t look like an amateur and keep throwing green, unseasoned wood on your fire when you don’t have to: Follow the tips and techniques in this guide, and you’ll look like an old pro when it comes time to light the fires.