Imagine this: you’re sitting around the fire with your friends having a great time. The wind unexpectedly changes direction, and you get a face full of smoke complete with a sharp, burning sensation in your eyes and throat.
If this sounds all too familiar, thankfully, there are a couple of easy steps to take to reduce the amount of smoke your fire pit produces. Things like the type of wood you use, how you place your logs, and even how clean your fire pit is can all contribute to excess smoke.
How Can I Reduce Fire Pit Smoke?
A fire pit is an amazing place to gather around, which is why it’s important to make sure that nobody is getting smoked like a cut of meat. Taking the necessary precautions to reduce the amount of smoke produced by your fire pit is an easy way to keep everyone comfortable, as well as making a quality fire.
Pick the Right Type of Wood
We’ve covered best materials to burn in your fire pit. On top of that, you’ll want to choose hardwood over softwood if possible because hardwoods are typically much denser, and as a result, burn longer and reach higher temperatures than softwood. Some common hardwoods that you can find include:
While softwoods can be burned, they are not preferable. Softwoods constitute the evergreen trees, like pine, spruce, and redwood, and they often have much more sap than hardwoods. Sap is an organic compound, which, is the part of the wood that produces smoke. In addition, softwoods are less dense. The large amount of space between the fibers in the wood allows for greater airflow, and consequently, a faster time to combust, and this also means that they burn for a shorter amount of time.
When selecting wood to use in your fire pit, make sure that it’s been cut, split, and dried. There are two primary methods that are used to dry fresh-cut wood. They are:
- Seasoning – wood is left to air dry outdoors between six months and a few years, and it is only seasoned once it reaches an acceptable moisture level
- Kiln-drying – wood is heated in an oven between a few hours to a few days until it reaches an acceptable moisture level
What Is Green Wood?
Green wood is wood that is above acceptable moisture levels, typically falling between 30-40%. This makes it much more difficult for the wood to burn, and in turn, leads to a ton of smoke. The large amount of water in the wood requires much more energy to burn off than properly dried wood.
You should avoid using green wood in your fire pit whenever possible. If you have to burn green wood, follow these tips to reduce the amount of smoke produced.
- Burn green wood outdoors in an area with a lot of airflow.
- Cut the wood in small pieces and mix with dry kindling.
- Put this mixture into the fire pit, stacking the pieces as to leave enough room for airflow. The more air that can reach a piece of wood, the hotter it will burn, and therefore the quicker it will burn off the moisture.
- Stand away from the fire until most of the smoke and popping sounds have diminished.
Can I Dry My Own Wood?
If you’ve recently chopped down that pesky tree in your backyard, you may be wondering how to properly prepare it for use in a fire pit.
You can both season and kiln-dry wood at home. Seasoning takes much longer, but is more hands-off, while kiln-drying is much more labor-intensive and requires some specialized equipment and structures. Therefore, we recommend seasoning wood at home, though those with a DIY mindset might enjoy taking a crack at kiln-drying.
To season wood:
- Split the wood into reasonably-sized pieces.
- Stack them on an elevated, vented surface (a wood palate is good for this), and make sure there is room for air to flow in between the pieces.
- Cover the top of the pile with a tarp to prevent water exposure.
- Wait between six months to one year before using it.
How To Tell If Wood Is Dry Enough
Even though you are using the wood in an outdoor fire pit, you should look for wood that is suitable for even indoor use due to the fact that this wood will not smoke, or smoke very little. When comparing green wood to dried wood, there are a few key characteristics that differ between them.
In general, choose dried wood that has:
- Light color and weight for its size
- Loose bark
- Lack of aroma
- Makes a ‘hollow cracking’ sounds when two pieces are stuck together
Build Your Fire Correctly to Reduce Excess Smoke
The secret to cultivating a great fire lies in creating a structure that allows for adequate airflow. Ask ten different people how to do this, and you will likely receive ten different answers. Building a fire is not an exact science, but there are a few key concepts to keep in mind.
A fire requires three things:
- Oxygen for combustion
- Heat to raise the temperature to ignition point
- Fuel to drive the chemical reaction
In the context of a fire pit, these amount to airflow, a lighter/matches, and wood, respectively. Remove any of these three, and any fire will cease to be. You will most likely have enough wood and matches for your fire, so ensuring that your fire is receiving an adequate amount of airflow is vital to making sure that your wood has enough oxygen to ignite with minimal smoking.
Tinder or Kindling?
A fire consumes three types of fuel: tinder, kindling, and wood, in that order. Tinder is what ‘jump starts’ the fire; it is any material that quickly and easily burns.
Some examples of tinder:
- Dry grass
- Dry pine needles
- Cotton balls
Make sure that you don’t light any tinder without enough kindling nearby to sustain the flame. Kindling is comprised of larger materials that, while also easy to ignite, remain ablaze for a longer time than tinder.
Some examples of kindling:
- Small twigs
- Dry leaves
Once you have gathered your tinder and kindling, you’ll want to place it in the center of your fire pit so you can start your fire.. The last step before lighting your fire is to create a structure with your wood. You can create any structure you wish so long as it has enough space between wood pieces for a good amount of airflow.
Create an Optimal Campfire Structure to Reduce Smoke
Common campfire structures include:
- Tipi – Arrange your wood so that it looks like a Native American tipi with the tinder and kindling at its center. This style is great for making large, bonfire-type flames quickly and evenly.
- Lean-To – Stack two to three thick logs, depending on size, horizontally, and then lean longer, thinner pieces up against them. A side profile of the structure should look like a right triangle. This structure is preferable in windy or damp conditions, as the kindling you place inside is shielded from the elements.
- Star – Lie five pieces of wood flat in the shape of a star and place the kindling at its center where all five pieces meet. This will produce a slow, outward burning fire, making it great for backyard fire pits.
- Log Cabin – Inspired by the childhood residence of our 16th president, this style consists of stacking logs two at a time, with each layer alternating facing forward or sideways, and kindling at the center.
- Upside Down Fire – popularized by Tim Ferriss’ blog on building the cleanest fire structure.
Want a video?
Let us know in the comments below if you’d like to see a video comparing these campfire structures and which one works best.
After putting your fire out, you may find that there is some debris leftover. Try and clean this out often, as an accumulation of ash and embers can negatively impact your fires in the future.
These materials don’t burn. Therefore, they will increase the time it takes for other materials to heat up to the point of ignition, causing the prolonged release of smoke.
What Not To Put In A Fire
At each stage, a fire requires different materials, namely tinder, kindling, and wood, as fuel. For example, you shouldn’t introduce tinder into a fire that’s already burning through the wood, and forgetting this will cause your fire to smoke more than you’d like. So, once you have that perfect fire roaring, try and avoid adding in materials such as:
- Grass Clippings
- Pine Straw
In addition to producing lots of smoke, these next materials are things that you should never, ever, put into a fire. They emit toxic gases harmful to both you and the environment, and burning some of them is often illegal for some fire pit regulations.
- Wood Pallets
- Particleboard (used in inexpensive furniture)
- Painted Wood
- pressure treated wood
Should I Get a Smokeless Fire Pit?
A smokeless fire pit can be a great way to eliminate all of the hassles that come with properly setting up a traditional fire pit. There are many large smokeless fire pits available made specifically for backyard use.
Their secret lies in the ability to precisely control airflow and temperature, practically eliminating all of the problems that lead to smoke in traditional fire pits. In addition, smokeless fire pits are much more efficient in their fuel-to-heat ratio, making it so that you don’t have to burn a whole tree whenever everyone wants to gather around the fire.
Some even eliminate the wood altogether by using propane or natural gas, though you may find yourself without the comfort of that warm cracking sound you get from burning wood.
Some of the best smokeless fire pits:
If you find yourself setting up fires everywhere you go, a portable fire pit can be a great way to quickly set up a fire no matter where you are. There are many that are basically just a container for your wood pieces, but some come with features that eliminate any and all smoke emanating from your fire, removing most of the setup time and effort. Those who already have a fire pit at home and don’t plan on going camping likely won’t benefit from a portable fire pit, but those seeking the convenience and ability to set up a fire on-the-go might want to look into one.
Portable fire pits can range from barebones aluminum structures like the Snow Peak Fireplace, to the smokeless Outland Firebowl Premium, and even the luxury rapid-burning, smokeless, Bluetooth-controlled BioLite FirePit and Grill.
Why Does Wood Smoke?
Wood is made up of four basic components:
- Volatile organic compounds
All of these, except ash, will burn in a fire. When water and carbon are heated in the presence of oxygen, water vapor, and carbon dioxide are produced. Both are gases, but they are invisible to the human eye, so they can’t be what’s causing your fire to smoke.
So, what are these volatile organic compounds? They constitute the hydrocarbons and carbohydrates within the tree that sustain its life. Hydrocarbons are comprised of solely hydrogen and carbon, while carbohydrates also include oxygen. These compounds are volatile, which means that they evaporate when heated.
This is the visible smoke that is seen emanating from the fire once it reaches a temperature of roughly 300°F or 149°C. If the temperature keeps climbing, these compounds will eventually combust, ceasing to produce any further smoke.
This phenomenon is the reason why charcoal doesn’t smoke. To produce charcoal, wood is heated in extremely high temperatures without any oxygen. In the process, all of the organic compounds are burned away, but because there is no oxygen to react with and make carbon dioxide, the carbon in the wood remains as charcoal. And when you use it for a barbecue, the carbon is able to react with oxygen and produce a flame.
Most fire pit smoke is produced during the initial stages of the fire, due to the fact that the temperature is not high enough to quickly combust these compounds. Once you have established your fire, you should find that new wood added to the pile does not smoke for very long, if at all. Smoking only occurs as the new material is heating up to a combustible temperature, so the hotter the fire, the quicker that will happen.
The Hazards of Smoke
Aside from being uncomfortable, inhaling smoke from your fire pit can be hazardous to your health, as it contains a multitude of dangerous compounds. These include:
- Carbon monoxide – causes dizziness, vomiting, nausea, and at high enough levels, unconsciousness or death; also found in cigarette smoke
- Sulfur dioxide – irritating to the music membranes, and can lead to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and/or chest tightness
- Nitrogen oxides – symptoms of exposure include coughing/choking, nausea, headaches, difficulty breathing, and abdominal pain
- Fine particles – can settle deep within the lungs as possibly become absorbed into the bloodstream, potentially leading to further problems in the future
Those with existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, are even more at risk of injury from inhaling wood smoke. This is not meant to scare you, only to make you aware of how important it is to limit how much smoke is produced from your fire.
Smoke is a nuisance as well as a health hazard, so taking the time and caution to ensure that your fire pit produces the minimal amount of smoke is the best way to get quality use out of it.
In summation, use these four tips to drastically reduce the smoke coming from your fire pit:
- Only use kiln-dried or well-seasoned hardwoods. Green wood contains too much moisture so that the wood, when exposed to a flame, will smoke until all of the moisture is eliminated.
- Create a wood structure, such as the tipi or log cabin, that ensures that your fire is receiving enough airflow to sustain the exothermic reaction that increases the wood’s temperature to the point of combustion. The quicker this occurs, the less smoke that will be produced.
- Once your wood is burning, do not put in any more tinder or green plants, such as leaves and grass. Never put plastic, trash, or anything with ink in the fire because apart from producing thick smoke, they give off toxic gasses.
- Clean out the debris from your fire pit after every use. A buildup of ash and other debris can diminish the efficiency of your fire pit, leading to more smoking as the wood takes longer to heat up.
When building your fire, taking the time and care to properly set it up reduces not only smoke but also the time you would have to spend later tending to the flames. Progress your flame in stages, using the tinder to ignite the kindling, and the kindling to ignite the wood. And soon enough, you’ll have a warm, crackling, roaring, cozy fire before your smoke-free eyes.