For those preppers who live on a rural or truly remote property and depend on a wood burning stove or fireplace for heating their home, accumulating enough firewood to make it through the cold season is imperative, and might literally be a matter of life and death during a harsh winter.
Even for those of us who don’t depend on wood for primary heating, a good of stockpile of firewood can serve as a hedge against the loss of heating capability or just help make those wintry evenings and nights more pleasant.
But firewood is a deceptively tricky topic, particularly when it comes to sourcing and preparing it for burning.
All the varied species of wood, the obscure and completely arbitrary measurements and the sometimes intricate procedures one must go through to properly season the wood all indicate that an education is required if one wants to get the most from their stove or fireplace.
You don’t need to worry, though, because today we are here to help with an article all about building a good stockpile of firewood, no matter what you’re using it for and no matter where you live.
Keep reading to get the facts on firewood, processing, seasoning and storage alike.
Table of Contents
Firewood is Still One of the Best Fuels Around
Mankind enjoys considerably more control over fire today than did our ancestors.
No longer is a fireplace completely dependent upon wood, as many rely on electric starting natural gas fuel to feed the flames and can be activated, turned up or turned down with no more difficulty than one might control a television or any other electronic appliance.
For camping, too, one is no longer dependent upon wood. A variety of super efficient, super hot fuels for camp stoves and portable burners abound, and these tiny, convenient canisters can easily provide all the heat needed for incidental cooking and other purposes.
Propane fueled heaters, called salamanders, can even obviate the need for a fussy campfire during the expedition.
What purpose does wood even serve, then? Despite all of our technological advances, wood is still one of the best fuels for our fires in the classic context, capable of substantial heat output, long burn time, minimal smoke production and, best of all, excellent convenience and supreme renewability.
The same cannot be said about many fuels!
A Word on the Legality of Sourcing Firewood
Probably one of the most attractive characteristics of wood as a fuel source is its ready, indeed ubiquitous, availability. Trees grow pretty much anywhere, and anywhere you have trees you’ll have dead and dying trees.
Dead trees, handled correctly and processed with care, turn into good firewood. If you’ll bear with me, the point is you can find usable fuel for a fire quite literally just lying around on the ground everywhere you go.
Twigs break and fall off of branches, branches fall off of trees and eventually entire trunks may die and fall down or be cut down for any number of reasons.
For people who do not collect wood for use in a fire, this is either an eyesore or an impending chore to be added to their weekend yard work. But for people who are always on the lookout for good kindling or proper firewood, it might look like payday concerning their fuel supply.
However, just because something is dead it doesn’t mean that it belongs to no one or is free for the taking. Those dead branches and even entire fallen trees belong to someone, and taking something that does not belong to you, without the permission of the owner, is stealing.
We have all likely heard tales of timber thieves cutting down entire trees that don’t belong to them, but what we don’t hear about is a far more common practice- the practice of poaching wood found “adrift” from here and there.
Maybe it is a sizable branch that has snapped off of a tree thanks to a recent storm on your neighbor’s property. It could be the trimmings left behind by county- or state-employed workers trimming back trees along a highway or in the median.
Although it is certainly tempting to scoot along and snag useful wood that would otherwise be thrown away, it is imperative that you obtain permission from the owner, both for entering on the property and for taking the wood.
**Doing otherwise is ethically and legally wrong. Get permission, and then get your wood, no exceptions. **
Choose Your Wood with Care
It is true that any wood will burn, at least if you try hard enough to burn it, but not all woods are created equal when it comes to serving as firewood.
There’s a great variety in the species of trees out there on this big, blue marble, and accordingly equal variety in types of firewood, each of them with different characteristics. Differing species may burn hotter or less hot, and they might burn longer or shorter, providing a better or worse yield (in BTU’s) by weight than other, lesser species.
Other innate characteristics include tendency to emit smoke, tendency to spark, pop or sizzle and aroma, with some woods emitting decidedly pleasant fragrances that add to their appeal or help flavor food, where others will have neutral or mild aromas and some unfortunates even emitting decidedly unpleasant odors or downright stench.
To be clear, if you have a desperate need for warmth, light, or need fire for any other purpose pretty much any kind of wood you can lay your hands on, except perhaps wood that has been petrified, will burn so don’t think twice.
But considering we are going into this venture with the notion of amassing an effective, efficient stockpile of firewood, you would be well served to seek out a species of wood that provides maximal beneficial qualities while minimizing negative traits.
Check out the list of best and worst firewood below to help inform your decision. Note that there are many other species out there, good and bad, but the following ones represent a cross section of what you should look for, and what you should avoid:
Oak, like many hardwoods, grows in abundance, and various species can be found throughout the world. Oak is prized as firewood because it burns very hot, for a long time and leaves behind blazing coals that can help sustain an ongoing fire or easily restart it after it goes out.
It also generates relatively little smoke so long as it is well seasoned and most species are not known for creating much in the way of sparking or popping. Perhaps the only disadvantage of oak is that it typically takes a long time to season properly even in nominal conditions.
Hickory is famous for its hardness and has subsequently been used for all sorts of things, but most pertinent to our purposes is its hot-burning and long-lasting nature, along with its extremely pleasant aroma.
In fact, hickory smells so good that hickory smoke is prized as a key “ingredient” in barbecue and other dishes, and the condensed smoke is sold as the liquid smoke flavoring you see on the spice rack at the grocery store! Hickory is another low smoke firewood that is easy to handle, if difficult to process.
Black locust wood is prized as firewood for its unrivaled combination of extraordinary heat and longevity, excellent coaling properties, neutral odor and minimal smoke output. The only negatives we can truly level against it is its comparative rarity and the fact that it is moderately sparky.
In North America it grows abundantly only in parts of the Appalachian Mountains and a select few places in the Midwest, though species are common elsewhere in the world.
So long as you are cautious to prevent secondary fire hazards or keep a screen in front of your stove or fireplace you’ll be glad you have black locust wood stoking your fire.
Pine is an extremely common wood throughout the world, and as such it is even more unfortunate that it is such terrible, terrible firewood.
Pine burns without generating much heat compared to other woods while at the same time generating tons of smoke, popping and snapping all over the place with little molten globules of sap, or resin.
Pine also produces a tremendous amount of creosote which will readily build up in a stove’s flue or a house’s chimney, setting the stage for a devastating accidental chimney fire. Accordingly, many people won’t burn pine at all in a residential setting, saving it for outdoor use only.
Elm is very much like pine when it comes to burning characteristics, being smoky and relatively low heat output although it sparks much less than pine. It is also known for having a short lifespan, though it does leave behind decent enough coals.
Elm is rightly infamous for its punky, strange odor, but the tree is also known to absorb odor directly from its growing environment, so if you ever make the mistake of burning an elm tree that was planted near a bog, swamp or retention pond you will have cause to regret the stench that will haunt your house ever after.
Aspen flat out sucks as firewood: Low heat, low lifespan, moderate sparking and high smoke output. You can burn it if you are desperate but it has very little in the way of redeeming qualities except that it can burn at all.
If you have any other choice whatsoever, pick a different wood, even pine, though aspen has an edge over pine in an indoor setting because it does not generate as much creosote.
Caution: Sourcing your firewood from out of state or even significantly out of your local region is typically frowned upon, if not outright illegal, due to the risk of contaminating local trees and ecosystems with insects and diseases from elsewhere.
If you are considering procuring firewood outside your county or neighboring counties, it is best to inquire with local regulatory bodies or, barring that, a prominent seller of firewood to ensure you don’t run afoul of any laws.
From Tree to Fireplace: Processing Your Wood to an Appropriate Size
If you’re going to stockpile wood for use as firewood, you’ll want to standardize and organize it, and that means the wood needs to be processed for best results.
Sure, you can build and maintain a fire using wood in its naturally occurring shape, from twig to log, but that is going to be inefficient and very difficult to reliably control over time. That is the opposite of what we need when we are burning wood in a stove or fireplace!
Naturally, it stands to reason that our wood must be processed, from a standing, live tree all the way down to a useful stick or stave that is a couple inches wide and anywhere from 12 to 16 inches long.
This will make them easy to stack, easy to manage, and provide us with a more or less reliable “unit” of fuel so that we may adjust our heat and the runtime of our fire accordingly.
Also important, firewood must be dried, or seasoned, if you want to get the most heat, longest life and best control out of it while minimizing smoke generation. Wood that is intact with bark still attached and core concealed takes a long, long time to dry out. Splitting the wood and revealing the inner fibers and core greatly accelerates the process.
We will talk a lot more about seasoning in the next section, but for now let us go over the tools you’ll need for dropping a tree, cutting the limbs off, sectioning the trunk and then reducing those sections to useful sticks or staves of firewood.
The axe is an ancient and indelibly useful tool. With an axe alone you can set out to your target tree, drop it in place, knock all the limbs off, section the trunk, and then start about the long, hard work of splitting those sections.
While it is true that other tools might be better optimized for any one of those particular tasks, only the acts can do them all at least passively well, and without gasoline or anything except good, old-fashioned human muscle power.
Axes are dangerous to you and do not suffer fools gladly, so make sure you learn how to properly wield an axe and strike wood with it before you go full lumberjack. Nonetheless, the axe is an indispensable part of a prepper’s tool shed.
The chainsaw is a ferocious and intimidating tool, but a major asset when it comes to saving both time and labor.
All chainsaws rely on liquid fuel or (more rarely) electrical power to operate and that means they might be useful only for a short time in the field away from power infrastructure.
More importantly, chainsaws are among the most dangerous power tools that anyone can operate, so proper safety gear and training and best practices is mandatory.
Even so, only the chainsaw affords an individual the ability to rapidly drop and process a tree into firewood in as little as the course of an afternoon.
Handsaws are available in a variety of sizes and are ideal for cutting off limbs or forks in the trunk of a tree that are difficult to access and strike accurately with an axe.
Large saws are also excellent for sectioning trunks, and everyone has seen antique images of lumberjacks using large, two-man crosscut saws for the purpose. You might not need a partner to handle your load of wood but a hand saw is still an invaluable tool, especially when you are out of gas or batteries.
When the time comes to get down to the business of actually splitting chunks of wood into smaller staves or sticks that are ready to be seasoned and then fed into your fire, you can save a considerable amount of time and energy over an axe by choosing a maul instead.
A maul looks sort of like a cross between an axe and a sledgehammer, possessing the sharpened wedge of an axe blade while backing it with a wide, flaring and chunky poll that resembles a sledgehammer head.
When you strike wood with a maul the result is a powerful blow that will easily sunder the wood into smaller sections, typically requiring only one or perhaps two strikes where an ax might require several to fully split the targeted chunk.
You can always tell the folks that either go through a lot of firewood every year or those who made a resolution to chop their own, by hand for a season. These people own power splitters!
A power splitter does exactly what it says on the label, and relies upon an internal combustion engine or electric motor to drive small logs or sections of wood into a fixed wedge, breaking them down easily and with geometrically less effort required on your behalf.
All jokes aside, a power splitter is definitely the way to go when you have to process many tons of firewood year in and year out, as the return on investment in time savings alone will easily pay for it.
“Seasoning” Your Firewood
I have mentioned several times throughout this article already that your firewood should be seasoned for best results, even though you can burn it green or unseasoned in a pinch.
Seasoning is not anything magical or esoteric, as it simply refers to drawing the wood out naturally over time. All wood contains moisture, and some species hang on to quite a lot of it!
Though woods containing a considerable amount of moisture will still burn, they’ll be more difficult to light, are likely to burn unevenly and will generate copious amounts of smoke. Unless you want to gum up your chimney and flue pipe more quickly than normal and fill your house with smoke, you’ll want to avoid this outcome.
The solution is to prepare your firewood well, well ahead of the time when you’ll need it so that it will be properly seasoned and ready to use.
The way to do this, at its simplest, is to process the wood to your desired size and then set it out where it is safe from rain and moisture but exposed to copious airflow. Depending upon your local conditions and the species of wood the seasoning process can take as little as 3 months to upwards of 12 months.
Since seasoning is an essential part of assembling a stockpile of firewood, you had better plan on getting it done as quickly and efficiently as possible before you need it. Processing and splitting your wood is the first step, but properly storing it is the next one. We will talk about that in the very next section.
Storing Your Firewood for Longevity and Best Results
Properly storing your firewood will do two things for you. It will help green wood season more rapidly and more completely and it will also keep your seasoned firewood intact and usable so it is there when you need it. Half the battle when it comes to amassing a stockpile of firewood is processing it, but the other half is storing it.
Read on to learn about the four most essential factors for successful storage:
Off the Ground
When we are storing our firewood for seasoning, we are trying to leach all of the moisture out of it that we can.
Wood is porous, and absorbs moisture easily, so leaving it in contact with anything that accumulates water or contains a lot of water, such as the ground, means that our wood can actually suck up more moisture and slow or even halt its seasoning.
That is obviously no good for our purposes, so to prevent this firewood should be stored up off of the ground, preferably atop a spacer or rack that will not hold or transmit any moisture on its own.
Some people use a “sacrificial” first layer of logs or pieces left on the ground for this purpose, but moisture can be transmitted from one piece of wood to the other in very damp or wet conditions, so your mileage may vary.
Lots of Air
The most important element for rapid seasoning is plenty of exposure to airflow. This means our firewood should be stored out in the open with space between each piece of wood that will allow the breeze to move under, over, around and through the pile.
Paying attention and carefully sizing your firewood when processing it will allow you to stack it in a uniform and efficient way that will still promote good circulation of air.
It is possible to season wood in a shed or other enclosed space but it will take much longer than it would normally if the same amount of wood was left outdoors, assuming of course you can keep water off of it. See the next entry for details.
We want to keep our wood pile outside where it can get plenty of air, but we also want to keep excess moisture and water off of it no matter what. There is only one thing to do, and that is cover it.
There are many ways to cover your wood pile, from the old, trusty standby of a tarp weighed down with rocks to actually constructing a purpose-made overhead cover. Both will work, but if you are serious about stockpiling wood you should look to the latter option.
An open roof or shade over your pile will maximize air flow and will still keep all but the hardest driven rain from reaching your pile. In the event of bad weather, you can always cover your wood pile with a tarp in addition.
There’s also makes your life easier when it is time to grab wood for the fire since you won’t have to unlimber an annoying tarp to get to it. Just load and go!
Away from Your Home and Garage
Since we are talking about it, when it comes time to cover your wood pile don’t give into the temptation to locate it right up against your house so it has some protection from the eaves or stash it along one wall inside your garage.
Why? Because your precious pile of firewood is the equivalent of a vacation condo for all kinds of critters- mammal, reptile and insectoid alike!
There is no other way to say it: Your pile of firewood is a haven for creatures, and can serve as a self-contained ecosystem in micro for mice, rats, snakes, ants, bees, wasps, beetles, fungi and, most worryingly, termites.
If you don’t want any of these critters making their way into, or dining upon, your home you need to keep your wood pile away from the house and out of the garage.
Trust me, if you give in to the temptation to do so it won’t be long before you regret that decision. The first time you see a rat snake scurrying across your living room floor in search of dinner will probably be the last!
Lastly, think “Safety”
One more thing to keep in mind. A stockpile of wood, especially one that is packed or stacked haphazardly, can be a substantial safety risk to pets and children, and if it is stacked very high it can endanger adults.
A cord of wood can weigh well over a ton, meaning anything that bumps into it or pushes it could knock it over with tragic results.
Also, many of the snakes, spiders and other insects that typically inhabit a stockpile of firewood that we mentioned previously compose a bite or sting risk for children and pets alike.
Keep your kiddos and furry friends away from your wood pile and take care when placing and stacking it so that it does not pose a hazard.
Your Firewood will Not Persist Indefinitely!
Note that while seasoning is the name of the game when it comes to prepping your stockpile of firewood, your firewood will not last forever just because it is completely dried out.
Organic matter is always on a one-way trajectory towards decay and dissolution. Your firewood is no different.
Firewood is often targeted by termites, beetles and other organisms that will feed upon it or make their nests within it and this activity will significantly degrade it over time all the while.
Likewise, rot, fungus and other wood-borne maladies will do the same thing. No matter how hard you try to take care of your collected firewood it will decay over time. That is just the way it is.
For that reason it is not wise to go out and buy or otherwise procure some enormous quantity of firewood that you have no hope of using before it rots away to nothing.
Make no mistake, it is always a good thing to have a surplus in case you run into times where your consumption is heavier than usual or the cold season lasts longer than forecasted but that isn’t what I’m talking about.
If you lose your supply or part of your supply to rot or other loss you will have wasted time, money and energy, and we should all try to avoid that, right?
In the next section I will cover how to determine the quantity of wood you’ll need based on your specific circumstances and you can use this to inform your acquisition strategy.
How Much Firewood Do You Need for the Cold Months?
Determining how much firewood is needed to get you through a cold season is sort of tricky business.
There are many variables, and not for nothing the process is complicated by the obtuse and archaic units of measure that apply to firewood. A quantity of firewood is measured by two units: full cords and face cords.
A full cord of wood measures 128 cubic feet, including wood, bark and airspace when the wood is stacked together neatly. If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty the actual payload of wood in a cord probably tallies anywhere between 80 and 100 cubic feet.
A face cord of wood is simply 1/3 of a full cord, nominally coming out to a stack of wood that measures 4 by 8 feet and tallies 42 ½ cubic feet of wood.
Okay, so that is decidedly not very helpful. But wait, we must also consider what kind of wood we have stockpiled.
If you’ll remember every species of wood has significant differences and its burning characteristics, and you will need a lot more of one kind of wood that burns comparatively cool and for a short time then you will one that burns blazing hot for a long time.
Further complicating matters is your usage tempo and local conditions. If you run your fireplace or stove only periodically thanks to experiencing mild winters, you’ll need a lot less wood than someone who is running their fireplace or stove most of the day and all night month after month.
There is no true guideline that you can rely on to calculate how much wood your house will need to stay toasty through the cold months but there are some tips, tricks and guidelines that can inform your initial acquisition if you are new to using wood for heat.
In an average home experiencing an average winter, plan on needing three cords of wood per thousand square feet in your home.
Again, this is highly variable and it does err on the side of surplus but this rule of thumb seems to work better than most when it comes to establishing an initial figure to strive for when accumulating your stockpile of firewood.
Consider the following to further help refine your estimate until you get a handle on how much wood your home will require:
Ask neighbors and other people in your immediate area who rely on wood for heat how much they use during the cold season. Also consider asking local, popular firewood sellers.
When in doubt, you’ll always get good information when you turn to people who have previously done what you are setting out to do.
Your neighbors might not rely on wood for heat, necessarily, but they might know someone who does and at any rate you won’t have to beat the bushes too hard in your social network to get in touch with someone who can help better inform your decision.
If it is not considered prying, ask them what kind of home they live in and other pertinent details that could inform its insulative value, such as the age of the home, how many stories, how many rooms and so forth.
Consider the Efficiency of your Stove or Fireplace
Before you begin to calculate how much wood you think you will need based on average estimates, it definitely pays to consider what you’ll be burning the wood in if you are relying on it for heat.
It is a well-known fact that a fireplace is extremely inefficient as far as heat sources go, with 85 to 90% of the heat generated by the burning wood going straight up and out through the chimney with the remainder left to inefficiently warm the nearby room.
A wood burning stove that is properly installed and serviced is much better, and better yet is a high-efficiency stove that aims to provide a more complete burn of the wood used to fuel it.
All things being equal, a high efficiency stove will use far less fuel to accomplish the same amount of heating, a standard wood burning stove will use more and a fireplace will use drastically more. Purchase accordingly.
Always Aim for Too Much Instead of Too Little
As with all things, it is invariably better to have too much of a needed resource instead of too little. If you are truly dependent on firewood for heat, running out in the middle of winter could make your life plumb miserable, or even prove deadly.
Even if you don’t truly rely on your fireplace or wood stove for heat, running out of firewood means you’ll have to resort to expensive pre-seasoned or prepackaged wood that you could have saved a fortune on had you stockpiled enough yourself.
Despite all of our advances in modern technology wood continues to serve as an excellent fuel for our fires wherever we build them.
Adaptable, renewable, efficient and affordable, a wood-fueled fire will keep our bodies and our houses warm, give us light to see by and also provide an indelible and cheerful link to bygone eras.
You’ll be able to keep your fire stoked, roaring and comforting all through the cold season if you have stockpiled enough firewood for the task, and using the tips and techniques provided in this guide you are sure to succeed.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.