Stockpiling firewood is a sensible precaution and preparation for potential power outages and longer-term emergencies.
Before coal, oil, and electricity, wood was our primary source of fuel, with dried peat and buffalo chips taking its place in climates and situations when wood was scarce.
If you don’t want to resort to burning feces though how should you go about building up your reserves of firewood?
Table of Contents
Not all wood burns the same and you want wood that will heat efficiently and store for long periods of time without rotting. Here are some common wood species that will help you determine if it’s a good type of wood for you.
One of the staples in many wood sheds, maple is a hardwood that burns long and slow through the night. It splits very well which makes it nice and straight for stacking and it burns clean, which means less smoking out from your wood stove.
Paper birch is known for its thin, delicate bark that is incredibly effective at starting fires, even in wet conditions. The wood itself burns with a moderate heat and it burns for a while since it is a hardwood. It has a relatively quick seasoning period at about 1 year or less if properly stored.
Pinewoods such as white pine, red pine, and jack pine are resinous wood that is valued for starting fires easily. They provide a reliable source of fuel that works in a variety of survival situations.
That being said, you do not want them to be the source of firewood for your home unless you have to. They are a softwood that is resinous which means it burns very quickly but only stays hot for a short time.
Due to the low burning temperature, you’re going to see more creosote buildup in your chimney stack. Not only do you need to feed the fire more, but you also have to clean your chimney stack more.
Equipment You’ll Need To Process Wood
Processing all of that wood is no easy task, regardless of the gear and method by which you’re preparing. However, the equipment you use can allow you to process more wood than you would without them.
If you’ve been processing firewood for a while, you understand the value of having a good pair of steel-toed boots. They protect your toes from falling logs and errant chainsaw blades.
Steel-toed boots are not a necessity; you could get away with a sturdy, hardened leather boot. Just don’t process wood in sandals or thin running shoes or you might have a problem at some point.
If you’re getting your firewood ready to be stacked, there is no doubt going to be wood chips and other forest pieces flying around in the air.
Eye protection is handy for chainsaw users in case the chain gets kicked back at you for some reason. It can be as simple as a pair of glasses or you can get the ones they use on construction sites.
Any time you’re using a chainsaw, or axe, or carrying around logs you should be wearing gloves. You don’t have to, mind you, that your hands will be sore and bleeding after a full day’s work. Using gloves can make your hands sweat a bit, but that’s better than your hands slipping on a tool.
Any time that you’re using loud machinery such as a chainsaw or log splitter you should have some form of ear protection to blunt the loud noises as you work.
Prolonged exposure to high sounds can damage your hearing later on. Most people use simple disposable earplugs, however, there is over-the-ear hearing protection that you can get.
Most people don’t think of wearing head protection while processing wood. While it may not be necessary while you’re stacking your firewood into cords.
Using the chainsaw or log splitter is a different story and is required by common sense to have a hard hat on your head. Chainsaws can come back at your head and a log splitter can cause a tree trunk to explode under pressure.
This is for the larger stuff and is a great tool for chunking up the wood for the log splitter. Gas powered chainsaws require more maintenance but can handle heavier jobs.
Electric chainsaws can do light to medium work and are meant to be used for short periods of time.
Heavy axes and mauls are the hand tool equivalent to a log splitter. They use their tremendous weight and human force to crack open large logs.
Using these tools can become tiring after a while but it’s great exercise and satisfying when you crack a large log open. Most people use them to split wood for immediate use in the wood stove.
While a log splitter isn’t necessary to complete the wood pile task it does make shorter work of it. All you have to do is toss a large log on the splitter and let the hydraulics do the work.
Safety is important here because serious injuries can come from underestimating the hydraulic press. Always keep your hand clear of the wood and blade.
Firewood for Immediate Use
If you need wood for immediate use, make sure it is seasoned as well as possible.
Yes, there are some species of wood that will burn even when green such as ash due to its relatively low water content and the oils it contains. However, it still burns better when it has been seasoned.
You can also burn green wood if you have a proper wood-burning stove and once your fire is hot enough you will be able to burn as much of it as you want. But, it won’t produce as much heat as it would otherwise.
Burning green wood will produce lots of smoke and soot so you are much better off using properly seasoned wood and you should plan on procuring plenty of it for emergencies.
If you need to use firewood immediately though, you are better off searching for wood that is already dead and dry. The best way to find large quantities of dry wood is to look for trees that are dead but still standing.
These trees are not hard to find, especially in crowded woodlands where some of the trees will inevitably be crowded out and starved of light so that they die.
In these woods, those trees can be selected very easily and cut down. These trees will yield plenty of dry firewood which once cut and split can then be used straight away without any further seasoning.
The reason for this is that dead trees lose their moisture content over time just as a live tree once cut, split and stacked will dry out over time.
The fact that the tree is still standing and at least to begin with still clad in its bark means that moisture from the ground and rain doesn’t penetrate the wood and moisten it and cause it to rot.
Be very careful when you cut these down, as the dead limbs and tops of these trees can be very brittle and may break off and fall on you, especially if you cut down the tree with an axe.
If possible, always gather your firewood with a companion so that they can spot the tops of the trees and warn you if anything breaks off while you are cutting.
Dead twigs and limbs can also be broken off of live trees, again, particularly in crowded woodlands where the lower limbs often die.
These can easily be broken off and used to light your fires and can even be gathered into bundles known as faggots. If bound tightly, they can be used as alternative fuel for your fires.
In fact they are particularly good at producing plenty of flames, which are useful for boiling water over your fire.
They’re also good at throwing out plenty of light, a useful feature of fires that is often overlooked, but very useful especially if your reason for stockpiling firewood is to safeguard against power failures.
The light thrown out by a fire can be very useful if your electric lights are out.
Either of these two sources of wood will be suitable for immediate use without any need to season and should you be caught unprepared knowing where to look for this good dry wood will help you out.
Firewood for Later Use
While dead dry wood is what you should seek out if you need a fire quickly, whether at your homestead, bug out location (BOL) or outdoors in a survival situation, a longer-term plan is to stockpile wood.
Yes, this can be harvested from dead dry wood but a better way than having to tediously seek out dead wood is to harvest living trees which can then be cut, split, and stored ready for future use.
The drying process is quicker with some woods than others. Generally, the harder and denser the wood the longer it takes to season but once cut and split to suitable size most wood will be dry enough to use within eight months to a year.
If all you need the wood for is fire, it can be cut and split, but if you want to stockpile it for other uses such as making a log cabin, furniture making or bow making, then it will need to be seasoned in much larger pieces which may take several years.
Hardwoods and soft woods are both suitable for firewood stocks, the distinction between the two is simple, softwoods have needles and are generally evergreen. Hardwoods are generally broad-leaved and will lose their leaves in winter.
Hardwoods tend to be denser, although this is not always true as in the case of species such as balsa, willow, and basswood. These generally denser woods tend to burn longer and hotter and are therefore more suited to heating and cooking tasks.
Wood Harvesting Tips
A chainsaw is a useful tool when it comes to harvesting firewood, but it’s by no means essential and perhaps in an emergency you will not have access to one, or at least not the fuel for it.
You may also find yourself in a situation where you may not want to draw attention to yourself with the noise of a chainsaw motor.
Whether or not you have a chainsaw, an axe or a crosscut hand saw, all can be used effectively to fell and process firewood.
The advantage of harvesting hardwood is that the act of cutting down a hardwood tree does not kill it. Rather when cut in winter regeneration is promoted in the tree and it will put out new shoots the following spring.
This means that you can return to that area in a few year’s time and harvest it again and actually the cutting produces a patchwork effect in the woodland landscape with varying habitats.
In a long term survival situation this harvesting and promotion of a varied woodland structure will work in your favor, these young regenerating woodlands are excellent habitats for deer and other game species which you can hunt.
For ease of processing don’t seek out the larger trees rather ones that are no larger than about eighteen or twenty inches in diameter as timber of this dimension isn’t difficult to process.
Much larger timber may yield a greater weight of timber but the time and effort it takes to process it will not be rewarded, especially if you are using hand tools.
The same time and effort would yield a much larger quantity of timber if you focused your efforts on slightly smaller trees.
Additionally, if you can find plenty of straight trees, harvest these as a preference to ones which are twisted or forked. These will be much easier to process and won’t present as many difficulties when it comes to splitting the wood for storage and seasoning.
Straight trees are most abundant in fairly dense woodlands where the trees grow close enough together to promote straight growth without too many side branches as the tree tries to outcompete its neighbors for sunlight.
Edge trees tend to have a massive growth of branches on one side where there is more light making them harder to fell and very knotty and therefore harder to split and process.
How to Fell a Tree
To fell a tree, you will need to make a few simple cuts; a face cut in the side of the tree in the direction you want it to fall.
This cut should effectively be an isosceles triangle with the bark of the tree forming one edge and one point facing in towards the center of the tree, that point should reach a little over half of the way into the width of the tree.
To check that the tree will fall in the direction you want, you can easily aim it with a straight line on the cowling of your chainsaw as you make the cut.
Do this by placing an axe head in the cut you have made with the top edge of the axe head held flush against the apex of the cut, and the helve pointing out of the cut, it will point in the direction that the tree will fall.
Once you have made this cut known as the face or gob cut you will make another cut from the opposite side of the tree.
This cut can be made with a saw either a chainsaw or a crosscut handsaw, you can use an axe but in this case you will need to make another cut very much the same shape as your face cut.
Your cut should come in slightly lower than the tip of the face cut creating a hinge so that the weight of the tree will collapse into the face cut.
Once you have felled your tree you will need to snedd them. Snedding is the process of removing side branches and growth from a tree. These branches, while they may not form the bulk of your firewood stockpile may still be very useful, ultimately beggars can’t be choosers.
When SHTF, if you don’t have a ready stockpile of timber, you may have to form the bulk of your firewood supplies from sub-standard sources.
Branches and twigs made from hedge trimmings, and whatever else you can find will be better than nothing, and it would certainly be a waste not to use them.
But, if you are preparing in advance the bulk of your supply should make use of the very best quality firewood that will make the most of the space you have available.
That means most of your effort should be put into processing the trunk and larger limbs, which will produce logs which can be split.
At this point you need to consider the size of your stove, there is no point cutting wood into 18 inch logs if your stove or fireplace will only fit 10-inch logs.
Transporting your wood to where it will be stored might be easier before you chop it into logs. This depends on how you are transporting it.
A vehicle with a trailer might allow you to transport large logs in one piece but you might have to resort to dragging smaller pieces back in a sledge, strapped to a pack or even much smaller pieces in a log basket.
Once you have logged your felled tree it can be stored as it is to season although the bigger the pieces the longer it will take to season.
Full trunks can be left to season as well, but these may take several years to season, although if you want to stockpile wood for building tasks as well as firewood you may have to store and season larger pieces of timber.
If you want your wood to season as fast as possible as firewood though the final piece of processing, you will need to split it. Splitting wood is a task that some find very therapeutic.
The principle is simple: using an axe, maul or hydraulic splitter, logs are forced apart along the grain, for this reason, the fewer knots in the wood the better.
Knots make the logs much harder to split. Some older trees may have nails or staples in them from other people, be mindful of this while you’re processing your wood.
There are all sorts of tricks that people recommend to help with log splitting, like putting logs inside a car tire, or chaining lots of logs together so you can split more at once without having to re-position them on a chopping block.
I’ve never found any of these tricks to make any real difference though, just getting on with it and practicing is the way to get good at log splitting.
Seasoning and Storing
Once you have split your wood, it needs to be seasoned, splitting it and exposing the wood fibers allows it to dry out or ‘season’ more quickly than it would otherwise.
The lower the moisture content in your firewood, the better it will burn and your aim should be to get the moisture content of your firewood down to at most 20%.
You can buy moisture meters for testing this but they aren’t really necessary.
Once the wood has seasoned to the point of cracking and warping it means that all the ‘free water’, (that is the water than fills the xylem and phloem which make up the wood – xylem and phloem are basically just tubes), has dried up and the moisture within the woods cells has started to leave the wood too.
This puts the moisture content at below 30% in most species of wood and well on the way to being ready to burn. The higher the moisture content, the more energy you will lose that won’t be put out as useful heat as the heat of your fire will be wasted boiling off the water in the wood.
Once wood is split, it needs to season for at least six months before it is prime for use as firewood. This will vary from species to species, softwoods will dry quicker and very dense woods such as oak will take much longer and might need to be seasoned for over a year.
If you intend to season larger pieces of wood such as planks or whole sections of tree this will take significantly longer and you will need to take precautions against the wood splitting and warping, as presumably you will want to use these larger sections for construction.
To allow wood to season properly and to organize your firewood store properly so that when the time comes you can take wood from your store without the rest of it collapsing on you, you will need to stack it properly.
While seasoning your wood should be kept up off the ground, keeping your firewood off the ground means that moisture can’t rise up into your wood pile.
If you’re moving a lot of firewood then using a truck and trailer might be your best bet to get it to the location.
If you stack your wood straight on the ground, you will find after it is seasoned that, while the top pieces of wood are dry and ready to burn, the pieces near the bottom will be rotten and will have started to decay from the effects of the moisture in the ground.
Even tarpaulins on the ground aren’t great protection from moisture, as eventually water will penetrate a woven tarpaulin, and the bigger problem is that stacking strait onto the ground prevents air circulating freely around the wood pile which helps the drying and seasoning process.
To make sure you get this free circulation of air, raise your stack up off the ground a few inches. I find old shipping pallets are quite good for this.
They are of course made of wood too so they aren’t impervious to rot or the effects of moisture but they are generally tantalized or treated with some sort of preservative so they will last for a while.
If you are rotating through your stockpile regularly, you shouldn’t have any problems with moisture passing from the pallet to your fire wood.
Once you have your layer of pallets on the ground you can start your stack, this is another good reason to have split your firewood first, the flat sides of your split logs will stack together much easier than logs in the round.
If you really want to store round logs and split them as you need them you can stack them very neatly end on end but make sure you don’t stack them up in big towers as they will not only be unstable but the air won’t be able to get to the cut end grain of the wood and it will dry slower and you will suffer with rot.
Split wood will always dry quicker though and can be stacked very easily if you split them in a uniform size and shape.
While it is tempting to stack your wood against something such as a wall it is always better to have a free-standing stack.
This way, the air can get to it more easily and it will dry better and if you don’t have a wall to rely on you won’t be tempted to lean your woodpile right against it which might cause stability problems later as you start to remove wood from the pile.
A neat stack of firewood also promotes drying as this allows air to circulate freely in the cavities between the stacked logs.
Your firewood should be stacked with the sawn ends out and the flat surfaces of the split wood touching rather than trying to stack bark sides together (as this will be less stable).
I would also never recommend building a log stack higher than head height to avoid the risk of wood falling on your head as you remove it from the pile as well as for ease of stacking.
From a safety perspective, these neat stacks that aren’t too tall allow you to add to and take from your wood pile without risking your life.
It would be a sad irony if your years of preparations came to an abrupt halt when you are crushed by a quarter of a ton of falling firewood. Traditional Scandinavian beehive shaped wood piles are not only neat but are almost works of art.
Protecting your Woodpile
The obvious thing you need to protect your wood from is the weather and moisture.
We’ve already discussed getting your wood off the ground to avoid moisture rising into it but you will also need to protect it from rain and snow, using a tarpaulin is the obvious solution, but remember you want air to reach the wood pile.
You shouldn’t completely cover it with a canvas or plastic tarp as water lost from the wood will just condense on the covering and run back onto the wood pile.
Again, if you are using tarps to cover a wood pile remember to leave the sides of the pile exposed otherwise it will take much longer to dry.
Bear in mind that insects can damage the quality of your firewood, so keeping it stored off the ground (while not a guarantee to keep wood boring insects away) will at least lessen your chances of a heavy infestation.
A wood pile might also become an attractive wildlife habitat for birds and animals so bear in mind that while they generally won’t harm your firewood they might harm you.
Hence, you may need to protect yourself by being aware as you take wood from your pile that you might encounter snakes, birds and small mammals.
There is almost nothing you can do to stop them moving in there, but do be aware of them for your own safety.
There may also be a time when you need to protect your stockpile of wood from other people who are too lazy to procure their own or in times of desperation.
I spend quite a significant portion of my professional life working in woods and forests and produce a lot of firewood and anywhere that public access brings people close to your wood stock people seem to feel that they can just take it.
Occasionally there are larger scale premeditated thefts, so just be aware and take a few precautions to protect your investment. Even a sign to say that there is a CCTV camera, even if there isn’t, is often enough to make people think twice about taking your wood.
Also a properly stacked and covered wood pile is a harder place to steal wood from than just a pile on the ground, hopefully it won’t be an issue for you but do be aware that it might be.
Stocking up on firewood is a big job, but as the old saying goes, firewood warms you twice, once in the cutting and once in the burning.
Wood Gathering Laws and Regulations
Wood gathering laws and regulations vary by state, with a specific set of regulations being rigidly enforced when picking up firewood on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has jurisdiction over all federally owned “public” land.
All of the state and national forest land firewood gathering laws and regulations listed below were current as of the publication of this report, but are subject to change by the government without notice.
The first step you need to take before picking up a single twig from the ground, in almost all circumstances, is to get a tag – or permit. No matter where you will be collecting wood on public land, the tag or permit ONLY allows you to collect wood from downed or standing dead trees.
Firewood gathering tags work in a manner very similar to hunting tags. Although you might not always be subjected to a gathering limit, each tag will usually designate a specific amount of firewood that can be picked up under a single tag.
A firewood gathering tag issued by either the Bureau of Land Management or the United States National Forest Service usually permits a gatherer to collect a half cord of wood at a single time. A cord of wood measures 4 feet wide by 4 feet tall by 8 feet long. A wood cord is also 128 cubic feet in volume.
Before paying for a tag or permit to collect firewood in a specific area, visit it first to determine if enough fuelwood exists to warrant the expense and possible deduction of a half cord of wood from your annual available allotment
Firewood is referred to as “fuelwood” on national and state agency websites. When researching the specific regulations for public land near you, search/read forest product guidelines pertaining to fuelwood to garner the most complete and current list of policies related to dead wood gathering.
Firewood Gathering Tag Regulations
The tags issued by the BLM and the forest service are valid for 12 months from the date of issue and are both non-transferable and non-refundable.
Firewood gathering tags are issued to individuals seeking to pick up wood from the ground for personal use only.
The gathering of firewood for resale or other types of commercial use requires a special permit from the state or national forest agency.
The tag or permit must be carried with the firewood gatherer while collecting from the forest floor.
Private land which can look identical to state or federal land (wooded, hilly, etc.) often borders a public park or forest area.
The tag or permit is only valid for firewood collecting within the stated boundaries. It is the tag or permit holder’s responsibility to stay within the designated area, failing to do so could result in fines or potentially criminal trespassing or even theft charges.
It is recommended to carry a map to the state or national forest or park at all times to avoid boundary problems.
Make certain to always have a valid tag or permit visibly attached to the gathered firewood when transporting it off public land. Park or forest staff can stop your vehicle and inspect your load.
Failure to present a valid tag, transporting firewood that exceeds the allowable amount per tag, or the collection of wood from an area outside of the location the tag granted access to, can result in fines or potentially criminal charges.
Tags and permits are almost always issued as a single use pass and cannot be re-used on a subsequent trip to gather more free firewood.
Permits and tags do NOT allow firewood gathering access:
- behind locked gates,
- picnic areas,
- recreation management areas,
- along pipelines,
- well pads,
- near park or forest buildings,
- electric line easements,
- at campgrounds (unless it is a small amount to make a campfire by a guest),
- or in wilderness and wildlife research areas.
Firewood is considered a “special forest product” just like seeds, mushrooms, berries, etc. Visitors may collect only small and “reasonable amounts” solely for personal use – like building a campfire to roast marshmallows and hot dogs, without a tag.
A limit on the number of cords collected by a single individual is levied on some federal law and may limit collection to 10 cords on an annual basis.
Some federal or state agencies may issue tags or permits with an expiration date. The permit becomes invalid once that date is reached regardless of whether or not you have collected the fuelwood.
Tags and permits can generally be secured by contacting the United States Forest Service, BLM, or state Department of Natural Resources agency that manages the land.
Prices for tags and permits vary by forestry service office or state park. The average price could range from as little as $20 per four cords of firewood gathered to as much as $25 per half-cord tag.
Typically only one tag or permit is issued to a single individual at any one time.
Designated fuelwood gathering areas are generally marked both on park or forest maps and in the forest itself. No longer used commercial timber harvesting permit areas are often included in the designated fuelwood gathering areas.
Firewood Gathering Rules
- A tag or permit typically permits the gathering of wood from any standing dead tree, regardless of how tall it is – except for the ponderosa pine in some locations.
- A standing dead tree must not have ANY green foliage on it.
- On most federal and some state lands, dead wood cut for firewood must not exceed 8 feet long or be larger than 7 inches in diameter.
- In some state and national forests and parks a tag or permit holder can drive up to 300 feet from a forest or park road on federal land to park, gather, and load wood – as long as you have a valid tag or permit and do not damage either the vegetation or soil. In others, motor vehicles are strictly prohibited from leaving a road for the purpose of collecting or transporting wood.
- Stumps left after cutting down standing dead trees are usually required to stand at least 12 inches tall.
- The use of mechanized skidders is not typically allowed in either state or national forests.
- If cutting down a standing dead tree, the tag or permit holder is responsible for making sure no part of the cut tree is hung up in another tree and creating a safety hazard.
Geoff is a lecturer at Hartpury College. He has been teaching at colleges for eight years and in that time has worked at some of the most prestigious land based colleges in Britain. He trained as a professional hunter and game keeper and as well as his teaching job he still manages deer professionally as a deer stalker, carrying out culls, guiding clients and advising on deer management strategy.
He has operated his own bushcraft and survival skills training companies since 2010 and has also managed outdoor and environmental education centers in Norfolk and Scotland over the course of his career. A keen traveler, Geoff has honed his survival skills in New Zealand and Scandinavia, he speaks fluent Swedish and has proven his bushcraft ability on many expeditions.
Several of these expeditions were on long distance trails in the UK to raise money for Whizz Kidz a charity that supports disabled children, Geoff has hiked over 2000 miles in aid of this charity.