How To Make A Smokeless Campfire

how to make a smoke free campfire

There’s an old saying “There’s No Smoke Without Fire”, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer through campfire smoke. Think of all the campfires that have blown smoke into your face. You probably accepted the smoke as a minor inconvenience, but you shouldn’t have to. That black foul smelling smoke could have easily been avoided if you knew how to properly build a fire and season your firewood.

How do you make a campfire smokeless? Campfire smokes comes from incomplete combustion of the fuel source (aka firewood). This is due to lack of oxygen in the fire or burning wet improperly seasoned firewood. Solving these two common problems will increase the temperature of your fire and eliminate the vast majority of campfire smoke.

Building a smokeless campfire is easy, but you need to know how to properly season your firewood and know how to increase the oxygen level in your firepit. You can learn how to increase the oxygen in your fire in minutes, but it can take a long time to season your firewood.

In the rest of this post I’ll explain how to eliminate smoke from your fire and give you a few tips to increase the temperature of your fire so you reach complete combustion (no more smoke).

How To Make A Smoke Free Campfire

Making a campfire smokeless is easier said than done. You can’t just build a fire with any random piece of wood you pick up and hope for the best. It takes months of prep work seasoning split firewood or knowing how to find already seasoned branches in the woods.

A perfectly built fire in a smokeless fire ring will still produce black smoke if you’re using wet and improperly seasoned wood. There are 3 steps you need to take to build a smokeless fire. I’ll go over each step in detail below but let’s list them out for you.

  • Increase The Oxygen Level: Increasing the oxygen level in the fire will make the fire hotter allowing the fuel source to go through complete combustion. Incomplete combustion results in two things: carbon monoxide and black particulate filled smoke being released in the air. Carbon monoxide isn’t a serous issue outside, but particulate filled smoke is what causes unpleasant smoky fires. It’s the result of partially burned wood that gets trapped in the rising oxygen and moisture. The temperature your fire needs to reach will depend on the moisture level in the firewood, but increasing the oxygen level will always reduce the amount of smoke.
  • Find A Dry Fuel Source: Moisture in your wood will increase the temperature to reach complete combustion. High moisture content firewood may not be an issue in a raging hot fire, but it will cause a lot of smoke in the early/late stages of your campfire. Wet wood slowly smolders below the combustion point and particulate gets released in the air producing black smoke. You can avoid this by properly seasoning your firewood for 6-12 months, protecting it from moisture, and finding old dried out branches in a backcountry setting.
  • Build A Proper Campfire: Understanding the basics of campfire building will make a huge difference on reducing smoke in your fire. You need to find the right tinder and kindling to start the fire on the right foot and stack your firewood to increase airflow and prevent your firewood from collapsing in on itself smothering the flames.

You should also avoid building your fire with fresh cut “green wood”, wet leaves, and burning any kind of garbage (styrofoam, cardboard, plastic, etc.). All of those items will produce lots of smoke and the trash can release dangerous carcinogens. Fresh wood has way too much moisture and it will smoke while it’s trying to dry out.

If you follow those three steps you’re ten steps ahead of 90% of campers, but there is one more method you can take to reduce smoke. Smokeless fire pits are designed to increase oxygen flow through the firepit, rising the temperature, and funnel smoke up through the top of the pit.

I’ll explain a little bit more about smokeless firepits in the next section, but you can continue below for more info on finding dry firewood, and building fires to increase oxygen flow and avoid collapses below. Smokeless fire pits make everything easier, but people have been building smoke free fires without them for 1000s of years.

Smoke Free Fire Pits Explained

Solo Stove smokeless firepit with marshmallows

You can make your own smokeless firepit since some of the ready made products are expensive, but they all follow the same basic design. There are airholes on the sides and bottom of the pit to suck air in and force it through the fire. It’s like having a fan constantly blowing smoke up through the bottom of your fire.

I went with the Solo Stove 27″ Yukon Fire Pit at my house, because it seemed to be the best built smokeless fire ring when I was shopping around for them. They have smaller options at a fraction of the price and there’s always deals so search around for the best price. The 20″ Solo Stove Bonfire is a little bit smaller, but it’s a lot cheaper.

This is the perfect thing to buy used locally if you can find one. I picked mine up on Facebook Marketplace for $250 when an older couple was moving into a retirement community. There are cheaper options available on Amazon, but make sure you’re making a side by side comparison.

A lot of them are tiny 15″ pits with a single wall design that won’t force as much oxygen through the fire. If you decide to go that route I recommend looking at the solo stove clones that use the same basic design with cheaper materials. The Blue Sky 24″ Fire Pit isn’t stainless steel, but it’s much cheaper and works exactly the same way. Check to see if any of the listings offer bonus spark screens and fire pokers at the same price.

I ended up building my own smokeless firepit at my hunting cabin because I needed a bigger fire ring to accommodate larger groups. Look at the brick fire ring pit kits at home depot for inspiration. I went to rural king and ordered their 36″ fire ring and bought decorative bricks and cap stones to go around it. Here’s how I built my smokeless fire ring, but there are great videos on youtube you can reference for a better idea.

  1. Drill Your Fire Ring: Take a drill with a 3″ bit and drill a ring of holes around the top of your fire ring.
  2. Fill The Ring With Lave Rocks: Fill the bottom of the pit with lava rocks so they won’t explode in the fire. Some people use regular gravel to save money, but a bag of lava rocks is only like $25 so it’s not that much more expensive to do it the right way.
  3. Add A 2-3″ Air Ring: Leave a 2-3″ gap around your fire ring to allow air to get into the center ring. This will bring air into the surrounding area heat it up and force the air through the drilled out holes. It’s almost like a leaf blower forcing the surrounding heated air through a tight hole and blowing through the fire.
  4. Fill Your Bottom Brick Row With A Gap: Start off by placing the bricks down on your bottom row like you normally would to get an idea of how big your ring needs to be. Once you have a general idea it’s time to remove 3 bricks from the bottom row and spacing the bricks out a little bit leaving 3 gaps for air to flow in.
  5. Stack Your Next 2 Rows: Stack the next 2 rows up like you normally would without leaving gaps for air. This works like an air tunnel driving air up through the air gap and forcing it into the drilled out holes on top.
  6. Place Cap Stones: You should be able to buy rounded cap stones at any home improvement store or masonry yard. Caps stones block the heated air from escaping the top gap and force the air through the drilled out holes. All the air will go out the top if you’re not using cap stones.

A DIY smokeless fire pit won’t be cheap, but I think it looks nicer than store bought options and I was able to get a bigger ring. You’re looking at about $80-100 in masonry stones (maybe less), $50 Rural King Galvanized Fire Ring, $40 cap stones, and $25 for fire rock. It will cost about $200-250 for a 36″ DIY smokeless fire ring. That’s cheaper than other smokeless fire rings of that size, but it’s still a decent amount of money to spend on a DIY ring.

What Makes A Smokeless Fire Pit Smokeless? How Do Smokeless Fire Pits Work?

Graphic showing how smokeless firepits work

Smokeless firepits work by drawing oxygen from around the fire and forcing it through tiny air holes inside the ring. My college Physics Major days are long behind me, but I’m pretty the process is called effusion (look up Grahams Law of Effusion). Gases move away from places where they’re crowded and towards places where they have a little more elbow room.

Heat draws oxygen into the bottom of the ring filling up the air shaft. The air quickly heats up from the fire rising up through the shaft and forces its way through the upper pinholes blowing onto the fire. This forces oxygen through the fire, which increases the temperature, making it easier to reach complete combustion.

Once you reach complete combustion the entire fuel source will be burned releasing only carbon dioxide and water into the air instead of carbon monoxide, ash, and burnt particulates which is what causes black smoke. You may still have a hard time burning wet wood in a smokeless fire, but the increased temperature will get you closer to complete combustion.

What Can I Use For A Smokeless Fire?

There’s one key element to gathering wood for a smokeless fire. You have to find wood that has a low moisture content. Freshly cut green wood has a 60 percent moisture level, which is far too high to effectively burn. As the wood ages the water slowly evaporates into the air lowering the moisture content and making it easier to reach complete combustion.

So what do I need for a smokeless fire?

  • Tinder and Kindling: You need tinder and kindling for every fire, but I didn’t want to leave them off the list, because they’re an important part of every campfire. Start the campfire using tinder, small twigs, dry leaves, grass, pine needles, newspaper, cardboard, etc. Once that’s going it’s time to add your kindling which are smaller sticks about 1″ around. Get the fire going so you have enough heat to light up your main fuel source.
  • Seasoned Firewood: It takes about 6 months of summer heat to fully season firewood, but it can take up to a year in cold wet climates. The firewood needs to be split, raised up off the ground, stacked, and covered on top. The sides can be left open so wind blows through speeding up the drying process. You can burn wet unseasoned wood, but it will smolder at a low temperature producing lots of smoke.
  • Old Dead Branches: You won’t have seasoned firewood in a backcountry setting, so you’ll have to work with what you can find. Look for old dead branches that have dried out naturally, but haven’t hit the decomposition stage. They should look grayish brown with bark starting to fall off. Break the smaller branches for the fire and drape larger branches over the fire and let it burn through them cleaning things up as the night moves along.

It takes a long time for firewood to season and get to the optimal moisture level of 10-15 percent. You probably don’t have a moisture meter so running firewood through the eyeball test will have to do. Seasoned wood will start to fade into a grayish brown color, ends will crack, bark falls off, and gets harder as it goes through the 6-12 month seasoning process.

Another way to tell is by taking a piece of firewood and knocking them against each other. It should sound like a hollow thud instead of the dull whack of green wood. Smack a tree trunk and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

How To Properly Season Firewood

The seasoning process is fairly simple! All you need is time, a way to raise the wood off the ground, and a tarp to cover your wood. Just make sure the firewood is cut and split because large logs won’t go through the seasoning process.

Any firewood rack will work, but I like to use firewood rack brackets to build my racks. Just screw 2x4s into the brackets and you’re good to go. Building a rack by hand isn’t hard, but it’s so much easier to drive in like 20 screws. Plus you can buy covers that fit perfectly over the premade racks, and it’s easy to replace the boards once they start to look bad. Pallets are another option if you can find some for free.

Now lets go over the basics of the seasoning process. I have lots of other posts that go over this in detail so I’ll keep it brief.

  1. Increase Sunshine: Find a sunny spot to store your firewood pile. It should be close enough to your house and firepit to be convenient, but not up against the house to draw bugs in. Seasoning wood lowers the risk of bugs, but it’s not worth dealing with an ant infestation. Pouring borax over your firewood is a safe way to kill ants/bugs and it’s not harmful to humans and animals. It would be like if your dog licked up a teaspoon of salt.
  2. Get Up Off The Ground: Raise your split firewood up off the ground on a firewood rack or pallets. This keeps the bottom 3-4 rows off the wet ground and out of snow in the winter. It also helps with with ventilation in the bottom rows.
  3. Stack The Wood: Stack your wood up on the rack in neat rows 4-6 feet tall and a maximum of two rows deep. Taller piles are more likely to tip over so keep them short if kids will be gathering firewood.
  4. Cover The Top: Cover the top of your firewood pile with a small tarp to keep standing water off the pile. Rain on your firewood will dry fast, but snow and wet leaves will sit for months. The top rows will never properly season if you don’t cover up the pile.
  5. Leave Sides Open: I recommend using a 6×8 tarp on a standard sized firewood rack. It will cover the top of the pile and go down about 1ft on each side. This allows the wind to blow through the pile speeding up the seasoning process. The ends will get a little bit wet in the rain, but they’ll dry with 2-3 hours of sunlight.
  6. Wait A Few Months To Season: Most people recommend waiting at least 6 months to burn firewood (sometimes 12), but that’s somewhat overkill. If you split/stack your wood in the spring it should be dry enough to burn in 3-4 months of summer sun. It might not be in the optimal 10-15 percent moisture level range, but it’ll be dry enough not to produce smoke. The only time it would take longer than 6 months is if you try seasoning through the winter or if the wood was left in piles (rather than stacked).

How To Increase Oxygen Levels In A Campfire

Teepee and Log Cabin Campfire

Oxygen, heat and fuel are frequently referred to as the fire triangle. Heat starts the fire, oxygen increases the temperature speeding up the burn rate, and the fuel source (tinder, kindling, firewood) maintains the fire throughout the night. Increasing the amount of oxygen in your fire will significantly increase the temperature and reduce the chance of smoke.

How do you increase oxygen levels in a campfire? There are temporary ways to increase oxygen with fire bellows, and electric blowers (electric leaf blower also works), but your main focus should be on the campfire structure. Stack your logs so they draw air through the wood and up through the fire. Smokeless firepits work exactly the same way.

All of the classic campfire styles they teach in the boy scouts work in basically the same way. Start off by learning the basic Teepee method since it’s the easiest and then move onto the log cabin (aka criss cross) method. It may seem too stupid to work, but there’s a reason people have been building fires this way for centuries.

  • Teepee: The Teepee is a great place to start if you’re a beginner, it’s simple and effective. It leaves an air gap in the center of the fire to draw air in and up through the top. Start off by building a small fire in the center of the ring using tinder. Stack 1″ kindling around the flames in a circle shaped like a Teepee. Keep adding kindling to the fire and then switch over to regular seasoned firewood once it’s going. You can build the fire as large as you want. Just keep adding firewood around the outside ring leaving gaps for air to get in.
  • Log Cabin (aka Criss Cross): The log cabin is probably the second most common stacking style. It’s the ultimate fire for cold nights when you don’t want to continuously work on the flame. It makes a really hot fire since there’s lots of airflow and it collapses in on itself slowly adding logs to the fire. Place two sturdy logs horizontally as your base and two more logs vertically to create a hashtag pattern #. Work your way up with smaller logs making sure you leave space between them for oxygen to flow. Finally add a small teepee in the center of your base and light a fire.

Once you’ve built the campfire you will need to work on it a little bit throughout the need. Use a fire poker to move around embers so they get air, move and strategically place logs to open up the center gaps, and try to avoid letting the fire collapse in on itself. Keep building up and out expanding the structure with bigger air gaps.