Nothing beats a cosy firepit in your back garden in the summer. The crackling flames, the woody aroma – it’s an experience that brings people together and creates lasting memories. However, not all firewood is made equal when having a pleasant and safe outdoor fire. Certain types of wood burn better and cleaner than others. In this post, we’ll go over the best wood to burn outdoors in the UK and what wood to avoid.

Hardwoods vs softwoods

When choosing wood for outdoor fires, there are two main categories: hardwood and softwood. Hardwood comes from deciduous trees like oak, maple, beech, and ash, which lose their leaves each autumn. Softwood comes from coniferous or evergreen trees like pine, spruce, and yew, which keep their needle-like leaves year-round.

In general, hardwoods are considered the premium choice for outdoor fires. Here are some benefits:

  • Hardwood burns slower and produces more heat. It forms nice hot embers that give a steady burn.
  • Hardwood has a pleasant woodsy aroma. It produces less smoke and is less likely to irritate the eyes and lungs.
  • Hardwood makes nice charcoal-like coals. This allows longer burns with less frequent stoking of the fire.
  • Hardwood is dense and long-lasting. It converts more efficiently to coals without as much ash debris.

So, hardwood is the ideal choice if you want a beautiful outdoor fire that’s long-lasting, efficient and clean-burning. It’s why the best campsites always supply split hardwood logs.

However, softwood can also be burned in outdoor fires, especially if hardwood is unavailable or too expensive in your area. Softwood logs are abundant in many regions and cost less per kilo. Here are some benefits as well as tips for burning softwood:

Benefits of softwood

  • Widely available and more affordable.
  • Burns fast and hot initially. Great for quick heat and roaring fires.
  • Pleasant piney aroma, reminiscent of forests and the outdoors.

Tips for burning softwood

  • Mix with hardwood to help softwood burn slower and more consistently.
  • Chop softwood into larger pieces, which will burn slower and steadily.
  • Expect to refuel the fire more often, as softwood burns faster.
  • Be aware of increased sparks and smoke. Avoid breathing smoke directly.

So, while hardwood might be the premium choice, softwood can also be burned outdoors with proper preparation and care. For many, it’s a more budget-friendly option that still allows enjoying outdoor fires.

Top hardwoods for outdoor fires

Now let’s look at some of the best hardwood species to use for outdoor fires in the UK:

  • Oak: A classic firewood, oak burns hot and slow with good heat output. It produces nice embers and has a comforting woody scent. English oak is wonderfully dense.
  • Beech: Beech produces consistent fire with medium smoke output. The wood burns steadily, and the coals last a long time. It has a clean, neutral aroma.
  • Ash: Ash is easy to split and seasons quickly. It burns reliably with a steady glow and minimal smoke. The coals burn down slowly.
  • Birch: While not as heat efficient as denser woods, birch has a lovely fragrance. The wood crackles and pops when burnt, creating a serene woodland ambience.
  • Cherry: Prized for its fruity aroma, cherry wood adds a sweet, floral note to outdoor fires. It burns moderately fast with vibrant flames.

Other hardwood options

Beyond just these top picks, many other hardwoods can be successfully burned outdoors, including:

  • Maple: Provides hot fires and long-lasting coals with a slightly sweet aroma. Easy to split.
  • Sycamore: Dense, hot-burning wood with smooth white bark that looks attractive in fire pits.
  • Hawthorn: Traditionally used for smoking meat. Burns slow with good heat and a distinctive woody flavour.
  • Elm: Not the best heat producer, but valued for its beautiful twisting grain patterns.
  • Chestnut: Mildly smoky aroma, comparable to oak. Burns reliably hot.

Softwood options

For those who want to burn softwood, here are some suitable types along with tips:

  • Pine: Plentiful, but burns fast and smoky. Mix with hardwood or use small pieces.
  • Spruce: Also fast-burning and smoky. Best mixed 50/50 with hardwood for a cleaner fire.
  • Cedar: Very aromatic, so don’t use too much. Blend no more than 30% with other woods.
  • Larch: A hardier softwood that burns slower than pine with less smoke. Good for mixing or kindling.

Other firewood considerations

Beyond just wood type, there are some other factors that affect your outdoor fire experience:

  • Seasoning: Dry, seasoned wood burns best. Green wood is too moist. Let the wood season at least six months after chopping.
  • Size: Hand-sized logs are optimal for fires. Larger logs burn slowly. Split kindling is also good for starting fires.
  • Storage: Stack wood in a dry, covered area off the ground until needed. Protect from rain and moisture.

Avoid treated wood

It’s very important to avoid burning any type of treated wood in outdoor fires. Treated wood has been chemically altered to resist rot, fungi, insects, and other damage. The preservatives and chemicals used to treat wood can release toxic fumes and smoke when burned.

Some common types of treated wood that should never be used for outdoor fires:

  • Pressure-treated lumber: Used for decks, fences, and other landscaping projects. Treated with chemicals like chromium copper arsenate or alkaline copper quaternary. Burning releases toxins, so avoid putting it on the fire pit – even if it’s tempting after re-doing your fencing or decking.
  • Railway sleepers and telegraph poles: Soaked in creosote oil, a wood preservative that’s highly toxic when burned. Burning creosote-treated wood can cause respiratory irritation and is linked to cancer, so it should be avoided at all costs.
  • Tanalised wood: Uses tanalith to protect against rot and insects. Contains harmful chromium and arsenic compounds. It should never be burned.
  • Painted/stained wood: Chemicals in stains, paints, and varnishes release harmful VOCs when burned. Never burn finished or coated wood.
  • Plywood and chipboard: Bonded using formaldehyde resin, which can release toxic fumes. Do not burn any engineered wood.
  • Preserved timber: Timber soaked in copper chrome boron and other fungicides or pesticides should not be burned either outdoors or indoors.

To be safe, only burn untreated, natural hardwood and softwood logs and branches. When you’re uncertain about a wood’s treatment history, play it safe and don’t use it for your firepit – or any fire. The risks are not worth it. Instead, dispose of the wood safely at your local recycling centre. \

Burning seasoned and kiln-dried firewood

For the cleanest and safest outdoor fires, always burn well-seasoned or kiln-dried hardwood firewood. Here’s why:

Seasoned wood:

  • Has been air-dried for at least 6–12 months after tree felling. This reduces moisture content from around 60% down to 20% or less.
  • Burns more efficiently: Less moisture means hotter fires, less smoke, and longer-lasting embers.
  • Produces less creosote build-up in chimineas, fire pits, and outdoor wood-burning stoves.
  • Less risk of dangerous flare-ups or explosive steam from burning wet wood. Always inspect the wood for cracks in the end to confirm dryness.

Kiln-dried wood:

  • Dried rapidly using a wood-fired or solar kiln. Reduces moisture content to between 15-20%.
  • Burns clean and easy. Less smoke, sparks, and popping.
  • Ready to use immediately versus needing a 6+ month seasoning period.
  • Lower risk of importing pests like emerald ash borer via transported firewood.
  • More expensive than seasoned wood, but ideal for quick and efficient outdoor fires.

When gathering wood yourself, cut logs to length and store outdoors stacked loosely under cover to air dry for at least six months before burning. For immediate use, look for kiln-dried or seasoned firewood bundles sold by reputable local suppliers. Avoid imported or mystery scrap wood.

Following these guidelines for wood selection and treatment will ensure your outdoor fires burn hot, safe, and clean, while eliminating risks from chemical contaminants. Stay warm and burn smart!