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Is it safe to burn any kind of wood as campfire if you are going to be cooking on it directly? Like broiling a steak on a grill over the fire where the smoke and the flames will touch the meat. Can some wood produce fumes that are not safe?

What about inhalation? Does campfire smoke cause damage to lungs? I am in Canadian Eastern woods, so mostly willow, pine, maple, birch etc.

The other question is...the wood itself burns hot enough for cooking, so what is the purpose of store bought charcoal?

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    Your third question is very different from the first two as they concern health issue and the third is rather vague about use of charcoal. So I suggest you clarify it and post it as a separate question. – imsodin May 1 '15 at 15:41
  • Charcoal burns a lot longer and more efficiently-more heat, no flames (unless you drizzle fat on the coals), less ash and smoke. – ShemSeger May 1 '15 at 16:13
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  • We will burn pretty much anything on a bonfire, but you don't cook on one. Some of the stuff we do try and avoid is Laurel leaves because it's just unpleasant and pretty toxic to burn. In the house on the wood burner which we DO cook on, we use oak etc. Holly is fun to burn, it crackles like fireworks – Aravona May 2 '15 at 4:57
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No, it is not safe to burn just any kind of wood, because some woods contain toxins that have the potential to be fatal if inhaled as ash (poison oak, poison ivy). However, most wood found in nature is safe.

There's no such thing as smoke that won't cause damage to the lungs, smoke is a particle, your body has many levels of defense to try and prevent particles of anything from getting into your lungs (nose hairs, sinuses, mucus, coughing, sneezing), but they aren't exactly impenetrable defenses, a little bit of smoke won't hurt you, but avoid directly breathing the smoke from a fire.

As far as cooking over wood, while bad in your lungs, smoke can actually be very tasty on your tongue, of the four types of wood you listed maple would be the best to cook with because it will flavour your food as well as cook it. Best fish I've ever tasted while camping was cooked over a maple wood fire. Pine would be one of my last choices for a cooking fire, as well as any other soft wood, because soft woods burn faster and seem to release more ash into the air which ends up on your food.

  • Do you have sources for the detrimental effects of burning poison oak and poison ivy? – fgysin Oct 29 '15 at 10:26
  • I'd also add: any kind of wood that has been treated with a coating (paint, glaze, wood stain, oil, ...) is definitely not safe. Burning these coating chemicals is a particularly bad idea. – fgysin Oct 29 '15 at 10:28
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    @fgysin A simple google search gives you a plethora of sources. Have you ever had a reaction to poison ivy or poison oak? Just imagine those rashes, swelling and blisters inside your lungs. That is what happens when you inhale urushiol. – ShemSeger Oct 29 '15 at 19:57
  • I'm from Europe and have (luckily) never encountered poison ivy/oak. The most dangerous plant we get around here (discounting poisoning through ingestion) are nettles or brambles, both are not more than an annoyance. – fgysin Nov 1 '15 at 2:57
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You shouldn't inhale too much smoke. Everything which is (or used to be) alive is mostly carbon, and whenever carbon burns, you get carbon-monoxide which is poisonous.

Symptoms of acute carbon-monoxide poisoning are:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision

When you have these symptoms while spending some time near a campfire, get away from the fire and inhale fresh air. When you don't, you might fall unconscious. Cold CO is heavier than air, so it accumulates on the ground. That means when you fall unconscious you will likely inhale even more of it which could kill you. To prevent CO poisoning from happening in the first place:

  • make sure your fire gets plenty of oxygen - the more oxygen your fire gets, the more of it burns to harmless carbon-dioxide instead of toxic CO. Also, a hotter fire means hotter CO which raises up and dissipates faster into the atmosphere.
  • when you make a fire in a tent or shelter, always have an opening over the fire so the smoke can leave and doesn't accumulate
  • when outdoors, always stay upwind of your fireplace

CO is only toxic when inhaled. Food which got exposed to CO is safe to eat.

  • Yes, I notice that while returning after an outdoor campfire session, I feel dizziness the next day. Then it goes away. I will follow your advice about getting a hotter fire. Thank you – Kaushik May 1 '15 at 19:44
  • CO is slightly less dense than air (mostly N2 and O2) of the same temperature. The CO that originates from the fire will be hotter than the ambient air, making it much less dense than air. – Paul T. Mar 15 '16 at 14:26
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To answer the third question: Charcoal is basically wood (technically any biomass, but it's usually wood) that has had its water and other volatile components completely removed, leaving pretty much a lump of almost entirely carbon.

Charcoal compared to wood is similar to comparing distilled, concentrated alcohol to sugar cane. The charcoal burns considerably hotter for a given mass of fuel, and burns much more predictably. Because its composition is almost entirely carbon, it doesn't really create flames because there is little to create particulate matter, and little smoke for the same reason.

Because it burns so predictably, and sufficient temperatures are so easy to achieve with charcoal, that is why it is commonly used for grills and outdoor cooking.

Curiously enough, a lot of people speak of 'charcoal flavor' but that is actually not a flavor of charcoal. Properly made charcoal will not impart any flavor, as when it burns it releases almost purely CO2. The 'charcoal flavor' comes from impurities in the charcoal, or flavorings added specifically for that reason, or burned fats from the foot itself that are vaporized and attach to the food.

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Pressure treated wood is especially toxic, since it contains chemicals meant to preserve it and kill things that would destroy it. Never burn pressure-treated wood.

Other answers covered the rest pretty well.

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From a comment in this Yahoo Answers thread:

However, you don't typically breath in campfire smoke in concentrations as high as cigarette smoke, and it doesn't have the addictive chemicals in it either.

Campfire smoke is not an issue for most people because they are not exposed to it very often. However in parts of the world where people cook over a fire all the time, or where they light their homes with oil lamps or other open flames, they often have severe respiratory illnesses by a young age and have significantly shorter life expediencies.

Honestly, most through hikers do not cook over fires when on the AT. Most will use a liquid fuel stove like an MSR Whisperlight, or a canister stove like a Jetboil. Some will even make a DIY alcohol stove. Although the weight saving of that kind of stove are lost because of the decreased energy capacity of the alcohol means you need to burn more fuel.

Modern stoves are going to be lighter than trying to cook over a campfire if for no other reason then the fact that you can use titanium cookware as opposed to stainless steel. They are also a lot more convenient, especially when it rains and wood is wet.

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