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For me, the worst part of lighting a fire in the wilderness is the smoke.
Everyone who has used a campfire knows the smoke dance.
It seems as if the smoke always follows you, no matter where you stand!
And for people who are trying to be stealthy in the woods, well, a smoky fire is a giant symbol in the sky saying, “Here I am!”
Did you know there’s a secret to burning wood without smoke?
It’s based on a physics principle called “complete combustion” and you can use it to enjoy a warm fire without the accompanying black cloud in your face.
Why Do Fires Produce Smoke?
It’ll be easier to understand how to produce smokeless fires once we all know why fire produces smoke in the first place.
Smoke is a mixture of hot gasses and small particles1. These particulates can come from multiple sources.
A big source of smoke particulates is non-combusted components in your fuel.
Moisture, such as in grass or wet wood, can cause a fire to burn only a portion of the wood to burn. Instead, the hydrocarbons will vaporize into smoke.
Non-combustible debris can also contribute to smoke as they are vaporized by the heat.
This is called “incomplete combustion.” We want “complete combustion.”
Complete combustion is when there’s enough oxygen for the fire to burn all of the fuel available. This produces carbon dioxide and water vapor. No smoke!
In order to achieve complete combustion, you need lots of oxygen and a pure fuel source. Oh, and plenty of heat.
And yes, you can achieve this in the woods and by using the simplest of tools.
Why Make a Smokeless Fire?
Before we continue, you may be asking why you should even make a smokeless fire.
If you’re not one of the people who immediately go, “A-hah! That way I can elude pursuit!” then smoke may just be an annoyance, not a danger.
A smokeless fire is still a good thing, even if you don’t mind producing a visible smoke plume.
Here’s why you may want a smokeless fire:
Smokeless fires are more efficient
All of the fuel burns, producing a hotter fire you have to tend less. It’ll burn hotter and brighter. It’ll cook your food better, too.
Smokeless fires are healthier
Most of the dangers from smoke inhalation come from the particulates that make up smoke2. No smoke? Healthier lungs!
Smokeless fires are more environmentally friendly
Smoke is not just disturbing to you but also to birds, insects, and other wildlife. It can harm plants by slowing photosynthesis. And it can drift into other campsites.
Basically, a smokeless fire benefits everyone except for people who want to take a smoke bath.
How to Feed a Smokeless Fire
We’ll get into how to start a smokeless fire in a moment. First, you need to use good fuel.
That’s because low-quality fuel, no matter how you burn it, will produce smoke.
Anthracite and coke (the coal byproducts) are two excellent fuels, though you probably won’t have a bag full of anthracite with you!
Instead, you want organic carbon material that’s as dry as possible.
This mostly means wood. Heartwood is best.
Bark is an absolute no-go.
Dry grasses can burn without smoke as well, though you have to make sure they’re completely dry.
Twigs and small branches can work as well, if they’re completely dry. Same with animal droppings!
Smokeless Fire Methods
The standard ways of making a fire do not allow enough oxygen to get to the fire for complete combustion.
The following types of fires increase the airflow relative to the fire size and allow for a more complete burn, reducing or removing the smoke.
Dakota Fire Pit
The Dakota fire pit is a classic type of campfire that’s known for producing little smoke.
It’s also an excellent stealth option because the bright fire is below ground level!
However, it will take more effort than the other fires to build.
Here’s how to build a Dakota fire pit:
- Clear an area on the ground so it’s bare dirt
- Dig a circular hole in the ground, one foot deep and one foot wide
- A foot away from the main hole, dig a smaller hole at an angle to meet the main hole at its base
- Light a fire in the main hole as normal
The small hole is called a feeder hole. It draws in air to the base of the fire, increasing the amount of oxygen there and making it burn more efficiently.
If the fire is burning too hot then you can partially cover the feeder hole with a rock to slow down the air flow.
Upside Down Campfire
If you can’t or don’t want to dig a hole in the ground then you can try an upside down campfire, though this will not be as stealthy as a Dakota fire pit.
Upside down campfires are lit at the top and burn downward, which allows for a large amount of airflow to the actively burning portion of wood.
Here’s how to build an upside down campfire:
- Clear the ground of organic debris
- Lay your largest pieces of firewood on the ground, next to and parallel to each other
- Lay your next largest pieces of firewood on top of the bottom layer, 90-degrees to the previous layer
- Keep crisscrossing the firewood until you reach your tinder at the top
- Light the tinder
Another benefit of the upside down campfire is that it’s maintenance-free.
Fires go up quickly and down slowly, so this fire will last a long time. Perfect for an overnight campfire!
No-Dig Smokeless Campfire
A no-dig smokeless campfire uses an array of rocks to funnel air around for a more efficient campfire, even if it’s on the ground.
To make one of these fires you will need a wide, flat rock, and a handful of smaller rocks.
Here’s how to build a no-dig smokeless campfire:
- Clear the ground
- Place the large rock standing up with the flat side facing where the fire will be
- Use the rest of the rocks to make a fire ring
- Important! Leave a gap in the fire ring opposite the large rock
- Put the tinder in the center and ignite
A no-dig smokeless fire works by using that large rock as a backstop.
Heat bounces off of it and back into the campfire, improving efficiency.
That gap in the fire ring is also important because it opens a funnel for air to be drawn to the base of the fire.
Small, Stealthy Fire
Another method for building a smokeless fire is to build a very small fire and sit close to it.
You won’t have to set up any special gaps or feeder holes to draw additional oxygen to a fire if the fire is small enough.
Use pencil-sized tree bits and only feed the fire a few pieces at a time. It’ll still warm you, provided you don’t wander too far.
An advantage of a small, stealthy fire is that you can put it out with one handful of dirt!
The final method for making a smokeless fire in the woods is to use a rocket stove.
Rocket stoves have a combustion chamber and an air intake hole through which you can feed additional fuel. The rising heat pulls in replacement oxygen.
You can buy rocket stoves or make your own from food cans or cinder blocks.
Smoke is produced from the incomplete combustion of burning fuel.
So, to reduce smoke, you complete that combustion. This requires additional oxygen. More heat helps, too!
Also, make sure to use dry, clean fuel.
Dakota fire pits will blanket your campsite in smoke if you use wet wood or fill the pit with debris!
Finally, keep in mind that you’ll almost always get at least a little bit of smoke when you’re starting a fire. It has to build up heat to complete that combustion.
However, you now have access to fire-building techniques that can help you evade pursuit or just keep you comfortable during your next cookout!