Smokeless Fire Tips: Staying Safe in The Outdoors

Smokeless campfire
Daniel Carraway
Written by Daniel Carraway

When it comes to camping, you’re going to need the essentials. That means suitable clothing, plenty of food to get by, some gear to catch your own food, and a reliable tent to keep you safe from the elements. But you may have forgotten the most important thing: fire. It’s not only necessary for cooking your food, but it can also serve as a warm and inviting atmosphere to keep away the doldrums.

When you’re away from the modern conveniences of your everyday life, you may start to feel down and that’s the last thing you need when you’re trying to survive out in the wild. But campfires can create a lot of smoke that can hinder your camping experience.

That’s why we’re providing you with these helpful smokeless fire tips to help you get through your weekend camping or plan ahead for the long-term if you’re intending to survive out in the wild.

Benefits to Having A Campfire

Building a campfire from scratch is not only rewarding, it also provides so many benefits to you and those you’re traveling with.

Benefits to Having a Campfire

You’ll get:

  • Light: you’re going to need a source of light at night and you don’t want to use your battery-powered flashlights.
  • Warmth: nights in the woods can get very cold, and a good campfire can make all the difference in the world when it comes to staying warm.
  • Cooking: a campfire can be used to boil your water so it’s safe for drinking, as well as cooking your food. If you’re an avid hunter, this is even more important if you don’t want your kill to spoil.
  • Deterring predators: those that hunt during the night are less likely to come around your campsite if there’s a fire going.
  • Emotional benefits: the sight of a campfire provides a sense of security that even the first-time camper can come to appreciate. It provides a comforting effect that we can’t help but be drawn to, and provides the means for wonderful social interaction. How many stories and songs have been told and sung around a campfire?

Because of these benefits, there’s no reason not to have a campfire, but there are better ways to improve on its functions and make it safer for you to use.

What Creates Smoke?

Before we discuss fire and smoke, let’s check an old story that attributes smokeless fires a mystical origin. This story is the ancient Islamic story of jinn which also proves that smokeless fires have been around for centuries.

See also: Best Windproof Lighter: Don’t Let Nature Get You Down

If you’re not familiar with the story, you should know that jinns are similar to the demons of Greek mythology. These supernatural beings are believed to have the power to intervene in people’s daily lives and Muslims believe that Allah fashioned them from smokeless fire. This association is believed to give jinn their pure energy.

Now, to understand how fire and smoke are created, you must first learn the mechanics of fire. Fire is produced when oxygen interacts with a fuel at high temperatures and smoke is formed when there is insufficient oxygen to burn the fuel.

Campfire smoke

A complete combustion produces solely water and carbon dioxide while an incomplete one results in compounds of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen being produced. These compounds form the gas we call smoke, as well as char (almost pure carbon) and ash.

Incomplete combustion often occurs when a substance like wood or paper is used as the fuel. Wood contains water, volatile organic compounds, carbon, and ash; the hydrocarbons in the wood vaporize at high temperatures, thus causing billows of smoke. So, the conclusion here would be that wood is not the ideal fuel.

If you want to avoid this vaporization you will have to use a better fuel. The best example in this case is charcoal – created by burning wood to high temperatures without oxygen, charcoal is essentially pure carbon. Burning charcoal produces carbon dioxide an ash so, if you want to create a smokeless fire, charcoal is your best bet.

Smokeless fuels are another viable option. These fuels don’t produce visible smoke and last longer than charcoal.

Crushed anthracite

The most common smokeless fuels are anthracite and coke.

  • Anthracite is a hard coal, primarily found in mountain ranges, that contains between 91% and 98% carbon. It doesn’t ignite easily and produces a blue, smokeless flame.
  • Coke is a derivative of coal that is produced through destructive distillation. Coke contains approximately 90% carbon (the more carbon content a smokeless fuel contains, the cleaner the fire will burn).

Smoke is not always bad as it can be used for certain things, like smoking meat, but it results in a colossal waste of energy and fuel. And this is not something you’d want when you’re out in the wild, trying to get warm and cook your food.

Why You Should Consider Smokeless Fires

Although it’s much easier to just throw some wood and fire together to get a fire going, there are very good reasons for considering a smokeless fire as your go-to for serving your campsite.

Smokeless Fire

The process of creating a smokeless fire may be more expensive and require more time to prepare, but these benefits greatly outweigh these cons.

  • Remain unseen: when you go camping, you don’t want other people to know you’re around, and that means being as stealthy as possible. Having a smokeless fire means that there’s no smell for anyone to trace back to your location. Also, by burning a smokeless fire, there’s no soot left behind on the ground, and that means you’re not leaving behind any signs of your presence once you leave. It’s like you weren’t even there.
  • Eliminates air pollution: the point of camping is to get closer to nature, and you can’t do that if you’re making the air worse. With the impact of the waste produced by factories and other facilities, it’s important that even the common man does all that he can to preserve nature. Even taking the smallest steps can make a difference. By burning a clean flame, you’re not adding any pollutants to the surrounding environment, thereby reducing your carbon footprint.
  • More efficient cooking: if you’ve ever cooked food via campfire, you may have an idea of how long it can take, and no one enjoys waiting for their meals to get ready while their stomach is grumbling. With a smokeless fire, you have a more efficient method of cooking, as all of the fuel is being used to produce the heat you need. That means hotter flames, so you’ll have your food cooked in no time instead of having to add more fuel to cook your food for a longer amount of time.
  • Longer burning times: smokeless fires take less time to get going, and also burn for a lot longer. This further increases your cooking efficiency, as you can cook a lot of bulk meat at one time. That way, you won’t risk any of your meat spoiling and going to waste. And because it burns for a lot longer, you’ll end up using a lot less fuel at the end of the day, so you’re definitely getting more than your money’s worth with each use.
  • Fuel is multi-purpose: the fuel used in smokeless fires can be used in a multitude of other devices, such as your cooking stove at home, wood burners, room heaters, and freestanding boilers. So even though you may not plan to go camping for a long time, you can still put your fuel to good use at home.
  • Smoke is not healthy for us: Smoke wreaks havoc on the environment and the human body. The fundamental components of smoke are compounds of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen but the most dangerous one is carbon monoxide.

If you add an accelerant (gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, turpentine, and butane) the smoke produced contains chemicals such as: aldehydes, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, toluene, styrene, and dioxins.  All these will enter your lungs and your system if you stay in a lot of smoke.

So now that you’re aware of the great benefits that a smokeless fire can bring to your camping experience, how do you go about building a smokeless campfire? There are two main ways to create a smokeless fire. The first depends upon the fuel itself, while the second is a method of building a fire that helps to produce more heat.

Building A Smokeless Campfire

The main element of building a smokeless fire is the use of coal. Coal is created by heating wood at very high temperatures. The result is a fuel that provides a lot of heat but won’t burn, so no smoke is created. Whether you choose to buy coal from the store or to make your own is up to you.

Building a Smokeless Campfire

Image credit: survivalkit.com

Here are the things that you’ll need to build this campfire from scratch:

  • newspapers
  • firelighter
  • tinder or small sticks
  • charcoal
  • bricks
  • some water

First, you’ll need to set up your bricks in an arrangement that will trap as much heat as possible. Use at least two to three bricks to make some kind of stove, allowing for enough space for your fuel between them.

Next, take a sheet of newspaper and place it in the centre of the bricks. Take three pieces of tinder and arrange them in a triangle in the centre of your newspaper. Place another three on top of this so that you roughly have a star shape. Continue with this arrangement until tall enough but still steady.

Place two to three pieces of firelighter in the middle of your tinder nest and light it. Insert a reasonable amount of charcoal and you should have a fire going in no time. Add as much fuel as you need over time. The bricks will help to keep a lot of the heat in, making the fire even hotter so you can stay warm as well as cook your food. Do read our article on day hike checklist to be more prepared.

Above is a video that shows how to make a smokeless fire.

Building a Dakota Fire Hole

This is the second method that was discussed earlier, and does require more time to prepare. However, the process itself is quite simple, and once you’ve built your first, it will be much easier to build another one. Although a Dakota Fire offers all of the same benefits as a smokeless campfire, it does have one advantage: it’s easier to control.

Because it’s a fire pit that’s underground, there are much fewer chances of it going out of control and causing a forest fire. All you have to do is kick dirt onto it, and there’s no more fire. So how do we build one?

Building a Dakota Fire Hole

First, there are certain things you should look out for when determining where you should build your Dakota Fire Hole. You should avoid areas that are rocky or have hard ground that’s difficult to dig, are abundant in thick tree roots that require cutting, have wet ground or are near bodies of water, and areas that have soft soil or sand that won’t hold its shape.

With that in mind, you’re going to need to bring a sturdy shovel with you before you can get going.

  1. Dig a hole that’s about 10 to 12 inches in diameter, removing any soil and plant roots in the way. Keep digging until your hole is about a foot deep. This is going to be the main chamber of your fire hole.
  2. The second part is building your airway duct that will provide your pit with enough oxygen to keep burning. Before you do this, you need to check the direction the wind is coming from so that you know where your entryway should start.
  3. Dig a small hole that is six inches in diameter that’s at least a foot away from the edge of your fire hole. Angle the hole downward towards your fire pit so that it ends at the bottom of the hole.
  4. Add fuel to your fire pit and light. Continue adding fuel as necessary.

The reason this works so well is that all of the heat generated by your fire goes upwards to where you need it, which pulls in more air through the airway duct.

With this method, the flames are being continuously fanned, so they’ll never go out and will continue to burn bright and hot for as long as you need them. And when you’re done, shovel the dirt you dug up back into the hole and replace the caps of vegetation if they’re still intact. It’s best to return the land to its natural state so it looks like you were never there.

Other Smokeless Fire Tips to Consider

Whether you choose to build a Dakota fire hole or to build a regular campfire, there are some more tips that you can have under your belt to improve your experience while camping. Not only will these keep you safe, but they can help you in an emergency on the off chance that you do run out of the fuel you brought with you.

  • if you don’t have any coal, there are alternative sources of fuel you can use that don’t produce any or a lot of smoke. These include dried animal droppings, wood stripped of its bark, dry grass, small twigs and sticks no bigger than your pinkie, and squawk wood.
  • when using fuel, it should be between the size of your thumb and two feet long. Anything outside of these ranges won’t be practical.
  • your fuel should be kept dry at all times. The presence of any water will cause smoke.
  • your fuel should not have any ash on it. This will also produce smoke when burned.
  • always inspect the site where you wish to build you fire to ensure that it is safe and secure.
  • always keep water or other sources of extinguisher nearby. You can lose control of a fire very quickly.
  • clear at least ten feet of the area around your campfire of any inflammable debris, including your belongings.

There’s no doubt that smokeless fires are definitely the way to go when it comes to minimizing our impact on the environment. They do take a bit more time and preparation to get going, but they’re definitely worth it, especially with how much more heat you get from all your work. If you’re camping with your little one, check out our safety tips when camping with infants for reference.

In the end, the choice is up to you on how you want to create and maintain your main source of heat and light at night, but being aware of the possibilities and benefits of a smokeless fire should make them a no-brainer. Are there any other smokeless methods or tips that we didn’t discuss in this article? Please leave comments, and we may even add them to a future article!

Before your next trip, be sure to read our piece on basic camping safety to keep you protected.


Daniel Carraway

Daniel Carraway

Daniel Carraway joined our team last year. He is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.