Have you ever found yourself sitting around a campfire, enjoying its peace when it suddenly crackled loudly and startled you?
I know that has happened to me!
Why does a campfire pop? What causes some campfires to burn loudly and boisterously while others are relatively quiet?
A campfire pops or crackles due to pockets of trapped gas being released from the wood as it burns. How often you hear a campfire pop depends upon how much water and sap are in the wood, and the age of firewood used. Thankfully, there are ways to minimize campfire popping!
How Do Fires Burn? The Foundation to Understanding Why a Campfire Pops
For some, fire-making is an intuitive matter more than a scientific one. For others, like myself, understanding the science of fire can make building them far easier!
Fire creation and longevity are about three components; heat, oxygen, and fuel. When you apply heat to a fuel source and have an ample oxygen supply, you get fire!
Heat is what causes combustion, or the process of burning something. Typically this will be a lighter, a match, or a Flint-based striker.
Fuel is what burns and sustains the fire. The fuel is your wood, kindling, and tinder.
Oxygen is what keeps the combustion process going by generating more heat. How you build your campfire, as well as your elevation, can impact how much oxygen is available.
Once you have all three elements present, what happens next to cause popping?
So What Causes A Campfire to Pop?
As the fire is burning, the heat causes the wood to decompose. As the wood is decomposing, the cellulose within it heats up and breaks down.
Any moisture in the wood, whether water or sap, is caught in pockets of cellulose. As these pockets of moisture heat up, they turn into steam, the gaseous form of water.
This steam exerts pressure on surrounding wood, and as pressure builds, it cracks the wood to release the steam, which creates the popping sound.
How much a campfire pops depends upon a few factors, such as the moisture content of the wood, the age of firewood used, and how you build your fire.
The moisture content of the wood is the number one indicator of whether your fire will pop frequently. The more moisture present in the wood, the more popping you will hear.
The age of wood you use will significantly impact your fire, as wood that is green or freshly cut has a higher moisture content than wood that has been cured.
Building a campfire with oxygen flow and location in mind can also significantly impact the level of popping you hear.
Does it Matter if a Campfire Pops?
We’ve established a campfire pops due to a series of chemical reactions. The water and sap in the wood turn into gas, creating pressure that cracks the wood when released.
So now the question begging to be answered is, does it matter if a campfire pops?
Yes, and No.
There are two things to consider when it comes to why you may want to minimize popping in your campfire. Campfire popping affects the efficiency and longevity of your fire as well as its safety.
A fire built with high moisture content wood will not burn as efficiently as a campfire made of dried wood. The moist wood will be harder to get burning and will be harder to keep burning.
This isn’t ideal if you’re relying on fire for warmth or cooking a meal after a long day of hiking.
When a campfire makes a popping sound, you can often see sparks flying. Sometimes these sparks are minimal, and other times they are larger. The more popping, the more likely there will be sparks.
These sparks can be fine if your fire is contained in a metal pit or built in a pre-soaked area with stones.
The sparks’ from popping can be concerning if they are large and fly out of your intended burn area. This sparking poses a serious safety concern if your fire is close to a tent, camping chairs, or even dry grasses.
This unpredictability can be dangerous for anyone sitting near the fire, creating a need to sit further away to minimize your chances of getting burned.
Sitting further away can make it harder to feel the warmth and harder to cook your food. If your purpose is warmth and cooking your dinner, this creates an unideal situation.
How to Prevent or Minimize Campfire Popping
Knowing how to minimize campfire popping is essential whether you’re using your fire for survival or simply want to have a fun and safe camping trip with friends.
Test for Moisture Content in Your Wood
If your firewood was recently cut, exposed to rain, stored in an area of high humidity, or not seasoned long enough, it could have a considerable amount of moisture and sap.
Knowing how moist your wood is before starting your fire can help inform you how to build your fire best to minimize popping.
If you suspect you may have damp wood or need to purchase wood on-site, you can buy a relatively cheap tool called a moisture meter. While it’s not necessary, it can be helpful when purchasing wood that hasn’t been stored indoors.
The wood with the lowest moisture content is kiln-dried firewood. Kiln drying is a process that effectively removes moisture from the wood while preventing damage to the wood. If you can bring wood to your site, this is the best option for minimal popping.
Look for Aged Firewood Rather Than Fresh Ones
The wood with the most moisture content will always be fresh from the tree, known as greenwood. Wood that has just been cut will have a high sap content and can have a moisture content well over 100 percent!
The percentage of water in wood refers to the amount of water in the wood as opposed to dry matter in the wood.
If you purchase wood that hasn’t been aged, it will have a higher moisture content because aging, or curing, is a process that allows the wood to dry out slowly over time. Aging can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to complete!
Firewood that has been adequately seasoned generally has moisture of 20 percent or less.
If you don’t have firewood when you’re camping, look for fallen trees and branches. These have a better chance of having less moisture, especially if you can find some that appear to have been down for some time.
Dry Out Moist Firewood
There is an excellent way to dry out your firewood if it is wet or simply moister than is preferable, and you have no other options. All you need is a firestarter and some tinder to get the fire started.
If you’re at a campsite with a fire pit, build a small teepee shape in the middle of the pit with a few pieces of wood. There should be enough wood to get a fire going but not a lot; we want this for warmth, not longevity.
Next, you need to take all your wet pieces of wood and line the firepit with them, standing them up on their ends. This setup serves to get them close enough to the fire for drying out, but not too close that they’ll start to burn immediately.
Now it’s time to light your teepee fire and let it burn! This fire will most likely pop a fair amount since your wood is wet. The sole purpose of this fire is to provide enough heat to dry out all the wood surrounding it in the pit.
You should be able to see steam rising from the logs surrounding your small fire. Once the steam stops or the fire goes out, you can use the wood you dried out for a much quieter and safer campfire!
Choose a Dry Area to Build Your Fire
Wood is highly porous, and as such, is susceptible to the conditions around it.
If you build your campfire on a damp site, the wood will likely take on moisture from the ground it’s built upon.
Searching for a dry area to build your fire can be helpful to ensure minimal popping. Dirt or gravel tends to hold less water than grass or leaves, making them a better option for a dry space.
Build a Teepee Shape to Minimize Popping
The shape you build your fire in can help to minimize drawing moisture from the damp ground.
A teepee shape is an excellent choice for minimizing campfire popping. A teepee shape allows for optimal oxygen flow, which is crucial if your wood is wet.
Additionally, a teepee shape minimizes the surface area of your wood touching the ground, so if the soil is wet, it isn’t as big of a concern.
Check out our detailed article on how to build a campfire if you want to learn more about the other steps!
A campfire can give us warmth, unite us with others and provide a sense of peace. The popping sound a campfire makes can be a soothing noise that indicates the wood you’re burning has water or sap in it.
A campfire made of high moisture wood can be dangerous in survival settings and hazardous to people and property. Kiln-dried wood is the best option for minimal popping, so go buy some firewood, start your fire, and soak up its warmth!