Campfires are the best way to spend a night in the outdoors. But if you’ve ever been in this situation, then chances are that you have noticed that this smoke seems to follow you wherever you go. Why does campfire smoke follow you, and what can you do about it?
Campfire smoke follows you because of the physics of airflow. The fire naturally pushes hot air out while sucking cold air in. When our bodies are near the fire, we are blocking the air from going out, which lowers the air pressure. This pulls the smoke towards us.
Keep reading to learn the specifics of this phenomenon as well as what you can do to prevent it when you’re at your next campfire.
Why Does Campfire Smoke Follow You?
Fires work by creating a natural vacuum. This means that they push hot air created by the fire upward, which sucks cooler air into the fire. Technically, in a frictionless world, this means that the smoke should go straight up into the sky.
However, due to the physics of airflow and our position around the fire blocking some of this air from leaving, it instead follows you wherever you move.
When you’re standing in front of a fire, you’re creating a low-pressure area where the cold air can’t easily feed the fire. The smoke begins to fill in this low-pressure area since heat naturally moves towards lower density areas (such as up into the atmosphere or towards an area where you are blocking airflow).
Our body heat also contributes to the air pressure around us. When you’re standing near the fire, your body heat increases the temperature of this low-pressure area and keeps it warmer than other parts of the environment, making smoke want to move towards its warmth.
How Do You Divert a Campfire Smoke?
It may seem like a plume of campfire smoke is determined to follow you wherever you move around a campfire. However, there are some ways that you can work with the elements and divert this smoke away from you:
Stand Far Away Enough From the Vacuum of the Fire
You can use the physics of fire to your advantage. If you stand far enough away from the fire, then it won’t create as strong of a vacuum and there will be less chance that smoke will follow you.
You will need to go through some trial and error in order to position yourself perfectly. The best spot will be far enough away from the fire so that you can still feel its warmth, but close enough where smoke isn’t following your every move.
Don’t Sit Down in One Spot for Too Long
If you’re sitting down around a campfire and happen to get stuck in one position (such as when roasting marshmallows), then your body heat will increase over time, which attracts smoke.
Regularly shifting your position or taking breaks from the fire will cool down your body temperature, which will reduce the amount of smoke that follows you.
Use the Wind to Position Yourself in the Right Spot
If it’s a windy night at your campsite, make sure to sit in the opposite direction of where the wind is blowing. This prevents you from positioning yourself “downwind” where the smoke will constantly gust into your face.
Reposition yourself as the wind changes direction throughout the night. If there are natural structures such as trees in a certain area, this gives you a clue as to where the wind will be blocked and how it will flow through your campfire.
Don’t Move Too Quickly
Moving too quickly around your campfire can cause a tailwind effect. This is when the smoke is catching up to you and following your movements. Keeping a slow pace will help prevent this problem from occurring.
Use a Fan
If you’re sitting near a campfire and don’t want to reposition yourself, you can always use a hand fan to create a little breeze. This changes the direction of airflow and will cause smoke to drift away from you instead of following your movements around the fire.
You can also fan yourself to cool your body and the air around you, reducing the amount of smoke that is attracted to your body heat.
How to Reduce the Amount of Smoke in Your Fire
There are many ways you can prepare before you build a campfire to make sure that your fire is as smoke-free as possible.
Prepare Your Firewood
Before placing any wood on a fire, make sure it has been dried out for at least one year before using it. If there is too much water, sap, or other resin inside of the wood, this can cause excessive amounts of smoke to come out of the fire.
Cut Your Wood Into Smaller Chunks
The smaller your pieces are, then there is less surface area for the wood, which means it will burn faster and more efficiently. This reduces the amount of smoke that is coming from your fire and also helps it to catch on quicker.
Keep Your Fire Smaller
The smaller you make your campfire, the less space there will be for any hot or smouldering pieces of wood to produce large amounts of smoke. This keeps more wood in a hotter state, which results in less smoke.
Avoid Using Small Debris in Your Fire
Small natural materials such as grass and leaves will produce a large amount of smoke because they are not dry enough to burn properly. Try to only use these materials as tinder for getting your fire started in the first place.
Avoid Greenwood Around Your Campsite
It may be tempting to collect and add any large twigs or logs you can find near your campsite to your campfire, but this can cause a lot of smoke. Stick to the same dried wood that you brought for your fire to create a consistent smoke-free environment.
Don’t Burn Garbage
Sometimes people use campfires as an alternative method for getting rid of their garbage by burning it instead of taking it to a proper waste disposal location. This can be very dangerous because it releases a lot of toxins and chemicals into the air, making your campsite extremely polluted as well as creating excessive amounts of smoke.
Use a Smokeless Fire Pit
Smokeless fire pits are double-walled cylinders that capture the smoke produced by a fire, which prevents a large portion of it from escaping. While this isn’t a perfect solution for a smoke-free fire, it can greatly reduce the amount of smoke that is coming from your campfire.
Do Not Use Charcoal
One very popular method for cooking at home or camping is the use of a charcoal fire, but this produces significantly more ash and smoke than other types of fires, which can affect people’s health if done too often.
Don’t Smother Your Fire With Wood
Healthy combustion requires a consistent flow of oxygen. This helps the fire to burn more cleanly, which means less smoke. Make sure that there are spaces between your wood that allow for the oxygen to circulate. This will avoid smouldering fires that produce an excessive amount of smoke.
How Toxic Is Wood Smoke?
Campfire smoke is primarily made up of fine particles and gases, and it also includes air pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic, and acrolein.
The fine particles in campfire smoke can irritate your lungs, eyes, and nose passages. They can also trigger certain conditions such as an asthma attack, stroke, heart attack, or other underlying ailments.
Some symptoms from exposure to the toxic gases and chemicals in campfire smoke can include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Coughing up phlegm or blood
- Asthma symptoms
- Chest pain
- Headaches that won’t go away
Children, expectant mothers, and older adults are particularly vulnerable to smoke exposure. Those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, emphysema, or heart disease are particularly at risk, as this in depth article from the Environmental Protection Agency explains.
Benefits of Reducing Smoke in Your Fire
Now that you know about some of the harmful effects of campfire smoke, it’s time to discuss a few benefits to reducing it:
Your Wood Will Burn More Efficiently
The hotter your fire burns, the less smoke it will produce, and the more wood it will be able to burn overall. This means that you’ll get more fuel out of the same amount of firewood, which means fewer trips to collect more wood.
Less Smoke Smell
Some people love the smell of a campfire in their clothes, but others can’t stand it. A smokeless fire will reduce the amount of odor that catches in your fabrics and keep your clothes smelling fresher for longer.
Campers Nearby Will Be Happier
If other people are camping near your campsite, they will be able to enjoy their experience much more if you have a smokeless campfire. This is especially true in areas where there are restrictions on when and how fires can be started during certain seasons of the year or at different times in a day.
A Better Overall Cooking Experience
A hot burning fire will put out a consistent amount of heat that will cook your food evenly and cleanly. It will provide some of the campfire flavours without overpowering it with dirty sooty smoke. This also reduces the number of carcinogens that will be released into your food.
The very mysterious concept of being followed by a campfire’s smoke really just boils down to science and physics. By reducing the amount of smoke that your fire produces, you will be able to enjoy a healthier and more enjoyable camping experience.
And if that pesky smoke continues to follow you anyway, remember the above tips and adjust how you are standing around the fire until you find the perfect balance.