I have many good memories of being around the campfire while Scouting, and then later in life from exploring Alaska, camping, and enjoying all the adventures the outdoors had to offer. Cooking over a fire is something I have done not hundreds, but literally thousands of times in my life and so the idea that this could make someone sick was certainly distressing.
Generally speaking, as long as you don’t have asthma or other respiratory issues cooking over a campfire should not make you sick. However, there are genuine concerns surrounding the safety of campfire cooking that are important to keep in mind.
Let’s took a look at the facts, fictions, and gray areas around getting sick from campfire cooking, what you need to take care of, and how to have many, many experiences around a campfire cooking away to fill your happy memories.
Let’s jump right in!
Understanding Campfire Smoke Effects
If you know you have a sensitivity to smoke, then you’re probably not the one who should be prepping a fire, especially during the early stages when there’s a lot more flame and smoke as the fire is burning. The best campsite cooking happens when you have a bed of coals, not when the wood is still breaking down and providing large flames.
There have been many studies on the dangers of campfire smoke and while these scientific studies are vetted, verified, and true, that doesn’t change the fact that some of these numbers can actually be misleading in a vacuum.
For example, studies show that common beach party fires put out the equivalent carcinogens from second hand smoke comparable to over 800 cigarettes, which admittedly sounds bad at first listen, and it’s certainly not great…but who is inhaling ALL the smoke from a multi-hour campfire?
It’s also worth noting that beach fires are notorious for having things like plastic, paper cups, trash that is brought with the partiers tossed in, meaning there might be higher harmful chemicals and particles from a beach fire as opposed to plain wood.
But this does bring up an important point, which is that even clean fires burning from wood do have particles that can be harmful, especially with extended exposure over many periods of time.
While this is unlikely to cause immediate issues for the majority of people, enough studies have been done that we can say the following groups can get sick from exposure to campfire smoke…sometimes even with just one.
People who need to be careful around smoky campfires:
- People with damaged lungs
- Auto-Immune compromised individuals
- Anyone with a combination of these issues
Most people aren’t going to be hurt by one fire, and as someone who has been around hundreds if not a couple thousand in my life, I can attest there are much worse habits, but knowing your health, your limits, and when a fire is most likely to cause irritation (in the beginning of burning fresh wood) can help you to navigate around the campsite and cooking time to minimize the effects.
Usually people who have a reaction or get sick from cooking over a campfire take in a lot of smoke, and by setting up the fire and preparing away as the wood burns and breaks down into coals, that helps reduce the amount of inhalation and thus the potential illness and nausea that can result.
What Causes People To Get Sick From Campfires?
So what actually causes people to get sick from campfire smoke or from cooking while camping? This is a good question to answer so we can get down to the bottom of these studies vs the many people like me with hundreds or thousands of cooked meals who have never had an issue.
The exact cause of campfire sickness are is: PM2.5.
If your reaction was “What?” then don’t worry – you’re not alone. This is a technical labeling of fine particles that come from smoke. The PM2.5 are the microscopic particles coming from burning wood that have negative health properties, especially when you are exposed to them consistently over long periods of time.
In normal circumstances this is going to be the main cause, which gives us clues on how to reduce potential problems around burning fires, but there are also other things to look at and be wary off and I’ll cover those as well.
Coals Instead of Flames
This is yet another reason that cooking over coals (when wood has burned down into glowing hot, and non-smoking, embers) as opposed to cooking over open flames as the wood is being burned. The time when you’re going to have the most smoke, the most air particles, is going to be when the flames are fully breaking down the wood.
Cooking over wood coals instead of open fire not only gives more control (and is frankly, almost always the right way to cook) by giving even heat across the grill and not have the active smoke that comes from burning fresh wood. While you may have to add some sticks or slices of firewood while cooking to keep some fire going, this will still provide less smoke and problems on a bed of coals than in the beginning when the first is being started from scratch.
Only Cook with Hardwood
One important rule: NEVER cook over a campfire using softwood (pine, spruce, etc). Any time you’re cooking you should only be using hardwoods. Not only do these burn better and create a better longer heat from breaking down into a bed of coals, but softwood tends to have sap, tar, or other additives that put terrible flavor on the meat in addition to possibly being toxic.
Never cook with pine, spruce, or softwoods. They’re good for cheap furniture and if it’s a life or death wilderness survival type of situation then
Wood Quality Matters
If you find yourself feeling queasy around smoke, check out the quality of the wood. Is it especially old with any signs of mold, mildew, or fungus on them? These could absolutely be the cause of any nausea, queasiness, or sickness that you could be experiencing around a campfire.
You also want to make sure the wood isn’t too green. Wet or living wood could have more potential issues released in the smoke than old dry wood. Older wood isn’t necessarily bad, older wood burns better because it should be dried out, but it’s all about making sure there aren’t any additives – no sprays, no fungus, no midlew/mold, etc.
All of these things can cause additional issues in the smoke. All can be hazardous to your health and in reality any wood that has any of these things will almost certainly be worse for a person’s health than just smoke.
This goes for old wood found in the forest. Mold, mildew, and fungus can distribute spores, irritants, and other matter in the air in a way that causes serious health reactions.
Beware of Woods with Special Unhealthy Properties
There aren’t many types of hardwood that have special properties or potential issues that might cause health hiccups around the fire. However, there are some that you need to be wary of.
One example is mango wood. Mango wood is great for fire, but you need to make sure it’s dried off completely. The sap of mango is highly caustic and can be harmful to people in all its forms – including in smoke. If touching it can cause blistering on the skin, you don’t want to be putting those particles in the air and then breathing them into the lungs.
Avoid The “Poison Woods”
The other is to look at the foliage that is growing around the wood you find. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac often grow in large clumps and I’m surprised how often people mistake Poison sumac for just a clump of bushes and vines. You do not want to be burning that stuff.
Avoid anything classified as Poisonwood, which can be very abundant in certain areas in the South in particular. These can absolutely make you sick from cooking on a fire.
Don’t Burn Driftwood On The Beach
While this seems like a good idea at first glance, it’s very much the opposite. What’s wrong with driftwood? It’s been soaking up saltwater in the ocean. That heavy salt soaking means when heated it produces chlorine as a byproduct. Yeah, that chlorine.
Not stuff you want to be breathing in. Not for cooking, not for smoking, and certainly not for breathing that contaminated air in deeply.
So avoid the driftwood, even if it’s long dried out. Trust me, you don’t want none of that.
Chopped Up Furniture Wood
Wood from old, busted, and chopped up furniture can seem like a good idea. That’s a way to get one more use out of something that otherwise is just going to the dump anyway, right?
Wood furniture has almost always received treatment from sealants, chemicals, finishes, and other chemicals designed to make the furniture look as good as possible and last for as long as possible. While that is great for the longevity of house or outside furniture, those chemicals get released when burned and that can cause you to get sick from the smoke of a campfire.
Keep all these in mind with the soft wood, green wood, and others we’ve already warned against and you will be in much better shape to limit the potential toxins that could make you sick from being around a campfire.
And if just being in a campfire can make you sick, you don’t want that wood used on fires where you are cooking.
Can I Get Sick From Campfire Cooking?
When the food is cooked properly but there is always the potential for issues. There are a few important things to keep in mind.
The first is to make sure the food is properly stored until it’s time to cook. Meat lasts on ice only so long and while you might be able to push the limits 9 out of 10 times without issue, that 10th time can make you regret every decision.
Check out articles like these to know what your working time limits are:
And plan out your camping meals to keep all of this in mind. The next has to do with preparation whether on an open fire or a grill, which is.
Charring and Soot
You should never eat food that is covered in soot or that has been charred. This is a situation where it is clearly not healthy to eat that food over the long-term. While it’s not likely you’ll get sick right away, there are many scientific studies or tests that have shown that charred food tends to have large additional numbers of carcinogens.
Some people are likely to react to this in some degree right away and nausea isn’t a surprising side effect. Over a long period eating a lot of charred foods or foods with soot on them and you are ingesting a large number of carcinogens and will make it more likely to see cancer or heart disease related issues.
So What’s the Verdict on Getting Sick from Campfire Cooking?
While food that is heavily smoked or cooked over a campfire should be eaten in moderation, if you use common sense, understand what to avoid, you should have no problem with either cooking over a campfire or eating food that has been cooked over a campfire.
If you find that this is happening consistently where every time you get sick from actually cooking over a fire, check your wood supply, get a physical to make sure you don’t have any hidden asthma or respiratory issues causing extra discomfort to your lungs, and enjoy more of the delicious food that I’m convinced only cooking from the outdoors can bring to you.
Other cooking articles of interest