Is Fire Pit Smoke Harmful? How Far Should I Be + Its Effect!

a small fire pit with wood burning and creating smoke

There’s nothing quite like hanging out at the fire pit with your loved ones to bring you closer. However, before indulging in this seemingly harmless pass time, educating yourself on the potential risks of inhaling smoke from a fire pit is critical.

Occasional exposure to fire pit smoke is harmless to most people. Still, those with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, pregnant women, kids, and the elderly should avoid exposing themselves to the smoke as it has compounds that can cause discomfort or worsen underlying lung/heart conditions.

This article will explore the effects of fire pit smoke on your health. I will also let you in on the best safety practices to observe when using your fire pit. Read on. 

What Are the Health Effects of Inhaling Fire Pit Smoke?

side of a guy holding a cup sitting on a chair watching a small fire pit burn and smoke a few feet away

Fire pit smoke is bad for you. However, the effect it may have on a person depends on a few factors, including the fire’s burning rate, the materials used to create the fire, and an individual’s health status.

The vast majority of people use wood as fuel for their fire pits. Wood smoke contains particulate matter and toxic compounds, such as carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), due to incomplete combustion.

When inhaled, those particles and compounds typically irritate your respiratory system, explaining why you might experience symptoms such as coughing, a runny nose, and burning eyes. You are more likely to experience these effects when the fire is just starting out since the wood is still burning slowly. 

Conversely, a fire that is burning hot is less likely to trigger those symptoms/effects. This is because the high rate of combustion significantly reduces the amount of particulate matter and toxic compounds in its smoke.

For people with heart and lung conditions like congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma, a runny nose and stinging eyes from inhaling fire pit smoke should be the least of their worries.

The toxic matter in wood smoke can aggravate their compromised respiratory systems, resulting in a chain of events that can block their airways or trigger heart problems. As such, if you have any underlying heart or lung condition, you should avoid sitting near a fire pit.

Pregnant women, children, and the elderly should also avoid exposing themselves to fire pit smoke. Expectant mothers might compromise the health of their babies, whereas the immune and respiratory systems of kids and seniors might not be strong enough to ward off the effects of smoke inhalation.

Does the Type of Wood You Use in a Fire Pit Matter?

It does. As mentioned earlier, smoke is a by-product of the incomplete combustion of carbon-based matter, such as wood. As such, the hotter the wood burns, the less smoke it will produce. Therefore, you want to avoid wood types that tend to be smoky. 

So, how do you know if a specific kind of wood has a propensity for being smoky?

It all boils down to one thing; seasoning. You should only use seasoned firewood in your fire pit. 

Seasoning is the act of splitting and stacking firewood to reduce its moisture content. You see, the moisture levels in wood are what determine how smoky and hard to light it will be. Have you ever tried to burn a wet substance? It is not an easy task to accomplish.

The same goes for your firewood; you want it dry and light, i.e., well-seasoned. According to experts, firewood can only be considered seasoned if its moisture content is below 20%. 

Seasoned firewood burns faster and hotter, meaning it does not produce a lot of smoke. This makes it safer for everyone around the fire pit. 

Nevertheless, you can’t just season any type of wood. This is because different wood types have inherent properties that make them safer, hazardous, or simply inconvenient for you. For example, seasoning softwoods would be inefficient on your part since softwoods burn out faster.

Additionally, woods derived from poisonous trees/shrubs, such as the Mexican Elderberry or Poison Ivy, produce toxic smoke that will instantly harm you. 

Therefore, don’t just collect any type of wood to season or use in your fire pit. 

The Best Type of Wood To Use in Your Fire Pit To Make the Smoke Less Hazardous

Seasoned hardwoods with a high BTU rating are the ideal types of wood to use in a fire pit. The beauty of seasoned hardwoods is that they burn hot and for extended periods, making them safer and cost-convenient.

However, fire pit hardwoods are not created equal; some have higher BTU ratings, allowing them to burn hotter and produce even less smoke. BTU (British Thermal Units) is the amount of heat a substance can generate in a given period. This means wood with higher BTUs produces more heat, enhancing the rate of combustion, and thus reducing the toxic effects of fire pit smoke.

The following are the best types of hardwoods to use in your fire pit. I have chosen them for their high BTU ratings plus they are relatively easy to find:

  • Hickory
  • Oak
  • Applewood
  • Birch
  • White ash

Please ensure to buy these woods from a reputable source. Additionally, confirm that they have been seasoned before purchasing. Doing that will allow you to create a fire whose smoke is relatively harmless to most people.

How Far Should You Sit From the Edge of a Fire Pit?

How close you are to a fire can also determine the effect its smoke will have on you. Sitting or standing too close to a fire pit can be hazardous since the hot air/smoke can damage the lining of your respiratory tract.

The rule of thumb is that if you can feel the heat on your face, you are probably sitting too close to the fire pit. However, that rule is somewhat ambiguous since people typically have different heat tolerance levels.

To eliminate doubt, experts recommend maintaining a distance of at least 3 feet  0.91m) between the edge of a wood fire pit and yourself. That distance is far enough to allow you to avoid being hit by flying wood embers while being close enough to allow you to enjoy the pit’s heat.

For gas fire pits, you can inch closer and sit at least 2 feet (0.61m) from the pit’s edge. This is because you can adjust the heat output of a gas fire pit, allowing you more control over how close you can get without compromising your safety or comfort.

Other Safety Considerations When Using a Fire Pit

Smoke is not the only thing to watch out for when using a fire pit; a few other things can quickly ruin your experience if you are not careful. 

Therefore, please observe the following practices to ensure your safety and that of anyone else using the firepit:

  • Do not light a fire pit during a windy day, as the wind might send sparks flying and start an accidental fire somewhere else
  • Do not leave the fire pit unattended
  • Keep water nearby for extinguishing flames in case of an emergency
  • Drink responsibly around the fire pit
  • Do not have your fire pit too close to buildings or trees


Most people should be able to enjoy an outing at the fire pit without any harm coming to them. However, the amount of risk you are exposed to around a fire pit greatly depends on the type of wood used to create the fire.

Seasoned hardwoods from a reputable source are the ideal firewoods for a fire pit since they burn hotter, generating significantly “safer” smoke. Nevertheless, people with underlying heart or lung conditions should minimize their exposure to any kind of smoke since it can aggravate those conditions.

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