Types of Outdoor Fire Pits Explained: Wood, Propane, Natural Gas, Gel

five different types of outdoor fire pits

Nothing is more satisfying than improving your living space. Many people are also making significant improvements to their outdoor living space, effectively turning it into an extension of the indoors. Along with that, many are moving to create a comfortable and functional space year-round by adding an outdoor fire pit, making the outdoor living area a logical gathering space.

There are many types of outdoor fire pits, but gas and wood-burning types are more common as they’re versatile, easy to use, and cost-effective. Propane fire pits offer convenience, while gel fire pits are clean to use. Your choice depends on the fire pit’s location, fuel source, and personal style. 

Given the many options when it comes to buying and installing an outdoor fire pit, having a general sense of how you will use it can help you choose the right type. I’ll go through the four main types of fire pits available and the best application or fit for each. I’ll also share information on different fire pit styles to help you decide what will work best on your property.  

Main Types of Fire Pits

Adding an outdoor fire pit is an improvement that increases the valuable space of your property’s footprint and your home’s resale value. It’s an investment in your quality of life and one that enhances your ability to enjoy your own backyard a bit more. 

When most people think of an outdoor fire pit, they typically think of gas and wood-burning fire pits. While they are the more traditional types of fire pits, they are often not the most practical options in certain situations.  

close up of a wood burning fire pit with a fire just starting

Each of the four fire pits has a practical application that makes sense depending on how it will be used, when it will be used, and even certain environmental conditions. The four main types of fire pits are as follows:

  • Wood Fire Pits – These are most likely the most common fire pit out there. The wood fire pit offers the traditional campfire experience., making it a popular choice. 
  • Propane Fire Pits – These are now increasing in popularity. A propane fire pit is convenient, easy, and clean.  
  • Natural Gas Fire Pits – These are similar to the propane fire pit, offering convenience and a cost-effective feature.  
  • Gel Fire Pits – A new option available to homeowners, gel fuel fire pits are also a very clean, convenient option. They are a good alternative when propane or natural gas aren’t an option or when unavailable.  

I will discuss each of the four types of fire pits in greater detail below. I’ll also explain their applications as well as drawbacks so you know which one to choose for your backyard entertainment area. 

Wood Fire Pits

Wood fire pits are as practical as they are versatile. They often make an excellent “starter” fire pit for many homeowners because they run the gamut in terms of how they can be set up. From a hole dug in the ground with stones around the ring to a metal fire bowl, a stand-alone stainless steel fire pit such as a smokeless fire pit, or a ceramic chiminea-style pit, or even a small tabletop mini fire pit, the options can be overwhelming.  

Before you delve into the style of wood fire pits, consider whether: 

  • Wood makes the most sense for you in the first place. Wood fire pits require a safe distance from structures such as your home, a barn, sheds, trees, and anything else that may catch flames. Home improvement icon Bob Vila encourages homeowners to consider proximity in windy conditions since a spark can travel considerable distances.  
  • You will have a steady source of wood to feed the fire pit. Think about how much you intend to use your fire pit, then consider how much wood you will need to fuel it. If splitting and hauling wood is not currently a pastime, it could become one quickly if you intend to use a wood fire pit regularly.  
  • You intend to have an outdoor fire pit as a source of heat or as a source of flame for your cooking. If you plan to use it for warmth when outside or to cook with, a wood fire pit is likely your best option as it generates a lot of heat. It’s also a great way to cook different foods using various cooking methods.  

Propane Fire Pits

Propane fire pits are an excellent option for many homeowners since they come in a wide range of sizes and styles, and use various methods to fuel the flames. 

beautiful modern patio with a round propane fire pit with chairs around it

Some propane fire pits will run on a portable propane tank that you can refill at many home improvement stores. Yet, other propane fire pits are plumbed to run on propane that runs from the home to the deck area. Because of the flexibility in their delivery, the style of fire pits is wide-ranging. 

Propane pits range from poured concrete-style pits fixed in place to free-standing, portable models. According to Outside magazine, campers love portable propane pits that can quickly go from backyard to camping trip.  

As a heat source, propane offers some warmth, but the heat disperses outside quickly. If you’re considering a propane-fueled fire pit as a heat source, consider a smaller fire pit – perhaps a portable version that could be used in a safe space to contain the heat.  

Natural Gas Fire Pits

Natural gas fire pits are very similar in function to a plumbed propane fire pit, only that the fuel source is natural gas from home. Natural gas is often a cost-effective fuel, and using it as a source offers a ton of flexibility in the style of fire pit you install.  

Most often, they take the form of a feature that resembles a fountain or a center table but occasionally are designed to be flush with ground level for added impact. Some more visually appealing models form the backdrop to a bar seating area.  

While a natural gas fire pit isn’t the best heat source, you can get more creative with style and work it into an existing outdoor area. Alternatively, you can style a natural gas fire pit as the centerpiece of your backyard. HGTV provides some ideas if you’re interested in building your own.  

Gel Fire Pits

Gel fire pits offer a great option that burns cleanly but is still an open flame like a wood fire pit. The fuel source is virtually smokeless since the gel fuel burns very cleanly. So if you don’t care for the scent of smoke or the task of cleaning up after a fire, a gel fire pit might be an excellent option for you.

Since the gel fuel is self-contained, the fire pits can range from practical and simple in design to artful and decorative. 

Gel fuel can be challenging to locate in person unless you’re in a larger city where gel fire pits are very common However, gel fuel can be easily purchased online and shipped to your home.  

Final Thoughts

Before investing in an outdoor fire pit, consider: 

  • The type of heat you want
  • Whether you’ll use the fire pit as a heat source or for ambiance 
  • The time of year you intend to use it and whether the fuel source will be available
  • The cost to plumb it to natural gas/propane or if you will be hauling the fuel source 
  • Proximity to your house and the heat type – a wood-burning fire pit may not be safe if you live in a fire-prone area  

Ultimately, your choice of fire pit is more than simply considering your up-front costs.

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