A common question that people ask is whether to burn hardwood or softwood. Hardwood is typically known for being the best firewood but that does not mean it is the best for you. Softwood also has qualities that makes it better than hardwood in some circumstances.
When it comes to firewood, the major differences between hardwood and softwood is density. Hardwoods are usually more dense than softwood. More density means more actual wood mass in any given size of wood. More wood means the wood will burn longer and produce more total heat.
But not all hardwoods are more dense than all softwoods. The terms hardwood and softwood are not determined by the hardness or softness of the wood. Hardwood is any wood that comes form broadleaf trees, like oak, hickory, ash, maple, walnut, madrone, aspen and cottonwood.
Softwoods come from conifers, which have needles or scale leaves, like pine, fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock and redwood. The differences between hardwood and softwood come from the difference in cellular structure between the two. Hardwoods do tend to be harder than softwoods but not always. Cottonwood, aspen, and alder come from trees with broad leaves, so they are hardwoods, but these woods are as soft as many softwoods.
The density of the wood will give you a general idea of how it will burn. You can tell if dry wood is more dense because it will be heavier than a similar size of less dense wood.
More dense wood will burn longer and produce more heat over a longer period. Lower density wood will ignite easier, burn faster, often with more intense flames. But it will burn faster and with less total heat.
Dense hardwoods are great for wood stoves to maintain the heat in your home. But for quick heat or for starting fires softwood can be a better choice. It ignites easily and puts off hot flames more quickly. It can also be good for campfires or fireplaces if you want more flames than coals. If you want good long lasting coals you will be better with dense hardwood.
What will be best for you will depend on what you are wanting out of the wood. Both types of firewood have their advantages and disadvantages. I like to have a mixture of both. Hardwood is usually more expensive but that is because you get more heat out of it. Softwood will burn up faster but that is fine since it usually costs less.