Tips and Gear for Campfire Cooking

Everything tastes better outdoors.

That’s true for meals cooked over a camp stove, and even more so for food made over a campfire. There’s something deeply satisfying—and fun—about preparing a meal the way our ancestors did. And though it might sound intimidating at first, cooking over the coals and open flame of a campfire really is simple once you get the hang of a few tricks and equip yourself with the right gear. 

Upgrade your camp meals by learning:

  • How to build a fire for cooking
  • What cookware you’ll need for popular camp meals
  • Techniques for grilling, roasting, baking, and more

Building a Cooking Fire

You may know how to build a fire, but do you know how to build one optimized for cooking? A little know-how will get you a consistent heat source perfect for food prep.

Start with safety: Make sure campfires are allowed at your campsite (check with the relevant land management agency ahead of time). Even if they are, don’t build one if it’s windy enough to blow embers away from the fire and risk starting a bigger blaze. Established fire pits or rings are the safest places to build a fire, and result in the least impact on the land. Make sure the overhead area and a 10-foot circle around the fire site is well clear of overhanging branches and anything flammable. When you’re done, douse the fire with water and dirt until it’s cold enough to put your hand in.

Keep it small: You don’t need a raging bonfire for cooking. In fact, that kind of blaze will burn hot and fast, which isn’t what you want for food prep. Instead, make it on the small side (1.5 feet in diameter or less) for better control.

Burn it down: Most campfire cooking techniques require hot coals, not leaping flames. Make sure you give yourself enough time before dinner to get your fire going and burn it down to evenly heating coals; this can take 30 to 45 minutes. 

Key Campfire Cooking Gear

Some of the best campfire cookware is made of cast iron, a durable material that beautifully and evenly conducts heat for consistent cooking and can be placed directly over coals. (It’s also heavy, making it best for car camping rather than backpacking.) Other tools and accessories are often made of steel. Just don’t use anything plastic near a campfire—it will melt!—and avoid placing nonstick, aluminum, or stainless steel cookware directly on flames or coals, as that can damage the pots and pans and even ruin your food. Here are the classic campfire cooking items.

Dutch oven: A 5- to 8-quart Dutch oven with a lid will let you make practically anything over the coals: soup, stew, veggies, meats, pasta, eggs, you name it. You can even bake pizza, cornbread, or cake in one of these. Many campfire models have legs so you can settle them right on top of your coals. 

Skillet: A great skillet is your ticket to tasty fish, meat, pancakes, and anything else you’d make in one at home. You’ll often want to set it on a grill grate over the coals.

Grill grate: A lightweight grate not only serves as a surface for your skillet to rest, it’s also crucial for grilling. Note: Some campground fire pits come with grates; some come with legs or a support post you stick in the ground next to the fire. 

Cooking iron: These long-handled molds cook up grilled sandwiches, eggs, pizza, or mini pies: Just fill it with ingredients, close it, and nestle it in the coals.

Roasting forks: Often extendable, these two-pronged forks let you safely roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames (and they’re a lot cleaner and less hassle than trying to whittle the perfect stick for the job). 

Popcorn popper: Like a regular pot, but with a very long handle, a dedicated popper churns out fluffy popcorn. Necessary? Not really. Super-fun? Absolutely.

Utensils: Campfire basics include tongs for turning food, a long-handled spoon for stirring soups and stews, and a spatula for flipping (again, avoid flimsy plastic home-kitchen items here).

Accessories: Consider extras like a cook stand (to raise your grill grate, Dutch oven, or pot above the coals) or gloves to protect your hands from the heat.

Basic Campfire Cooking Techniques

There’s more than one way to cook a potato. Here are a few favored campfire methods.

Roasting: The easiest, and most fun, way to prepare foods like hot dogs, marshmallows, and chicken kabobs. Simply thread the food on a roasting stick or long, thin stick, place them over the coals, and turn until cooked evenly.

Grilling: Let your fire burn down to hot coals (small flames are OK), then set up a grill grate. If you don’t have a swiveling one already attached to your fire pit, set up your own. If your grill grate doesn’t have its own means of support, you can balance it on dry rocks around the fire. Put your food—meat, fish, veggies, whatever—right on the grill. Tip: Avoid foods that will drip grease into the coals (like bacon), as that can cause flare-ups.

Baking: One of the joys of a cast-iron Dutch oven or skillet is that you can bake in it. Place batter inside, situate the vessel over the coals, pile lots more coals on the lid, and let the all-around heat do its work. Camp pizza, cornbread, cookies, and cake, here we come.

Foil packets: No cookware? No problem. Put food—think meat and veggies, whole potatoes, fruit stuffed with chocolate—inside a square of heavy-duty foil and pinch it into a packet (be careful not to overstuff the packets). Place it directly in the coals until done; open carefully to avoid steam burns.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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