The Outdoorsman’s Guide to Campfire Cooking

Campfire Cooking

Campfire cooking is an essential part of the outdoor experience. Whether it’s a gourmet steak or a humble s’more, the outdoor cooking experience is fun, satisfying, and a perfect way to reconnect with ancient traditions. And since humans have been cooking over campfires for hundreds of thousands of years, mastering this skill often isn’t so much an act of learning as it is an act of reacquainting and reminding.

How to Build a Campfire for Cooking

Step 1: Choose the Right Wood

Hardwoods and fruit woods (like oak and cherry) give the best flavor and create the best coals. They also generate less soot. Because they are denser than softwoods, hardwoods take longer to get up to temperature, but once lit will burn longer with a steadier heat. In contrast, softwoods (like pine and fir) burn dirtier because of the high resin content in the wood. They also burn quicker because they are more fibrous. As a general rule, use hardwoods if you can, but don't overthink it. Hard woods and fruit woods aren't always readily available in many camping scenarios, especially if you are camping in the West. So make the best of what is available in your area, focusing on wood that is dry and well seasoned. And remember, no matter what kind of wood you use, moisture is fire’s enemy. Insufficiently dry wood will burn poorly, give off less heat, and its smoke will give your food an unwanted flavor. This is particularly true when it comes to wood that is still green. In addition to burning poorly and smoking excessively, green wood will transmit a bitter taste to anything that is cooked on it.

A good cooking fire begins with quality wood

Step 2: Start with a Small Fire 

This may sound counterintuitive, but when you are building a fire to cook on, don’t build a big fire. Instead, go small. Use small kindling and small to medium sized logs. Save the big logs for later in the evening. The problem with a big fire is that since it burns so quickly, it doesn’t generate a quality foundation of hot coals. The coals created by a big fire tend to be too hot and burn out too quickly. In other words, it's too much too fast. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but in most cases starting small and building up rather than the other way around leads to better results. This will take more time, so crack a cold one and enjoy the process.

how to build a campfire for cooking

Step 3: Focus on Quality Coals

An ideal outdoor cooking fire is comprised mostly of hot coals. If your fire is primarily burning wood, you’ll need to be patient and let the fire burn down more.  Plan ahead and enjoy the process. Depending on your wood and the weather, it will probably take 45 minutes to an hour to generate enough hot coals for cooking. Also worth noting, there’s no shame in supplementing your firewood with good quality lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is an excellent way to control the flavor profile and the consistency of your fire. Plenty of professional chefs swear by lump charcoal.

cooking over hot coals

Step 4: Create Fire Zones

Start building your fire on the side of your fire pit rather than in the middle. As the fire burns down, use the other side of the fire pit as a place to move hot coals. Using this technique, you can create heat zones across your fire pit. When you place a grill over the coals, the coals closest to the initial fire can be your “searing zone.” The coals in the middle can be your “general cooking zone,” and the coals furthest away can be a “warming zone” for food that requires less heat. Creating zones also gives you an escape if part of your fire flares up.

three campfire cooking zones 


How to Cook Over a Campfire 

Study Your Fire for Clues

Ideally, you’ll want to start cooking when a good portion of your wood is transitioning from black to grayish white. Be ready to start grilling when the coals hit this "white hot" sweet spot. This takes a little practice and a trained eye. If you miss this window of opportunity and wait too long, your may have to re-stoke your fire to generate the necessary heat.

Pay Attention to Temperature

To gauge your campfire’s temperature, place your hand above the coals and use the 4 x 4 rule: If you can hold your hand 4 inches above the coals for four seconds, the fire is not hot enough. Two to three seconds is ideal for searing.

Don't Cook Directly Over an Open Flame

Cooking directly over the intense heat of a flaming fire chars the exterior of your food and cooks it unevenly, often leaving the exterior overcooked and the interior undercooked. This is particularly problematic with chicken and pork for obvious reasons. The marshmallows that you roasted as a kid should serve as a guide: When you held them too close to the flame, the end result was a scorched disaster. Exciting but not very tasty. When you rotated your marshmallow over hot coals, the end result was a masterpiece roasted to golden perfection.

Let Foil be Your Friend

Aluminum foil, particularly heavy-duty aluminum foil, is a fantastic accessory when cooking over an open flame. It's disposable, fairly inexpensive, and takes up very little space in a camping kit. You won’t want to use foil for everything, but foil really works well with foods like potatoes, fish, and some vegetables. The trick is to give the food a double-wrap of foil that is tightly sealed. Use extra foil on both sides so you can create tags or handles to grab onto. Another nice thing about foil is that it gives you the option of placing food on the grill or directly on the coals.

Prep Food in Advance

When possible, prep your ingredients ahead of time. This will decrease your cleanup (which isn’t always easy when camping) and increase your enjoyment. Pre-chopped vegetables, marinated meat, and pre-made baking mixes are easily stored in a cooler and far easier to prepare at home than at a campsite.

how to cook over a campfire


Campfire Cooking Equipment 101

The open fire cooking equipment you choose depends on where and how you are camping and what you are cooking. If you are car camping or overlanding, you’ll want to come equipped with a good grill as well as a cast iron skillet and possibly a dutch oven. On the other hand, if you are backpacking or need to keep your cooking kit small, you’ll want to opt for a lightweight grill and a cooking kit that is packable and doesn’t add to your load.

Cast Iron: Cast iron is hands down the best option for open fire cooking because it offers many advantages over other cookware. It’s nonstick, it's easy to clean, it lasts forever, it stands up to high heat, and it cooks more evenly than most other cookware. It’s also a versatile workhorse that performs equally well over and open flame in the wilderness and in an oven back home. The only real disadvantage with cast iron is that it is heavy. 

campfire cooking equipment

Stainless Steel: Can stainless steel be used over a campfire? Absolutely! Stainless steel is far lighter than cast iron, but it tolerates high heat quit well. Many campers prefer stainless steel over aluminum and titanium because it's more durable, more scratch resistant, and it transfers heat a little more evenly. It also performs better over an open flame. This makes it a top choice for backcountry campers who are hard on their gear and like to occasionally cook meals that go beyond simple backpacking fare. Another advantage of stainless steel over aluminum and titanium is that it's easier to clean. If you are the type of person who likes to keep your gear shipshape, then you will appreciate the way stainless steel cleans up compared to lighter metals. You won't be able to remove all of the soot marks, but most of them will come off with a little soap and some elbow grease. Stainless steel will never heat as evenly as cast iron, but it's an excellent secondary option when cooking on a campfire.

Pro Tip: If you want to keep soot off your stainless steel cookware, cover the bottom and sides of your cookware with a thick coating of soapy water before you start cooking. The soot will stick to the soapy coating and wash off with a little hot water.

kessel stainless steel pot

 


Best Campfire Cooking Gear This Year

Best Skillet for Campfire Cooking 

When it comes to cooking over a campfire, nothing beats cast iron. And when it comes to cast iron, no one beats Field Company. Field Company Skillets are lighter and smoother than cheaper cast iron, and they come pre-seasoned with three coats of cold-pressed grapeseed oil. A Field Company skillet is heritage quality, which means it is designed with a higher purpose. While cheap cast iron is mass-produced, often in China, Field Company skillets are made one at a time in the U.S.A. This is a family business. Most importantly, this skillet will outlive you, but in a very real way it will carry on your story--it's the closest living relative to vintage cast iron cookware, the kind our great grandmothers used for biscuits, cornbread, and bacon and eggs.

campfire cooking gear

Best Stainless Steel Pot for Campfire Cooking 

The Überleben Stainless Steel Kessel Pot features a waxed duck canvas stow pouch, a lock-down handle, an easy-clean spout, a lock-in-place lid, and a hardwood handle. It's beautiful to look at, and it's even better to cook with. With this stainless steel pot, it's the attention to detail that sets it apart.

best campfire cooking grills

Best Campfire Cooking Grills for Backpacking

The Uco Flatpack Grill and Fire Pit: All you have to do to set up this grill is unfold it and position the grate on top. It's as simple as that. The fire pit has a stable base for safe grilling and the sides serve as wind breaks for grilling in windy conditions. 

 man cooking on the uco flatpack camping grill

The Wolf and Grizzly Grill Kit with Fire Set: This grill and fire pit combo is compact, adjustable, and includes a leave-no-trace fire pan. You'll love its impeccable design, particularly the way it allows you to adjust the height of the grill surface to accommodate for small and large fires.

wolf and grizzly campfire grill

 

Best Fire-only Stove for Backpacking

The Überleben Stöker Flatpack Stainless Steel Stove: The Stöker is fueled entirely by organic matter and it uses open fire rather than gas as its heat source. So while it may not be a grill or a campfire in a technical sense, in practice it shares much in common with open fire grilling. The genius of the Stöker is that it is small but generates plenty of heat. It’s also easy to assemble, lightweight, and it packs down smaller than a sandwich.

stoker flatpack stove

 

Best Campfire Cooking Grill for Car Camping

The Winnerwell Flatfold Fire Pit comes in four different sizes that all fold up and pack down for easy storage. Add the Grill Grate and Charcoal Grate accessories and this beautiful fire pit transforms into a premium grill that is perfect for backyards, picnics, tailgaiting, and leave no trace camping.

winnerwell firepit

Best Campfire Cooking Accessory

The Barebones Open Fire Glove is constructed of thick full grain cowhide leather, which protects against sparks and heat for extended periods. The high cuff design shields your forearms while still allowing for flexibility and freedom of movement. In other words, your arms and hands will be fully protected as you add logs or position your cast iron cookware on the coals or flame. 

cooking over a campfire with open fire gloves

Best All-around Campfire Cooking Kit

If you want a camping grill that does it all, look no further than the Barebones All-in-One Cast Iron Grill. This do it all kit is an outdoor cook’s dream. Its cast iron base, domed lid, grill grate, baking steel, tripod stand, and coal tray combine in countless configurations. It’s a grill, a wok, a smoker, a skillet, a braiser, a roaster, and a slow cooker—and all of it packs down into a single self-contained bundle to minimize what you carry. 

cast iron all in one grill


Campfire Best Practices

Don’t Depend on Your Campsite for Wood: It’s perfectly okay to gather some wood from your camping area, but it's best to arrive at a campsite with a ready-to-go supply of quality wood. Remember, if everyone were to arrive at a campsite and collect wood, it wouldn't take long before the campsite looked like a scene from The Lorax. Keep in mind, though, you should source your wood as locally as possible. When you use firewood that isn't local, you risk inadvertently introducing new diseases and insects to the forest. 

Know the Rules and Current Restrictions: Make sure you know the fire regulations of the area in which you are planning to build a fire. Pay attention to signs and check with the ranger and camp host for current campfire regulations.

Avoid Building New Fire Rings: Most campgrounds provide a fire pit or fire ring for campfires. Always use the existing fire pit or ring if one is readily available. If you prefer dispersed camping over designated campgrounds, you are less likely to have a fire pit at your campsite. When this is the case, dig a fire pit in an open area or use a portable fire pit. Always do your best bury the fire pit and leave no trace that you were ever there.

Always Keep a Water Bucket and a Shovel on Hand: Use the shovel to douse rogue sparks, to move logs, and to stir and bury the coals when you are finished. Use the water to fully extinguish the fire. Remember, a campfire should be cold before you leave it unattended. Douse it with water, stir the ashes with a shovel, and then repeat this process until the fire is dead out. There is good reason to be careful: Over 80 percent of wild fires are human-caused.

 


Start Cooking Over a Campfire!

Food and fire share two similar traits: They are both essential and they both bring people together.  Cooking over a fire isn’t just a simple way to find sustenance. It’s a way to build community and to bond with friends and family. A campfire is a gathering place. It's a place to laugh and share stories. And it's a place to break bread while paying tribute to ancient and the wild. 


Brian Meier

Brian is the founder of GetLost.com and the author of Awaken the Bear.


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