How to Cook Over an Open Campfire
The crackle of burning embers. The smell of cooking meat. The warmth and calming glow of firelight... Yes, campfire cooking has a way of charming all our senses, but how is it actually done? Successfully cooking over an open fire takes equal parts know-how, patience, and respect for the elements, and today it’s our goal to help you with the information side of that equation. (If we knew how to bottle up patience, we’d be in a different business.) We’ll give you tips on building a campfire, cooking over the flames, extinguishing the blaze, and more. With our guide to cooking over an open fire, you can confidently sit back and take in all the charms of campfire cooking — just like the perfect campfire s’mores.
Where Should I Build a Campfire?
You may be eager enough to get cooking that you’re willing to construct your own fire ring, but you should always try to build your blaze in existing fire rings or fire pits. Using established structures not only preserves habitats for local wildlife and the environment at large, but also helps with safety by setting boundaries on the size of your fire. Be sure to set up your tent and store flammable items a safe distance from the fire, which can throw embers further than you’d think when gusts of wind roll in.
What Kind of Fuel Do I Need?
Ready to get your hands dirty? A campfire will burn at its best when 3 types of fuel are present: tinder, kindling, and firewood.
- Tinder: tiny twigs and dried leaves, grass, and needles
- Kindling: small sticks, typically no larger than 1” in thickness
- Firewood: larger pieces of wood that should be no thicker than an adult wrist
Gather tinder and kindling from the nearby area, but always plan to purchase firewood before harvesting it yourself. You can count on logs available at a visitor center or somewhere near the trail being sustainably sourced, plus paying for them is a good way to support local outdoor organizations while saving yourself some work later. If you must harvest your own firewood, use dead and downed wood on the ground. Never cut branches from standing trees, even if they’re dead — birds and wildlife may still be nesting among the withered wood. Also avoid bringing firewood from outside areas because you may introduce non-native pests harmful to the ecosystem. Finally, remember to stack and store fuel logs upwind a safe distance from the fire.
How to Start a Campfire
Once you’ve assembled all your fuel, you’ll need to arrange it the right way. There are several ways to build a fire, but the one method that certainly won’t work is stacking the wood in a dense pile. Oxygen is what allows fire to grow, so there must be room for air to pass among the fuel. No matter which type of campfire you prefer, you should try to keep your fire as small as possible so you can keep it controlled and leave a minimal footprint. This is where using existing fire rings once again comes in handy: the size of the established ring is your guide for how big the campfire should be at maximum. Now, for the directions:
- In the center of the fire ring, make a loose, small pile of tinder.
- Add kindling in one of the methods described in the following section.
- Use a match or lighter to ignite the tinder, which will then light the kindling.
- Add more tinder to keep the fire going, occasionally blowing at the base of the fire to stoke the flames.
- Continue adding kindling and, eventually, firewood to get the fire to the desired size.
From there, use a shovel or similarly long-handled tool to distribute the firewood across the ring as needed. Cooking campfires are typically divided into 2 areas: a high-heat zone with ashed-over firewood, and a reserve zone that holds the burning fuel. You can, of course, further split your campfire into heat zones as you would on a grill to accommodate your cooking needs. Starting a campfire takes about an hour, so get moving well in advance of dinnertime.
Types of Campfires
There’s more than one way to build a campfire, with different arrangements working better for cooking, signaling, or just providing warmth. Let’s take a quick look at the 2 most popular types of fires for cooking and how to build them.
- Teepee Fire: Lean upright pieces of kindling against each other above the tinder and kindling, forming a tall triangle that resembles a tent or teepee.
- Lean-To Fire: Start with a long piece of kindling, driving it into the ground at a 45-degree angle over the tinder. Then, lean smaller pieces of kindling against it to create a lean-to shelter for the kindling below.
How to Maintain a Campfire
Keeping your fire burning is as simple as adding more fuel, whether you’re pulling lit logs into the high-heat cooking area or introducing new firewood altogether. Controlling the temperature is a bit more complicated, which is why you should always build a small fire from the start. If you’re using the recommended 2-zone approach to campfire cooking, you can decrease the heat in the cooking area by moving logs back into the opposite zone. You can also extinguish patches of the fire with water or dirt should it become too unruly; we’ll cover extinguishing in greater depth below, but that’s why it always pays to have a shovel and bucket of dirt or water on hand at all times when cooking over an open fire.
Cooking on a Campfire
Let’s tackle a big misconception right away: the goal is to cook on hot, ashed-over coals, not the roaring fire itself. In addition to the safety risk of using cookware or tools over leaping flames, the extreme heat coming off a strong fire will likely char your food or, at the very least, cook it unevenly. That’s a benefit of the 2-zone cooking approach we mentioned earlier; when the wood burns down to glowing white coals, you move them into the cooking area and restock the holding area with fresh fuel, repeating until you’re done cooking. As for the cooking itself? Aside from turning your food a bit more often than you would on a grill or skillet to compensate for the intense infrared heat, cooking over a campfire comes down to having the right equipment.
Use Camping Cookware
Though there’s something deeply natural about cooking directly over burning coals — no, seriously, we’ve got a caveman steak recipe to prove it — life is much easier when you’ve got outdoor cookware in your corner. Pots and pans are musts, but you can shake things up with Dutch ovens, griddles, and even pizza stones for more varied camp cooking. Cast iron cookware is particularly popular among campers because of its excellent heat retention and distribution, not to mention its durability and ease of cleaning when properly seasoned.
Bring Camp Cooking Tools & Attire
Cooking utensils are crucial for any meal in any setting, but especially when preparing food over an open fire. For those purposes, you need BBQ tools with long and insulated handles to keep your hands out of the flames. Tongs, spatulas, skewers, meat forks — whatever you’re using, putting distance between yourself and the fire is imperative. By that same token, aprons and high-heat gloves are near necessities when working over a campfire. It doesn’t hurt that they’ll help you look slick, too!
How to Extinguish a Campfire
You patiently built a fire, showed how outdoor chefs shine, and now it’s time to quell the flames and settle in for some well-deserved rest. But unlike your grill or oven, a campfire can’t be shut off with a simple switch. You’ll need attention to detail, some more of that patience, and a handful of items to safely extinguish a campfire. Those items include a shovel, rake, poker, fire extinguisher, and a bucket of water or any other dousing materials that’ll stop a fire in its tracks. With any or all of those helpful tools on hand, follow these steps to put a campfire:
- Allow the fire to naturally and completely burn down to ash, or for more immediate extinguishing, douse the flames with water, dirt, or sand. Be sure to douse all embers, not just those that are glowing red.
- Scrape the logs and sticks, if any remain, to remove lingering embers. Douse the fire again if stubborn embers persist.
- Use a long-handled tool like a shovel or rake to stir the doused embers in the dirt of the fire ring. Continue to stir to ensure the embers are totally extinguished.
- Once the embers are dead, scatter the extinguished ashes to minimize environmental impacts in one spot.
- Make sure no nearby roots of patches or grass are smoldering before turning in for the night or leaving the campsite.
While you might be tempted to toss some water on the fire and call it a day, it’s important to ensure every ember is fully extinguished. Keep in mind that coals that are too hot to touch are too hot to leave, and that even whitish or ashed-over gray coals can stay hot enough to reignite with a strong enough gust of wind.
We’ve touched on safety along the way, but we figured we’d put together a section on the topic to help all you scanners out there (we know that applies to most of you). The below safety recommendations are by no means comprehensive, and you should always defer to local rules and regulations for safety information. Still, we wanted to leave you with some general idea of a few best practices for campfire safety to help you enjoy cooking in the great outdoors. Here we go:
- Never build a fire beneath low-hanging branches, dead or decaying wood, or dead and dry grass.
- Store flammable materials like matches, lighters, fire starters, propane tanks, and extra firewood upwind and a safe distance from the fire.
- Never use additives or chemicals in an open fire — trust us, chemicals can cause things to get out of control in a hurry.
- Start your fire with only a small amount of fuel to keep it under control.
- Keep an eye out for pets and children who get too close to the flames, and supervise young people if they want to try their hand at cooking.
- Wear tight-fitting clothing so hanging sleeves don’t catch fire
- If you plan to enjoy a few alcoholic drinks near the fire, monitor your consumption so you can stay alert and ready to act in the event of an emergency — and so you don’t cause one yourself.
- Don’t toss glass or aluminum cans in the fire; you can create toxic fumes and will leave behind a mess for some unhappy campers.
- Always keep a fire extinguisher, dousing materials, and a first-aid kit nearby in the event of an emergency.
- Don’t feed wildlife, and always keep your distance from wild animals.
When NOT to Build a Campfire...
Congratulations, you’re now a campfire commander! Unfortunately, showing off your mastery of open fires isn’t always in everyone’s best interest. You may encounter burn bans under certain conditions — like dryness, windiness, and poor air quality — while some areas might prohibit building fires at any time. Search online, call ahead, stop at a nearby visitor center, or look for signage to find out if there are any restrictions on types and sizes of fires in the area where you plan to camp. Planning in advance and packing some backup meals that don’t require open-fire cooking can save you from major headaches.
...And When to Use a Camping Grill Instead
If any part of this article made you stop and go, “Gee, this sounds difficult and/or not all that fun,” then we’ve got good news! Camping grills are tremendous alternatives to campfires — they’re easy to ignite and extinguish, compact and lightweight for travel, and safer than an open fire. And while camp grills might not be as immersive or traditional as a campfire, we believe their convenience and consistency more than make up for what they lack in convention. No matter how you prefer to cook while camping, we think simply being able to grill beyond the backyard is an achievement worth celebrating.
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