7 Tips Every Camper Should Know About Campfire Cooking

A little intimidated about cooking over an open fire? Don’t be. Campfire cooking is easy with these secrets, starting with: Pack a Dutch oven.

Photo by David Tsay

Here’s the picture: You’re camping in the woods. Roughing it. You’re away from your kitchen. And takeout, and even fast food. Does that scenario make you anxious? It shouldn’t: Campfire cooking is easy—and safe—if you follow these expert tips.

• Build the right fire. First things first: Never start a fire until you are sure you are building it in a safe place. If you don’t have a fire pit, look for a spot that’s free of loose dirt, grass, and debris within a 10-foot perimeter of your site. Scout for any tree roots, too, says Sarah Huck, coauthor of Campfire Cookery: Adventuresome Recipes and Other Curiosities for the Great Outdoors ($30, amazon.com): They can easily catch on fire. And steer clear of low-hanging branches. A good ground rule is to have three times the height of the fire in unobstructed overhead space.

Next step, says Huck: Determine the purpose of your campfire. If it will be used only for cooking, she recommends “the hunter’s fire”: Position two ankle-thick pieces of dead, dry wood in a rough V shape, with the sticks six to eight inches apart at the top and three to five inches apart at the bottom. Place tinder (Huck uses dry pine needles, moss, or crumpled newspaper) in the middle of the V. Using small pieces of bark wood or twigs (between the thickness of a match and a piece of chalk), build a teepee around the tinder. Light and slowly feed the fire very dry logs  that are about the size of your arm (Huck’s favorite type of wood is maple or oak; she says they are the most stable when burning).

If you’re looking to cook over a fire that will later be used for entertainment purposes (i.e., singing campfire songs, telling ghost stories), Huck recommends the traditional teepee method, which will burn longer and more steadily. Place the tinder in the middle of your designated fire zone and build a teepee of larger sticks around it. As the fire burns, continue to add bigger logs; carefully position them so that they angle toward the flames to avoid smothering the fire. Add one log at a time, allowing it to burn a bit before adding another; this way, you’ll avoid creating a fire that suddenly becomes unmanageable.

• Get the right gear. The obvious probably bears repeating: Plastic can melt, so using metal utensils is crucial, says Julia Perry, an instructor for the REI Outdoor School in Chicago and the Wilderness Medicine Institute. For the same reason, she recommends skipping pots and pans with rubber-coated handles (instead, use an aluminum pot lifter, like Open Country Aluminum Pot Lifters, $4; REI.com). Your best bet is to go with utensils that are specifically made for the outdoors. Her pick: GSI Outdoors Pioneer Enamelware Chef’s Tools ($25 for a spoon, ladle, and spatula; REI.com).

Heavy-duty leather gloves and sturdy close-toed shoes that can take heat from close proximity to a campfire will also provide a layer of protection from hot surfaces, coals, and embers.