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How Do I Cook Over a Campfire? 7 Top Tips

How to cook on a campfire - 4 beautiful sausages on a stick over a campfire

In this article we are going to provide some insights to answer the question, “How Do I Cook Over a Campfire?”. Cooking over a campfire is one of the great joys of family camping. Roasting a sausage on a stick is one thing, cooking a full meal is quite another.

Here, we’ll take a look at the basics of cooking over a campfire, as well as how to use more advanced techniques to really create some amazing campfire cooking.

Be warned, don’t read this post when you are hungry. We have some great pictures of campfire foods that are sure to make you salivate.

1 What Can You Cook Over a Campfire?

If you can barbecue it – you can cook it over a campfire. Cooking over a campfire presents some additional difficulties. Campfires are less well contained and controlled than a barbecue for a start. Learning how to build your campfire for cooking takes a little skill too.

Campfires tend to be at ground level. Needing to bend down to cook adds some complexities. You will do well to invest in some campfire ironwork – tripods, grates, etc. They make cooking much easier and, with variable height grills, allow more control over heat and cooking speed.

Here’s some ideas:

Fish on griddle over campfire
Freshly Caught Fish
burgers on a griddle balanced on top of a campfire
Burgers
Bacon in frying pan over campfire
Sizzling Bacon
Succulent Steak in a pan over a campfire
Succulent Steak
Potato in foil next to mess pan on campfire
Potato in foil
Red coffee pot heating over a campfire
Red coffee pot heating over a campfire

Preparing good coffee while camping is very close to our hearts. Take a look at our article on awesome ways to make great coffee.

The pictures above start to give you some ideas on just how great campfire cooking can be.

2 What Can I Cook Over a Campfire Even if I can’t Cook?

If you can’t even cook a hot dog or a marshmallow, this is the place for you! While they may be some of the most basic techniques, these are a great way to get younger campers involved and let them experience the fun of cooking over a campfire.

For youngsters, be sure to stress fire safety. They will love it, and the basic fire safety and cooking skills will last a lifetime.

Hot Dogs on Sticks

While it may be the most basic of all campfire foods, there is something great about cooking a hot dog on a stick. It is easy to do, and, if you start with pre-cooked frankfurters, you don’t have to worry that the food is fully cooked. Kids generally find it fascinating just warming and browning the meat. Additionally, because they’re so cheap, you won’t mind if a younger camper drops one (or three) into the fire.

Girl eating hotdog sausage she has roasted over the campfire
Girl eating hotdog sausage she has roasted over the campfire

Smores

Toasted marshmallows are one of the great joys of childhood, along with blowing out a flaming marshmallow and discovering just how delicious the charred bits can be. Combined with a little chocolate and some graham crackers, and your kids will love it. One thing is for sure, your kids won’t be asking “what can I cook over a campfire” by the end of it.

smores held in tongues cooking over campfire
Smores cooking over campfire
Roasted marshmallow over campfire - one of the great joys of childhood
Roasted marshmallow over campfire – one of the great joys of childhood
Young boy trying to roast a marchmallow over small campfire
Young boy trying to roast a marshmallow over small campfire

3 What Pans Are Good for Cooking Over a Campfire

Alright, so you’re ready to move beyond hot dogs and smores for every meal. As such, you’re probably wondering what pans are good for cooking over a campfire. To answer that question, you’re going to need to rely on coals, but luckily, there are plenty of ways to use coals to cook. By coals, we don’t mean charcoal, but instead burned-up pieces of wood. You can cook off to the side of your campfire, using coaled-over pieces of firewood to warm your equipment. Chances are you’ll be using one of two classic campfire cooking implements: a frying pan, or a Dutch oven. In either case, make sure to bring along wooden spoons and other implements, as well as a pair of metal tongs to move coals; plastics will melt.

Using a Dutch Oven

Dutch over resting on campfire coals
Dutch over resting on campfire coals

A Dutch Oven is by far the more versatile of the two, essentially being a pot useful for cooking everything from chili to biscuits. By putting coals on top of the lid of the dutch oven, you can bake whatever is inside. If you’ve got room in your cooler for some biscuit dough, this can be quite the treat. Alternatively, it is a great vessel to slow-cook chili in.

Using a Frying Pan

Eggs and Tomatoes cooking in a frying pan over a campfire
Eggs and Tomatoes cooking in a frying pan over a campfire

However, for larger groups, a frying pan may be the way to go. This may also be made of cast iron, simply to help with heat distribution due to the uneven nature of cooking on a campfire. You can, as you’d guess, fry plenty of food in here, but hot cakes by campfire are also a great treat.

4 Do I Need a Campfire Cooking Rack or Grill to Cook over a Campfire

Absolutely not! You won’t need to have a rack or grill, but they can certainly be helpful! For those with more ambition, you can bring a grill grate if you plan on sticking around for a while.

When most people think of cooking over a campfire, they think of a big fire with lots of flames. When you get a little more experience you will realize that cooking over embers or coals provides a much better, more controlled outcome.

Cooking over coals is much better for the chef too.

Mind the Coals

Looking after your campfire coals is important. You’ll want to make sure that they are ashed over in order to make sure that there is a stable temperature, but at the same time you’ll want to make sure that they don’t burn out. Just like grilling on your home barbecue, this requires some attention. Luckily, you’ll have a large campfire nearby from which to draw new coals.

Adjustable Grates

For those looking to camp in one place for a while, building a rig with adjustable grates can enable even more control. This allows you to raise or lower the food over the fire, making it easier to control the heat.


An Adjustable Grate Makes Campfire Cooking Much Easier

Fire Irons and Smoking

If you are serious about wanting to have the absolute best campfire cooking experience possible, you might want to consider using fire irons or smoking your meat. A set of fire irons will let you roast your meat on a spit, getting a flavor that is quite unlike what you are likely to achieve at home. Meanwhile, smoking large chunks of meat may be best left to dedicated smokers, but infusing trout or another fish (preferably caught while camping!) with the aromas of a great smoke can really make for a more memorable experience. Just be sure to use dried wood, as fresh wood can have tars that will alter the taste of the food. In that case, you might well find yourself wondering if you could do with less rather than “Do I need a campfire cooking rack or grill to cook over a campfire!”

Collapsible iron tripod for cooking over campfire
Collapsible iron tripod for cooking over campfire

5 What Do I Need to Safely Cook Over a Campfire

Since we’re talking about fire and food, we have to talk about safety. If you’re wondering what do I need to safely cook over a campfire, then there are a few basic rules to keep in mind when dealing with either of the above, especially when you have kids around.

Children

Being close to a campfire can be one of the best memories of an entire childhood, but that can all go up in smoke if there is an accident. Remind any children to be careful of the fire, not to play around it, and not to goof off near the fire.

Fire Safety

Make sure that you’re playing smart with fire, especially in areas that are prone to wildfires. Keep a bucket or two of water around to put out any embers when you’re done, and clear the immediate area of your fire of any dry grass, brush, or limbs. Finally, in times of high wind, avoid building a fire, as embers can carry for more than a half a mile. Even a small fire on a windy day is not worth the risk of having burned down half of the camping area, much less half the forest.

Bucket of Clean, Cold Water

We’ve already mentioned keeping a bucket or other contained of water on hand for fire safety. You should also try to have a bucket of clean, cold water immediately on-hand. If you do get burnt you should plunge the affected part directly into the cold water. Keep the burn immersed in water until the pain starts to recede.

If the burn blisters excessively or breaks the skin you should seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

6 Food Safety

Finally, be mindful of the safety of the food that you’re cooking. You are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning while on you camping trip. This article from theConversation provides some great tips.

Meats should be cooked to safe temperatures, but more importantly should be held below 40 degrees (4C) until you’re ready to cook them. After all, just because you’re camping doesn’t mean that bacteria is taking the weekend off. Be sure to thoroughly wash any equipment that you plan on reusing, and if you are looking to gather or harvest food from the wild, be absolutely sure that you know it is safe to eat.

Quick note: Back to my military days. Most food poisoning in the field was traced back to eating utensils – particularly forks – not being cleaned sufficiently. Make sure your thoroughly clean your knives, forks and spoons every time they are used.

Dirty forks can be dangerous. Check out this Monty Python sketch

Conclusion

Cooking by a campfire is one of the greatest joys of camping. It can allow you to explore your culinary talents as a family, while getting some really great treats along the way.

Knowing how to build your campfire for maximum efficiency and control is a great first step.

Getting some campfire pans, at least a frying pan and a dutch oven, is important. For us, taking along a collapsible tripod and a cooking grate is essential if you are looking to go beyond hot dogs and s’mores.

Cooking on a campfire is fantastically satisfying. It does take time and attention. In the end, our choice is to do our main cooking on a camping stove. The campfire is for boiling water and cooking a few s’mores.

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Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.