Best Ways to Build and Cook on a Campfire
Very few things are as satisfying during a camping experience as building and cooking over your own roaring campfire, watching twinkling embers spiral into the darkening night sky or huddling around the cheerful flames at sunrise with smores and coffee.
So what are the best ways to build a campfire for cooking? Building a campfire for cooking involves building a fire ring for safety, and adding grates, griddles or tripods to make cooking easy, and having the right foods to cook.
Many simple meals such as “hobo” foil dinners, grilled hot dogs, or campfire pizzas can be easily cooked over an open flame, even by children. We covered much of ‘How to Cook Over a Campfire‘ in our companion post. In this one, we are concentrating on the campfire but with 12 great campfire cooking suggestions too.
The basics of building a fire may seem easy enough, but there are plenty of tricks and tips to make the process easier and more fun for the whole family. Keep reading to find out more about how to build a campfire safely and how to cook some of the best meals you’ll ever eat outdoors.
Building a Fire Ring
Building a fire ring is a vital step to building a fire outdoors. It is the first step that helps prevent wildfires caused by human cookfires. As seen by the sweeping fires that affect drought-ridden areas like California and Australia, a wildfire can easily get out of control and do millions of dollars’ worth of damage, even take lives. That’s why it’s important for every camper to practice strict campfire safety.
The purpose of a fire ring is to ensure that the fire you build doesn’t spread across the ground to catch nearby grasses or trees on fire. Before you start gathering fuel for your fire, make sure that a fire ring is set up and surrounded by bare ground.
Most fire rings are formed by stones, and if you’re going camping in an established campground, it’s likely that there are already built fire pits available that have already been surrounded by a fire ring. Rock-based fire rings also have the advantage of helping distance children from the heat of the fire.
If you’re going camping in the backcountry, however, you’ll need to find a flat, even area that is relatively free of debris, and then you’ll need to start collecting stones. Collecting stones for a fire ring is a fun task to keep children busy while the tent and other camping gear is being set up. Along with preventing fire from spreading, a fire ring also helps reflect heat back towards the center of the fire and keeps it hotter for longer.
These procedures should be used to build a fire ring:
- Create a ring of melon-sized stones that is 8 to 12 inches deep.
- Fire rings should be 2-3 feet across, or just wide enough to allow for the cooking of food. Campfires damage the soil beneath them and kill any creatures in it, so they should either be created in a pre-established area or set up sparingly to avoid excessive environmental damage.
- Fire rings should be created in an area that is free of overhanging trees or other surrounding objects that might catch fire and should preferably be built in an area protected from the wind—this will prevent embers from being blown outside the fire ring. Building fire in a wind-sheltered area also helps to keep the fire from blowing out.
- Construct fire rings out of dry stones—moisture-saturated rocks that are suddenly heated by campfire can explode and send shrapnel flying.
Best Ways to Build a Campfire
Once you’ve built your fire ring, the next step is to build the campfire itself.
To get a campfire started you are going to need to create layers of increasingly combustible materials:
- Tinder: Tinder is a fine, dry, easily flammable material that is used to spark fires. Common forms of kindling include things like dryer lint and pine needles, but many other things can be used for tinder such as char cloth, wax, pitch, or cut grass.
- Kindling: Kindling consists of small twigs and thin branches that are used to help build up a small fire once the tinder has caught flame.
- Fuel: Fuel for a campfire is essentially your large branches and logs that form the bulk of your campfire. Fuel is vital for building a campfire that isn’t going to immediately peter out, but a fire won’t start on logs alone. While it is common for fire logs in a home fire to be large hunks of wood, fuel for a campfire consists of branches that are closer to the diameter of your wrist.
It’s important when you’re gathering supplies for a campfire that you keep the following tips in mind:
- Wet wood won’t burn. That means both rain-sodden logs on the ground and any green (or live) wood you cut out of a tree. Never cut down a tree for campfire logs, as this is damaging to the environment, probably illegal wherever you are, and it won’t leave you with usable firewood in any case. Firewood must be properly cured to burn, which means only deadwood on the forest floor will suit.
- Remember safety when collecting firewood. Collecting firewood, kindling, and tinder can give kids a fun motivation to go exploring in the nearby woods, but make sure that they either go with an adult or stay within sight of the campground (if older). Larger branches that need to be broken down to size should be broken down by an adult.
- Start gathering campfire fuel well before dark. The last thing you want to do when you’re done setting up your tent for the night is to go try to scrounge around for branches when you’re losing daylight. Forests get dark quickly at twilight. It’s much easier to gather firewood when you have full sun so you can see what you’re doing.
- Use local wood. Bringing your own wood might seem more efficient, but many campgrounds prohibit it because it can potentially introduce invasive insect species to vulnerable tree populations in the area. If there isn’t enough fuel available around the campground itself, there is often local firewood available for sale nearby in camping-heavy areas.
- Do not use accelerants like grill firestarter or gasoline. Not only will you not want the fumes of accelerants leeching into any food that is cooked over the campfire, but these kinds of flammable liquids can also easily cause campfires to spread out of control. The resulting explosion from adding too much accelerant at once can also cause people to be badly burned.
- There are many types of campfires. Once you have your campfire burning well, you can be much more flexible on the wood you burn. If you stack the wet, deadfall near to your campfire it will soon dry out and be good to use. Remember never burn wet or green wood.
- Make sure your fire is legal. If you’re making a raw campfire in the wilderness, you need to make sure first and foremost that the campfire is legal. In many areas (especially those known for drought) campfires are strictly forbidden outside of established fire pits in camping zones. Check the regulations in your local area before building a campfire.
- Keep a bucket of water, a bucket of sand, or a small fire extinguisher nearby. Sand can also be spread in a ring around the outside of the rocks of the fire pit to help stop any spread of fire. Hopefully, you won’t need to use any of the above, but if you start a fire you should always be prepared to immediately stop it if it looks like it might start to get out of control.
Whichever campfire build you choose, the key is to light your tinder first, then slowly add larger and larger pieces of kindling until the fire has grown enough to ignite the larger branches.
It is easy to accidentally smother a small fire by adding too much fuel too quickly, so be sure to be patient and add the kindling very gradually. This is a good activity for children since they like to burn things and the gradual nature of the activity allows everyone to participate as much as they like.
Dakota Fire Pit
One very popular way of creating a very safe, controllable campfire is to use a Dakota fire pit. It requires quite a bit of digging to set up so it is an ideal pastime for certain types of children.
I could write thousands of words trying to describe a pretty easy setup. Best watch the video for a better idea of how it works.
Best Ways to Cook Safely on a Campfire
Some people might be a little intimidated to cook over an open fire, but the truth is that in a lot of ways fireside dining is a lot simpler than either cooking in a kitchen or doing takeout. With a little preparation ahead of time, you don’t have to survive your camping trip on peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix.
These are some of the things you need to keep in mind to cook safely around a campfire:
- Bring metal. Plastic utensils and containers are not going to survive the intense heat around a campfire without melting, so invest in some good metal camping dishes. It’s also a good idea to bring heavy leather gloves for grabbing metal pans over the fire rather than traditional potholders, as these gloves can withstand campfire heat more easily.
- Keep children away from cooking food. Dishes cooked over an open flame can become very hot, and kids might accidentally grab a cast-iron skillet handle without thinking about that. It’s good to get kids involved with campfire cooking with skewered weenie roasts and food prep, but leave more complicated dishes that involve Dutch ovens, skillets, or grills to the adults.
- Avoid deep-fried foods around the campfire. Splattered fats (either from frying food or fatty foods) can cause the fire to flare up, and this can be dangerous if it happens unexpectedly. It is safer to grill or roast foods over the campfire rather than try and fry them. Many deep-fried foods can be safely dry-fried in a campfire skillet without the need for dangerous amounts of oil.
- Remember food temperature safety. Nothing can ruin a camping trip quicker than an all-encompassing bout of food poisoning for the whole party. Make sure that all meats get cooked up to the appropriate temperature to kill off bacteria, and that food is not left out at ambient temperatures for more than two hours (only one if the outdoor temperature is more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit). Make sure you have plenty of coolers available to store cooked food.
You might have spent your childhood eating hot dogs around the campfire (and they’re still pretty good, we admit) but there are so many more things that can be successfully cooked around a campfire that makes extended camping trips a lot more enjoyable.
Good Things to Cook on a Campfire
Gone are the days when campers had to make do with room temperature snacks and hot dogs as a solid meal in the wilderness—thanks to modern ingenuity, campers have figured out how to cook hundreds of different dishes over a campfire, from popcorn to lasagna.
Here is a list of some of the simplest (yet delicious) meals you can eat over an open campfire. Some of these are so good you’ll probably be tempted to recreate them over your grill back home once your camping trip is over.
- Hamburger foil dinners: These foil dinners are a simple concoction of hamburger patties piled on top of vegetables in a foil container and topped with a gravy of condensed mushroom soup. Potatoes, onions, and carrots are popular vegetables included in foil dinners, but others such as green beans, peppers, or Brussels sprouts can also be used.
- Campfire pizza: There are a limitless variety of pizzas that can be successfully cooked over a campfire, either in a skillet or on top of a high-set grill. Since most pizzas are made with high-moisture fresh cheeses like mozzarella, plan on eating pizza on your first night of camping so that you don’t have to try and store cold cheese overnight.
- Bacon and eggs: Wrapping and skewering bacon over an open fire is a great savory side dish for some eggs cooked in the campfire skillet. Grilling bacon on a skewer rather than frying it in a pan can help prevent oil fires too. If you can score some unwashed, farm-fresh eggs for your camping trip, they can be kept at ambient temperatures without spoiling for weeks at a time.
- Grilled cheese sandwiches: Grilled cheese sandwiches in a campfire skillet are a simple yet satisfying meal for the first night of camping when everyone is exhausted from setting up. To give cheese sandwiches a little extra heft, try adding dry-cured ham (which can be stored safely at room temperature). Serve with chips for a stress-free supper that lets you get to the smores.
- Fajitas and beans: You can make some great fireside fajitas by grilling steak or chicken over the campfire and accompanying it with these delicious beans—just use black beans, corn, diced tomatoes, a fresh minced jalapeno, and some salt and pepper. Let the combination marry while you’re grilling the meat, then serve with flour or corn tortillas. You can also cook peppers and onion for the fajitas in foil packets on the grill.
- Macaroni and cheese: The major advantage of making macaroni and cheese over the campfire is that macaroni is usually cooked with hard aged cheese such as cheddar and parmesan, which are much easier to store while camping since they don’t need refrigeration. Macaroni and cheese can also be filled out by incorporating fried hamburger, onions, or peppers.
- Pancakes: Nothing smells better in the campground in the morning than the smell of brewing coffee and frying flapjacks. Pancakes are convenient for campfire breakfasts because they can be made with powdered mix and water, and their usual condiments (syrup and jam) store easily at room temperature.
- Spaghetti: Making spaghetti over a campfire is as simple as boiling water for pasta, opening a can of pasta sauce, and grating some parmesan cheese. If you don’t want to bother keeping foods cool you can opt for a vegetarian version, but otherwise, you can add ground beef or other proteins to make the sauce more filling.
- Sausage and pepper bake: This is another easy foil dinner for camping—chop up some Polish sausage into coins, then add chopped peppers, tomatoes, and sliced potatoes. Wrap it all up in aluminum foil and grill over an open flame. The foil containers keep the fat from the sausages from spilling into the fire and allow it instead to soak into the vegetables for a delicious meal.
- Grilled nachos: Having fireside nachos is as simple as layering chips, beans, and cheese in a disposable aluminum pan and setting it on a grill over the campfire. Fresh diced onion, tomatoes, and other toppings can be added once the cheese is melted onto the chips and the dish is removed from the fire. This is a great “family style” meal for camping.
- Canned chili: If you are planning on roasting some hot dogs over your fire, a few cans of chili boiled over the fire can make a nice match for them. Canned chili also goes well with nacho chips or flour tortillas to be used as edible dipping spoons.
For more ideas and inspiration on excellent campfire camping recipes, you can try on your next trip, check out this list from Country Living. These are kid-friendly recipes that will make sure everyone heads to their sleeping bag full and happy.
If you’re going to build a campfire at your camping site, being aware of campfire safety is of the utmost importance. Not only are you helping prevent injury to your own camping party, but you’re also helping to prevent damage to the surrounding environment.
Here are some tips for safety you should keep in mind when working around campfires:
- Make sure that everyone knows fundamental fire safety, including stop, drop, and roll. These kinds of things are so commonplace in our culture that we might take our children’s knowledge of them for granted, but it is easy to forget what you’ve learned in the middle of a panic. Before starting a fire, be sure to remind everyone of basic fire safety.
- Make sure your campfire and grill are level. Building a campfire on an uneven surface is just asking for the whole thing to topple over and outside the fire pit, which can potentially cause injuries or start a fire. Most fire pits in established campgrounds are already situated on level ground but if you’re building your own, make sure the terrain is even.
- Keep all flammable liquids stored well away from the campfire. This includes any stove and lamp fuel. Be aware that a flammable liquid does not have to come into direct contact with fire in order to combust—just being exposed to high enough temperatures is sometimes sufficient.
- Make sure the fire is completely extinguished before leaving the campground. Waiting for the fire to bank and die down is not sufficient, as the embers underneath the top layer of ash can still catch fire. To make sure the fire is completely out, pour a bucket of water over it. Sand or dirt will also work as long as it completely smothers the fire bed. Stirring the fire bed helps to ensure it is completely dead and that there aren’t hot embers smoldering under the surface.
Starting campfires is fun, but since they can be so dangerous if left unchecked, it’s important to take campfire safety very seriously. Like Smokey the Bear says, only you can prevent forest fires.
Unless you are camping in very cold climates it is not a good idea to build a campfire to last all night. If you do, there are quite a few videos on youtube that describe how to build all-night campfires – see below
Long Lasting CampFire
If you get a fire going in camp, you’ll want to make sure that it’s a campfire that has the perseverance to last throughout the evening. The trick here is very simple – don’t build your campfire too big. Let it burn down to embers before adding more fuel.
The embers are great for cooking and generate more than enough heat for everyone to sit around and keep warm.
The main key to creating a fire that lasts for hours rather than burning brightly for a short amount of time is to limit the combustion in the fire, and that often involves restricting the amount of oxygen the fire receives.
One way to do this is to feed the fire with one large log after it has been going for several hours. This large log serves two purposes—it helps to partially smother the fire and lower the level of combustion, while also giving the fire a long-term source of fuel to help sustain it throughout the night.
Here are some other tips for helping your fire burn all night:
- Cover your fire embers with aluminum foil. This helps restrict oxygen to the embers and keeps them low, but also helps slow their burn and keep them from burning themselves out. This is also a good way to help prevent embers from flying up over the edges of the fire pit if a log suddenly shifts.
- Throw some ash or rocks in the fire. This will serve the purpose of partially smothering it, but at the same time, it will allow the fire to burn longer and lower, allowing it to “stay alive” throughout the night.
- Decide whether an all-night fire is safe, given the camping conditions. In some areas that are full of tinder or are prone to wildfire, it might not be safe to leave the embers of your fire hot when you turn in for the night. In that case, you should make sure that your fire is completely doused before turning in and start fresh in the morning.
- Have someone supervise the fire at all times. This is really the only safe way to have a fire burning all night. All it takes is a sudden gust of wind or a branch falling over an unattended fire pit to cause a massive catastrophe. If a fire is burning, someone in the camping party needs to be awake to watch and tend it. Nobody wants to be woken up at camp by a ranger with a citation. It is illegal in almost every area to leave a fire unattended in a forest.
All-night campfires can be an enjoyable way to keep the party going until dawn, but make sure that safety is a top priority when building your all-night fire to avoid waking up surrounded by it.
Campfires Are Fun, but Safety is Key
Campfires are easily one of the most exciting and memorable parts of a camping trip, but it’s important for adults and children alike to learn the proper ways to build and tend a fire in order to make sure that everyone stays safe at the campground. With just a little preparation and planning, you can build and cook over your best campfire yet!