One of the first images that comes to mind when people talk about camping is a campfire. For many people, campfires and camping are practically synonymous. Campfires can serve many functions on a camping trip: as a quick source of heat on a cold night, and an efficient way to dry off layers after a rainy day. Some people even refer to campfires as “caveman television,” because of their addictive nature. One of the best uses for a campfire is to cook food. Although cooking on a campfire takes longer than using a backpacking stove, campfires are incredibly versatile. The smoke imparts a unique flavor to the food and, with the right equipment, you can cook everything from s’mores to fresh bread using a campfire.
Many official or established campsites have nicely built fire pits or fire rings. In regions without established camping sites, fire rings are usually easy to find in well-traveled areas, but many are built in locations that don’t adhere to land use regulations. Fire regulations vary greatly from state to state and between land agencies, so double-check any requirements before leaving home. If you’re on public lands, don’t build a new fire ring if you can’t find one where you are camped. Instead, build a leave no trace fire – one that won’t have a lasting impact on the area. The most important part of having a campfire is to ensure that your fire doesn’t impact the surrounding environment. Every summer, improperly extinguished campfires create massive wildfires. It takes very little time for a smoldering fire to flare into a multi-acre wildfire, so be sure your fire is completely dead when you go to bed or leave the campsite. The most effective way to achieve this is by pouring water on the embers and ashes. Another preventive measure is to keep the size of your pile manageable. A huge bonfire in the woods can get out of hand quickly, so aim for nothing larger than a three-foot diameter and a foot high and don’t use branches that are thicker than your wrist. Never burn trash, especially toilet paper because tiny pieces can catch the wind and blow out of sight, moving embers to areas beyond your vision. If you’re on public lands, check for fire bans in your area before starting any fires.
Campfires can be used to create several types of cooking conditions, from an open flame to seasoned coals. The stage of fire you want to cook with depends entirely on what you are cooking. For fast-cooking items like hot dogs and marshmallows, full flames are fast and easy. While these items can be cooked on the end of a sharpened stick, it’s simpler to bring a set of roasting sticks. For easy packing, invest in a set of extendable sticks with wooden handles. People who are new to campfire cooking usually stick their marshmallow or hot dog right into the flames, which certainly will work. However, this usually results in a crispy exterior and chilly interior. For a perfectly golden-brown marshmallow or an evenly crispy hot dog, look for a patch of wood that’s glowing, but not shooting flames. The glowing signals coal, which emits a more even heat than flames. It does require more time to cook this way, but the effort pays off for those with patience. Kids will usually opt for the full flame effect, which is half the fun of having a campfire with children. To dress up s’mores, try using peanut butter cups in place of chocolate or bring filled chocolate bars instead of flat ones. If you like the chocolate slightly melted, set your graham cracker and chocolate on a stone by the side of the fire while you cook the marshmallow. The same technique will toast a hot dog bun.
For more delicate items like fish, vegetables, and anything baked in a Dutch oven, you need to wait until the fire has created a nice heap of coals. A Dutch oven is a large, heavy cooking pot with a sturdy lid. When buried in or surrounded by hot coals, the pot acts like an oven, evenly cooking the ingredients inside. Though heavy, they’re incredibly versatile and can be used for everything from stews and roasts to cobbler and fresh bread. They’re easy to clean and incredibly durable; there are countless recipes for home cooking in a traditional oven that utilize a Dutch oven, so it’s not a specialty camping item. If you’re cooking something with coals, pack heavy-duty leather gloves or a small shovel to help you move coals to where you need them. For cooking with a Dutch oven, make a flat space in the coals where you can set the pot without worrying about it tipping. Once it’s in place, scoop coals onto the top of the lid so the oven is completely surrounded by even heat. You can also cook food packets wrapped in heavy-duty tinfoil (be sure to use heavy-duty rather than regular). These can be cooked on a grill grate over the fire, or directly in the coals.