Cuisine in the great outdoors runs the gamut from s’mores and canned beans to homemade pasta and gourmet-grade paellas and tacos. You don’t have to be a trained chef to whip up incredibly tasty meals while you’re in the backcountry as long as you plan ahead.
Certain camping gear will help make things easier for you. A cooler is an invaluable tool if you want to bring real, whole foods on longer camping trips. Ultralight packers can still bring prepared food along using a thermos & plastic bag.
Planning your campfire meals depends on the specifics of your trip – how long you’ll be gone, where you’re camping, etc. Follow the 7 tips in this helpful guide to become a 5-star campfire chef on your next backcountry outing!
Building a cooking fire
Constructing a campfire is one of the hallmarks of a tried and true backcountry expert. You can be a bit more flexible with your campfire if you only need it for light and warmth at night. A cooking fire needs to burn cleanly and produce as little ash as possible.
For that reason, you have to have really dry wood. Softwood from fir, spruce, cedar, pine, or poplar trees creates the finest ash, which reduces the likelihood that ash will wind up in your food.
If your campsite has a fire pit or a pre-designated area for a campfire, you’re a step ahead. If there is no fire pit available, make sure to build your fire in a clear space with no detritus on the ground. Bare soil is best to prevent the fire from spreading.
Here’s what the perfect cooking campfire needs:
- Even Coals: A level bed of coals is best for more uniform cooking. It will also give you the ability to get heat on your food over long periods, which is important if you’re cooking for a group of people. You can also grade your coals, meaning you may arrange a higher bed of coals in one area of the fire. This gives a higher level of heat control, as you can use that higher bed for more heat and move your cookware to a lower section to reduce heat.
- Clean Site: Keep your fire at least 10 feet from trees, bushes, and anything else that might catch fire. Make sure there are no branches hanging over the fire as well. If you’re building a very small fire for a solo or tandem camping trip, you might be able to be closer to trees, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
- Chimney Rock: A tall rock in the back of your fire pit will help direct smoke out in one area rather than letting it blow in the faces of the people around the fire. If there is wind at your campsite, make sure the chimney rock is facing the wind to prevent too much oxygen from blowing into the fire.
- Properly Stacked Wood: That teepee shape you’ve seen in the movies is meant for fires whose main purpose is to give off heat. Cooking fires should be built by building a square with the wood. Alternatively, you could also make a lattice with smaller pieces of wood and then square larger logs on top.
- Low Flame: Cooking over a roaring fire is probably going to burn your food and could ruin your cookware. The ideal is a nice bed of hot coals. If there’s a little flame still going, that’s fine. Expert marshmallow roasters already know cooking over the tallest flames is more likely to burn your food.
- Kindling Everywhere: Some people just bring enough paper with them to get a small fire started in the center of their fire pit, but it’s better to put kindling all over the fire pit entwined with little pieces of wood like tree branches.
- Campfire Cooking Safety: Always keep a bucket of water near enough to the fire to put it out if things go wrong but far enough away that you can access it if the fire gets out of control. Campers cooking over an open flame should also make sure to have fire-resistant gloves and metal utensils that can stand the heat. Never leave a fire burning unattended and always make sure there’s a clear marker of where the fire is. People heading for the treeline in the middle of the night could step on hot coals and embers if they aren’t careful. Close-toed shoes are also important. Make sure they’re fire-resistant and won’t melt if exposed to heat. If you have to stomp out some embers or adjust a log with the toe of your boot, you’ll be glad to be wearing solid shoes instead of flimsy flip-flops.
Essential tools for the campfire chef
You can get fancy and bring an entire cooking stove setup and prep table. Even if you aren’t taking things to that level, there are a few items you’ll want to make sure you have to make the widest variety of mouthwatering campfire meals.
- Aluminum Foil: Heavy-duty aluminum foil is a piece of cookware unto itself. Ultralight packers who don’t want to carry a cast-iron skillet around can construct simple foil packets that can be placed on the coals to cook and then unwrapped and eaten once they cool. If you’re careful with aluminum foil, it can be rinsed off and reused. This depends on what you’re putting inside the tin foil as well. Some tin foil varieties are too thin for campfire cooking and might allow food to leak into the fire, so make sure you spring for the thicker heavy-duty aluminum foil.
- Metal Tongs: Even if you aren’t going to be grilling with a spatula, you’ll need metal tongs to reach into the fire and pull out your aluminum foil packets. Tongs also double as a coal maneuvering tool. If you leave home without your tongs, a stick will do in a pinch. Just make sure you place your aluminum packets somewhere they can be rolled out of the fire and allowed to cool. Tongs are more versatile because they can also be used to pick up hot lids and anything else that falls into the fire pit.
- Skewers: Often when we go on backpacking trips and want to pack light, we bring simple food like hot dogs. If you want to roast those weenies over an open flame, you’ll want to have some skewers along. For a far more delicious recipe, build kabobs on your skewers and wrap them up. Once you build a fire, all you have to do is roast everything and then dig in. If you don’t have a cooler, make your kebabs out of veggies or wrap the kebabs in a towel with an ice pack to keep anything cold that needs to be. Reusable skewers are some of the fastest campfire meals if you prepare them at home and clean-up is fast and easy.
Additional gear to kick your cooking up a notch
For everyone except ultralight backpacking enthusiasts who hate the extra weight, some of the following camping gear will greatly widen the number of dishes you can cook on your next camping trip.
- Cast-Iron Cookware: The two essential pieces of cookware for campfire cuisine are a cast-iron skillet and a heavy-duty Dutch oven. If your camping group is only a few people, the cast-iron skillet will be fine for grilling bacon and eggs in the morning and whipping up some mouthwatering filets at dinnertime. A cast-iron dutch oven is great for larger meals. Soups and stews that call for you to boil water in larger amounts will need the extra space afforded by a dutch oven. Another strategy for multi-day camping trips is to make a large meal of something tasty in the dutch oven and eat off it for the whole trip. Remember that that food will still have to be stored somewhere secure if you’re in bear country, though.
- Grill Grate: Campers who like to fish and cook their catch over an open flame will benefit from having a grill grate with them. You can place this over the coals to make a campfire grill and roast fish, chicken, or anything else. It’s just like having a barbecue with you but you don’t have to carry nearly as much weight. You can also use a grill grate to place your cookware on to keep it lifted off the direct heat. It can help preserve the cookware itself and heat your food more evenly.
- Camp Stove: Go the extra mile and bring a camping stove. It’s an additional piece of gear that will have to be carried, but you won’t have to worry about adjusting the cooking time for your recipes or ruining your cookware by placing it on direct heat in the fire. Some outdoor purists claim it’s no longer camping if you start bringing gear like camp stoves with you. But for people who just like to convene in nature with their friends and aren’t concerned with roughing it, the camp stove makes preparing great outdoor meals much easier.
7 tips to become a campfire cooking expert
If you want to impress your fellow campers, try some of these culinary pointers on your next trip to the backcountry:
- Prepare at Home: Most of our favorite campfire recipes have loads of mouthwatering veggies like onion, peppers, garlic, and potatoes. If you can chop all those veggies at home, cooking at the campsite will be much easier. Plus, clean-up will be faster. Chopping veggies isn’t the only prep you can do at home. Prepare your meat dishes if you partake and drop them into a marinade so they can develop extra flavor while sitting in the cooler. Prepare entire meals in aluminum foil packets so you can simply drop them in the fire when mealtime hits at camp. While it might not be feasible to bring lots of seasoning along on your camping trip, pre-mixing everything into one or two plastic bags can reduce the burden. You can even season the food ahead of time. Some people go so far as to cook food almost all the way so that they only have to cook it briefly on the campfire.
- Branch Out: Hot dogs, hamburgers, marshmallows – even chicken breasts are becoming a bit boring on camping trips. But it’s so easy to explore new recipes and the internet is full of them. For example, if you’re going to make tin foil packets, you can make fajitas. If you bring a dutch oven, you can make enchiladas, chili, or lasagna. Cast-iron skillets are ideal for one-pot pastas, paella, and even pizza. Try to make regional specialties like Philly cheesesteak or red beans and rice. Many of these recipes seem like they’re too complicated, but if you take time to prepare them beforehand you can make tons of different dishes that will satisfy campers’ appetites and prevent palate boredom on long trips.
- Invest in a Cooler: Whether you’re a carnivorous type or you want to keep drinks cold, a good cooler is essential to bring good food along on a camping trip. Meat has to be kept on ice right up until it’s cooked and the only way you’ll be able to do that in warm weather is to have a heavy-duty cooler with you. On shorter trips or backpacking excursions that aren’t overnight, a small cooler that fits in a rucksack is ideal. You can still keep prepared meals in one. Once you’ve enjoyed your meal, you can enjoy a lighter pack on the way back.
- Freeze Your Liquids: If you want to bring some usable ice, simply freeze some gallon jugs of water. They can keep everything cold in the cooler on the way to the campsite and you can drink them once they thaw. It beats waiting for the cooler to drain. For a really gourmet solution, make your own chicken, beef, or vegetable stock at home and freeze some of that. It will still keep everything cool and you can dump it into a dutch oven for a mouthwatering stew that will taste like you spent hours on it.
- Learn About Heat: Cooking has everything to do with heat and you can use different parts of the campfire to do different things. For example, if you’re frying things in a cast-iron skillet, you should get the skillet really hot to get a good sear on the meat. Once it’s seared, you can move the skillet to low heat or place it on a grill great to let everything finish cooking. For soups and stews, you don’t want a heavily bubbling liquid. The bottom is more likely to burn if you cook for more than 45 minutes or so. You can get much more flavor if you slow-cook your chili, stew, or soup at a brisk simmer.
- Try New Presentations: Grilled chicken breasts and hot dogs might not be news to most campers, but what about pulled barbecue chicken? Andouille sausage or Chicago-style hot dogs? There are tons of variations of all our favorite campfire dishes that will keep campers from getting bored on long trips. Bring tortillas along and you can make enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, or taquitos. It’s all about interpreting the ingredients you have. Were you planning on making corn on the cob? How about Mexican street corn or a southwestern-style chicken dish instead?
- Don’t Be Afraid of Ready-Made Ingredients: Sometimes you don’t need a really involved meal. Camping is all about enjoying the simpler things, after all. You can make some really delicious meals with everyday ingredients with a little ingenuity. Probably the best example of this is Frito Pie. Take a bag of Fritos and cover it with a ground beef mixture, cheese, and veggies of your choice. Best of all, you can cook the filling at home and heat it up on the campfire. Pre-made cinnamon rolls and bread will cook on hot stones or in a skillet. There’s nothing wrong with bringing boxed mac n’ cheese and spicing it up in whatever way you want, either. Pro-tip: add real cheese on top and finish it off in a skillet to give it an extra crunch.
Campfire cooking is good, rustic fun. Many campers have limited imaginations when it comes to recipes over an open flame, though, which can cause people to get bored of the food by the end of a camping trip. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to build some mouthwatering recipes that will keep everyone satisfied for long group trips or small ultralight backpacking excursions.
Bonus tip: Check out these clever camping food hacks to make your campfire cooking even easier!