So, it’s been a while since you built a campfire. Let’s face it – even if you have a fireplace at home, it’s likely that it operates from a wall switch. It’s also not easy to practice at home, and who wants to google the instructions on their phone from their campsite?
No worries, we’ll get you up to speed, and you’ll be able to confidently fry up some eggs and bacon with the best of them on your next camping trip. Here’s what you’ll need to know, before you light things up and start cooking.
It All Starts With the Wood
All wood is not the same – and if you say that, with confidence, you’ll already look like you’re a master camper. Here’s what you actually need to know.
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but we’ll say it: It needs to be dry. All of it. When you hear people tossing around phrases like “seasoned” firewood, they are basically saying: “It’s dry.”
If you are searching for your own firewood around your campsite, you will want to use hardwoods for the main logs. Again, this is another one of those words that you will want to file away for authenticity points. Hardwoods are denser, and yes, harder, and they come from trees like oaks, hickory, elm and ash. They burn hotter and slower than other woods. In other words: they are just the kind of fuel that you want to cook over, producing a more consistent and strong heat.
There may be other types of wood in the area. It’s quite possible that you will have access to branches from pine trees, willow, or cedar. These are known as “softwoods” and are, as you might guess, lighter and less dense than hardwood.
These are good to use for lighting fires, but are not suitable for a long-burning campfire. They light easily, and burn fast and hot. They’re loaded up with resin, which has a strongly scented smoke that doesn’t combine well with cooked food. Save the pine for use in small quantities at the start of your fire.
Just as an aside: Don’t bring in your own firewood. It’s quite possible that it’s been banned in your camping area. Many areas of the country have issued bans like this to stop the spread of harmful insects that can destroy forests. It’s not cool to be the person who introduced the beetle that ate the whole county.
How to Gather What You’ll Need
A successful campfire needs 3 things, and you’ll be able to sort them out by using just your hand and arm for reference. No cheat sheet necessary!
This is the initial fire starting fluff. It needs to be dry, and light. Around your campsite, look for small twigs, leaves, dry grass, or pine needles. They need to be wider than the palm of your hand.
Gather an amount that will fit inside a circle made with both hands.
If you want to pack in some tinder yourself, you’ll be pleased to know that there are lots of ways to recycle household trash for fire starter. Some good ones are
- Dryer lint (Finally! A use for dryer lint!)
- Cardboard strips
- Stale corn chips (Really!)
- Wood shavings
You can, of course also pack in a commercial fire starter, but we recommend that as only a last resort.
Larger twigs that are used to build up the fire. Again, you are looking for dry wood – it should snap easily if you try to break it, not bend. Using our “handy” reference, locate pieces that are about the width of your thumb. The ideal length should be about the distance between the end of your fingers to your elbow.
Gather a good armful of your kindling pieces.
This is the heart of your campfire, and will consist of the larger, slower-burning pieces. You’ll want to use pieces that are about the same width as your forearm, and as long as your whole arm.
You’ll want a pile that is about knee-high.
Get all your fire components ready and sorted before you start the process – you’ll save a lot of running around and bad words if you do. The goal is to keep feeding the fire from your stash of wood as it starts.
How to Start Your Fire
First, make sure you have a safe spot for setting it up. If your campsite already has a fire pit, you’re good. Make sure that you’ve moved all the excess ashes out of the way (hopefully the last person was nice enough to clean those up), and start placing your wood.
If you need to set up your own fire ring, look for a flat area away from low-hanging branches, tree roots, and other flammable items. Dig a 3-8” deep hole, and surround it with rocks to set up a barrier. Flat rocks are nice to include, so that you can place cooking items on them later.
Have water nearby. Don’t start your fire without it.
Take your tinder and lay a bed of it inside the fire ring. You’ll want it to be about a foot wide.
Using your kindling, build a teepee over the tinder. This doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to be fairly stable. You still want air to move through the wood, and to be able to reach in to light the tinder.
Now, take your firewood and build a larger teepee over the first one. Again – pretty is not the goal, just serviceable.
Light your tinder. Be prepared to help the air move through your “teepee” – the fire needs oxygen to burn well.
Once the fire is established, move the hot embers to the center of the fire – this is where you’ll want the heat for cooking. Keep feeding the fire as needed by adding more pieces of firewood. (Aren’t you glad you gathered it all beforehand?)
Can I Cook With Stainless Steel directly on my campfire?
Actually, stainless steel is great for outdoor life. It’s tough, durable, cleans up well, and is much lighter than cast iron. If you take care of your stainless steel cookware, you’ll be using it for a long, long time.
There are all kinds of cookware options out there, and it can be hard to decide what you want to take along. Campfire cooking is basically like any other cooking – you can fry, boil, grill or use skewers, just for starters.
If you start to look for stainless steel camping cookware, you will quickly find out that there are multiple sizes of pots, skillets, coffee makers, specialized S’mores skewers, popcorn poppers, mess kits, mugs…where does one even start?
Here’s a nice stainless steel cookware set that you can get on Amazon. Here’s the reasoning: It packs well, has a really good range of sizes, and is really versatile. This particular set lets you heat up smaller portions, while having enough room for up to 4 quarts in the largest piece. It includes a skillet, and the detachable handle can be moved from piece to piece, if needed.
You’ll be able to cook up things like stir fry, beans, steak, stew, or eggs in the various pot sizes. The lid is sized to fit more than one piece, and this set cooks evenly. It all packs up quite compactly when you’re done. It’s well-made and fashioned from 18/10 stainless steel.
You may prefer cast iron cookware, and many do. There’s just something special about cooking with cast iron. This cast iron dutch oven or these cast iron skillets from Amazon would be great for cooking on a campfire.
Putting Out the Campfire
This is perhaps the saddest part of any camping experience, but it’s important that you do it properly. Here’s how to ensure that your campfire is totally extinguished, and how to be a camper that makes the world a nicer place for the next person who comes along.
Let the fire burn down to the embers, if possible. Once you’re done cooking or telling your ghost stories, stop feeding the fire and let it gradually die down. You’ll still enjoy the heat for quite some time.
Extinguish the fire by shoveling dirt or sand over it, or by pouring water over it. If possible, avoid pouring water over the hot coals – you’ll make a lot of steam, and it’s messy.
Once the embers have gone out, keep stirring them and adding more dirt, sand or water. Continue until there are no live embers visible. Hold your hand just above the coals to make sure there aren’t any hidden hot spots.
If possible, either fill in the hole you dug with more dirt to return it to a natural state. If you are using a fire pit, be a good person and clean out the old ashes so that the next person has a clean slate to work with.
Cooking over a campfire is a bit of an art, and a great confidence builder. There’s nothing like making fire, watching it burn, and producing a meal from the results. Just remember to use dry hardwood logs for cooking, and use our “handy” guide for gathering and lighting your fire. Once you’re blazing away, you’ll find that a set of portable stainless steel cookware will make your outdoor cooking experience easy and downright fun. There’s nothing quite like that first pot of stew or stir-fry you make yourself. Pack up your dryer lint and your cookware, and be prepared for new horizons!