Mom Goes Camping

How to Cook Over a Campfire (without a grill rack)

Normally, if you want to cook over a campfire, you need a metal grill rack. The grill rack is propped over the fire above the flames and provides a base for your cook pots and pans. If you are going backpacking though, you probably don’t want to bring a grill rack with you. 

First off, the grill rack would add a lot of weight to your pack. It would also complicate things since the rack takes a while to cool down before you can move it, and also gets really dirty after each use. You can still cook over a campfire while backpacking or camping though. Just use one of the methods talked about here.

*Going backpacking and not sure what to eat? Check out this complete guide to backpacking food.

 

Why Cook Over a Campfire?

Aside from the fact that it is fun, campfire cooking will save you fuel for your camping stove (read about stoves here). That means you won’t have to bring as much fuel with you, thus further lightening your load.

In my case, I like knowing how to cook over a campfire in case I run out of fuel while in the middle of nowhere.  It’s only happened a few times, but it was a lifesaver – like the time my fuel ran out before I had my morning coffee.  I would have been very grumpy had I not been able to make coffee over the fire! 😀

 

But You Still Need a Camp Stove

Do not rely on a campfire for cooking your backpacking or camping meals. First off, it takes a lot of work to gather wood for a campfire and get it going.  Do you really want to go through this entire process each time you want to heat water for your coffee or for a quick soup?

What if it rains? While it is possible to make a fire in the rain, it’s a pain in the ass — and makes campfire cooking even more difficult.

Also, there is the issue of fire safety. A lot of places now implement fire bans because the risk of forest fire is so high. Even if there is no ban in place, you should never leave a campfire until it has been completely put out. When I go backpacking with my daughter, we go on day hikes. I bring my camp stove on the day hikes so we can have a hot lunch on a nice spot on the trail. It wouldn’t be practical or safe to cook our lunches over a campfire on the trail.

healthy backpacking food

Preparing lunch while on a day hike. It’s a lot easier and safer to use a stove for quick meals than a building a campfire each time. 

 

Tips for Campfire Cooking

  • Build up hot coals. Don’t put your food over the campfire until you’ve burnt down a lot of wood to make hot coals in the fire pit.  It’s easier to cook over these coals/embers than the waning flame of kindle.
  • Start early. It takes a while to burn down enough wood to make hot coals.  So start the cooking process early or you will end up sitting in the dark, hungry and grumpy.
  • Smaller is better. You don’t need a giant fire to cook your meals. It will be easier to control the heat and flame if you build a small fire. After you are done cooking, you can always build it up more.
  • Coat your camp pots with dish soap. This is a cool trick that I learned a while back. Normally, when you cook over a fire, your camp pots get a black film all over them which is hard to wash off. If you coat the bottom with a thin layer of dish soap, the black will rub off really easily.
  • Get pots with removable or hanging handles! Most camping pots have plastic insulation on their handles.  Obviously this will melt if you put it over a campfire.  There’s also the issue of the handle getting hot. That’s why I prefer camping pots like these which have removable handles.  You never have to worry about burning yourself on a hot handle.

The pots below have hanging handles, which makes them great for campfire cooking.

Toaks Titanium Cook Pot (750ml, 3.9oz)

Lixada Titanium Cook Pot (Multiple sizes available)

Wealers Camping Cook Set (stainless steel; 4 pot sizes in set)

 

Campfire Cooking Method 1: Cranes

If you have a camp cook pot which has a hanging handle, then this is the best method for campfire cooking. It is known as a cooking crane.  There are various ways to set up a cooking crane over a campfire.

campfire cooking crane 1

campfire cooking crane 2

 

campfire cooking crane 3

campfire cooking crane 4

 

And below is what a campfire crane looks like in real-life use:

cooking over campfire with crane

Sometimes you have to use some pretty cool notches to make a crane (one more reason to bring a knife outdoors).  Check out the picture below.

campfire crane with notched wood

 

Campfire Cooking Method 2: Tripods

You can buy tripod to take camping, but it’s also fairly easy to make one yourself.  The only catch is that, like with cranes, you’ll need a pot that can be suspended over the fire.

tripod for cooking over campfire

 

Campfire Cooking Method 3: Trench

With this method, you need to dig a small pit. You make your fire in the pit.  Then you can put some thick branches over the pit and use these to prop your cook pot on.  Alternatively, you can prop the pot on the rim of the pit.

As explained here, this method is mostly popular in places where wood is limited. However, it’s also a good option for windy conditions.  See this post for fire lays for bad weather conditions.

campfire cooking trench

Campfire Cooking Method 4: Propped On Rocks

This is how a lot of people in developing countries cook over a fire (hence the picture — I don’t have one of me trying it out).  It works just as well when backpacking though — just find some big rocks to prop your cook pot on.  Again, the key here is to make a small fire between the rocks.

campfire cooking propped on rocks

 

Campfire Cooking Method 5: On Top of a Hot Rock

I’ve never tried this one, and I bet it would take a really long time to heat the rock up enough to get water boiling.  I’m usually too hungry to wait that long!  But it is still a good option to know about, and would be a decent campfire cooking option for when it rains because the rock would block water from getting into the fire.

campfire cooking on top of rock

 

Campfire Cooking Method 6: Coal Roasting

Instead of cooking on the actual fire, cook foods on the coals instead.  Obviously there are a lot of foods which can’t go directly on coals.  However, hot coal cooking works really well for foods like potatoes.  It also works well for foods in a foil pouch.

For this to work, it’s important that you build up enough coals. Small sticks will quickly make coals, but they burn out too fast to cook over them. You’ll need to make a fire and keep feeding it.  Once a few larger branches or logs have burned down to embers, the coals are ready.

If you want to keep your fire going while cooking, just move some of the bigger coals off to the side of the fire pit.  Then use these coals to cook your food on.

foil pouches over campfire coals

using sticks to turn food over campfire

 

Not sure what to eat while outdoors?

Then get my eBook!  It has over 50 lightweight, tasty recipes that you can make on a dehydrator.  Just add water and you’ve got a delicious meal. The book also has lots of tips and tricks for planning backpacking meals.  Learn more here.

dehydrator backpacking recipes

Below are pictures of some of the recipes you’ll find in the book. Get the book here.

dehydrator backpacking recipes

From left to right: Blueberry chia oatmeal, pear cardamom ginger oatmeal, red pepper crackers with hummus, beetroot “salami”, mashed potatoes with white bean gravy, & pasta with buttery white bean sauce


Image credits: Richard Wasserman Cooking Fire Inside Dani Hut CC BY NC ND 2.0, Found on Flickr
Luke and Kate Bosman IMG_1922.JPG CC BY NC ND 2.0, Found on Flickr
Maximusnukeage CampCooking.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0, Found on Wiki Commons
Turning the Hobos” (CC BY 2.0) by OakleyOriginals
Classic Campfire Foil Dinners” (CC BY 2.0) by woodleywonderworks
Carving Project – Cooking Crane” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by teejaybee
PA140047” (CC BY 2.0) by ProAdventure
Cooking at Munsungan Stream” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Nick Gallop
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About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast and couchsurfer. She loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 9-year old daughter and hunting beetles with her 1-year old. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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