How to Cook Over a Campfire


It’s hard to think of anything that embodies the spirit of the great outdoors more than a good old-fashioned campfire under the stars. They provide us with warmth, light, and a great social atmosphere. There’s something deeply human about huddling around a raging fire with friends and family that brings us all closer together. Great food is one of the other few things in this world with the same power to rally us together and lift our spirits. Put them together and you have a guaranteed recipe for success. With a few basic tips, cooking over a campfire can be as fun as it is rewarding. Don’t forget the salt and pepper!

Traditional Simplicity: Cooking on the Coals

Wolf Campers starting a Tipi Fire to Roast Marshmellows
Wolf Campers starting a Tipi Fire to Roast Marshmallows

Humans have relied on fire for centuries to cook their food, making it safer and easier to digest. It’s no surprise that one of the best ways to cook over a campfire has been the tried and true method since the dawn of the human race. Cooking with the coals of the fire is widely thought to be the first method of cooking humans employed. With new modern advances such as aluminum foil, cooking with coals has become easier than ever.

  • Prepare Bed of Coals: The first step for any coal cooking is preparing the bed of coals. Build your fire up with lots of wood and allow it to burn down until the flames are almost extinct. The more wood you burn, the bigger and stronger your bed of coals will be.
  • Cook Right on the Coals: Once you have your coal bed prepared there are several ways to use it. Perhaps the simplest way is to just toss whatever you’re cooking right onto the coals. Everything from meat, to vegetables, to “ash cakes” (basically pancakes cooked right on the coals) can be prepared this way.
  • Or Wrap Food In Aluminum Foil: If you have aluminum foil handy, you can wrap your food items in a shell of foil, and bury the foil package right under the hot coals. Simply bury, wait, unwrap, and enjoy! Potatoes are especially nice prepared this way.
  • Or Skewer Food on a Stick: Finally, the most classic example of this style is the stick/skewer method. Hot dogs, sausages, fish, and marshmallows are easily prepared this way. Just thread the item onto a stick or skewer and hold it over the coals or open flame until it’s cooked through.

The Classic Caveman: Spit Roasting

Wolf College Instructor Bill Chambers Smoking Strips of Salmon
Wolf College Instructor Bill Chambers Smoking Strips of Salmon. This “tripod” is a step beyond the classic “spit” style of contruction, creating greater stability, and allowing for a cover (such as a blanket) to be placed atop, giving that “smoked” flavor to certain foods.

Although somewhat more complicated, spit roasting is a great way to cook larger cuts of meat, whole fish, and fowl. A spit can be set up in a large number of ways, from modern pre-made metal spit sets, to a couple of sticks arranged over the fire.  But a beautiful, simple spit can be created with two tall and straight “Y” shaped sticks, along with a straight branch or stick. To create the spit, follow these directions:

  • Dig two holes directly across from each other on either side of the fire pit. The holes should be at least 6″ deep if not more.
  • Place the sticks in the holes “Y” side up and bury them for support. You may want to steady them with rocks around the base. Make sure they don’t wobble.
  • Build up a fire in the fire pit and get it going strong.
  • Season the whole foul or roast of meat as desired, then skewer it on the long center pole.
  • Place the ends of the pole in the notches of the “Y” sticks over the fire and allow the meat to roast.
  • Rotate the center pole to make sure the meat cooks evenly.
  • Consider placing a metal cup or pot under the place(s) where fats drip from your meat if you need those calories.

A Modern Approach: The Campfire BBQ and Pot Cooking

If “old school” was never really your style, don’t fret. There are still plenty of modern ways to cook with a campfire.

  • Any campfire can be turned into a BBQ simply by placing the grill grate over it.  It’s best to wait until after your fire has burned down to a good bed of coals, then build it up again so that when you are done erecting your cooking grate, a second bed of coals is ready to cook your food.  When grilling over a campfire, it’s critical to keep a low flame so you don’t burn the food.  However, you can still add wood later (when your food is cooking) since, depending on how high you place your grate, coals can take a fair amount of time to cook food placed up on a grill, and besides, a little flame is helpful to create extra flavor.  So when you are ready to cook, strategically place rocks or install another method of support for your cooking grate in such a way that you can adjust the height of your grate when necessary.
  • Pots and pans can also be placed directly on the bed of coals, transforming your campfire into a modern stove top.  Make sure to keep in mind that regulating the temperature is more challenging than on your stove at home, so water-based foods such as soups and teas are easiest to deal with.  Otherwise, if you are making thick stews, or frying meats and veggies, just keep an eye on the heat, add a bit of water or oil to grease the pan when necessary, and the food and you’ll be fine. One key tip when cooking directly on a bed of coals with metal, is to cover your pot or pan so that your food and water heats up quickly. Then, you can uncover the food when you need to reduce its temperature to avoid burning.
Clamming and collecting seaweed with wilderness chef, Charlie Borrowman.
Clamming and collecting seaweed with wilderness chef, Charlie Borrowman.

No matter how you cook, there’s really nothing like a good old fashioned campfire cook out. Get out there and enjoy it!

Charles Borrowman is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute of San Jose, California and a lead instructor with Wolf Camp and the Wolf College.  He is running our Backcountry Gourmet Camp Cooking Classes throughout western Washington & Oregon in May, running the camp kitchen during our Backpacking into Wolf Country Outdoor Leadership Training Expedition in June, teaching during our Survival, Herbology, Tracking, Scout & Artisan Camps in July, and leading our Epic Fishing Camp in August.

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