A flickering campfire is something we all love when we are out camping but as well as the general feeling of wellbeing that comes from sitting around a campfire it’s worth thinking about its practical purpose too.
As well as saving weight by avoiding having to carry a camp stove and fuel, warming you on cold evenings and boosting the morale of your party as you sit and socialise around the campfire after a hard day’s hiking it, of course, cooks your meals and heats water, so how do you take advantage of a campfire for cooking.
Starting Your Campfire
You should be carrying something to start your fire with, the simplest modern solution is a lighter or matches but you should have backups too. I carry several lighters and boxes of matches in my pockets and/or rucksack when I am camping just to ensure that if I get wet or lose my rucksack I still have dry equipment for lighting a fire.
You could also take a more traditional approach and use a metal match, also known as a firesteel or ferrocerium rod. When scraped, normally with a dedicated metal scraper on the back of a knife they produce a shower of hot sparks which can be used to ignite well-prepared tinder.
Fanning the Flames
Once you have your spark or the tiniest flame of a match you must make the most of it and make sure that your fleeting source of ignition is turned into a sustainable fire that lasts long enough and is hot enough to cook your meal. This requires careful preparation of fuel.
Your first option would be to find plenty of very dry thin sticks, no thicker than a matchstick, these can easily be collected from the lower branches of spruce and fir trees, a single match or the flame of a lighter is enough to light these and a few handfuls of these tiny twigs can then be used to light larger and larger wood until you have a well-established campfire.
If you struggle to find the thin dry twigs you need to start your fire you may need to process larger pieces of wood to make them suitable for fire lighting. You may need to split down the larger wood and make shavings with your knife or axe so you can light them with your matches or firesteel.
If you need to split and process wood for your fire I would recommend making ‘feather sticks’, but you will need to make quite a few to get a good fire going, just one will not be enough, you may need to spend quite some time and effort if you want a proper cooking fire.
As well as shaving the wood thin enough feather sticks expose the dry center of wet wood to catch the spark from a ferrocerium rod or the small flame of a match.
Once your fire is established you can start cooking. A small fire of twigs is enough to boil a kettle, warm some soup or cook a few sausages and bacon rashers but you will need a more substantial fire for larger or more complicated meals.
You will need to collect or split plenty of medium-sized firewood, at least as thick as your thumb and up to as thick as your wrist, if you are going to be cooking full meals especially for more than one person.
An alternative to the twig fire for boiling a kettle or cooking a quick meal is the ‘log cabin’ fire which produces plenty of flames and can even have a kettle or pan balanced on top of it for a few minutes before it burns down.
As well as producing plenty of flames in its early stages these log cabin fires produce a good bed of embers which present other cooking options.
Flames vs Coals
There are two basic options for the camp cook who is preparing meals on a campfire. For boiling your kettle quickly, cooking soups, stews, pasta or rice having a fire which is producing plenty of flames and is constantly fed by suitable fuel; small twigs or finely split kindling, allows you to suspend and heat your cook pot over the flames.
A suspended cook pot needs plenty of flames crackling underneath it or it will go cold very quickly. A kettle or pot with a wire handle such as a Hungarian goulash kettle is perfect for this kind of cooking.
Once suspended your cook pot can be used to easily cook a range of meals and is most versatile in the hands of a camp cook who has mastered cooking in one pot. Even for those who haven’t mastered one pot cooking, if you are going to suspend one-pot why not two.
Meat can be cooked directly over the flames too, on a spit for example but this is only useful if you are planning on taking much fresh food on your trip. If you primarily using tinned, vacuum packed or dehydrated food then cooking on a spit will not work for you.
Dried food can make excellent soups and stews for your campfire meals though; lentils, split peas, pearl barley, smoked sausage and beef jerky can all be carried on your camping trips without refrigeration while fresh ingredients will spoil quickly.
Cooking on the embers of a fire is your other option, by placing your cooking pot directly in the embers once your fire has burned down, or by piling the coals on top of a cooking pot turning it into an oven, or by wrapping your food in tin foil or large leaves such as burdock leaves for baking and roasting, some food such as fish can even be cooked as it is in its skin on a fire, particularly if you employ a few bushcraft skills and find yourself some big sheets of wet moss, these can be placed on the fire with the fish or meat in between the layers of moss and your food will then be steamed by the heat of the fire and the moisture in the moss.
You can even cook cakes and bread on the coals of your fire, a very simple sweet treat you can make to really impress your camping buddies are these simple orange cakes baked in the skin of fresh oranges.
Make a simple cake batter, a thick pancake batter works, but you can add chocolate, honey, nuts or raisins. Spoon this batter into orange skins once you’ve eaten the flesh of the fruit and then place the skins in the embers of your fire. These will take a few minutes to cook but might be a nice change from trail mix and mars bars.
So campfires aren’t just there for sitting around in the evenings, give campfire cooking a go next time you are camping, it won’t take you long to be firmly converted from your gas stoves.