Coming back to camp at the end of a long day of playing hard in the outdoors is a satisfying feeling. You’ve made some amazing memories and you couldn’t be happier with how the day went! But now you’ve got to cook dinner… Choosing the right fuels to use to heat your end of the day meal might be the difference in you having a hot meal ready to go quickly or you standing out in the cold and needing to just eat another granola bar before you climb into your sleeping bag!
Campfires are excellent for cooking while you’re camping, but their temperatures vary quite a bit based on how much fuel you use as well as the type of fuel you use. If you’re using wood and you build an average sized campfire (let’s say you’re using a standard sized campfire ring that has a diameter of 31 inches), the area where the flames are range in temperatures the get as low as 900°F and as high as 1100°F. As you move away from the flames, temperatures tend to cool off a bit. The coals that are closest to the flames, but don’t have any active flames going can get up to 600°F with temperatures lowering as you move further away from the active flames.
Cooking over a campfire takes a lot of skill and practice to get it right! So how do you go about using a campfire to cook your dinner so the outside of your meal isn’t burnt and the inside is still raw? You have to first start with building your fire so that you can control the cooking temperature as best as possible.
Building a Campfire for Cooking
Building a campfire is a fairly basic skill that everyone who plans on going camping should be able to do. There are several easy techniques to getting your fire going at the end of the day! The best technique to use is the one that helps you start a fire every time.
Once you have your fire going strong, let it burn for a little while. As mentioned above, cooking over open flames isn’t advisable because of how hot those flames get! What you’re looking for is the byproduct of those flames, coals. The best coals to use when you’re cooking are the ones that are still glowing red from the heat. Those tend to be on the very edges of active flames. But how do you move the coals to where you can safely and effectively use them to cook?
With a shovel or long stick, you can scrape the coals away from active flames to the edge of the fire ring. That will allow you to have as much control over the temperature as you need. You’ll have to play around with the coals for a while to get a really good sense of what works best for you. The more coals that are piled up, the hotter the cooking temperature. The fewer coals, the cooler the cooking temperature.
But what if you’re not comfortable moving coals around in a fire ring? Are there other fuels that you can use that might be easier to control? Well, if you still want to cook over a fire ring, there definitely are solutions for you!
Alternative Fuels to Wood
Building a fire with wood is a classic camping tradition, but when you want to cook over a campfire, you might notice how difficult it is to control the cooking temperature of a wood fire. Charcoal is an excellent solution to controlling the temperature of your fire!
Charcoal is made by burning wood at very high temperatures with very little oxygen. This removes a lot of the impurities that cause wood to pop and sizzle when it burns. It also makes it so that the charcoal burns more evenly, making for a much more controllable burn.
Lighting a campfire using charcoal is pretty easy as well! The best thing that you can do is to bring along a quick start chimney. These things are great for getting a fire started with charcoal, because the high walls of the chimney concentrate the heat into the charcoal briquettes and keep all of the fuel piled on top of itself. At the bottom of the chimney, there is a spot to light newspaper or paper towels, so that the charcoal gets direct heat from the bottom.
Once your charcoal is going nice and hot in the quick start chimney, dump your charcoal briquettes over in a nice even pile to cook over!
But if you’re in an area that currently has a fire ban due to dangerously dry conditions, you more than likely won’t be able to use either of these methods to cook your food at the end of the day. So how do you make sure that you’ll be able to have a hot meal when you return to camp?
Bring a Propane Grill
If you’re camping where there is a fire ban, you should still be able to use a propane grill. Propane grills come in all sorts of sizes and price points, so the best grill is one that will fit your needs! If you’re camping alone or with one or two other people, a small two burner grill usually will fit your needs. If you’re camping with a large group, bring along a grill that has 3 or 4 burners so that you can cook a lot of food quick!
Your space will also dictate what size of grill to get. If you are camping with a large trailer or you have a truck that you can store and transport a grill with, you’ll have more flexibility on the style of grill you buy. A really nice travel grill that can serve a large group is the Napoleon Travel Grill. What makes this grill special is that it can fold down to make it compact and easy to transport. It also comes with wheels so that you can easily move it to where you need it! It is a little bulky, so if you’re tight on space, this might not be the best grill for you.
Weber makes a fine travel grill that is small and effective. If you’re tight on space or your car camping, this grill will help you get your cooking done while also being easy to transport. What is nice about these grills is that you can also purchase a foldable cart that will allow you to have more convenience in cooking and transporting it around when you are able to free up more space, so it can grow with you!
Now if you’re planning on going backpacking, you’ll most likely not be able to carry a large propane grill with you. So what do you do about cooking in the backcountry?
Backpackers have so many awesome options for cooking! Stoves (otherwise known as backpacker grills) come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have a variety of fuel sources that can be used. How do you decide which one is best for you?
If you’re going into the backcountry alone, you won’t need to pack a very large stove. A really easy to use and effective stove is the AOTU Portable Camping Stove. These things are great because they are inexpensive, light, and they are able to start a flame and keep it going no matter what the conditions.
The starter is a push button which sets off a small electrical current each time the button is pressed. It works in the same way a propane grill starter works. When you have attached your stove to its butane fuel canister, all you need to do is slightly turn the fuel valve until you hear a small hissing sound. That is the sound of butane gas coming out. Once you hear that hissing, start pushing down on the starter until you get a flame. Once a flame is going, you are all set to begin cooking!
One of the problems with using a stove like this is that the stove and fuel canister can get pretty heavy in your backpack. If you are looking to lighten your pack, consider bringing along an alcohol stove.
Alcohol stoves are great because they are cheap to make and they’re easy to use. All you need to do is get two empty soda cans and some scissors and you’ll be ready to make your stove!
Start by cutting the cans in half. Save the bottoms of the cans and put the tops of the can into the recycling bin. The tricky part now is fitting the cut ends of the soda cans together over top of each other. Start by slightly bending one of the cans so that you form a slight beveled surface. The other can end should be able to slip over it and get snug against the bottom of your beveled can.
Now that you have formed your base, use your scissors to poke holes in the can that you fit over the beveled can. You’ll want to poke these holes in fairly regular intervals, so take a second to measure around your stove and consider marking where you want your holes to go with a permanent marker. That way you’ll be able to see exactly where your holes should go.
With your scissors, carefully poke holes in your can by placing the pointy end of the scissor on each mark that you made. Slowly wiggle the scissors so that you have complete control over them, and you don’t accidentally crush your can. Slowly work your way around the can until all of the holes have been made.
Now it’s time to test your can stove! Get some rubbing alcohol from your local grocery store or pharmacy. Start by pouring a small amount of alcohol into the beveled can bottom of your can stove. Be careful not to spill any of the alcohol outside of the stove or on yourself. If you do, be sure to wipe it up before lighting your stove. Alcohol is extremely flammable, and the last thing you want to happen is for your cooking fire to exit your stove!
Once you’ve filled the bottom of your stove with alcohol, carefully light it with either a match or a lighter. The alcohol will light quickly, so as soon as it’s lit, cover it up with the top of your stove. Be careful here, because the flames that are coming from the alcohol will come through the holes you made in your can.
If you followed all of those steps right, you’ll have your very own homemade stove! Again, these are great because they are cheap and easy to make and the fuel that you need to use them is cheap and easy to find.
But how do you cook on these surfaces? Are you able to grill on them the same way that you use a grill or a fire ring in a campground? In short, no. The heat produced and the size of these backcountry stoves makes cooking large meals like steak and hamburgers inefficient. So what is the best way to get a hot meal in the back country using these stoves?
Backcountry Meal Ideas
Cooking in the backcountry can be a great experience. You can make it as creative or simple as you want! Here are a few ideas of meals you can bring into the backcountry.
Dehydrated meals are some of the easiest ways to make dinner in the backcountry. All you need is your meal and about a cup and a half of boiling water and presto! You’ve made a piping hot meal to enjoy at the end of a long day of adventuring in the outdoors! There are so many brands of food that are offered, and the best thing to do is to consider your preferences and tastes.
Do you like cheap and easy to make meals? Mountain House offers a wide variety of meals that are full of plenty of protein, carbs, and calories that you need to refuel. Fettuccine alfredo with chicken is one of the best meals you can get!
Build Your Own Dehydrated Meal
Prepackaged dehydrated meals can get pricy, especially if you go backpacking for a long while. The next best thing to a prepackaged dehydrated meal is to make your own! A staple of backcountry cooking are instant mashed potatoes.
Instant mashed potatoes are great because they are found in pretty much every store you will come across while on the trail, they are cheap, and they are really light! The best meal that you can make is loaded backcountry mashed potatoes.
Start by boiling 2 cups of water with your stove. Then carefully pour your boiled water into the pouch of potatoes. Stir the water around with the potatoes and be sure to incorporate the bottom into the water as well. There’s nothing worse than taking a bite of potatoes and expecting creamy goodness only to be met with a mouth drying chunk of dried potato mix!
Once your potatoes are fully hydrated, it’s time to add your toppings. Get creative here! Want to add extra protein? Add in some bacon bits or canned chicken! Want to make them vegan friendly? Add in some dried vegetables or beans! There’s really no way to go wrong with this cheap and easy to make backcountry meal.
Cooking while camping offers so many different options that are able to fit the needs of all campers. Using a campfire can be tricky at first, but once you’ve mastered fire building your fire and collecting the coals, you’ll be well on your way to making dinner for the night! If you don’t feel comfortable with using wood, but still like the idea of cooking over a fire ring, consider bringing charcoal so that it’s easier to control the cooking temperature. If you can’t use an open flame, bring along a propane grill! There are propane grills to suit the needs of practically every camper. And if you’re venturing into the backcountry, pack along your cooking device buy either buying a small stove or making your own.
Follow these steps and you’ll be sure to find a way that will help you enjoy a hot meal on your next outdoor adventure!