Fire Pit Cooking
A Beginner’s Guide to Cooking While Camping
Fire pit cooking is often the best way to cook on a camping adventure. Not only do campfire meals add delicious char and smokiness to your food, but they also require little in the way of gear. As frequent visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, my family’s trips always include our favorite backcountry campfire meals. Cooking over an open flame inspires a sense of wonder and results in incredible meals, from pizza to spaghetti and meatballs.
Campfire Cooking Prep Starts in Your Kitchen
A successful wilderness trip starts with smart preparation at home, and food is no exception. Prepping your meals beforehand in your kitchen makes cooking meals in the backcountry easier, and produces less garbage, which makes packing out much easier. Here’s some campfire meal prep to undertake before you head for the campsite:
- Peel and chop vegetables. Pour canned foods into Tupperware containers. Pre-cook meat and pre-shred cheese. Nobody wants to worry about undercooked meat or salmonella contamination while camping!
- For longer trips, freeze everything you can beforehand. Whole pre-made meals like chicken and rice, beef stew, and stir-fry can be kept in the freezer, ready to go. Frozen food will also help keep other perishable items in your cooler colder longer.
- One of the best camping food hacks is to prepare campfire meals in foil ahead of time—a dish otherwise known as the hobo dinner. Tuck chopped veggies, diced potatoes, precooked meat, seasoning, and olive oil into tidy packs of tinfoil and toss them into the cooler. When cooking a tinfoil campfire meal, wait until you have plenty of hot coals in your firepit, then just nestle the tinfoil pack in amongst them. Turn the packets occasionally using tongs, heat-resistant gloves, or a sturdy stick.
If you’re taking kids out with you, packing a few make-ahead camping meals is even more important. You don’t want to be meticulously chopping veggies or ensuring meat is cooked all the way through when you’re trying to relax with your family at the campsite. Preparing food ahead of time makes the campfire cooking process simple and seamless.
The Essential Camping Cooking Gear
Every campfire kitchen should have a few key essentials:
- Teflon-coated nonstick pans work great when cooking over a fire. Titanium pans can also be used, but they may be more susceptible to soot-staining from the flames.
- If carrying weight isn’t a factor for your trip, pack a cast iron frying pan and a Dutch oven—this cookware opens up meal opportunities that compact camping cooking gear can’t accommodate, and does great over open flames.
- For any trip, silicone cooking utensils are a smart choice. They’re lighter, and they won’t scratch off the non-stick coating on pans.
- Use a fabric organizer for your cooking utensils to ensure your gear doesn’t get lost as you pack and unpack at various campsites.
- A sharp knife with a protective sheath is also a key tool. Even if you’ve prepped everything at home, chances are you’ll still need a sharp knife for cutting cheese, spreading peanut butter, or opening something.
- Finally, a camp kitchen box is a great addition to any car camping setup, and can be built to exact specifications. Purchase or build a box that has a designated spot for your stove, can opener, dishes, and utensils, to keep everything organized.
Dutch Oven Camping Recipe Ideas
Campfire meals in a cast iron Dutch oven can change the way you think about cooking. A Dutch oven is too heavy for a backpacking trip, but it’s the perfect accessory when you’re basking in the luxury of a car camping or rafting trip.
As a born and raised Minnesotan, my go-to Dutch oven recipes are mainly hotdishes (“hotdish” is Minnesotan for casserole). Gooey French toast, hearty beef stew, and even a whole roasted chicken with vegetables are all possible at the campsite when cooking with a Dutch oven.
If you’re new to Dutch oven cooking, start at home.
- Find Dutch oven-specific cookbooks that contain both delicious recipes and excellent directions on technique.
- Determine how much charcoal to use when cooking different meals—this is the trickiest thing about Dutch oven cooking. Most recipes will have a chart of exactly how many chunks of charcoal you need on the top and the bottom of the Dutch oven to ensure your meal is cooked perfectly.
Proper maintenance of cast iron—whether a skillet or a Dutch oven—is also important.
- Bring along a scraper to remove stuck-on food before using a little soap and warm water to clean the Dutch oven. Don’t use a scrubber with metal or an abrasive material that can damage the cast iron. Oftentimes, the scraper and a washcloth or even a paper towel is all you need for a proper cleaning.
- Dry your Dutch oven immediately and thoroughly.
- Finally, rub a thin layer of oil into the iron to ensure it doesn’t rust.
The prospect of caring for a Dutch oven can seem overwhelming, but it’s easy if you have the right supplies on hand and an understanding of the best techniques.
Campsite Cooking Cleanup
Doing the dishes is rarely fun—at home or in the wilderness—but keeping your camping gear clean will improve your experience and help it last longer. And keeping your camp kitchen tools clean is easy with proper planning.
- Campsites with a fire pit generally provide some sort of a grill, but the grates are often dirty and have wide gaps that narrow foods like hot dogs may fall through. To avoid these issues, consider investing in an over fire grill or pack a grill top from an old charcoal grill.
- If you’re car camping, use a bucket system for dishes. Pack two small collapsible buckets—children’s sand buckets work great— and use one for soapy hot water and the other to rinse.
- If you’re cleaning dishes in the backcountry, consider a collapsible sink. A camp towel works great for drying dishes, or you can hang wet dishes in a mesh bag from a low tree branch.
Cooking over the open flame of a fire pit allows you to step back in time and imagine what it was like when this was the only option available. Enjoy the challenge and the delicious food of campfire cooking.
Maura Marko is a Minnesota-based outdoor writer and a parent to a toddler and a preschooler. She loves sharing her camping, hiking and canoeing experiences to help other parents feel confident taking their own young children on outdoor adventures. Her family’s travels have been featured in the Washington Post, Outside Magazine and NPR.