How to start a campfire and cook like you know what you're doing

Aug 22, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. ET
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Going camping? Bet you've got visions of s'mores dancing through your head already. But there's more to camp cooking than roasting marshmallows. We have 12 tips for the novice campfire chef — everything from safety to what to back. And just so you know, you can eat way more than just hot dogs for dinner on your trip.

campfire cooking
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

Fire safety

Before you start your fire make sure the area is safe. You should have at least 10 feet of bare dirt around your fire ring. Clear away anything that could possibly catch fire. Avoid building your fire under windy conditions (check the weather report before you leave). The smallest amount of wind can turn your small campfire into a raging fire. Lastly, make sure that you have tools, like a sturdy shovel, just in case anything does happen. Dumping soil on top of flames can help smother an out-of-control blaze. Keep a few gallons of water close to your fire as well.

How to start a fire with wood

To build a wood fire, start by gathering an assortment of different sizes of bark, twigs and pine needles. To start, lay one stick in the center of your pit and loosely pile pieces of kindling around it. Light the kindling with a match, and once it's ignited, add more small pieces in a teepee-shaped formation until those catch fire. Then start adding bigger pieces of wood around them. Make sure you leave a little space between each piece of wood so the fire can breathe. Putting on too many pieces of wood will make the fire burn out.

How to put out your fire

Start by sprinkling water little by little on your fire, rather than pouring a large amount directly into the fire all at once. Stir wet embers with a stick to make sure all of the coals get wet. When you hear no more hissing and sizzling you should be good. The next morning place your hand just above the coals. If you still feel heat that means the fire is not fully out. Pour more warm water over the coals, moving them around.

More: Cook like a seasoned camper on your next trip with these tips

What pots to bring

Pack at least one all-purpose cast-iron pan or Dutch oven (having a lid is handy) and, if you have it in your house, bring a grill or resting rack. You can set this on the coals and put your pot or pan on top of it so it won’t tumble over.

Shelf-stable food

Remember that you’ll be outdoors and a cooler filled with ice is only going to last so long. Bring shelf-stable food that won’t have to go in a mini cooler, like canned beans, vegetables and jerky.

The cooking basics

Don’t forget to bring along salt and pepper. Also, grab a few lemons and veggies like onions and green peppers that work well with a few different dishes. You can even prep these things beforehand and bring an airtight container with your prepared food — this will make your life a tad easier.

Fishing is key

You're outdoors! Take advantage of that and see if you can catch some of your dinner. Don't depend on your catch for dinner, though. Still pack enough food to feed your party even when the fish aren't biting.

Pack only what you need

This isn’t a five-star resort. Pack just what you need: one bowl and one cup for each person if you have access to washing water. Otherwise, pack disposables. Make sure not to bring anything with glass because that can go wrong very quickly and some campsites don't allow it.

Label everything

Clearly label all the food you bring, and use clear containers if possible. You should not have to go through five containers just to find where the oil is.

More: 15 grill-able dinner ideas for your next camping trip

Wildlife protection

Everyone always thinks when they go on a camping trip they’ll never see a bear, but the truth of the matter is that it can happen. Make sure if you are in an area where bears or other dangerous wildlife that might raid a campsite have been spotted that you have all of your food packed and stored and hung from a tree (away from where you are sleeping). If bears aren’t a concern, but raccoons are, then make sure you have containers with lid locks and leave no food in plastic bags because they will tear right through it.


Small juice packs with straws can be convenient. For coffee and tea, instant will save you a lot of trouble if you can take the taste. If you want something a little more adult, bring along some boxed wine (but remember, no glass on a camping trip).

Foil packet cooking

Foil packet cooking is probably one of the easiest ways to cook on a camping trip and requires very little cleanup. Line your foil with parchment paper and fill with fish, veggies or hot dogs. Roll it up and cook it right on the coals. It’s that simple.

More: Veg campfire hobo packets

Camping list

  • Big box of matches
  • Shovel
  • Cast-iron pot or pan
  • Grill
  • Bowls/cups for every person or enough disposables
  • Prepped onions, peppers, garlic, etc.
  • Salt and pepper
  • Instant coffee and tea
  • Aluminum foil and parchment paper
  • Paper towels or cloth towels
  • Sponges for washing up
  • Plastic bags
  • Rope
  • Food in clear, well-labeled plastic containers
  • Juice boxes and/or boxed wine
  • Oven mitt or hot pad for handling cast iron
  • S'mores, yo! Marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers