Campfire Safety 101: Building and Cooking With Live Fire
The answers to all your burning questions about creating a successful, safe campfire
Food stylist and recipe developer Diana Yen is a self-described bougie camper. But as a kid, camping looked different. “It was something we did because we couldn’t afford to travel sometimes,” she says. “So [we were] just making pantry stuff, like noodles, some eggs and bacon, maybe a hash. Food was never the focal point.”
“Now that I’m in charge,” she adds, “food is completely the focal point.” Yen scouts out fresh grocers and farmers markets before her trip, and picks up in-season produce and proteins on her way to the campsite. On her trips, Yen grills briny crabs and fillets of Dover sole on the beach, chars sweet fava beans over the flames, and when the fire dies down, tucks bananas into the embers to make banana boats stuffed with chocolate and marshmallows.
Cooking beautiful, delicious food like this on a camping trip is entirely doable, even if you aren’t a recipe developer or food stylist by trade. But to get a handle on campsite cooking without a camping stove, you’ll first need to know how to control and cook over a live fire. Here’s where to start.
Bring your own grill rack.
Sites usually have fire pits, but grill grates are not guaranteed. “I usually bring my own,” says Yen. Specifically, Yen recommends “a grill rack that you can move lower or higher over the fire, so you can control your heat.” A grill rack not only allows for more heat control, but also provides more surface area to cook on.
Consider your cooking fuel.
Wood and charcoal both come with positives and negatives. Charcoal provides a hotter and longer-lasting burn, and Yen notes that it’s easier to heat a cast-iron pan — if you’re bringing one — over the even heat of charcoal. While charcoal is efficient and easy to control, it doesn’t impart the same delicious flavor to food as wood when it burns, and the heavy smoke it lets off doesn’t make for a very nice campfire.
Wood imparts a rich and smoky flavor, but burns really fast: “Sometimes you ask someone to start a fire and you’re prepping food, and by the time you bring it over, the fire is gone,” Yen says. If you plan to gather around the fire with friends while food cooks, it might make the most sense to opt for a wood-only approach. (Note: If you are bringing wood to your campsite, source it locally. Wood from far-off regions can carry unfamiliar bugs and diseases that threaten the local ecosystem. You can find state-by-state guidance for transporting firewood, bring heat-treated wood, or find a seller within a few miles of your campsite.)
For a more Goldilocks approach than all wood or charcoal, Yen suggests a fire that’s half-and-half: “Make a really hot side that’s charcoal, and then have the wood on the other side. If you are cooking for a lot of people and you want it to burn for a long time, then having partial charcoal helps a lot. It’s just best to have someone start working on the fire while you’re prepping food so the timing works out.”
What’s the best way to build a fire?
In the fire pit, make a small pile of easily flammable material (bring some brown paper bags in your camping kit; this is your tinder) and construct a pyramid shape around the pile with dry, small- to medium-sized sticks (this is your kindling). With a long lighter or a match, light the tinder, and once the kindling is burning, carefully lay 2 or 3 pieces of your larger firewood on top, also in a pyramid shape. Don’t overcrowd: You’ll want to leave room for air to circulate between the logs, as lack of oxygen kills fires. Once a bigger piece of firewood catches fire, the pyramid will fall and settle — that’s what you want, and only when the fire settles down should you consider adding the grill grate on top, or zoning out the fire with charcoal if that’s your plan.
“A lot of people are really into building zones with their fire,” Yen says. “That way, as soon as you build your fire, you’ll know where the hottest point is.” Think of building zones in a campfire just as you would grilling in the backyard: One zone for direct, higher-heat cooking, the other with little or no direct heat, for a slower, lower approach. To do this, simply push most of the wood or charcoal (or both!) to one side of the campfire — this will be your direct heat zone.
How high can the fire safely go?
Flames should never rise over the grill rack. “You really want the flames just kissing the bottom of the rack or the pan,” Yen says. If the fire’s going too high, “I give it a little time to cool down, or I spread the coals out.”
Okay, the fire’s going. Time to cook.
The direct heat zone, if you’ve zoned your fire, should be used for quick-cooking proteins, like fish or shrimp, or for hard-searing meat before letting it cook through more slowly on the other side of the fire. “I do a lot of seafood, and that can be in between the medium and the higher heat, because it cooks so fast,” says Yen.
For the most part though, Yen doesn’t recommend cooking over the most intense heat: You risk burning your food, which, when it’s all you’ve got in the cooler, is not a great way to end the night. Instead, Yen usually opts for the more moderate heat of the indirect zone, and slightly longer cooking times. To test whether an area of the flame is too high, Yen uses a cast-iron pan and a pinch of butter or drop of oil: If butter sizzles and browns as soon as it’s dropped into the pan, or if oil webs and smokes fiercely, “then you want to move it to somewhere that’s a little bit cooler so that you can start cooking on it — you don’t want your food to singe,” Yen says. “Having a cast-iron pan really helps you to tell how hot the fire is.” Unlike with a charcoal grill, you won’t necessarily have access to a lid that can trap heat and mimic an oven, so you may choose to leave a thin layer of charcoal or wood burning in the “indirect” portion of your fire. That way, the food above it still receives constant, low heat.
Finally, for the ingredients that need the longest to cook, Yen recommends waiting until the flames have subsided but the embers are glowing hot. “I like cooking potatoes [in the fire], and the best approach for that kind of cooking is more low and slow. When your fire is dying out, after dinner, wrap them in foil, and then push them into the embers and let them cook for an hour or so. You’ll put things at the base of the fire, not really on top of the embers.” Those potatoes will be perfectly cooked for a hash the next morning, or mashed potatoes the following night.
Put it out!
Perhaps the most important part of building a fire is knowing how to safely put it out. This is especially important when camping where dry leaves and brush can easily spark and create wildfires. Before you go to sleep, Yen says that “it’s always best to completely extinguish your fire.” Doing this will only take a few minutes, and you’ll rest well knowing there’s no danger of starting an accidental fire. “When people are about to go to bed, I’ll take a stick or something, and one of the easiest ways to make a fire die down is to spread it all out,” says Yen. “And once you’re almost there, if you’re not quite sure if it’s out, you should take a pail of water and just extinguish it.”