What you Need to Cook Over a Campfire: For Beginners

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At its most rustic, you just need a stick and your dinner to be able to cook over a campfire. This works and can be pretty fun, too, but at some point, you may want to expand your campfire cooking possibilities. Here are some pieces of equipment that I find to be essential when you are looking to step up your campfire cooking game!

1. Dutch Oven

If I could only choose one piece of equipment to take with me when campfire cooking, it would be my dutch oven, no question!

Woman holding a dutch oven

The dutch oven is a cast-iron pot with a lid. Some dutch ovens come with a beautiful and colorful glaze on the outside, and a also a glaze on the inside of the pot and lid. The ones that are made specifically for more rustic cooking, however, are simply raw, black cast iron, and they also have a metal handle so you can hang it over a fire.

Why I would choose this item to take with me to a camp if I could only choose one thing is due to its versatility. You can make soup, bake in it, use it as a skillet to fry up something delicious, or even use the underside of the lid of some models as a griddle!

If you only plan on using dutch ovens over a campfire, and not in your home oven, definitely look for an oven designed specifically for this because they have a few more bells and whistles that make campfire cooking easier. Here are the differences between a camp dutch oven and a conventional one:

  • Camp dutch ovens will have short legs on the bottom to allow for a heat source to be placed underneath, where a conventional dutch oven will be flat on the bottom so it can also sit in an oven.
  • Also, the lids of camp dutch ovens are flat on the top and underneath side. They are flat on the top so that a heat source can easily be placed on top without rolling off. The underneath side is flat so that you can use it on it’s own over a fire, if you aren’t using it on your pot at that time, to make pancakes, bacon, or anything else you would use a griddle for. A conventional dutch oven has a more rounded lid and spikes on the underneath side to collect steam and direct the moisture back into the pot.
  • Handles on a conventional dutch oven will have a bail, which is just a coil of wire, in the center of the handle to give you something more substantial to hold on top when moving the heavy pot in and out of your oven. It is really helpful for this purpose, but it gets in the way when trying to hang it over a fire. A camp dutch oven has no bail and the shape is more rounded, allowing the oven to hang straight.
  • The last difference is that camp dutch ovens come in different heights, deep or shallow, that you can use depending on what you are making. Both are useful, versatile and can make many different dishes, but the difference in height allows for the shallow one to have the heat source closer to the food at the top, giving you a hotter and faster cook. This is useful when baking.
  • If you only want to start with one depth and are trying to decide between the two, don’t agonize over it and just pick one and go with it. I have seen the same dish cooked simultaneously in a deep and shallow dutch oven with the same heat source and they both worked great. The shallow one did cook quicker and browned the top of the dish faster, but they both got the job done well. When you begin to perfect your art and need more control over temperature for things like bread or more difficult deserts, that is a better time to think about which depth oven you need for each recipe.

My friends have camping dutch ovens and I have conventional ones. We both cook over the fire with them, however. I just shove the bail on my handle to the side to hang it on a fire and can use a cast iron trivet underneath to allow for a heat source below it. Also, I have a pie pan with the center cut out that I can use on top of my more rounded lid to hold coals on, if needed. Whichever rustic dutch oven you choose is the right choice and can work in a multitude of cooking situations!

Another reason I love dutch oven cooking is that there are so many ways to heat a dutch oven with campfire cooking. Here are a few:

-Sitting right on top of the firewood

The simplest way to start using a dutch oven is to simply set it on top of the fire. Many people use the “log cabin” campfire setup for this where the logs simply criss-cross each other in a few layers. The shape of the firewood structure creates a flat surface for the oven to sit on and the heat put out is pretty stable and long lasting.

This definitely works and is a great minimalist approach, but the only caveat is that it is really difficult to control the temperature and adjust it as needed during the cook. It can be learned, I’m sure, but for a beginner this may be a bit more challenge than you want to get yourself into. Easier dishes, such as soup or stew, would be great recipes to try using this method and be able to learn from.

A few variations of this are setting it on the embers toward the end of the cook, and also setting the dutch oven on top of the grill grate and cook that way. These also have the same challenge of having very limited temperature control.

-Using coals

The use of charcoal briquettes means that you can control how many briquettes you use, which means that you can control the temperature of your cook much better than simply setting your dutch oven on your fire.

Dutch oven cooking with hot coals on top of the lid at a campsite

This will take a bit more equipment, but also has the advantage of being able to be used without a campfire, although I prefer it NEXT to a campfire, of course!! A chimney starter (see below) and a bag of briquettes, at minimum, are needed for this style of cooking.

Once the charcoal briquettes are white hot in the chimney starter, you put some on the ground, put your dutch oven on top, and then put more hot coals on top of the lid. You control both the temperature and HOW you want to cook (bake vs fry) with the number of briquettes you use on the top and bottom.

Camping for Foodies offers a great guide here that tells you how many coals you need where depending on what you are cooking. This style of cooking is similar to using a conventional indoor oven so you can modify recipes you make indoors, just figure out how many coals you will need to get a similar temperature.

Some of my favorite campfire vittles have been cooked using this method, but there is one more way to cook that I love.

-With a campfire tripod

One more way to cook in a dutch oven over a fire is hanging it on a campfire tripod. If using hot coals on a dutch oven is similar to cooking in an indoor oven, cooking over a tripod reminds me of cooking in an outdoor crockpot.

Dutch oven hanging close to a campfire from a tripod

Temps are a little lower and the heat source is mainly at the bottom with some radiating up the sides, but very little on top. And, dishes that would work well in a crockpot would also work well cooked in a dutch oven swinging over a fire. Plus, it looks cooler, too. Soups and stews work great, but really you are only limited by your imagination.

2. Campfire Tripod

So, if you are interested in cooking with a dutch oven, you can go minimalist and set it on a fire, or you will need to add a few accessories to give you a little more temperature control. A campfire tripod is a perfect companion for your cast iron pots!

Campfire tripod over a fire in front of a lake

Also made from cast iron, it is simply three legs connected at one end that open up and will sit over your fire. A chain is connected at the top which is where you hang your dutch oven. With heavy-duty tripods, they will be a sturdy way to cook over your campfire for years.

The chain height is adjustable, allowing you to position your dutch oven where you need it over the fire. This, in turn, determines your cook temperature.

I tested dutch oven height in relation to the fire and what that meant for the temperature using an infrared thermometer. What I found was that you can get close to a “high” setting on a crockpot with the bottom of the oven touching, or just above the top of the firewood. A few inches up got you a “low” crockpot temperature.

Not only can you use a dutch oven with a campfire tripod, but you can also hang a grill grate. With some models, such as the one I own, you have to buy it separately, but I have also seen many that come with one in the box.

Grill grate hanging from a campfire tripod cooking hot dogs

What is nice about using the campfire tripod grill grate instead of the in-ground ones that are next to the fire pits in most campgrounds is that you can use the chain to adjust the grill grate up or down to give you more control over your grill temperature.

Also, with those in-ground grill grates, what usually happens if you have a larger fire is that the grate won’t fit over the top so you have to position it to the side, making one side of your dish crispy and the other side undercooked. With the tripod, you can adjust the grill grate up higher and get the heat source directly under the food, cooking it more evenly.

A tripod can be tall, depending on the model. Mine is 5′ tall, but one folded down they are only a few inches in diameter, meaning you can easily shove it into your vehicle and it takes up very little space.

It is a super-simple piece of equipment but can be deceptively difficult the first time you set one up. The top part where the legs are connected to each other needs to be positioned in a certain way to make it easier to fold out and feel stable over the fire. I wrote an entire post on campfire tripod set-up for beginners and you can read it here.

Cooking over a campfire tripod is fun and I love being able to enjoy the smell of my meal cooking and intermingling with the burning firewood smell. If you want to read my top pick for the best campfire tripod, you can find my recommendation here.

3. Chimney Starter

If you are interested in the hot charcoal method of cooking with you dutch oven, one vital piece of equipment is a chimney starter. There is no easier way to get your coals to white hot, which is where they need to be, for dutch oven cooking.

Chimney starter full of briquettes on a kettle grill

It is simply a ring of steel with a handle. There is a “floor” a few inches off of the bottom that hold your briquettes and a few holes under that. A flat piece of metal inside the handle offers a little protection to your hand when you are pouring out the hot coals.

To use a chimney starter, start by wadding up newspaper and using it to fill the space between the “floor” of the chimney and the bottom. Set it on the ground somewhere that no one will trip over it and where it won’t start anything on fire. Fill the chimney with charcoals. Poke a lighter in one of the holes at the bottom to ignite the newspaper.

This is all it takes to start a chimney lighter, but the hardest part is waiting for the coals to heat up enough. They need to be white-hot before they are ready to use.

Chimney starter with burning coals sitting on a campsite grill

Chimney starters are affordable and can also be used to quickly heat coals for kettle grills. See the current price of the Lodge Chimney Starter here on Amazon.

4. Utility Pan

A utility pan is useful when using charcoal briquettes to heat a dutch oven because once the coals are white hot in the chimney starter, you can dump them into a galvanized steel utility pan. This makes your campsite safer because the hot coals are contained and less likely to be stepped on or tripped on.

Using a utility pan for your hot coals keeps your campsite more tidy, and it also makes it easy to get at the hot coals with your tongs.

Once the coals are white hot, you can just dump them directly into the pan. Take them out and put them back in as needed throughout your cook. Once you’re done, set it somewhere safe to cool off and then clean up is easy!

See an affordable, galvanized steel utility pan here on Amazon that will last you years.

5. Heat Protective Gloves

One essential piece of equipment for campfire cooking is a set of heat protective gloves.

A good pair of campfire gloves will have a long enough cuff to cover your wrists and some of your forearms. My first glove only covered part of the wrist which worked for my kitchen oven but didn’t cut it for campfire cooking.

A set of heat protective grilling gloves sitting on a railing

They will be made out of a heat-resistant knit fabric, not leather, so that you can move your hands easily and will be able to easily grab the thin handle of a dutch oven. They should also have a non-slip, grippy palm to help support your grip on a hot pot of chili even further.

Know that you will definitely still feel the heat through these gloves. Wearing them doesn’t mean you can stick your hand in the fire, but they will definitely protect you from getting burned while doing all of the normal things you do while campfire cooking.

See the current price of the pair I own here on Amazon.

6. Long Tongs

At some point while campfire cooking, you are going to need a good pair of long tongs. If you are going to try cooking in your dutch oven using hot coals, they are essential.

A good set of campfire cooking tongs will be made of quality steel. Most inexpensive tongs you can buy in the cooking section in stores aren’t heavy-duty enough for this task because the thin metal will easily bend and become both ineffective and unsafe. Look for stainless steel tongs.

Also, they will be long enough to keep your hands away from the heat. Look for tongs that are over 12″ long.

I always prefer the flat surface style tongs that look like lobster claws to the kind made with bent wire scissor tongs because I think that they grip better, but this is only as long as they are heavy-duty tongs that don’t bend.

See the current price of stainless steel Lodge long tongs here on Amazon.

7. Lid Lifter

When cooking in a dutch oven, at some point you will have to take the lid off. You may think that with the heat-protective gloves you could safely pull the lid off easily every time, but this isn’t the case. With a lid full of white-hot coals, even grill gloves won’t cut it. And, if you are pulling the lid off of your pot while it is still over the fire, you will want a few extra inches between your body and the flames. This is where a dutch oven lid lifter is essential.

Lid lifter for a dutch oven on a deck railing

A lid lifter is made from cast iron rod-shaped to have a handle on one end and a hook on the other to easily snag the loop handle on the lid of a dutch oven. Most people who have tried dutch oven cooking before buying a lid lifter, including myself, has tried to improvise other ways to safely get the lid off and soon realize that adding a lid lifter to their gear is well worth it.

These are fairly inexpensive, yet incredibly effective. See the current price of the lid lifter I own on Amazon here.

Read my post here to find out more ways to stay safe and keep from burning yourself while campfire cooking.

8. Trivet

When taking the lid off of your dutch oven, you have to set it down somewhere, and that thing is hot! If you set it on the ground, you are going to get dirt in your pot, or worse, when you put it back on. Putting it on a picnic table will burn a ring into wood, and putting it on a hot pad could scorch it. Using a cast iron trivet will keep your lid clean and protect the surfaces of your campsite.

Dutch oven cast iron trivet sitting on a deck railing

The best trivet for this job is cast iron and over an inch high. This height keeps the edges of lid off of the ground. It also is versatile because it can be used under a dutch oven that doesn’t have feet so that you can put hot coals under it to cook with.

Also, if you have a camp dutch oven with a lid that is flat on the underneath side, you can put the side upside-down on the trivet, put some hot coals underneath, and you have yourself a hot griddle to cook on.

These are also inexpensive and you can see the current price of the trivet I own here on Amazon.

9. Grill Grate

If dutch oven cooking isn’t your thing, or, if you want to have more cooking styles in your wheelhouse, then the last piece of essential campfire cooking gear is a grill grate.

These can be used right over the top of a campfire and you can grill your food directly on top of it, or it can be used as a surface on which to cook or heat up other foods. A dutch oven can be set on top of it, as can a campfire coffee pot, campfire popcorn maker, a cast iron skillet, and a number of other campfire cooking accessories.

You can buy a campfire grill grate at most department stores. If this is all you can afford, then pick one up and enjoy it, just know that it will have a fairly short lifespan. These types of grates are also really hard and somewhat dangerous to adjust once over the fire.

If you would like to cook with a campfire grill grate, but want one that will perform well, last for years, and is easily adjustable, read about the grate I own, which is also my top pick for grill grates here.

Optional but Helpful

The 9 pieces of equipment listed above are essential for campfire cooking for beginners, but there are definitely a few other pieces of gear that can take your game up a notch. The items below are optional, for sure, but useful.

Dutch Oven Liners

Dutch ovens are easy to cook in and last forever, but not much fun to clean afterward. This is especially true at a campsite where you have limited access to water.

Make it easier on yourself by picking up some dutch oven liners. These are made of aluminum foil and shaped to fit right into your dutch oven and hold the food during the cook. Clean up is as simple as pulling out the liner!

One caveat to these is that they add an additional piece of waste to your meal. Also, be sure to check both the diameter and the depth of the liners you are buying and choose the correct one for your oven. Checking the diameter is obvious, but depth is also important because if you put a shallow liner in a deep dutch oven and it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pot it will increase your cook time and possibly not thoroughly cook the bottom of your meal because there is more distance between your food and the heat source.

Buying the most expensive liners may not give you better performance than cheaper ones, and you may just be paying more for a brand name. There aren’t much too these, so if they feel durable enough to survive one cook, they probably are. See the current prices for dutch oven liners on Amazon here.

Kettle Grill

You may think that a charcoal grill is an obvious choice for camp cooking, but not it the way I’m suggesting. A kettle grill is incredibly useful to use if you are cooking in a dutch oven with charcoal briquettes.

Kettle grill on grass with burning coals

I first saw this done by an expert in dutch oven cooking who has taught campfire cooking to the public for years. Rather than messing with hot briquettes on the ground, both for safety and convenience reasons, you dump the white-hot coals from the chimney starter right into the bottom of a kettle grill. Your dutch oven can then sit on top of the coals in the grill.

Advantages to this method are that it is much easier on your back and knees to stand and stir, mix, or check on your meal while standing than it is while squatting on the ground. It gives you a cleaner area to cook in and keeps the mess from the burning briquettes contained.

One other huge advantage is safety. A white-hot pile of coals on the ground of a dark campsite can be a hazard that someone could trip and burn themselves on. This is especially true if you have little ones at your camp. Also, this dramatically lessens the risk of starting a grass or brush fire with the hot briquettes.

A kettle grill is simple and sold everywhere, but you do want to make sure you are buying one that has sturdy legs. I had a small kettle grill that was cheap and the legs would get loose, making the grill sit unevenly. Find one with legs that seem heavy-duty. Otherwise, there aren’t much to these. See the current price of the kettle grill I own here on Amazon.

Camping Kitchen

When cooking around a campfire, one things that is always in high demand is space on the picnic table. Get some table space of your own as the cook with a camping kitchen.

These portable kitchens have counter space, sinks, and even bells and whistles like a lantern holder and shelves. Have your own space for both food prep and clean up. Also, it saves you from having to do less things while sqautting on the ground.

This is definitely an upgrade and not essential, but one that brings your experience up a notch by saving your back and your time. See the camping kitchen described above here on Amazon.

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Love cooking outdoors? This heavy-duty, stainless-steel adjustable cooking grate from Titan Great Outdoors may be something you need to add to your tool kit! Mine is wonderful and has an incredibly sturdy feel. Because it’s adjustable, you’ll be less likely to end up with charred food, and the drip tray for grease keeps flare-ups to a minimum. Take a look here!