One of our favourite parts of a canoe trip is cooking over the fire. Campfire cooking can be a bit of an art in itself since you don't have the luxury of turning the heat up or down like you can on a stove at home. Here are some tips for a good cooking fire.
Build a Fireplace
Usually when we get to a campsite, the firepit is nothing but a pile of rocks. Sometimes it isn't even a fire ring anymore, just a pile with old cinders sitting on top. That makes sense since a well built cooking fireplace is pretty cramped for an after dinner bonfire.
So when we are planning on cooking on the fire we will routinely rebuild the fireplace using the rocks that are already part of the firepit. We also make sure that we stay in the same place as the existing firepit, since a fire needs to be built on rock or already "dead" ground to make sure it doesn't burn it's way down into roots which can spread a fire underground.
For a good cooking fire, you want to form a relatively small firebox area that will contain the heat from the fire and reflect it back into the cooking area. Ideally that means finding a few fairly large, flat rocks that you can stand up on edge to form the 3 walls of the fireplace. You can build up the walls with smaller rocks if you have to, but a big flat rock will do the best job of keeping and reflecting heat. Of course, we do use other rocks around the outside to help hold everything in place.
Once you have the firebox set up, you need put the grill on and try to level it out. That can take some fiddling around. You'll want to set the grill up about 8" up from the ground. That is high enough up to build a decent fire underneath it but still low enough that you don't need a huge fire. Keeping the grill low and close to the flames or coals both uses less wood and gives you more control over your cooking.
After leveling the grill, keep building up the walls of the fireplace. A couple of good sized and well supported rocks sitting on the edges of the grill will help to keep it from moving around. If you can continue to build a reflecting wall, then it will help hold and reflect heat in while also acting as a wind screen.
As you finish off the top of the fireplace, try to build yourself a flat spot to set pots or the kettle on just at the side of the fire. That can be great for letting dishwater heat up while you're cooking dinner. Bonus points if you can get a chimney effect going and actually get the water to boil like that.
You Need a Grill
I've seen some cool pictures of tripods being used over fires and I've tried hanging a kettle from a stick angled up over the fire, but the most practical solution for me has been to use a grill. Now, a lot of developed campsites, whether in Algonquin, the French River Provincial Park or elsewhere will often have 1 or more old grills sitting around. If there is already a grill at the site, then I'll usually use it rather than getting my own grill out. Even better if there are a couple of grills lying around because then I can double them up. Even a campfire is hot enough to soften up most grills, but I find that if I can use a double layer then they hold up pretty well. The other benefit of using a grill that is already at the site is then I can leave the fireplace put together when I leave rather than having to partially take it apart to pack up my own grill.
However, if you are planning on cooking on the fire, then you can't just count on finding a grill at every interior or backcountry campsite that you stay on. So I do carry a GSI Campfire Grill with my kitchen gear. One of the things that I like about this grill is that the outer frame is doubled up which gives it a lot more strength than the World Famous one that I used to carry.
An alternative to a campfire grill is to use a couple of metal bars as "fire irons". I'm pretty sure that I first heard of this technique from one of the discussion forums at Canadian Canoe Routes. The idea is that the 2 bars can be stronger and less bulky to pack than a grill. I tried this out on my first Killarney trip and it works OK, but I'll admit that I'm more confident that I'm not going to dump a pot into the fire when I'm using a grill.
I use a couple of pieces of rebar for my fire irons but as my son Peter (who is a bit of a War of 1812 fanatic) reminded me, fire irons have been used for a long time and there are a lot fancier ones around than what I use.
Small is key
This was a lesson my Grampa taught me a long time ago. As he showed me, the bigger the pieces of wood you use the more wood it takes to keep the fire going. By keeping your cooking fire fairly small and feeding it with relatively small pieces of wood, you have more control over the heat. Gather up, or splitting the wood ahead of time is part of preparing the fire.
This is also the biggest reason why I carry a hatchet along with us too. We cut most of our wood to length using a tube saw but the hatchet then lets us split the wood into better sizes for cooking.
©Loon Island Outdoors 2013