Frequently people comment that they will kill a rabbit, bird or deer and just cook it over a fire. It’s pretty obvious that they have visions of putting the animal, or parts of the animal, on a stick and cooking it over a bonfire, afterwards they will lay down next to the fire and sleep for the rest of the night with a full belly.
Okay, cooking the meat that way will happen in a survival situation where there is no danger of someone seeing their smoke in the air or smelling the food. But, if they build the fire in the conical shaped way most people build a fire, they should be prepared for the burning pieces of wood to tumble as the flames eat them. For safety a person shouldn’t be within 10 feet of it. A campfire doesn’t provide much warmth at that distance.
Eventually people cooking their food over a campfire will get tired of meat on a stick. They will want to use indigenous plants for seasoning and nutritional needs. They might even want to add water and make a soup or stew. If you are the camp cook, you need to know how to make the right kinds of fires for the types of cooking you have to do.
The bonfire isn’t a cooking fire. It is a signal fire, or for generating heat, sending large amounts of smoke high in the sky, and for roasting marshmallows and hot-dogs or some other meat on a stick. Bonfires are dangerous when the logs start to cave in on themselves or collapse outside the fire. When they cave in or collapse, people can be injured by burning wood or flying embers. Sleeping near a fire that has this type of splash effect is dangerous. Build this type of fire only when you need to show someone your location.
A campfire is a smaller version of the bonfire. It’s useful for meat on a stick and marshmallows. Many people think digging a fire pit and putting rocks around it means they have a cooking fire. In order to use this type of fire they need a grate or spit. They are shocked, upset, and sometimes injured when their cookware and food fall into the fire. If you look in the background, you will see that this fire also has a bench too close to the fire. Care must still be taken that it doesn’t cave in or collapse causing the splash effect of the bonfire. People can still get burned and sleeping bags and clothing can catch fire by flying embers and burning wood.
Cooking fires are different from the two conical shaped fires above. These fires are built in a cross patch pattern overlapping them in such a way that the top forms a level sturdy surface for your cast iron cookware. Cooking fires allow you to control the temperature for cooking so you don’t have burned outside and raw inside foods. Your meal should be completed and the pans “cleaned” by the time the wood burns through. These fires collapse into the center and rarely does wood fall away from the fire. However, embers are and ash are not predictable so don’t sleep too close to the fire.
Knowing the difference between these fires is important. Each requires a different
amount of resources and attracts attention in different ways. If you are worried about being seen, all fires produce smoke, so you need to build the smallest fire possible for the immediate purpose. Building fires during daylight makes the smoke easily seen from a distance. Smoke is more difficult to see at night. Building the smallest cooking fire possible will reduce the possibility of the flames being seen from a distance. Building the fire in a deep pit will make it possible to conceal most of it, but if the pit is too deep the fire won’t burn well. When you are finished, extinguish it as soon as possible. Preparing all the items you are going to cook before starting the fire will reduce the amount of time the fire is lit. If you do not want the location of your fire to be found, be sure to bury it completely when finished. Even so, an experienced tracker may still find the location.
To practice these skills, go camping in campgrounds that allow campfires. A future article with a pictorial illustration of how to make a proper cooking fire will be posted soon.