Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame
Display Avatars Sort By:
Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame on 03/18/2008 22:39:48 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame on 03/19/2008 01:30:22 MDT Print View

Great work! Its been a while since theres been a technique article Ive been really interested in.
I have been using cook fires more and more the last couple of years. I feel if it is responsibly done it is more enviromentaly sound than bringing my own fuel and stove (in the enviroments I frequent) but thats the "minimum" impact v.s. "displaced" impact (or LNT) debate -so setting that aside,
I carry:
-.5 oz 1 or 2 boxes of strike anywhere matches.
If I bring 2 boxes I make sure they are stored in different places, like one in my pack one in my pocket.

-1 oz flint and tinder of some kind. either Sparklite if I DONT think I will need it or LMF firesteel if I plan on using it for more than emergencies.

-3.5 oz. Fixed blade knife. wieght includes shealth
I use a $10.00 high carbon Mora.
This knife will go toe to toe with any made in the world no need to get anything more expensive.

-2.8 oz. Snowpeak 600 with foil top.

A word on the knife. Most people who see it on a gear list or on trail will dismiss you as a Rambo psyco wannabe. So I always keep it out of sight like wrapped in a hat in an outside mesh pocket (sad times,sad times). So whats it for if not to gut your foe? As the article shows in wet environs dry wood is still to be found in the center of wet wood. The knife is used with a baton (a sturdy stick) to split that wood to get to the dry center and to make one large peice into several, remember increasing the surface volume of the same volume of wood will help get that fire going. It is also used to make "feather sticks" out of those same peices of wood. Feather sticks are invaluable to start a fire when everythings wet.
Also it should ,no I will say must be a fixed blade if you intend to use it this way. Folding knives are dangerous, besides closing on your fingers the joint is a weak spot that will break and send your blade flying if you put a lot of pressure on it like with a baton.
A lot more articles could be written on the subject -Thanks.

Edited by MAYNARD76 on 03/19/2008 01:41:43 MDT.

Sev Erenz
(severenz) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
Exploding Rocks on 03/19/2008 07:08:27 MDT Print View

I was surprised to not see any mention of the risk of explosion when heating rocks. I've had numerous rocks in fire rings explode during a campfire and I can only imagine the risk goes up when you place a hot rock in cold water.

This risk alone is enough to make me avoid it in the backcountry -- be careful when using this technique!

Jaiden .
(jaiden) - F
exploding rocks on 03/19/2008 07:28:08 MDT Print View

I have read that it's the water in the rocks that would cause an explosion, so to never use river rocks. I'm not sure how accurate this is, as I think most rocks are somewhat porous.

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: exploding rocks on 03/19/2008 07:40:47 MDT Print View

You want to use Basalt rocks or fine grained stones. Granite can explode or crumble into pieces.

andrew blair
(badassmofo) - F
exploding rocks on 03/19/2008 09:34:51 MDT Print View

I have no idea how many campfires I have sat around and how many I have cooked over (add in there a few sweats with super heated rocks) but I have never seen a rock "explode". I have heard some river runners speak about this hazard and could see how a rock that has absorbed some water would be at risk of cracking or shattering as the water inside expanded.

One of the hitches I worked was a year in East Africa where the majority of people I worked with cooked their food over a fire their entire life. They used a method that I quite like that was not addressed in this article. It involved using a tripod of rocks to support the cook pot and places the cook pot directly over the source of heat. I liked the simplicity and the efficiency of this method... no precarious stick structures and less ash in the food than placing the pot straight in the flames.

Edited by badassmofo on 03/19/2008 09:36:05 MDT.

Darin Banner
(dbanner) - MLife

Locale: Pacific North West
Re: Exploding Rocks on 03/19/2008 09:54:29 MDT Print View

How would you define “exploding.” I’ve been using fires in the backcountry since the 1970s and have never had any experience that would even remotely resemble an IED. The most that ever happens is the rock splitting uneventfully. The splitting comes from the water inside the rock heating up and expanding. This is the opposite of what happens when you put a hot rock in cold water, which would cause no splitting.

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Exploding Rocks on 03/19/2008 10:15:41 MDT Print View

"How would you define “exploding."
You will hear a snap and small pieces of rock can be sent flying and hit you. Its nothing realy dangerous and will only happen if all the right conditions happen to come together. Just use a fine grained rock and you shouldnt have any trouble.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Fire STARTING on 03/19/2008 10:40:13 MDT Print View

This was a good "starter" article but to be complete various methods of starting a fire should be illustrated, not just described.

How many people start a wood fire by building it on a base of at least "thumb-sized" sticks placed an inch apart to permit updraft when the fire is in the early tinder burning stage? How many people know the difference between a teepee style of laying a fire and a criss-cross style? Which one works better under which circumstances? What tinders ae best? How do you make tinder when only larger sticks are available?

Lots of questions on fire building.

P.S. After reading the replies of folks who feel open fires are wrong I have to say that when you REALLY need one they are the most right thing in the world.
You're well and truly lost - and you build a fire to survive the night, banish your fears and regain your perspective.

Your friend broke a leg and you must go back a day for help. That fire you built for her and the wood you piled up will comfort her long after you've left her alone to go get help.

You're canoeing in the wilds of Quebec and a small evening campfire with loons warbling on the lake will forever remain in your treasured memories. The signs of the fire were erased before you left the next morning.

Edited by Danepacker on 03/22/2008 22:30:22 MDT.

Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
Re: Fire STARTING on 03/19/2008 10:43:09 MDT Print View

Fire starting techniques are on our plate for the future

Jaiden .
(jaiden) - F
fire starting video on 03/19/2008 10:57:51 MDT Print View

some good tips here

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Backcountry Cookfires on 03/19/2008 10:57:58 MDT Print View

Wood fire cooking is good fun. I usually plan my cooking using about 1/2 fuel and 1/2 wood fire. This way, I always try to cook with fire first, and if I get into camp late or am unable to start a fire, I can rely on my fuel.

Joshua Mitchell
(jdmitch) - F

Locale: Kansas
Misc Ramblings... on 03/19/2008 11:10:09 MDT Print View

First off, I quite like the article, and am glad to hear that BPL has a future article on fire-starting planned.

Also, on the exploding rocks issue. Yeah... I've been using open fires in my boy scout / camping careers for year and never had problems. Not even splits. And trust me, I have a talent for building open fire to nearly forge-hot temps (it's a gift that earned me the title of 'fire god' in my old boy scout troop a title never given before or since). The key, as has been said is 'Don't put saturated rocks in your fire'. Note, sustained rain is not enough to saturate rocks, but rocks in / around a stream / lake / body of water are likely to be saturated even if the surface appears dry (prolonged submergence allows water to seep deep into the pores of the rock). Rocks along the trail or around the campsite are never an issue.

The comparison of weights highlights why I'm a HUGE fan of the Tri-Ti system by Traildesigns. All the weight benefits of wood fires, easier lighting (self-containing / protecting from elements) PLUS you have a 100% confidence that, if the weather turns really bad that you can still cook for the relatively low weight of a couple of esbit tabs and a Gram Cracker (aka for a week long trek one might bring 5 tabs as a backup)... It's the 'best of both worlds' if you will.

Anyhow, I'm really looking forward to the fire starting article (and will likely peruse it with a critical eye).

William Stadwiser
(bstadwiser) - F
Some Comments from the Author: on 03/19/2008 11:23:22 MDT Print View

Thanks for the interest and comments everyone. Some responses to the above comments:

With regards to super-heated rocks, I have never had an experience with anything resembling an explosion. I have seen them fracture and crumble, especially when using much larger rocks for, say, a backcountry sweat lodge. This is not to say that a shrapnel-style explosion could not happen, just that it's never happened to me, anyone I know or with whom I've spoken who has used this method. If there's anyone who has had a different experience, I'd love to hear about it.

As Don alluded to, this was not intended to be an article on fire building techniques, but rather styles of backcountry cooking over an open fire. I agree that there is much left to be said about starting fires, maintaining safe fires and cleaning up after your fire. I'll be looking forward to reading that one too.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Re: Fire STARTING on 03/19/2008 11:35:54 MDT Print View

I am looking forward to the article on fire starting.

I would second the recommendation of taking a sufficiently durable knife which can be used with a baton... especially in the face of wet conditions. A fix blade make a lot of sense and the Mora has a great price/performance ratio, though I prefer a full tang. There are a number of folders such as those made by Benchmade (with the AXIS lock) that are up to this sort of task, pack easier than a fixed blade, and is lighter than some fixed blade + sheaths.

I would also cation people to be careful selecting rocks. I haven't had a problem with granite, but back in my boy scout days in ohio we found that sandstone and limestone? would often pop and crack... which could be an issue if it was being used to hold up a pot (we would often do a tripod of rocks). I don't remember any "exploding". My memory is a bit fuzzy... but I also remember that there was some rock (maybe slate?) that we would pull out of stream banks that would not just pot/crack but actually explode, sending little bits of stone flying. I don't remember anyone getting badly hurt. I think I remember some ponchos getting holed, but it was more than 30 years ago.. it might have been flying embers as well.

The other thing I would note is that when cooking on coals, it is possible to use foil, or even paper as a container... though it's typically not re-usable. We used to cook our breakfast eggs in paper bags, and then burn the bags after we finished to minimize early morning cleanups.

Another method to mention is baking. If there are flat stones, you can build a small "oven" from rocks and then bake things.


Edited by verber on 03/19/2008 11:51:18 MDT.

Richard Gless
(rgless) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Backcountry Cookfires on 03/20/2008 00:23:53 MDT Print View

I'm sorry if I have missed the point or seem to be coming on strong here, but I have to admit I was a bit appalled by the fire rings and the size of the fires shown in this article. I firmly believe in minimum or no impact camping. If there is an established fire ring with blackened rocks in the campsite, then knock yourself out and do whatever, but I usually try to make the established rings smaller and get rid of some of the blackened rocks. In the California Sierras, at least, you can balance your cookpot on two or three flat pieces of granite and build a very small fire say 2" x 6" between the rocks to cook (or better yet use a stove). The after dinner campfire, if you have one, really doesn't need to be more than 6 to 12" in diameter and should be kept as small as possible. You don't need any rocks around the fire. The ashes can be widely dispersed, or, if you build the fire in a depression, thoroughly drowned and buried. If you didn't camp in an established site and you built a fire, you shouldn't be able to see any trace of your camp when you leave.

Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
ground fires = laziness on 03/20/2008 01:16:03 MDT Print View

Like the previous poster, I too have a hard time with the idea of lighting fires on the ground to cook my dinner. I am a person who believes that the Leave No Trace na=zis go too far, but I also believe that cooking over a ground fire is too far in the other direction.

Lightweight backpacking is one thing, but deciding to depend on ground fires rather than packing a few ounces of alcohol stove or bushbuddy borders on sheer laziness. RJ even intended to carry his bushbuddy 600 miles across Alaska -- how heavy can it be?

I camp in a couple of backcountry sites that have fire rings, and the impact on the surrounding square mile of forest is unmistakeable. People range far and wide dragging sticks and logs back. The trees have been stripped of every branch that will break. There's invariably a half-burned log in one of the fire rings, and sometimes garbage or melted garbage. Once there are fire rings, people start doing things like that.

Firemaking is an important and satisfying skill that should be practiced regularly. But like the lean-to and the snare, it's unnecessarily harsh to the environment and has no place in (otherwise beautiful) backcountry sites that see hundreds or thousands of users a year.

Granted, hiking with a fire for cooking, snares for food catching, and a lean-to for shelter is a great way to get your base weight under that elusive 3 pound mark.

Edited by bjamesd on 03/20/2008 01:30:57 MDT.

Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
ground fires = laziness / PS on 03/20/2008 01:29:31 MDT Print View

PS I was in scouting in the foothills of Alberta for 13 years. Further, my family had an acreage where I learned to shoot, felled trees for firewood, built lean-tos, built small and big fires all over the place all the time, and tried anything I wanted to out of Mors L. Kochanski's Northern Bushcraft -- all a decade before the first time I heard the words "leave no trace". So I'm not a latté-sipping yuppie with delicate sensibilities that are offended by the thought of non-Greenpeace-sanctioned outdoor activities. I just think that choosing not to bring a stove is going too far; it's not respectful of the land or of other hikers.

Arapiles .
(Arapiles) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Re: ground fires = laziness / PS on 03/20/2008 04:56:31 MDT Print View

Like Richard and Brian I'm surprised and disappointed to see this article, notwithstanding the caveats in the article. Fire rings, uncontrolled fires and the collection of firewood have huge environmental impacts in Australia (and in the US too I understand). On one occasion I know of, someone carted a chainsaw into a national park and cut down living snow gums to fuel their bonfire. I can't think of any circumstances when a ground fire would be justified in a wilderness area other than in a life-threatening emergency and no amount of lyrical rhapsodising about troubled youth bonding over the flickering flames, or references to Prometheus or Coyote can disguise that. The suggestion that this is somehow "UL" would suggest that UL is intrinsically opposed to LNT and sits oddly with the recent living lightly article.

And for the record,if you are going to cook over a fire you wait until the flames die down - you don't cook in the flames.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: ground fires = laziness / PS on 03/20/2008 06:19:59 MDT Print View

Wow, guess I'm not a popular one right now...I routinely use my wind screen with 2 tent stakes as a makeshift bushbuddy to cook with - if it's wet or I'm tired, I'll pull out the fuel.