The Zest Of Camping: 7 Tips For Cooking Over A Wood Fire


I’ve never met any serious camper who didn’t comment on how much better food tastes when it’s cooked outdoors. From a weekend family outing to a week-long backpacking trip, food cooked over a fire just tastes better.

Just before we headed to Eastern Europe this Fall, we went camping in the new popup for a month. We had a chance to experience both the Zen and the zest of camping … cooking over a wood fire. We’ve lost count of our outdoor meals, but over the years, we’ve refined and simplified our technique. And lots of trial and error has taught us that with a bit of planning and practice, cooking over a wood fire can produce delicious results.

1. Heat is your friend, flames are not. Steaks sizzling over a blazing fire look great on TV commercials, but unless you want your food charred on the outside and raw inside, let the fire die down a bit before putting on your food. And take it from me, if you want any hair left on your knuckles, let that fire get tranquilo. 

2. Map out the hot and cool spots in your fire. Some parts of the fire are hotter than others, and different foods require differing amounts of heat. Your open palm passing a foot above the fire is the only mapping tool needed.

3. Let the grate warm up before cooking. There are varying opinions about this technique, but when I cook over a fire, I want my food to taste and look like it was cooked over a fire.

Corn and Pork

4. Keep the menu simple. Whether it’s food prep, cooking, or cleanup, your life will be easier with a simple menu. Everything to be cooked must fit easily on the grate (at the same time), and cold side dishes are prepared in advance. For us, this means carryout from the deli or a salad.

5. Marinated meat works best. Most wood fires cook hotter than charcoal, and consequently, tend to dry out the meat. Marinading helps keep the meat moist, and in general, it will cook quicker.

6. Olive oil adds a wonderful smoky flavor. If possible, we add olive oil to just about everything we cook over wood. It helps to keep both meats and vegetables moist. Last night’s corn was slathered in olive oil, and it was delish.

7. Have all table gear and drinks ready to rock ‘n’ roll. – Meals prepared over wood fires happen quickly (and cool off quickly), so be ready to eat.


This satisfying meal was easy, fun, delicious, and ended with the quintessential campfire dessert, gourmet S’mores (we used caramel-filled chocolate). Unfortunately, we didn’t get a photo of the final results, because they were gone before they hit the plate. We went to bed happy campers.

Happy Cookin’
James & Terri



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

24 thoughts

    1. When camping with only 2 people, smores can be a vicious circle. You run out of chocolate, but still have lots of marshmallows and graham crackers. Then you replenish the chocolate, and run out of crackers. Etc, etc. But this is a good problem to have. ~James

    1. Jade, we love to camp, but strangely we’ve never camped outside North America. I’m sure that camping in a foreign country adds lots of fun challenges. I love Spain as well. Where did you camp in Spain? ~James

  1. Good advice. We should at least use the BBQ more often.

    Recently I’ve been introduced to Indonesian BBQ – a particular recipe, in fact, which uses a sticky molasses-based marinade with rice, coconut curry sauce, and pickled veggies on the side. It’s a gateway food 😉 . I keep meaning to chase down a recipe for the marinade and sauce.

    1. Bronwyn, you had me at coconut curry sauce. One motivational trick that I’ve learned to overcome my too-lazy-to-BBQ mood is to cook a bunch of stuff so we have leftovers. If I’m not camping, I cook over charcoal, which takes a bit of effort to get going. So in addition to dinner, we’ve come up with a few recipes that we can cook in advance and enjoy later. Marinated chicken is perfect for this, and the smoky flavor is wonderful the next day…and the next…~James

  2. As usual your photos bring life to your story. How else can I explain my salivating? I used to frequently cook over an open fire. Hardwoods definitely work better than pine or fir. And it does make food taste better although I don’t miss open fire cooking with a shifting wind or wet wood. I’m sure you know what I mean. 🙂 – Mike

    1. Mike, you sound like a man with some BBQ miles on the odometer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my Dad was a closet pyromanic. He took great pride in his ability to build a fire that did the job, whether heating or cooking, or both. Luckily, he passed this pyro gene down to me. I’m with you on the hardwoods, but if the need arises, I don’t discriminate – I’ll burn whatever’s at hand. I truly love smoky tasting food, and I consider hairless, singed knuckles a badge of honor. ~James

  3. I would love to get a camper and do the camping thing once we decide to return to the US. Of course it would have to have heat and a shower but I’m willing to rough it. 🙂

    Mike is great with a BBQ so I know we would eat well.

    Love the pictures and thanks for the tips.

    1. Thanks Florence. Terri and I have camped all of our adult lives together, and we have a saying when it comes to camping: “There’s no reason to be uncivilized.” The mistake that most people make when camping is that they make it harder than it needs to be. We aren’t pioneer settlers, and have nothing to prove. We enjoy nature and leave a small footprint, but we also make sure we’re comfortable, and this includes good food and drink. It’s obvious from your travels and life experiences that you and Mike have figured out how to make life fun and rewarding. Camping will just be another chapter. ~James

  4. Ah James: Most of my backpack cooking is done over a small white gas stove with the primary skill involved being boiling water. Can’t afford the weight on my back of anything heavier than freeze-dried food. I know– it’s sad. 🙂 Curt

    1. Curt, Terri and I have done a bit of backpacking, and we really enjoy the challenge and creativity of coming up with interesting and tasty food that can be carried easily. But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s nothing like a big hunk of red meat (hopefully not bear) sizzling and smoking over the fire. And of course a wee dram of bourbon never hurts the flavor either. ~James

      1. That wee dram of Bourbon (or 151proof rum since a little goes a long ways) has been a welcome addition on many a night… especially when I’ve had 10-15 people whining about how far I made them walk, James. –Curt

    1. Anita, if there’s anything that smells better than food cooking on a smoky campfire or BBQ then I haven’t smelled it. I’m so conditioned that I start salivating at the smell of charcoal lighter. Weird but true. Do you and Big D have any special BBQ foods? ~James

      1. Sadly, we don’t have a working grill or smoker. But, I mean, we live in the perfect place not to have one. There is a local restaurant (we call it 3 Pigs) that smokes a turkey or ham for you this time of year. Amazing!

    1. Thanks LuAnn. Ain’t that little popup cute. We’ve spent about a month camping in it, and are loving it. It’s a quantum leap from sleeping on the ground, let me tell you. And cooking over a fire is a labor of love, but with practice it’s the best. We hope you and Terry had a great Turkey Day. ~James

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