From the snap of the match and the crackle of those first dry twigs, to the dance of the orange flames, there’s something about a campfire that invokes an endless state of relaxation. When the first waves of heat spill onto your lap and the smell of wood smoke floats skyward, you know one thing’s for certain. Dinner can’t be far behind.

It’s time to back away from your kitchen range and take your cooking show outdoors. C’mon baby, light a fire!

Checklist for a campfire:

  • Wood: A combination of species is best. Spruce or pine (softwoods) ignite and burn quickly so they ensure your fire gets off toa healthy start. To get good coals for cooking that last a long time, you’ll need oak or birch (hardwoods). Some campgrounds offer wood for free; others have vendors that will sell you a few sticks. Most of the time they sell softwood. If you have a neighbour with a fireplace, ask for a few armloads because it will likely be a hardwood.
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • Aluminum plates (for setting hot packets of food down)
  • Matches or lighter
  • Newspaper
  • Small axe
  • Small camping knife
  • Extra-long tongs with heat-resistant handles
  • Oven mitts or gauntlet-style leather gloves
  • Grills or grilling basket (if the fire pit grill is in rough shape)
  • Pail (for pouring water on your fire)

Location, location, location!

For safety, it’s important to follow some guidelines when choosing a location for your fire. If you’re planning a weekend at a provincial campground, fire pits or “approved containers” as the authorities call them, are ready to go. If it’s a day trip you have in mind, look for a provincial picnic site that has fire pits.

Before you strike a match, check the conditions. If it’s a dry season, a burn ban may be in effect. Most burn bans restrict open fires from 8pm to 8am although in extreme condition, all fires may be banned.

Light that fire:

When it comes to getting a fire going, it’s all about patience.

Start by gathering tinder. Look for spruce twigs, needles, dry grass, leaves and very small branches. You can also gather birch bark but be sure it’s from deadfall. Don’t strip it off live trees. These items are dry and highly combustible and will provide the base for your fire. Create a small tinder pile in the centre of the fire pit. The Boy Scouts don’t advocate using paper but if you’re not quite sure about your fire-starting capabilities, add a crumpled ball of newspaper to the centre of the pile.

Next place small branches around the tinder to form a teepee. If you’re handy with an axe, chop stick-like pieces from the firewood. These should be about three centimeters in diameter. Place these, also in teepee fashion, to form the next tier. The final step is the firewood. Use the softwoods for the first layer. Add two more layers using the hardwoods.

You are now ready to light your fire. Strike the match and hold it at a downward angle and immediately place it against the tinder. With a little luck and maybe a lungful of air, you’ll be off to a roaring start.

Next comes the waiting game. Sit back and enjoy the show for roughly 45 minutes. Now you’re ready to cook.

Put it out:

Cooking over an open fire begins with safety. And it ends with safety. Never leave your fire unattended. When it’s time to head home or call it a night, grab a pail of water and start pouring it on your fire. Stir things around. Pour again and be sure there’s no smoke.

Campfire cooking tips:

  1. The triple layer wrap. To add moisture, and a layer of protection to food that will be cooked directly on coals, add a sheet of moistened paper towel between a first and second layer of aluminum foil.
  2. The marinating game. Place a tender cut of venison or bison into a sealable bag. Add crushed garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and a few sprigs of rosemary. Let it marinade during the drive to the campground. Grill until medium rare over an open fire. Works equally well with a beef fillet.
  3. Skin side down. Use a fish fillet with the skin on. Place directly on the fire pit grill. Sprinkle with your favourite spice mixture and top with a slice of lemon. Cover the fillet withan aluminum foil pan. Dinner is ready in about four minutes.

Check out the following recipes for:

An avid angler and hunter, Shel writes the hunting column in the Winnipeg Free Press. Her recent adventures have included a trip to the tundra as cook at a caribou hunting camp, and a long overdue journey to Ukraine with her father.

Photos by Shel Zolkewich

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