Food, Fire, and Fun All in One: Why and How to Offer Outdoor Cooking at Camp

Cindy Brown and Robin Galloway
July 2018
Campers sitting around a campfire

At lunchtime, youthful chefs ages nine to 12 gather around tables in the camp dining room with knives in their hands and plastic cutting boards in front of them. Trying to follow directions in the noisy room, they cut up kielbasa sausage, red potatoes, onions, and peppers. Wielding sharp metal skewers like swords, they thread their cut-up foods onto the tines. Heading outside in a rush, they flock to a low, metal trough filled with burning hot coals. They hold their shish kabobs over the heat. Sizzling sounds and delicious smells fill the air. Some foods are burned, some foods are undercooked, and some foods fall off the skewers into the coals. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, the head cook is waiting for the campers to return to the dining room for the rest of their meal, and the afternoon session starts in 20 minutes. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Seem like a terrible risk for first aid emergencies? Appear to be a failure of a meal and a terrible glitch in the schedule? No, it’s outdoor cooking at camp, where no other class has food, fun, and fire — all in one!

So how do you, as a camp director or class instructor, manage these dangerous elements including knives, sharp metal tines, fire, coals, and hot metal together with a group of young, untrained cooks with no knife skills and a tendency to run rather than walk? In addition, how do you produce a safe and edible meal with proper nutrition in the time frame allotted in your schedule while giving the kids a wonderfully fun experience and teaching them incredibly useful life skills?

Planning, Organization, and Flexibility Are Key

Professionals and camp staff wanting to include outdoor cooking at camp should understand the amount of planning, organization, and flexibility needed to add this challenging activity to the schedule. Even camp staff experienced in outdoor cooking from personal camping, hiking, or hunting trips will find themselves facing a steep learning curve when it comes to teaching outdoor cooking to a group of youth, especially if trying to fit it into a busily scheduled day or event.

As Gregory “Gus” Wickham says on his website, campingwithgus.com, “Camping with kids requires the three P’s of planning, preparation, and patience. It requires a lot more thought and attention to details than an adult camping trip. From camp food and recipes, to camp games and activities — every aspect of camping has to be considered with the kids in mind. If an adult camper doesn’t have something he needs, or the weather turns rainy, he will improvise. If it happens to a kid, it is a disaster! This is where preplanning and camping checklists can save the day” (Wickham, 2018).

Outdoor cooking can be offered at camp as a part of an activity such as campfire or a hike, as a stand-alone class, or can be incorporated into one or more daily meals. It is crucial to plan out every detail ahead of time, including menus, ingredients, cooking equipment, supplies, condiments, fire management, quantities, timing and order of cooking, and costs. For larger groups or complete meals, a spreadsheet is helpful, especially when it is constructed to size up or down ingredients based upon the number of campers or participants.

Why Offer Outdoor Cooking at Camp?

Outdoor cooking at camp is very popular with youth and is an activity most children and teens have never done completely for themselves. Other than roasting marshmallows or hot dogs on a stick, most kids usually have their meals prepared for them by adults rather than getting hands-on experience themselves. Outdoor cooking combines adventuresome elements — fire, knives, sharp skewers, hot pots, etc. — in a controlled environment to keep kids safe while learning valuable life skills, allowing them to step outside their comfort zones in the midst of enjoying time with their friends.

With outdoor cooking, youth learn a number of valuable life skills, including:

  • Food preparation and nutrition
  • Following directions and recipes
  • Hands-on, practical cooking with limited equipment or supplies
  • How to build, light, manage, and put out a fire
  • Science (different types of heat) and math (measuring and cutting)
  • Confidence to try something new
  • Problem-solving and understanding consequences (improperly threaded food can fall off the skewers and into the coals; improperly wrapped foil dinners can leak or burn)
  • Leave-no-trace camping (picking up trash and debris, leaving the site as it was)
  • Being in the outdoors with no high-tech or screens to distract them
  • The ability to cook a variety of foods in different outdoor or “grid-down” situations, such as for backyard barbeques and camping trips, as well as during power outages or other survival situations
  • Skills Needed by Outdoor Cooking Leaders
  • In addition to the organization, planning, and flexibility strengths already mentioned, leaders for outdoor cooking at camp will need to have a variety of skills:
  • First aid
  • Sanitation and food safety, food handlers’ certification
  • Cooking experience and understanding of basic cooking terms
  • Knowledge of the equipment to be used
  • Fire building, coal management, clean-up, and leave-no-trace principles
  • Experience leading youth individually and in groups
  • Patience and flexibility when working with youth of different ages
  • Ability to problem-solve and improvise when things don’t work out
  • Willingness to train other staff and delegate responsibility
  • Ability to answer many questions at once

Challenges to Offering Outdoor Cooking

No matter what your personal experience is with outdoor cooking, you will encounter challenges in offering outdoor cooking to a group of youth.

First of all, a major challenge is the kids themselves. Most have limited cooking skills and no experience cooking outdoors and, because of age and inexperience, will need constant instruction and supervision. “Train the trainers” by teaching staff how to properly cook outdoors prior to camp so they can help supervise the campers. Use experienced cooking staff as helpers. It is crucial to keep kids on task and engaged during the entire preparation and cooking process.

Younger youth, kids 12 and under, seem to want to do “their own” cooking and are not patient or cooperative enough to do a “group” cook. Theirs is a “get ’r done” mentality, and they’re ready to charge on to the next activity. Teenagers are much better at rotating through cooking stations and/or group cooking. They enjoy just hanging out and are better able to manage their time socially while food is cooking.

A second major challenge of outdoor cooking with youth in a group is scheduling and timing. Cooking outdoors is the opposite of fast food or having adults provide a ready-to-eat meal, as when campers move quickly through the chow line at camp. Everything takes longer, from washing hands to listening to instructions to preparing the food to the actual cooking. The only activity that goes fast is eating the food! The timing of having food ready to eat when it needs to be eaten, such as for a specific meal time, can definitely be an issue. Will you allow children to eat their food as it is cooked (which is their absolute preference) or make them hold it on the plate and take into the dining hall to add the rest of the meal?

Best practices to help with timing include having staff precut/prep foods, open up cans, set everything on trays so it’s ready to go, or precook some foods such as ground beef, carrots, or potatoes. Campers can start their food then leave for another activity while staff finish up the foods on-site or even in the camp ovens. Slow-cooking activities such as with Dutch ovens can be started before evening flagpole and dinner.

A third and extremely important challenge when it comes to outdoor cooking with kids is health and safety issues. You will almost always be dealing with limited food preparation and washing facilities when cooking outdoors. Handwashing and cleanliness of food and cooking equipment is crucial yet hard to maintain in an unpredictable outdoor environment with dirt, dust, mud, leaves, pine needles, insects, etc. Perishable items must be kept cold; hot foods must be kept hot for food safety purposes.

Participants and staff should wear closed-toe shoes while cooking outdoors. Long hair, strings, and cords should be tied back. Aprons can be worn to keep clothing clean. No nylon or plastic clothing should be worn, because if it catches fire, burns can sink deep into the skin as the plastic melts. (Shirts with plastic decals or lettering can simply be turned inside out and/or backwards for safety.) Use pot grips or oven mitts when handling or stirring pots or skillets. Keep a first aid kit and cold water on hand, as burns, cuts, and scrapes are inevitable — and part of the process of learning about the potential consequences of cooking with heat, knives, and sharp skewers. Be ready to put out fires; keep a bucket of water at the ready as well as a fire extinguisher and/or a fire blanket. Watch out for children accidentally touching or walking on hot coals. Have a bell or whistle to use as an emergency stop signal. Again, planning ahead and using a checklist for supplies and instruction will help.

Yet another challenge of outdoor cooking applies to groups as well as individuals out in the woods. There are many variables to contend with. Uneven heat sources; the impacts of wind, rain, or specific microclimates; problems or failures with fire, coals, or equipment; and the inescapable occurrences of food falling into coals and burning to a crisp, food not being cooked correctly, or picky eaters deciding they don’t like what they just cooked. When working with larger groups, another variable is managing your charcoal briquettes or fire for cooking coals. You generally always need more coals than you planned, and it always takes longer than you hope to get coals to the correct temperature.

Think about how and where you will prepare the initial fire or pile of briquettes, how you will transfer coals or briquettes to your young cooks, and how you will protect the soil the coals will sit on. Our camp experiences have shown us to use fire pits and metal troughs for coal preparation, and metal shovels for moving coals from the main fire to individual cooking spots. Laying coals down on top of double-folded layers of foil makes for quick cleanup. Think through everything prior to embarking upon this wonderful activity for your campers.

Outdoor Cooking Methods and Equipment

A wide variety of outdoor cooking methods and equipment can be used in small or large groups. Some equipment can be purchased commercially while other equipment can be constructed using rocks, bricks, or other materials such as foil or cardboard. In addition to the actual cooking equipment, you will need your fuel sources and a whole list of supplies, such as:

  • newspaper
  • wood or pellets
  • briquettes
  • propane, canister fuel, butane, etc.
  • matches
  • water pail
  • fire extinguisher or fire blanket
  • pots and pans
  • spatulas
  • pot grips or oven mitts
  • lid lifters
  • aprons
  • first aid kit

Again, planning and organization using checklists will be extremely valuable. Consider which cooking methods/equipment will work best for your needs:

  • Rocket stove — commercial
  • Rocket stove — built from bricks
  • Buddy burner (made from galvanized #10 can) using chafing gel or cardboard/paraffin candle
  • Pan over fire supported by bricks or rock
  • Pie iron
  • Skewer over coals
  • Rotisserie over coals
  • Foil packet over coals (identify packets using mustard, which cooks to a dark brown, or Sharpies)
  • Foil-covered box oven over coals
  • Instant grill — portable, disposable instant barbeque
  • Metal grate or grill over coals
  • Skillet over coals
  • Dutch oven with coals
  • Tripod with pot over coals
  • Solar cooking — do-it-yourself pizza box or cardboard box oven
  • Solar cooking — commercial
  • Camp stove or grill
  • Smoker
  • Fryer
  • Outdoor oven — commercial
  • Backpacking stove

Outdoor cooking is a marvelous activity to add to your camp, whether as a stand-alone class, activity during a hike or after a campfire, or as part of regular meals. Planning, organization, and flexibility are musts for successfully managing the challenges of leading a group of youth in outdoor cooking. All of the upfront work you do will result in your campers gaining life and survival skills ranging from fire starting and management to food preparation and knife practice, from understanding the science of how things cook with heat to following directions and problem-solving, and, of course, socializing and enjoying a relaxing time in the outdoors. Besides, one of them might share a s’more with you.

Outdoor Cooking Receipes

Buddy Stove Breakfast

1 piece bacon, cut in thirds

1 egg

Small cup of ready-made pancake batter

Fry the bacon first; save the oil to cook the egg in (add more bacon for more oil). Remove bacon to a plate. Fry your egg until done the way you like it, and remove to a plate. Add batter for one pancake, cook until bubbles cover the pancake then flip over.

“S’Mores and More: 4-H Outdoor Cooking and Living Basic Skills Guide,” Oregon State University Extension Service: https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/technical_reports/8p58pd06v

Omelet in a Bag

Write name on side of quart-size freezer bag

Mix together in bag: two eggs and pre-cooked bacon, sausage, or ham

Sprinkle with cheese

Secure bag tightly

Lower carefully into pot of boiling water, and cook several minutes until egg is set

“4-H Camp Cooking Adventures: Grab and Go Project Bag,” University of Missouri Extension: https://4h.missouri.edu/doc/grab-go-camp-cooking-adventure.pdf.

Fruit Kabobs

Cut-up fruit, such as banana slices, strawberry halves, cubed melon (apples take too long)

Place fruit pieces on skewer

Brush with mix of honey and lemon juice

Cook over hot coals until warm and toasty

“Cooking Over Campfire Coals,” Iowa State University: https://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Cooking-Over-Campfire-Coals-4-H-Youth-Development

Foil Packet Meal

Tear off a two-foot-long piece of heavy duty foil, fold in half to make a square

Place inside packet: meat — such as hamburger patty (precooked), hotdog pieces, sausage pieces, chicken cubes (precooked), or boneless fish — and assorted vegetables cut up into small pieces — such as onions, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, corn, and carrots

Sprinkle with seasoning, such as taco, Cajun, lemon pepper, or garlic powder

Optional: Add ketchup, BBQ sauce, or salsa

Bring up opposite sides of foil, fold over to seal tightly, roll up opposite ends, and flatten packet

Personalize with name, initials, or numbers by writing with mustard (will dry and brown for easy reading) or use a black Sharpie

Place on hot coals 10–15 minutes until hot; watch for hot spots and burning

Cindy Brown, based on years’ of experience and combination of many different recipes, Oregon State University Extension, Sherman County

Cupcake in an Orange

Prepare white, lemon, or yellow cake mix according to package directions

On a cutting board, cut off top third of a large navel orange, save the top

Scoop out (and eat) the fruit in the big part; leave some fruit on sides/bottom for flavor

Fill scooped-out orange two-thirds full of cake mix, replace top

Wrap in double-thick heavy duty foil, bake about 15–20 minutes until done

From: “Campfire Dessert!” by Faith Durand: https://www.thekitchn.com/campfire-dessert-a-cake-baked-130853

Photos on pages 46–47 courtesy of Sherman County 4-H Camp, Moro, Oregon; Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys, Camp Singing Hills, Waterville, Minnesota; Camp John Marc, Dallas, Texas; and Camp Walden, Cheboygan, Michigan.

References

Bilton, A. (2016, September). Outdoor cooking. Camp Business. Retrieved from https://www.campbusiness.com/articles/2016/9/outdoor-cooking

Davis, W., White, D. J., Bourdeau, V., & Lesmeister, M. (2016). Oregon 4-H challenge and adventure guidelines for front and back country. Oregon State University. Retrieved from http://oregon.4h.oregonstate.edu/sites/default/files/ca_guidelines_3_2_2016.pdf

Kroll, M. M. (2018). 4-H camp cooking adventures: Grab and go project bag. University of Missouri Extension. Retrieved from https://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/4h/OutdoorSkills/CampFireCooking.pdf

Laine, K. (2010, July). Camp cooking with children. AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Retrieved from outdoors.org/articles/amc-outdoors/camp-cooking-with-children/

Levings, J. M., Bogue, S., Ouverson, C. M., & Lenahan, J. M. (2007). 4-H youth development: Cooking over campfire coals. (2007). 4-H Youth Development Publications, 13. Retrieved from http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/extension_4h_pubs/13/

North Dakota State University Extension Service. (2018). Camp fire cooking. North Dakota 4-H, NDSU. Retrieved from ndsu.edu/fileadmin/4h/OutdoorSkills/CampFireCooking.pdf

Oregon State University Extension Service. (2002). S’mores and more: 4-H outdoor cooking and living basic skills guide. Out of print. Retrieved from https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/technical_reports/8p58pd06v

Tin Pig. (2018). 18 simple & tasty tin foil camping recipes. Retrieved from https://tinpig.com/camping/camping-recipes/18-simple-tasty-tin-foil-camping-recipes/

University of Minnesota Extension. (2014). Family outdoor cooking (part of Tech Discovery Curriculum). Retrieved from https://4-hmilitarypartnerships.org/educator-staff/resources/curriculum/tech_discovery/Family%20Outdoor%20Cooking%208-28-14.pdf

Wickham, G. (2018). Camping with kids. Retrieved from campingwithgus.com/camping-kids/

Cindy Brown and Robin Galloway are professional faculty in the College of Public Health & Human Sciences at Oregon State University. Cindy lives and works in rural, north central Oregon and is personally experienced with a variety of outdoor cooking techniques from camping, hiking, backpacking, and hunting. She leads outdoor cooking 4-H clubs, takes youth on outdoor adventures with food as an important aspect, teaches outdoor cooking as a class at camps, and has overseen the incorporation of outdoor cooking by campers into meals at Sherman County 4-H Camp. Robin is from Linn County in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and also enjoys an outdoorsy lifestyle. As a 4-H youth development faculty with the OSU Extension Service she has been a camp director at the Oregon 4-H Conference & Education Center. Robin advises others to live her motto: “Life’s Short — Ride Hard!” She recently retired and is enjoying her new adventures.