Trail cooking for the beginner

Trail cooking. Just the sound of that short sentence conjures up visions of cast iron pots strung over a smoky campfire and an old two gallon coffee pot settled onto a bed of hot coals…  at least to me it does.

I once had a previous post on trail cooking on my now deleted Myspace account. Instead of drawing the folks I had intended it for, somehow it drew the back packers crowd. While I have nothing against back packers, it seemed they had ‘green’ issues with me regarding open fires and meat. Since I and my cooking style didn’t fit their mold of what trail cooking is, I received a number of rude and opinionated comments.  So, hopefully those reading this Heritage and trail cooking blog are more attuned to what I consider trail cooking.

First, unlike the back packing crowd, my idea of trail cooking is not cooking rehydrated pouches of pasta alfredo in micro sized aluminum pans over even smaller Swedish alcohol stoves. If yours is, then instead of acting high and mighty and scowling at you, I want to instead educate and teach you about the wonderful world of cooking full meals outdoors while on the move.

In this post, I’m going to show you some handy items for the beginner trail cook. In other post, I’ll go through other great outdoor cooking equipment, how to use them like a pro and give you cooking tips on stews, meats, veggies, biscuits breads and more.

By the time I’ve finished my different post on these subjects, you’ll have enough information to confidently step into the role as a real trail cook.

But first, let’s look at what trail cooking is and give you a beginners guide to some basic equipment.

   Trail cooking is a method of cooking ‘on the run’.

While some ranch cooks have permanent outdoor fire rings with iron pot hanger bars in place (as shown in picture above), we are going to talk about a short term set up. Trail cooking is similar to camp fire cooking except that when you trail cook, you set up your cooking process in a way that you make and store a bulk amount of ingredients for future use while on the move. I’ll explain.

If you are making cowboy beans each night, you would not start from scratch each time you made them. Instead, you would go ahead and prepare a bulk amount of soaked and boiled beans that could last 2-3 days.  Such things like vegetables and spices are not included in the bulk amount being cooked as they are added as each days meal are made.  After the bulk amount of beans are boiled up, the amount you need for future meals is then separated and stored for another days meals. The trick is to store them correctly to inhibit them from turning rancid on you. Boiled beans for instance can be drained fairly dry and stored in cloth sacks for a day or two more with no ill effect. By doing this, you no longer have to do daily overnight soaks and then boil them at each meal until they’re soft.

Sour dough biscuits and breads are another part of the meal that should be set up for multiple days meals. The sour dough starter is made in bulk and a certain amount is then drawn off and added to each batch of fresh dough.

The whole idea of trail cooking is that you can move your camp yet easily set up and quickly start cooking once stopped.

The Chuck Wagon was a portable kitchen that traveled ten to fifteen miles each day.

First things first.

 First the fires. I use two different fire set ups depending on the way I’m cooking and equipment I’m going to use. One is the teepee and the other is the log cabin or criss cross method.  Each fire starts with a center of very flammable material called tinder. This can be paper, or carbonized cloth.* around that material can be loosely placed cardboard, dried grass etc. Then covering that are loosely placed twigs from pencil to finger thickness. (Loosely placed is the prime word here.) From this point you can decide what type of fire you wish to cook on and how big you want it to be.

The first is the Teepee fire. This is a fire that concentrates the flame and heat to a single point located in the center of the fire. Placed on end with all its upper tips meeting in the center above and around the tinder fire, you again start with thinner branches or split wood. Each layer of wood becomes thicker until your pieces are 4-6 inches in diameter. Leave a small opening in the side that leads directly into the center of the tinder area. Using a twig with paper or dried grass wrapped around the end of it, light it and place it into the tinder. Add split wood or logs as needed. This is the quickest to start and hottest form of cook fire. An evening campfire is usually a teepee style.

The second is the criss cross or log cabin fire. Start again with the same tinder method as the teepee fire uses.  Similar to building a cabin with Lincoln logs, build a four square structure using pencil thin twigs,  making sure to lay each twig on the end of the twig next to it. When the height is just above that of your tinder fire place a row of “roof” twigs (pencil to finger thickness)  loosely across the top, like a roof. Place another loosely built wall of twigs and thin branches around the original cabin making sure you leave an entry way intact for lighting your tinder. Each wall of surrounding “Lincoln logs” should be thicker until they reach a 4-6 inch thickness. After lighting, this fire is meant to burn down into a hot burning coal bed. Add to the fire to increase the intensity of the hot coals by laying consecutive thin and thick pieces of firewood flat across the fire being sure not to add too many too quickly or you could smother your fire. As mentioned, by building this type of fire, a very thick, hot and long lasting bed of coals are made.

When you deem the fire is ready, just rake the coals somewhat level.  you can place your cooking equipment, and certain foods directly onto the coals. This type of fire has many uses. It provides a flatter surface for Dutch ovens, frying pans, coffee pots and other equipment that cannot be hung over the fire.


The basic grill.  There are again two types of grills I use. One is the above pictured stationary grill on legs and the second is a great little adjustable grill shown further down. I’ve even seen folks use old oven racks as grills as shown below.

The best way to use a flat grill without legs is to set it on top of two large opposing logs with the fire in between the two logs. This not only holds the grill level and in place but reflects the heat into the center of the fire. Rocks can also be used but never use rocks taken from the water, they can explode when water that has soaked into the rock turns into steam.

The adjustable grill. This is my favorite all purpose grill. It’s mounted on an iron rod hammered into the ground and held in place with an attached clamp. Being mounted on the rod allows the grill to be easily moved up and down and rotated away from over the fire. No more burning heat hitting your face when trying to remove your cooked food. Just rotate it 180 degrees away from the fire.

It will hold most frying pans, coffee pots or you can cook directly on top of it. Potatoes, corn on the cob and even hot dogs, burgers and steaks cook easily on it. It dismantles and can be stored in its flat box. This inexpensive trail cooking tool is a must in my book.

Finally, there are some optional pieces of equipment that are real handy if you are serving up food for a crowd but not necessary if you’re just a handful of hungry folks. I’ll go into further detail on these pieces of equipment in an upcoming Dutch Oven post. Below I’ve posted some pictures of these. They include a four legged Dutch oven cooking set, a coffee tilter and pot hanger. Other minor but handy stuff to have on hand are long handle tongs, a long handled basting brush, a iron lid lifter and gloves. I do not recommend using leather as heat transfers through leather quickly. Instead, I use Kevlar oven gloves.

With the increased interest in self sufficiency and return to heritage cooking, trail cooking is an important skill to learn. Many web sites have great recipes for this type of cooking and give great tips.  If anything,  a few tries will sharpen your outdoor cooking skills and give your ego a boost when you cook up a storm of great tasting meals for your friends.

* How to make Carbon cloth. Take a 4-6 inch flat can that has a screw on lid on it. Using a nail, punch a hole or two in the top of the lid. Place some pieces of old cloth (6″ X 6″) into the can and screw the lid back on. Place the can over a campfire. You will see smoke coming from the vent holes. When smoking stops, remove the can and let it completely cool down. Once cool, unscrew the lid and you will find pure carbon cloth. It is very flammable when struck by a match or spark and can be safely kept right in the can you baked it in.

(Some photos were blatantly stolen from Google images. What? You think that horrible picture of the hot dogs on the oven rack is me?)

24 comments on “Trail cooking for the beginner

  1. redjim99 says:

    It’s interesting to see how much kit would be used on the move. When a working crew is coming in food needs to be ready or you would not last long as camp cook. My kit always varies depending on the type of trip. If I am carrying it myself or if I have a fixed basecamp.

    As for all that noise about green and eco cooking, people need to do more research and looka t where and what their cookers are burning. Wood is always an ideal, Especially if you are near good supplies, you don’t then need to carry your own fuel. Anytime I can carry less while on foot is good for me.


    • I agree Jim. I caught a lot of flak over “polution” being put into the atmosphere by using a wood fire. This was a good ten years ago when the green movement was against burning wood. It always amazed me because at the same time I was being condemned, mother earth news was promoting wood burning and even had many “how to make your own woodstove” articles. I have seen some folks using propane now but I actually depend on the wood smoke to give some of my recipes the flavor they need. Can you imagine what it would be like to arrive at the cook site and being told, “Sorry boys, we’re out of propane”!

  2. Mr. V. says:

    This is a great post, I enjoyed reading it. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a situation where I’ll be cooking for a large group, but your tips can be easily used for two to three people, I think.

    As far as the green/eco people protesting you; too many people nowadays read one snippet of information and get themselves all fired up without getting the whole picture, or even seeing if what they read is accurate and factual. I make a point, almost on a daily basis with my son, not to get taken in or caught up by slogans and soundbytes. All too many people nowadays, when questioned as to the details of what they’re protesting, are unable to give any clear and detailed arguments for what they’re doing. Too many can only spout off little more than slogans.

    • If you have just a couple of people to cook for the adjustable campfire grill is perfect. It’s what I use when traveling the countryside and mountains. Campfires also give protection against unwanted animals, heat, light and of course cooking. Plus there’s no better way to keep a pot of coffee going 🙂

  3. tbnranch says:

    Great post, I love informative posts like this, awesome!

  4. Jennirific says:

    hiking somewhere isn’t worth it if I can’t carry my cast iron frying pan in with me 😉 and eww freezed dried pouches of anything!
    excellent info, keep it coming please!!

    • I can see the old painting showing johnny Appleseed traveling the Midwest planting apple trees. It showed him with a pot on his head…if it were cast iron then, OWW! LOL I always did wonder about the pot on the head thing…do you wear your frying pan up there when hiking:)

  5. I have a feeling I’d get stumped by starting a fire. I may have to leave that to the husband. 😉

  6. Ingrid says:

    Looking forward to more posts and ideas. Just returned from a two night camp out in Crested Butte. Colorado too dry and fires, smoking, and fireworks are all banned. Missed my campfire but had propane as backup 😉

    • I’m working on my Dutch oven post right now. It’ll take a bit since I constantly remind myself that the post is for the beginner and keep taking for granted that folks already know the basics. Thus I re write a lot 🙂

  7. Mr. V. says:

    Yesterday, I tried out your Southern Biscuits and Sausage Gravy recipes from your book, Cooking with Maw Maw.

    Great stuff! I cooked it for lunch yesterday, and everyone had seconds and even thirds. My son, who normally doesn’t go for gravy or like toppings, scarfed it down. And, there’s requests to have it again.

    Thanks for making the recipe available.

    • That’s what it’s there for… scarf, scarf 🙂 I’m glad you liked it. I make my own sausage for it. I grind up a picnic ham to make it….oh sooo sooo good!

      • Mr. V. says:

        Nothing beats homemade. Someday I’m gonna get ambitious and try my hand at making my own salami. You know, a good Italian dry spicy salami.

      • I had 2 Italian neighbors that competed each year in making Italian sausage, salami and other dried Italian meats. They would sell them real cheap to us living there. That was years ago, both have passed. I still am in contact with the daughter of one, maybe she has the recipe, I’ll ask her. it was funny, the would make these temporary plywood buildings to dry them in. (city wouldn’t let them build permanent ones) Each year when the drying was going on, raccoons by the dozens would be hanging around them trying to break in!

  8. Very interesting! I am used to making fire with logs laying down,in the same direction, and then igniting with smaller stuff upon or in between in the middle, before putting bigger ones to keep it going.

  9. rumpydog says:

    Mmmmm…. I’ll take a hot dog if you don’t want ’em!

  10. Sandra says:

    What a delightful find to stumble across your blog! I teach all about the West, not just the one you know and love, but others too! I look forward to sending my student to your blog, if you don’t mind.

    • Miss Sandra, I am honored that you feel my blog is worthy of sharing. I read your ‘about’ and give you a big tip of the hat for wanting to be healthy. While i have a sister blog on heritage and trail cooking, I have just recently decided that I need to start getting back into shape and eating right. I’m glad to hear you’ve been successful in your endeavor. It sure isn’t the easiest thing to do. Two thumbs up for your decision. JW

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