North East Iowa is a beautiful place to spend time in the great outdoors. It's a really brilliant place for hiking, canoeing, horse riding, geocaching, fishing, hunting and of course camping. Spectacular scenery and the opportunity to visit fascinating historic sites and places of interest whilst soaking up the peace and tranquillity of a pretty riverside campsite make the county a mecca for campers. One of the highlights of the true back-to-nature experience is cooking your meals over a campfire in the open air.
In our parents' day, open fire cooking was taken for granted but in today's eco-aware world things aren't quite so simple and there are a few important things to consider before embarking on the campfire experience.
You need a clean-burning, hot fire to cook on. Fresh, green wood is no good for this as it won't burn properly and will just make smoke and create unnecessary pollution. You need well-seasoned, dry wood to make your fire. Many campsites do carry supplies of firewood but always call ahead to check and if you're in doubt make sure you take plenty with you. Be aware too that some parks do not permit the gathering of firewood as this can disturb wildlife and destroy habitats.
Locating your campfire
The best site for your fire is in an established fire pit and there will most likely be plenty of these on an official camp site. If not, choose the location for your campfire with care. If possible always build your fire on rock. If this is not possible, make sure that the fire base is on bare mineral soil. Remember that considerable heat will be generated as the fire burns all evening and it will take more than just a bucket of water to extinguish any residual burning material beneath the layer of organic surface soil.
Prevailing wind conditions
Forest fires are devastating for people, wildlife and the environment and are readily started during the hot, dry summer months. Do not light a campfire on windy days – period. It's just too easy for sparks to be carried away into tinder-dry undergrowth which could ignite spontaneously, fanned by the wind. If you can't find substantial shelter from the wind, an outdoor fire is really out of the question. And from a practical point of view, wind blowing across the coals on your fire will have the effect of reducing them much more quickly and your cooking time will be drastically reduced anyway.
Building your campfire
The best cooking fire is one that burns evenly without flames which will burn your food and blacken your cookware. If all the coals are burning at the same time, you will maximise the cooking time you have available.
Choose a site a good eight to ten feet away from anything combustible like bushes, undergrowth or overhanging tree branches. Using rocks or green logs make a 'U' shaped perimeter border. Remember that if you're using logs, they'll need to be soaked from time to time to prevent them smoking and beginning to burn. If there is a slight breeze, make sure you site the fire so that it has its back to the wind. Stand a large, flat rock at the back of the fire pit to act as a chimney. This will serve to direct smoke up and away.
Next fill the fire pit with tinder of some kind; crumpled paper will do fine for this. Lay down the kindling over the paper in alternate layers making sure you cover the whole fire area. Small dead twigs or split wood is best for this job as they burn readily and quickly. For safety, always have a bucket of water nearby. Now light the paper to start the fire.
Once the kindling catches and begins to crackle away, add your firewood. Choose pieces of the same size as far as possible and use hardwood if it's available. Spread the wood evenly over the fire bed and wait until it burns down evenly. When the flames have died down and you're left with mainly white coals, use a green stick to arrange them as required for cooking; you can have a higher level at the back of the fire if you wish which will effectively make your Hi setting or you could just have them all level if you want the same degree of heat all over.
When you're ready to cook, set your grill on the rocks or dampened green logs and cook away! If you're going to cook directly on the grill, keep a small spray bottle handy to get rid of any rogue flames caused by fat dripping from the food onto the coals.
When you've finished cooking on the fire, just add more wood to create a crackling, cosy campfire. Remember to make sure the fire is thoroughly extinguished and well soaked with water before you turn in for the night. As an additional precaution, turn the rocks in onto the fire bed.
Solar ovens are ideal for outdoor cooking in areas where open fires are restricted. Solar ovens use the power of the sun for heat so you don't need wood. There are plenty of different sizes and styles available at prices to suit most pockets.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.