Camp Stove vs. Wood Fire: The Ultimate Cookoff

There’s just something about cooking over an open fire that makes everything taste better, but camp stoves are faster, easier, and require less culinary expertise. When it hits dinner time on the trail, choosing between cooking over the wood fire vs. a camp stove isn’t always an easy choice.

camp stove vs woodfire

So, is a Camp Stove or Wood Fire better?

Cooking over a wood fire is the most basic way to cook food outdoors. Camp stoves are self-contained with a fuel source for easy transportation and the ability to adjust the heat. Make your choice based on your type of activity—camping, hiking, overlanding, etc. —your budget, and culinary skills.

A Camp Stove vs. Wood Fire

Cooking over a wood fire is the most inexpensive and basic way to cook food. Unfortunately, cooking over a fire is restricted in some places, and learning to cook over an open flame is much easier said than done. 

Camp stoves have evolved over the past three decades, so many are as good as any home-based kitchen stove. They’re reliable, quick to start, safe, and highly controllable. 

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The main issue with camp stoves for most people is you have to pack up, store your camp stove fuel, lug supplies, and clean up after each use. The fuels are flammable and also require diligent packing, storing, and safeguarding against a fiery accident.

There are certainly pros and cons to each choice. Consider them both and make the choice that best suits your unique situation and activity type.

The Basics and Allure of Cooking Over A Wood Fire 

When you think of a campfire, most people dream about this roaring bonfire with hot dogs and marshmallows browning perfectly. There are many memories to be made around the campfire, being closer to nature, and real facetime with your friends and family. 

While campfires certainly set the camping mood, there are a few disadvantages of using a fire to cook:

  • Finding the right size and species of wood to burn
  • Getting the fire started
  • Controlling the heat
  • Sustaining the correct heat
  • Putting the fire out safely

These tasks can quickly feel like chores. That being said, there is no greater satisfaction than building something from nothing in nature. For the most part, here’s what you need for cooking over an open flame fire:

  • Cutting tools: This covers the array of small and large pocket knives, compact saws, or hatchets to cut wood.
  • Lighting materials: matches, lighters, and kindling material such as cotton, small shredded pieces of dry wood, or magnesium granules
  • Cast iron skillet, pans, and a coffee pot: Cast-iron cutlery is an outdoor chef’s best friend. Nothing handles fires better than cast iron because it’s durable, consistent, and non-stick once properly seasoned. Remember, though, cast iron is heavy to tote around.
  • Utensils: There are many options for this, but lightweight aluminum knives, forks, and spoons are ideal. That being said, I’ll admit to turning a burger or two with a shaved stick.
  • Small Grill: This is the primary resting place for food while it’s cooking. Grills can range from a fine mesh to a traditional grate. Some even feature a lightweight folding aluminum configuration that also has an area to put your wood, protecting it from wind and rain.

Of course, if you’re a seasoned outdoorsman (or woman), you can find most of what you need from the land by breaking sticks by hand, using a stick to dangle food over the fire, or whittling a crude knife or fork.

Camp Stoves Provide Convenience, Control, and Added Cost

Even if you’re a rugged camper or hiker who loves the allure of “roughing it” when it comes to outdoor adventures, it’s hard to ignore the conveniences of camp stoves. They’re almost like cooking in your home kitchen. 

Camp stoves can be categorized into two different buckets based on the fuel type used: solid fuel and liquid fuel stoves.

Solid Fuel

These are the most traditional camp stoves and might be considered “old school,” even though they’re still extremely popular today. Just like the name implies, these stoves use solid materials for fuel such as wood, charcoal, or coal. 

 Hikers love small solid fuel stoves that fold up and can use branches, twigs, or kindling. This makes packing and carrying convenient because you don’t need to pack any other cooking gear besides the stove itself. Some manufacturers offer store-bought solid fuel tablets for those who don’t feel like scouring the woods for fuel.

Liquid Fuel

Liquid fuel stoves typically run on either gas, kerosene, alcohol, or pressure-contained cartridges. They’re very similar to your backyard propane grill. 

Coleman, a leader in camping for almost a century, even uses these types of stoves to help with their branding. Have you ever seen a stove with forest-green tube containers? You instantly know it’s a Coleman product. The fuel is prepackaged, safe, and can be picked up at various outdoor or home improvement stores on the way to the campsite. 

Technology has made spending time in the outdoors for more than just a day not only feasible but frankly extremely easy and enjoyable.

“To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified.” 

Theodore Roosevelt

Camp Stoves vs. Wood Fire – The Pros and Cons

Now that you clearly understand the working function of cooking with a camp stove versus a wood fire, it’s time to take a deeper look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of considering, using, and packing for each method.

Pros of Cooking Over A Wood Fire

What’s not to love about cooking over a campfire, right!? While it might take some time scouring the woods for sticks, there’s definitely a lot to love about wood-fire cooking.

Cost 

There’s very low investment to cook over a wood fire. The fuel is readily available almost everywhere you go, and it’s free! You can also forget the grill if you need the extra space and use wet, green sticks to make a platform or simply use a stick to put food over the fire.

Packing

Since the fuel is going to be at your park campsite for purchase or on the ground in the woods, you won’t need to lug heavy equipment or implements. Never bring wood from somewhere else to burn at your campsite. It can spread pests and disease to new areas.

Enjoyment

Most campers will tell you they like to be outside because it forces them to do things differently than their everyday lives. When you cook using nothing but your surroundings and imitate the way your ancestors cooked, it gives you a sense of pride and appreciation for today’s way of life. Plus, it’s just something different!

Environmental Impact

Cooking over a wood fire is natural and extremely environmentally friendly. There is plenty of deadwood on the forest floor, so clearing it will help with regrowth. The emissions from a smoldering fire are non-toxic to the environment or wildlife.

Taste

The smoke from a wood fire affects cooking meats and other proteins. It gives simple cuts of meat a more robust and vibrant flavor. It also protects you as a natural preservative. Some foods are more susceptible to bacteria or spoilage when not refrigerated, and the smoke can help to keep food fresh and safe on the trail.

Large Groups

Camping with four or more people? Chances are good that everyone wants to be fed, and being together to bond, share stories, and build memories is one of the best parts of camping. Wood fires can accommodate almost any sized group better than a camp stove because you can build a fire the size you need to accommodate most menus simultaneously. And, of course, campfires are ideally suited for desserts like marshmallows and smores.

Cons of Cooking Over A Wood Fire

Nothing is perfect. Despite the amazing benefits of cooking over a wood fire, there are also some cons to be aware of.

More Work

This should not be underestimated. Off-roading, hiking, and fishing all day is tiring. The last thing you want to do after a long day is work for your meal. One of the major differences when considering camp stoves versus a wood fire is finding your fuel source. Before you can eat, you need to search the forest for the right kind of wood (must be dry or you will only get smoke). 

After finding wood, you still have to cut and gather it. Cutting or sawing even the smallest branches takes time and energy. You’ll also need quite a bit of wood to sustain the heat and get through the cooking process. Finally, you must tend the fire and make sure it is out and safe. All in all, it can be a lot of work.

Not Weather Friendly

When you’re outside, you’re exposed to the elements. Campfires need ideal conditions. Any type of moisture or wind affects wood fires. Even if it was wet a few days before, it could hurt your ability to find suitable fuel for your fire. If it’s windy, the heat and flames are directed away from the food, making it difficult to maintain a constant temperature.

More Difficult To Cook

Cooking over a wood fire is simply different than what most people are used to. The two most common difficulties are maintaining a consistent heat and burning the food because of how hot flames can get. Campfires don’t offer the luxuries of ovens and stoves to set it and forget it. You need to actively maintain the fire throughout the cooking process.

With a wood fire, the heat is generated by the type of wood used and how much wood there is. And it always uses up your supply quicker than expected! Gusts of winds or too much wood will result in large flames that sear the outsides of vegetables and meats, but leave the middles raw and inedible.

Hard on Cookware

All flames leave a residue that comes from the carbon released when a piece of wood is on fire. You’ve probably seen pans with solid black bottoms from being over a wood fire. This is from the carbon build-up, which damages the pots and pans and is extremely hard to clean if not done immediately.

Restrictions

Always check the laws and regulations if you plan to cook over an open fire. Almost all state, regional, or local parks and camping areas have strict guidelines on how large a fire you can build or even when you can build a fire. 

Remember, if your cooking fire gets out of control, it could cause a forest fire. Because of recent events in California and the rest of the West, officials are extremely strict about enforcing these rules.

Pros of Cooking With a Camp Stove

Although you won’t get the smoky taste or something to lazily throw sticks into, cooking with a camp stove offers some modern luxuries to help you cook delicious meals in the middle of nowhere.

classic green camp stove

Convenience

The single most compelling reason to consider a camp stove is convenience. Most work exactly like kitchen stoves where you can choose burners and set the temperature. The stove quickly rises to the right temperature and stays constant. 

There’s no cutting or gathering your fuel. Just screw in a cartridge, and you’re good to go. Some stoves even come with electric starters, so you don’t even need a fire source.

Great in Most Weather

Because of their design and functionality, camp stoves are much better in inclement weather. They can be put under or in a tent with little chance of catching the camp on fire. Flames are low, protected, and can be shut off instantly by stopping the fuel source—either by a valve or knob. Most come with side shields to protect the flame or heating coil from being affected by wind.

Safety

Camp stoves are regulated by many government agencies for safety and precise flammable standards. Camp stoves are small and compact and since the fuel is contained, can easily be moved in case of inclement weather or to a more convenient spot. 

Many models have gauges to ensure fuel efficiency and capacity. Camp stoves also have a cleaner flame, since they’re regulated and burn the correct amount of fuel. This means the flames don’t generate large volumes of carbon. Your pots and pans will thank you.

Ease of Cooking

Since cooking over a camp stove is almost identical to your kitchen’s stove, you already know how to cook most meals. With the carefully regulated fuel, there’s virtually no chance of runaway flames burning food. The consistency of temperature means you can be sure your food is cooked all the way through.

Cons of Cooking With Camp Stoves

With ease and efficiency, you have to give up some of the perks of cooking with a campfire. Here are some of downsides to cooking with a campstove.

Cost

With convenience comes cost. Since the stove is a mechanical object,you actually have to buy it. You can’t just pick it up for free in the forest like a wood fire. There are also plenty of accessories to help cook delicious meals on a camp stove, and of course, all of those cost money as well. 

Besides the actual camp stove itself, you also need to constantly purchase fuel rather than gathering it at your location. The worst feeling in the world is cooking and watching your fuel supply go out. Always, always, always bring a backup fuel supply.

Packing

More equipment means more to pack. In an overland rig, space is your most valuable resource. You need to make sure everything has its place and fits exactly in the space provided. Camp stoves are just one more thing to fit. 

If you plan on hiking, carrying the stove and extra fuel can be cumbersome and slow you down—not to mention put extra strain on your back.

Environmental Issues

Almost all parks and wildlife areas require proper storage of fuel canisters or packages. This means if you’re camping in a remote area such as the Boundary Waters in Minnesota or Big Sur in California, there are fines for leaving or burying trash. If your fuel canisters run out, you need to find a place to dispose of them. Littering is not an option! 

Size of Group

If you’re camping with your family or a larger group, most camp stoves aren’t big enough to craft large meals. Most camping stoves are rather small by design, so if you’re cooking for a large group, it’ll take much longer. Meals will likely have to be staggered, which isn’t ideal for building comradery or bonding on a leisure trip.

Preferences of The Ultimate Cookoff – Camp Stoves versus A Wood Fire

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when deciding on the best method of cooking while on an overland adventure. To help the decision-making process, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I primarily hiking or camping?
  • Am I going to a state park or out into the wilderness?
  • What’s the weather going to be?
  • How much is my budget?
  • How many people do I need to feed?
  • How long will the trip be?
  • How much work do I want to do?

Answering these questions will help you determine the ultimate cookoff winner: camp stove or a wood fire. The most important question is which one will be the most fun? Only you can answer that.


James with daughter on the trails

About James...

Hi, I’m James. If I’m not working on this site, you can often find me outdoors roaming the trails. I’m an avid hiker, mountain biker, and overlander. I’m excited to share my passion for the outdoors with you.