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It seems that all campfire cooking (grilling meat/veggies, not boiling water) can be done by building a decent fire, wrapping meat/veggies/potatoes in a aluminum foil, setting it next to the fire and covering it with coals.

So when does a grill become indispensable for cooking over a campfire?

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A camping grill is not the indispensable cooking utensil in the wild, at least not anymore.

Back in the day cooking over a fire was your only option for eating hot food, and a grill was the lightest thing you could carry for cooking. Cooking over a campfire is still fun, it's nostalgic for a lot of people, but it's not necessary in the backcountry these days, in fact it's often discouraged in the backcountry because it isn't in perfect harmony with leave no trace ethics. Small, light, and efficient camp stoves leave no impact on the environment, whereas campfires often encourage breaking branches, cutting trees, and leave a scar the ground. Not to mention the fact that grills leave your backpack really black and dirty if you don't clean them well before strapping them to your bag...

Where cooking over campfires is still acceptable is in developed campgrounds that have designated fire rings and supply wood for burning. Feel free to enjoy the romance of a fire in these settings, but when venturing out into the wild, or exploring back country trails, please plan your meals to be cooked with a backpacking stove.

To answer your question: "So when does a grill become indispensable for cooking over a campfire?" A: Whenever you decide you want to eat something grilled verses eating a tinfoil dinner, or: when you run out of tinfoil.

I think the ultimate indispensable camping cookware is still a cast iron pan, as it has been for hundreds of years, but not many people carry those in the backcountry anymore unless they've got a pack horse to carry it for them.

  • Quite apart from any question of ethics, there's also the matter of weight. Not just of the grill and cookware, but of the food, since pretty much anything you cook is going to be heavier than pre-prepared stuff. – jamesqf May 4 '15 at 17:33
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    @jamesqf - Back in the day when people carried grills they didn't always pack all their food, they'd catch it, snare it, or shoot it on the trail, then grill it. We used to always carry a grill to grill fish on if we were camping by a lake. – ShemSeger May 4 '15 at 17:49
  • And of course, for some of us "back in the day" might have been last fall. But I'm working from the premise that if the OP was the sort of person likely to do that sort of thing, s/he wouldn't need to ask :-) – jamesqf May 5 '15 at 5:14
  • Out in the Western US fires are a concern and often banned. Otherwise, a small twig stove can be efficient for heating water to rehydrate food. Conversely, a few weeks ago our hiking companion used a Jetboil fry pan over a canister stove to cook the fish he caught. – requiem Mar 8 '16 at 3:19
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A grill is only needed when you want to grill. Otherwise there are lots of ways to cook food over an open fire.

You can use the classic spit over a fire:

cooking with a spit

You can use rocks to elevate a container over the coals:

cooking over rocks

You can boil water over an open flame in just about anything:

plastic bottle over fire

You can even just throw meat in the coals:

meat in the coals

The list goes on and on. People have been cooking all kinds of food over an open fire without a grill for centuries upon centuries. You can too with a bit of creativity.

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