The most important thing you will need to cook over a campfire is a campfire. Not just any fire will do. Your average campfire fire is too big to cook on. The urge to build large fires no doubt springs from some primal need of early man to banish the dark of night. Which would not explain the massive ring of stones people traditionally stack around their campfires. Perhaps that is a latent urge to build a stone altar for burnt offerings no one knows.
Campfire rings are as old as campfires. It is still possible to find the remains of campfire rings made early in the last century. It is a strange feeling to be on a ridge top so far back in the hills you figure no one else has ever been there, then find a campfire ring buried in the moss. If campfire rings could talk, they would tell a story of the old days when great forest fires raged through the hills.
These “burns” made for some good hunting because animals were attracted to feed on the new growth. All you had to do was sit somewhere on a high place and look for game. Until the trees grew back and buried the hunter’s camp in moss and fallen needles. We do not disturb these antique campfire rings for whatever remains they may contain. It is enough to know we share a hunting ground with the men from the olden times.
While the campfire ring is an important part of our camping heritage it is a grim irony that the poor construction of this edifice is the number one reason for campfire failure. We’ve all seen a group of sullen, crabby campers sitting around a pile of smoking wood that’s not producing enough flame to toast a marshmallow. Typically, the campers get desperate and start stuffing flammable bits of garbage into the mix which makes for a pleasant aroma for the rest of the campers. The garbage and the wet wood smolders until someone finds a dangerous special sauce, gasoline or transmission fluid to add to the smoldering mess until it bursts into flames.
That is not a cooking fire. For that you need a controlled heat that can only be attained with a properly designed campfire ring. The term campfire ring itself is a misnomer that deludes some campers into thinking they need one. This is a false idea that has given rise to generations of shabby campfire ring designs that have turned what have been a satisfying outdoor recreational experience into a nightmare of burnt on the outside raw on the inside cuisine that gave a black mark to camp cooks from here to the great divide.
The campfire ring may actually be the greatest obstacle to a happy camp-out ever invented. Picture the perfect campsite. Out where the bull trout rise. As twilight bends the evening light you light the campfire. If the campfire was allowed to burn naturally on open ground, it would. Resting as it does across the center of the campfire ring, the campfire sputters long enough to burn its center out, then dies. The wood got hung up in the campfire ring. The center burned out so there was nothing left to burn despite the huge pile of wood. There is only one thing to do in a case like this. Kick a hole in the campfire ring in the direction of the prevailing wind. This creates a Venturi effect by directing the draft between the rocks. The fire can settle as it burns instead of being suspended in the air between the rocks. Another campfire saved.