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Can you use charcoal in a fire ring?

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Friday, June 1, 2018
I started camping again recently and I wanted to know if I could use charcoal instead of firewood to cook with in the park provided fire rings in my state parks.  The short answer is in my home state of NJ it's permissible to use charcoal instead of firewood in the fire rings provided there are no other restrictions on fires in general. For your own location you might want to confirm with your park rangers. The rest of this article will go over why and how to use charcoal in a fire ring instead of firewood.

Why use charcoal instead of firewood in a fire ring?

The first thing you might be thinking is why use charcoal instead of firewood? I mean firewood is abundant or easy to buy at most campsites. Why lug something extra? In fact I even heard someone make a comment that using charcoal "defeats the purpose" when they saw the bag at my campsite. So let me go over why I use charcoal to cook in a fire ring instead of firewood.

Using Charcoal is faster than firewood

This is the big one for me. I know a lot of people go camping and they'll spend a lot of time at their campsite sitting by the campfire. I completely understand that allure but that's not my thing these days. When I'm not at the campsite cooking or eating I like to be out hiking, running, biking or swimming.

Using charcoal gets me to a point where I can start cooking faster than burning big logs and waiting for them to burn down to coals. Getting to that point with the wood you'll buy at a campground can take about an hour or more. Using charcoal I'm ready to cook in about 20 to 30 minutes.

Charcoal is cleaner

Well I'm not talking about environmental issues or which one is greener. The soot produced from a wood fire really darkens up pots and pans and is difficult to clean. When I was a Boy Scout we used to scrub bar soap on the outside of pots to make cleaning easier but that takes time too. Cooking over burning coals is a bit cleaner which saves time cleaning up afterwards.

It dies down pretty fast

I'm usually up early when camping because the sunlight wakes me up so I tend to go to bed early as a result. It's nice not having to budget time to let the fire die down. Charcoal fires don't last as long so they're out not too long after dinner and cleanup is over and charcoal easy to extinguish. Starting a campfire is at least a 2 hour commitment in my experience.

You'll know you have cooking fuel

Some parks don't let you bring in your own firewood because they're concerned about bringing in pests (insects, bacteria, fungi or other diseases) that can harm the local ecology. Don't have to worry about that with charcoal and you can bring your own without having to worry if the park is selling any or if there are any other approved sellers in the area.

Charcoal is not very heavy and it's easy to keep dry.

It can be cheaper

At campsites firewood has gotten more expensive and the bundles have gotten smaller. Last camping trip I went on firewood was $7 for 6 pieces of wood which is enough for 2-3 short fires. If you don't mind driving around you can find wood a  little cheaper outside the park. A big bag of lump hardwood charcoal is only about $9 and can last me 5 or 6 meals.

How to Use Charcoal in a Fire Ring

Use more or use your own grate

Most of my camping is in tents and in most tent sites I've come across you only have a fire ring. Cabins and lean-to's usually have both a public park charcoal grill and a fire ring.The grill on most fire rings I've come across is very high, even at the lowest setting. There are a couple of ways to compensate for this.

You can use more charcoal than you normally would as I did in this picture, which creates a hotter fire. It's an extra layer of charcoal than I would use normally.


Or you can pick up your own grill grate and prop it up on some rocks, logs or bricks. That's what I'm planning to do next time as the grill grates on most public fire pits are a bit old, rusty and disgusting looking. While I'm sure they're perfectly safe to eat off of some people can be a bit put off by that. I just bought this porcelain coated grid and it's working very well to use as a grill in fire rings and even on park grills.

It's similar to the types of grill grates you'll find in your home grill except it has steel instead of cast iron as the base. The porcelain coating makes it easier to clean. When I was camping as a kid I used to use a grill grate off an old grill and place it over the coals I brushed off the fire.


To use it I just set two split logs on each side of the fire ring. Start my charcoal between them and place the grill over the logs.

Don't use lighter fluid

This is mostly subjective but I don't use charcoal lighter fluid. The smell reminds me more of park and beach grilling instead of cooking over a campfire. Starting a more traditional fire and finishing it with charcoal is more enjoyable for me and I don't have a bottle of easily combustible fluid laying around or unwanted chemicals burning under your food.

That leaves you with two basic ways to start your charcoal, start a small wood fire or use a charcoal starter.

Lighting Charcoal with wood

I like to use all natural hardwood charcoal and I don't use lighter fluid. That gives me the same smell and feeling as a campfire.  I'm not opposed to campfires. I actually like then quite a lot and one of my favorite parts is building a fire. I can use a small fire to start the charcoal

I start my charcoal fires the same way I would start a regular wood campfire. Gather some dry tinder and kindling. In my area dry pine needles are usually available and light quickly but dried leaves or even newspaper will work if that's all you have. Once that's going I start building a teepee of pencil sized twigs around the flames. Slowly building it up until I get to pieces of wood about the thickness of my thumb. That gives me enough burning wood to start placing charcoals around, making sure to keep enough space for air. It takes me about 20-30 minutes to get to a point where I have enough grey coals to start cooking.



Use a Chimney Starter in your campsite fire ring

The next option is to use a chimney charcoal starter. I started using this method more because it saves even more time. Just stuff the bottom with some newspapers and pour your charcoal in top of the chimney starter. Light the newspaper with a match and let it burn for about 15-20 minutes until the charcoals are grey.


I put a couple of logs on either side to hold my grill. I'll also add some extra charcoal as a base on one side if I will be cooking for more than 30 minutes and want the fire to stay hot longer.

Turn your charcoal fire into a campfire

When I'm done cooking, if I'm just going to be relaxing around camp and want a nice warm, glowing campfire... all I need to do is throw a couple of logs on top of the coals and they'll light right up. I can still warm up desert too. A couple of split bananas with bits of chocolate are wrapped in foil for a quick sweet way to end the meal.


If I'm not starting the fire under the firering grill it's easier to start a bigger campfire. Just move the logs I used to hold the grill over the charcoal, add some more logs on top in a log cabin fire style, then use something to fan the charcoal until the wood catches fire.

What are your thoughts on using charcoal when camping?

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