Last Updated on 21/08/2023
In this guide to cooking under a tarp, we share the dos and don’ts of cooking food underneath a rain tarp. You will learn the distance that the tarp needs to be pitched away from your stove so that it doesn’t get damaged or catch fire. We also discuss the problem with campfire cooking under a tarp and whether it is possible.
If you are camping in the rain, then you will also have to cook in the rain. Some tents with vestibules have a porch area you can cook in with the door open, but this isn’t always the easiest or most practical way to cook. Cooking under a tarp gives you rain cover, can block the wind, and has all the ventilation you need to keep your tent free of condensation.
9 Tips for Cooking Under A Tarp
Here are ten essential tips for mastering the art of cooking under a camping tarp, regardless of your stove type. These guidelines are designed to help you maintain safety while keeping your shelter and comfort in check. From choosing the perfect tarp material to setting up your kitchen in the optimal location, this guide will ensure you are well-prepared for your next outdoor cooking adventure.
1. Choosing the Right Type of Tarp for Cooking Under
You can get camping tarps made from ultralightweight materials like cuben fiber, or you can get heat-resistant canvas tarps that weigh a lot more. You also get a few variations in between, which are the most common, like polyester, canvas, nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene. I would suggest that so long as you aren’t using an ultralightweight material like cuben fiber or 10D nylon and you cook a safe distance away, it doesn’t matter what kind of tarp you use.
If you want to cook on a campfire under a tarp, you should look for heat-resistant tarps and fire-retardant canvas tarps that will not melt and burn like a standard rainfly sheet.
2. Deciding Where to Cook Under a Tarp
You should cook as close to the entrance as possible so that all the steam and heat can easily escape instead of filling the tent and condensing as moisture on the tarp surface. Choose a location that is flat and away from flammable materials such as dry leaves or tall grass. Ideally, this spot should also be protected from harsh winds but still have enough airflow to allow smoke and steam to escape easily. Ensure it is a safe distance from your sleeping area to avoid potential fire hazards.
3. Keep the Roof at A Safe Distance
To prevent accidental fires and damage to your tarp, you need to make sure your tarp is set up far enough away from the heat not to be affected. You can test this by holding your hand above your stove at roof height to feel how hot it is. Unless it feels too hot to keep your hand there, then it is probably far enough away. However, don’t take your eye off it.
You can learn more about the safe distance to set your tarp up above a stove for cooking further down the page. But if you don’t want to do that then stick to a minimum of four feet.
4. Turn the Gas Off Before You Remove the Pot
If you have a gas stove like a rocket stove, then the full-power flames can get incredibly hot and reach around a foot in height. This isn’t an issue when you are boiling a pot of water or cooking food, as the pan will block the heat, but as soon as you lift the pan off, you run the risk of burning your tarp. To avoid this, you simply have to remember to turn the gas down or off before removing any pots or pans from the flames.
5. Have an Exit Route
If your tarp were to catch fire or your stove were to fall over, do you have a clear exit route to get out quickly? This is the question you should ask yourself before ever lighting a stove to cook under a tent. Tarps will generally have exit routes at multiple sides, so you mostly won’t have to worry, but it should always be in the back of your mind so you can react quickly if you need to. Here is a guide to tarp camping if you want to learn more.
6. Keep Some Safety Equipment Close By.
If you are cooking under your tarp and are worried about causing any kind of fire, then the best insurance policy is to have a supply of water, dirt, sand, or a fire extinguisher ready at hand in case of emergencies. It is unlikely that you will take a fire extinguisher handy when camping and so just like with the exit routes, have a plan of action ready to react quickly. This might be a bottle of water or some sand close by you know you could use to smother a fire if you had to. Also, make sure you have a first aid kit with the means to treat burns.
7. Regular Checks
Stay vigilant whenever using a stove or cooking under a tarp. That means constantly checking the temperature of the tarp around the stove and never leaving it unattended. If you are using a wood burner stove, then you need also to make sure that no sparks are causing damage and that the tarp doesn’t touch the stove housing, which could melt the tarp as easily as a naked flame.
8. Make Sure the Tarp Is Secured Properly
If you are cooking under a tarp while camping, then one thing to be careful of is that the tarp is fully secured, especially in strong wind. That’s because if the tarp comes loose or flaps around too much, it could accidentally come into contact with the stove or flames and catch alight. To avoid this, never cook too close to your tarp shelter walls, and always make sure it is properly secured before you start cooking.
9. Be Very Careful Not to Knock Your Stove Over
I have seen some awful injuries that have come from cooking under tarps and inside camping shelters, mostly from knocking over a pot of boiling water and getting 2nd-degree burns. One guy even needed a skin graft after boiling water went in his boot and boiled the skin off his foot. Awful.
Be very, very careful not to knock your stove over when cooking under a tarp. Damaging your tarp will be the least of your worries if you cover yourself in boiling water or accidentally aim a turbo stove at your leg for a few brief moments. BE CAREFUL.
What Is a Safe Distance Between a Tarp and Stove?
As a general rule, you should have your tarp set up at a minimum of four feet above your stove. This goes for most ground-level gas stoves as well as other types of compact fuel stoves. For portable wood-burning stoves, hobo stoves, and small campfires. Four feet is the minimum; if you can have double that distance, then all the better.
If we assume that you have followed the tips laid out in this article, then you will be aware of the risks and understand that you have to adjust the height of your tarp to suit the type of stove that you have.
Can You Use a Tarp Over a Campfire for Cooking?
You can use a tarp over a campfire for cooking, but you run the risk of sparks burning lots of tiny holes in it. If you keep the fire very small or just use embers to cook on, then you should be ok. The other issue with campfires is that they make your tarp stink of smoke, and if you cook under it often enough with a campfire, then you end up with a load of black soot too. This all then rubs off onto your other gear and isn’t ideal unless you love the smell of smoke.
I should point out that I have probably had more burn holes that have come from a nearby campfire that got too big than I have from a small controlled firepit under a tarp. If you use your common sense and be sensible, then you will be fine to cook under a tarp using a campfire. But, if you are a group of young people having a drink and not paying much attention, then you should not.
Another thing to mention about having ing a campfire under a tarp for cooking is that the type of wood makes a big difference. Some types of wood will spit and spark, which is not good. Others will create plumes of thick smoke that will smoke you out of your tarp if the wind direction isn’t in your favor. Here are some of the different types of world to use or avoid.
Best Woods for Campfire Cooking Under a Tarp
The best types of wood to use for any fire under a tarp are hardwoods that have been properly dried. This is because they spit sparks less and create fewer floating embers than many softwoods as well as not producing such dense smoke. Here are some of the preferred types:
- Oak: Burns slowly and steadily with a small flame but plenty of heat, producing very little smoke and few sparks.
- Ash: Lights easily, burns hot and slow, and produces minimal smoke and sparks.
- Maple: Provides a steady flame and produces coals. Has minimal smoke and sparks.
- Cherry: Burns slowly with good heat output and produces a pleasant scent with minimal sparks. (most fruit tree woods smell nice when burnt)
- Birch (especially Yellow Birch): Produces less smoke and fewer sparks than its paper-barked cousin.
- Apple: Burns slowly and steadily with a small flame and produces a pleasant scent with minimal smoke and sparks.
Worst Woods for Campfire Cooking Under a Tarp
You should be very selective about the type of wood you use when cooking under a tarp. If you read the above section, you’ll know which woods work well. The main types of trees to avoid are conifers, pines, and other types of resinous woods. Hre are some types of wood you should avoid:
- Pine: Tends to crackle and pop, sending sparks flying, and can produce a lot of resinous sap which leads to more smoke.
- Fir: Similar to pine, it tends to pop and send out sparks as well as send plumes of smoke up as the needles ignite.
- Spruce: Burns fast and produces sparks and a lot of smoke.
Other Problematic Options:
- Poplar/Cottonwood: Tends to produce a lot of smoke and doesn’t burn very hot.
- Willow: Burns poorly and produces a lot of smoke.
- Sycamore: Tends to produce a lot of smoke and doesn’t burn well.
- Wet or Green Wood: Wood that is not properly seasoned (dried) will create a lot of smoke and will be hard to burn.
- Driftwood: The salt content in driftwood can produce toxic fumes when burned.
Risks of Cooking Under A Tarp
Before we share our top tips for cooking under a camping tarp, it’s important to fully understand the risks so you can judge for yourself if it is the right thing to do.
If the tarp catches fire, not only does it put you at risk of being burnt, but it could also destroy your tent, gear and cause a forest fire. This would be the worst thing to happen and the most dangerous scenario. Avoid this at all costs by always keeping a close eye on what is happening around the stove.
Burn holes can happen from campfire sparks, embers, or from cooking too close to the tarp with a stove. Small holes don’t destroy your tarp, but they will let drips of rain in, which is mildly annoying. That’s why you should always cook in the same spot, if possible, to limit the area of damage.
Heat damage is when you don’t quite burn a hole through the tarp, but the eat damages the synthetic fibers so that to either become more brittle or lose some of their waterproof properties. I have a tarp with some heat damage, and it still works, although I don’t fully trust it not to rip in strong wind, so it mostly gets used as a groundsheet.
The Smell of Food May Attract Bears
If you cook under a tarp, especially meat, then the smell will naturally linger on the surface of the tarp material. This is a major problem if you are camping in bear country as it may encourage them to investigate when you are sleeping. In bear country, you should be cooking away from camp, so if you need to use a tarp to cook under, then be sure to store it with your food suspended and away from camp.
Hopefully, you now know the risks of cooking under a tarp and how to do it safely using all different types of stoves.