Before moving to Switzerland, we built fires on our yearly camping trip or perhaps a evening beach bonfire. In Switzerland, every outdoor activity has the potential of fire building, even kindergarten. So you need to be prepared even if you aren’t the”campfire” type. My purse essentials now include my Swiss army knife, a matchbox and fire starters, which come in handy even in the city.
This frequent fire building requires some skill, which I realized the first time I went hiking without my husband and naively thought building a fire was as easy as it looks. Let’s just say it’s a good thing bratwurst are already cooked when you buy them.
So here are some tips for fire building in Switzerland: rules for fire building, what to expect at Swiss fire pits, how to build a fire, what to cook, etc. Good luck!
Where can I build fires in Switzerland?
In general, you can build fires in nature almost anywhere unless otherwise posted. Just build a fire ring, collect some wood and light it up. See my post: 10 Pretty Places to Roast Marshmallows in Switzerland
However, if we have a long stretch of no rain, many areas will post “No Fire” signs. In some drier regions, like the Valais, fires are often forbidden, so look for signs and ask when buying your cable car ticket.
Many trails and parks have official “Feuerstelle,” which typically means one or more fire pits with picnic tables. There is usually a wood pile, not always, usually with wood cut in different sizes do you have little stuff to start the fire and big stuff for three longer burn.
Many of these Feuerstelle are enclosed by a fence to keep out cows. Make sure to close the gate behind you. I’ve come across Feuerstelle full of cows and/or cow pies because someone left the gate open, not a nice place for a picnic.
Schweizer Familie sponsors fire pits all over Switzerland and their website gives a complete list of them with pictures and description. Their Feuerstellen are usually well maintained and well stocked with wood.
Most fire pits are maintained only in summer so if you go out of season you may find no wood, a dirty fire pit, or the picnic tables in disrepair.
What do the fire pits look like?
Most official Feuerstelle have fire rings with a grill and benches, maybe a picnic table. But there is wide variety and you should be prepared for anything. Some grills have adjustable height but other have a fixed height, which means you have build a tall fire to reach your food. Sometimes the fire pit has a grill that hangs over fire. Here are a few examples.
But don’t count on a grill. Some just have a fire pit. Be prepared to carve your own roasting sticks or bring your own.
What fire equipment do I need?
Here is my whole fire kit, not that much stuff, packs down pretty small as shown on the right.
Matches and/or lighter. I prefer matches because I can throw them into the fire instead of holding the lighter so close to the tinder. But we have sometimes used so many matches on semi-wet wood that we ran out. So bring a lighter as backup.
Fire starters. We prefer using natural fire starters, like these wood shavings dipped in wax. You can get them from most stores including Migros and Coop. It usually only takes 1-3 to get a fire going.
Kindling. We usually bring some newspaper to crumple under the wood and help get the fire going. Dryer lint is also quite effective, lightweight and compact. We also send the kids into the woods to collect little sticks. They like this chore.
Knife. Multipurpose for carving grill sticks, splitting bigger wood chunks into kindling, cutting food, etc.
(Optional) Wood or charcoal. We only bring wood when we know there is not an official Feuerstelle and we are hiking above the tree line, so we won’t be able to gather wood to burn. We also bring wood if it rained the day before because the wood piles might be too wet to burn. We typical buy the wood at a gas station, costs about CHF 12 for a big box of wood. Wood is heavy to carry, but you only have to carry it one way since you’ll burn it all at the fire.
Building the fire
For detailed fire building instructions, see Wikihow. Below is my shortened version.
1. First, if building a fire not on an official fire pit, make your own pit with a circle of rocks. This contains the fire and protects others from accidentally stepping on hot coals.
2. Lay some tinder in the middle. This can be your fire starters and some crumpled paper.
3. Put some kindling, aka thin sticks, around the tinder.
4. Build a classic fire structiure like the Teepee or Log Cabin above your fire base. The most important thing is not to smother your fire. Lay the wood down with plenty of air spaces between pieces. We typically start with a log cabin style then pile on more wood teepee style.
5. Light the fire starters and paper in the middle and hope the bigger stuff catches fire. You can fan the fire to help it burn faster.
6. Once you have a roaring fire, wait for it burn down to coals before cooking. The kids may be anxious to eat, but you should really wait until the fire dies down to coals before trying to cook your food. If you cook over open flame, it will just burn your food. Sometimes we send our fire builder up ahead on the trail, so they can start the fire a good 20 minutes before the hungry kids arrive.
7. After you are done, put out the fire. Separate the coals, stamp it out and pour water over it.
Burns fast and dies fast. The wood is super dry or a type of wood that burns fast. You’ll have to just gather more or look for a different type of wood.
Wood doesn’t catch. Use small pieces of wood first, then gradually work your way up to larger pieces.
Wet wood. It won’t burn no matter what, go eat at the cafe.
Green wood. Do not pull or cut wood off living trees or bushes. It won’t burn, just smoke you out.
What food should I grill?
I’m not particularly gourmet on the trail, but here are a few tips on what to bring for a Swiss picnic
Cooked sausages. Cervelat (the Swiss national sausage), bratwurst, and hot dogs are already cooked when you buy them, so you don’t need to particularly worry about keeping them cold. They only need to be charred over the fire for more flavor.
Each region has a different style of carving the sausages before cooking. We like the criss-cross for Bratwurst and the flower for Cervelat. When we are cooking with friends, we carve our initials in the sausage so we can tell them apart.
Uncooked sausages. If you bring uncooked sausages, remember they will take much longer to cook all the way through and they need to be kept cool while hiking. They are often much trickier to cook on sticks because they are so floppy, so better on a grill.
Marinated meat. All groceries and most gas stations sell pre-marinated steaks and other meat products, especially marketed for grilling. They are usually quite salty and not amazing, but decent trail food.
Cheese. Haluomi cheese is great on the grill but tricky if you only have grill sticks. We have travel raclette pans that sit over an open fire, a great alternative to meat. My friend brings a little cast iron dish and sets it directly on the coals to melt brie; so delicious with bread dipped in!
Veggies. On occasion, I have cut up veggies (e.g. zucchini, peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes), drizzled them with oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and stuck them in a baggie to marinate while we hike. When we’re ready to grill, I skewer them and roast over the fire. Or sometimes I bring my grill cage shown above, which easily cooks lots of cut veg at once. This is a bit messy and bulky to pack. But it’s a nice break from all that meat.
Marshmallows. You can buy marshmallows anywhere these days. But my tip is to bring those cookies that already have the chocolate on them so you can easily make Smore’s.
Bread dough. Swiss kids love to make “steckenbrot” or “schlangenbrot” aka snake bread. Just bring some store bought or homemade bread/pizza dough in a baggie (or make it yourself and let it rise while you hike). At the fire, twist it around a roasting stick and slowly cook it over the fire. I like to bring a little honey to eat it with or I add sugar and cinnamon to the dough when I make it. Sometimes the kids wrap it around a hot dog as shown below. See this post for a recipe and more instructions.
Condiments. Don’t forget your ketchup and mustard. I recently bought these mini silicone squeeze bottles, so I can bring a small amount instead of the big containers. Love them!
Appetizers. Don’t forget lots of snacks for the kids while they wait for the fire to be ready. Of course, we bring the unhealthy stuff like chips. But veggie sticks and fruit are often quite welcome for hungry kids while they wait for sausage.
Eating on the trail can be quite messy. I have a few tips for keep things organized, especially with kids.
Roasting sticks. We like carving roasting sticks, but it can take a long time and sometimes wood is not available. The telescoping roasting sticks are great for cooking and tending stuff on the grill since they are so long. These are also good when cooking something small that needs a thin stick, like veggies. We love our Rolla Roasters, that have a rotating feature, great for even cooking on marshmallows. Migros sells telescoping roasting forks as well.
sticks pic from Rolla Roaster website, no affiliation
Cool bag. Raw sausage or steak should be kept as cold as possible until you cook them. We love our PackIt insulated freezable picnic bag (shown above) that I got at Manor a few years ago. The cool pack is built into the bag itself so you just keep the whole bag in the freezer till you need it. It fits a few sausages and condiments and packs pretty flat in your backpack.
Dishes. I prefer paper bowls to paper plates because with kids, sausages are always rolling off the plates into the dirt. Food stays much more contained in the bowls. These oblong “pommes schales” work great for sausages and dip. Remember to pack minimum 2 dishes per person.
This year, I’m trying out lightweight reusable camping dishes, which are more durable than paper and environmentally friendly. The downside is that I have to bring back dirty dishes in my backpack (wrapped in a plastic bag).
Utensils. I recently bought reusable camping sporks (shown above) and my family loves them. You have to pack out disposable utensils anyway, so might as well be a little more environmentally friendly.
Cutting board. We usually just cut the food up on a paper plate, but the knife always cuts through the plate and makes a mess. So I started bringing a small thin cutting board and we are much happier.
Towels. I always a pack of paper towels for clean up, a must have. I recently started bringing a kitchen towel, which I like having
Trash bags. You will end up with lots of trash you can’t burn and dirty utensils that need to be packed out. So think ahead and bring at least one bag for trash and one bag for dirty plates and utensils.
Wow. That was a long post. Hope you found it helpful. Good luck on the trail. En Guete!